The Sauna at the South Pole

Scott Webb Headshot
Interior shot of the hut at Robert Falcon Scott’s Antarctic base camp. Note the lack of a sauna.
Interior shot of the hut at Robert Falcon Scott’s Antarctic base camp. Note the lack of a sauna.

One of the great human dramas of all time played out just over a century ago on the Antarctic continent, when Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen led small teams of intrepid explorers through extreme conditions in an all-out race to be the first to reach the South Pole.

Amundsen won.

Scott lost, and his team all perished trying to make it back to camp.

It's a story of triumph and tragedy recounted in hundreds of books and articles over the years, a legend that has spawned many competing theories as to why one team survived the trek relatively unscathed and another wore down in the harsh conditions and finally gave up and froze to death.

Here's another: Amundsen had a sauna, and Scott didn't.

OK, hear me out. Both groups' final arrangements began in the dark, Antarctic winter months before the sprint to the Pole, as Amundsen's Norwegians and Scott's Englishmen arrived by ship on the continent and made their base camps. There, they organized for the journey overland. It was an immense logistical challenge, involving food and material and shelter, but perhaps the most important element in their plan was the means for maintaining a strong spirit and will to survive in the harsh climate.

Through these gloomy months of arduous preparation, Amundsen's group maintained their sunny disposition through clean living, a routine of hard work, good food and, perhaps most important of all, a regular cleansing in a sauna.

According to a member of Amundsen's crew, "A bottomless box on a platform raised two feet off the ice floor, was built large enough to slip over the man, allowing only his head to protrude. A tin box, fitted between the platform and the ice floor, was heated by two paraffin stoves. As the water boiled, the compartment would fill with steam. When the man was finished, a rope-and-pulley system would lift the box clear, exposing a naked man, who then had to make a dash back to the hut. Exposure to the elements would quickly seal the pores...the event became a ritual."

Meanwhile, in Scott's base camp, there was no sauna. And as anyone who's had a sauna will attest, especially in the depths of winter, there's no doubting the tremendous strength and fortitude it engenders in the body and spirit.

Later, out on the frozen wastes of Antarctica, as Amundsen marched back to camp and into history as the first to reach the South Pole, Scott's team faltered. It had lost the strength to go on. A later expedition found the men in their camp cots and tent, and that final camp became their tomb; it remains there to this day, under the snow.

It's impossible to gauge the human spirit with common metrics, but it is a finite quantity like any other. And regular sauna use clearly bolsters and invigorates the human spirit. Did Amundsen's sauna make the difference?

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