Before 1911, no human had successfully reached the South Pole, 90° 45’.
The Antarctic continent was discovered in 1820. And for the next eight decades, the great polar pioneers were trying for the pole. The first explicit attempt was in 1827. Ten years later, Royal Naval officer James Clark Ross set out on two ships, the Erebus and the Terror. Six weeks in, Ross reached the Antarctic ice shelf—“The Great Icy Barrier,” as Ross described it in his journal. At 78° 10’, Ross recorded that “we might with equal chance of success try to sail through the Cliffs of Dover, as penetrate such a mass,” and turned back. ¹
Two years after Ross, Sir John Franklin took command of the Erebus and the Terror. Franklin and a crew of 128 aimed to reach further south. None of them lived to tell their tale.
This was the state of Polar exploration as two “rivals for the pole” found it in 1911. In November of that year, Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott set out in a race to be first to reach the South Pole.
In The Last Place on Earth, Roland Huntford details their diametrically opposed approaches. Scott’s working pattern reflected “his own dour, self-punishing temperament,” Huntford writes. His plan was to push his crew to “keep up a steady grind hour after hour.” Scott set no particular number of miles or hours of travel per day. Just as many and for as long as possible. Unless a crew member got sick or injured. With his insisting on a level of “inhuman exertion,” Scott’s guys were hampered along the way by frostbite, dehydration, malnutrition, scurvy, snowblindness, hypothermia, intermittent paralysis, leg and ankle sprains, a dislocated shoulder, and worse of all, low morale. “We’re not a very happy party,” one of Scott’s crew members recorded.
Amundsen, on the other hand, leaves the impression that his lifelong goal was to be the second human to the South Pole. He and his crew “were spending up to sixteen hours a day in their sleeping bags,” Huntford writes. Even on perfect weather days when the going was good and easy, “he would not allow the daily fifteen miles to be exceeded, and insisted on plenty of rest.” From his study of the expeditions that came before his, Amundsen came to believe in consistent moderate effort. “The heroic struggle that made such good reading,” he believed, “was in reality a warning.”
While Scott’s crew was “struggling nine or ten hours a day,” Amundsen’s “had settled down to rhythm and unexciting regularity.” And so, with our rivals for the pole trekking along, here seems to be the perfect spot to leave them temporarily to talk about ice ages.
I was surprised to learn that it was only in the early 19th century that humans began to conceive of the possibility that Earth was once covered by a sheet of ice. It began when French and European geologists and naturalists asked the question of massive granite boulders sitting three thousand feet up mountainsides in Switzerland: how could these possibly have gotten here? After the theory that floods carried the boulders was falsified by one geologist’s observation that all of Earth’s water couldn’t make such enormous objects float, the possibility of glaciation began percolating. ²
The term ice age was coined in 1837. And for the next six decades, the question slowly evolved from if the planet was ever frozen to how the planet became frozen.
In the early 1900s, the expanding research became an unexpected interest of Serbian academic Milutin Milankovitch. Studying the cyclical changes in the shape of Earth’s orbit and angle of orientation to the Sun, Milankovitch wondered if the see-sawing between elliptical and circular orbits and/or the degree between Earth and Sun might explain the process of ice ages.
It took some twenty years of drawing angles and computing solar radiation intensities and durations, but Milankovitch was right: ice age’s comings and goings depend on planetary wobble. I know what you’re now assuming: Earth tilts a degree or two away from the Sun, Earth gets less solar radiation, winters get extremely cold, ice sheets form then spread, few thousands and thousands of years later, ice age. Milankovitch assumed the same.
Here, however, he was wrong. The ice age process is more subtle.
In the 1920s, Russian-German meteorologist Wladimir Köppen discovered it is not extremely cold weather that causes ice ages. Rather, it is consistently cool weather. The process hinges on consistency across seasons. If it stays cool enough that this winter’s snow sticks around until next winter, sunlight rebounds off the snowy or icy reflective surface, perpetuating the cooling effect and increasing the odds that next-next winter’s snow accumulates, perpetuating…perpetuating, perpetuating, perpetuating.
“The process is self-enlarging, unstoppable,” as John McPhee writes, “and once the ice is really growing it moves.” ³ Little by little, day by day, year by year, a little snow progresses into a planetary ice sheet. “It is not,” glaciologist Gwen Shultz explains, “the amount of snow that causes ice sheets but the fact that snow, however little, lasts.” ⁴ If a record snowfall winter is followed by a typical warm summer, all that snow will melt into ice age irrelevancy.
Similarly, the amount of ground you cover in the short run, as Scott will prove, is irrelevant if you, in the long run, can’t last. Because progress is rarely a magnitude of intensity. Almost always, as Amundsen will prove, it’s a magnitude of consistency.
And on December 12, 1911, Amundsen and his team made it within forty-five miles of the South Pole—the closest any human had ever made it. “Going and surface as good as ever,” Amundsen journaled. “Weather splendid—calm with sunshine.” They could have made it to the Pole that day. They knew there was still the prospect of being beaten by Scott, but Amundsen reminded his crew: fifteen miles a day, no more, no less. On December 15, they woke up at dawn, had breakfast, packed up camp, then set out on their final fifteen. After about eight hours of seeing nothing but the endless white snowy horizon, Amundsen ordered, “Halt!” It was 3 PM. Amundsen looked at his compass: 90° 45’. “We are here as the first men,” one of the crew members recorded in his journal, “no English flag waves.”
Thirty-four days later, the exhausted, sick, hungry, and injured Britains were greeted by a waving Norwegian flag. The trip home was worse. All five members of the team, Scott included, got frostbite then froze to death.
Amundsen and his guys made the trip home to Norway without any issues at a pace of fifteen miles a day, no more, no less. “Bursting with health,” Huntford wrote, “by the way they moved, it would be hard to tell that they were just finishing off a journey of 1,400 miles in the harshest climate in the world for two months on end.”
Kobe Bryant didn’t score a single point in his first basketball season. “I was terrible,” he said. “Awful.” When asked how he then went on to become one of the greatest basketball players of all time, he said, consistency. “I wasn’t the most athletic,” Kobe said. “So I had to look longterm…I had to say, ‘Ok, this year I’m going to get better at this. Next year, that. And patiently, I got better and better. It was piece by piece. It was the consistency of the work. The consistency of the work,” he stresses. “Monday, get better. Tuesday, get better. Wednesday, get better. You do that over a period of time—three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten years—you get to where you want to go.” ⁵
Whether it’s getting to the South Pole or freezing the planet over, getting in shape or writing a book, building a company, learning a new language, or perfecting your jump shot—progress is a magnitude of consistency. It’s not how hard you go today, tomorrow, and next week. It’s—when we check in on you in three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten years—are you still going?
“It’s simple,” Kobe said. “It’s simple math.” ⁶ No more, no less.
 The Last Place on Earth by Roland Huntford
 A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
 In Suspect Terrain by John McPhee
 Ice Age Lost by Gwen Shultz
Thank you to Greg Shildkrout and Katie McKenzie for reading drafts of this.