Reaching the South Pole on foot: more terrible than competing in eight consecutive Tours | The Mountaineer | Sports


Robert Falcon Scott is the Poulidor of the conquest of the South Pole. This is how history remembers him, which does not forgive him for dying in the effort, for his men did the same, dragged by him in 1912. His critics add that the planning of his Antarctic trip was disastrous, and what should have been a reason of pride for England led to a surprising Norwegian success: Roald Amundsen, unintentionally, exposed all the shortcomings of Scott’s team. However, seen from the current perspective of two physiologists and researchers, two stalwarts of the study of metabolism, Adrián Castillo and Aitor Viribay, what Scott and his team did is possibly the greatest physiological feat ever carried out. And Scott was many things, but not an athlete in the modern sense of the term. Viribay, who is in charge of the nutrition of the INEOS team cyclists, is congratulated if a cyclist manages to finish the Tour de France with the same weight with which he started it. Scott, who was not an overweight being, lost 40 kilos during the five months of his round trip to the South Pole. So the analogy may be accurate: Scott’s trip was much more demanding than competing in eight Tours in a row without a day’s rest. Because?

“There are conditions that make this expedition something unique, especially if we compare them with feats of sporting performance such as the Tour. Currently, most scientists focused on the limits of metabolism point to the French test as the paradigm of maximum energy expenditure that a human being can sustain for many days. We are talking about between 6,000-7,000 kcal daily, some even more, reaching 10,000, for 21 days. The difference is that cyclists consume a large number of calories before, during and after each stage. In fact, and Viribay is a world expert in this, one of the big differences that are being seen in the performance of cyclists is that the limit of how much they can eat is being stretched. They recover every day the expense that each stage has entailed. In addition, they rest for about 14 or 16 hours between stages, in hotels, with all the comfort and in a temperature that does not put their lives at risk,” explains Adrián Castillo. Explorers at the beginning of the 20th century endured temperatures of up to 40 degrees below zero, terrible katabatic winds, in addition to walking on a frozen desert. The English wore wool suits, less effective than the furs worn by the Norwegians, imitated from those adopted by the Eskimos.

On the Terra Nova expedition, Scott and his team dragged all the material and food they had to eat themselves, that is, they pulled sleds weighing about 100 kilos. On the other hand, Amundsen’s team moved on skis and had efficient dogs to move the loads. Scott chose horses and a kind of motorized sleds: the animals sank hopelessly in the snow and soon died, while the mechanical traction quickly stopped working, forcing the team to advance on foot and loaded like mules. “As they miscalculated the amount of food, they had daily deficits of between 1,500 and 2,400 kcal. They spent much more than they ate. That in a unique environment. Antarctica is the highest continent on the planet. The Antarctic plateau has an average of 3,000 meters with peaks of 4,000. This hypoxia is what cyclists undergo, for example, in their preparation camps, which last one or two weeks. At this altitude, energy demands multiply. The body wastes away. It took Scott and his team five months to travel nearly 2,500 kilometers! But, above all, they were affected by the extreme cold, to which humans never adapt and which makes you burn a lot of calories. Extreme cold, altitude and energy deficit cause the body to gradually waste away,” Castillo summarizes. Overall, Norwegians’ energy efficiency was higher. Scott and his men were subjected to a diabolical spiral: a cyclist would have abandoned, but the explorers continued advancing in a brutal flight forward… without coldly considering that once they reached the South Pole they had to return… “It is the whiting that bites the line. You have to move so as not to die from the cold, to do so you need to eat a lot, and to eat a lot you need to carry very heavy sleds, and to carry very heavy sleds, you have to burn… anguish,” summarizes Viribay.

Scott and his four men reached the South Pole on January 17, 1912, to prove that Amundsen had achieved it five weeks earlier. Just a month later, during the return trip that Scott predicted would be “terribly exhausting and monotonous,” Edgar Evans died. His body shut down. Lawrence Oates held out for another month, but when he could no longer walk, affected by an old war wound, he left the store and walked far enough away to let himself freeze to death. His last words were these: “I’m going to go outside and maybe for a while.” Scott, Henry Bowers and Edward Wilson would still manage to advance 30 more kilometers until they were just 20 kilometers from a food depot. By now, they should have received help from an English team that was to bring dog sleds and food from the coast. Such a meeting never took place, due to a new administrative error.

Captain Robert F. Scott at base camp.Bettmann (Bettmann Archive)

Eight months later, they found the three bodies in the store. It is presumed that Scott was the last to die. His body had been consumed until it was extinguished. “Our brain is the organ in charge of distributing energy reserves. If we can eat enough and there is a balance between intake and expenditure, the brain distributes energy to all organs, maintaining what is known as physiological balance or homeostasis. The problem lies when the energy expenditure (in Scott’s case derived from physical activity, cold and altitude) is so excessive that we do not reach the sufficient amount of food necessary to satisfy the energy demands that the organs need to fulfill their functions. vital functions. The brain distributes this energy, and when it sees that there is little left, it begins to turn off systems in order to save energy. A defense mechanism. Even if we want to increase activity, the brain puts obstacles in the way because it estimates that if expenditure increases, the remaining energy may not be enough to keep the body alive. It’s a domino effect. The body enters a kind of hibernation state: as it loses weight, the organs gradually stop functioning. “It consumes itself,” explains Castillo.

The daily ration of the English in Antarctica was based on Pemmican (a type of today’s bars composed of dried berries, pulverized dried meat and fats), butter, biscuits, sugar, chocolate, cereals, raisins and cocoa (about 4,200 kcal). but it provided a higher proportion of protein than necessary: ​​“In Scott’s case, surely a readjustment in macronutrients, with an increase in carbohydrates and fats, increasing calories, could have stopped the decline. However, energy intake limits also seem to put a brake (we still don’t really know which one) on the ability to eat very high food for such a long time. Is it possible to eat more than 6,000 calories every day? Even today we do not know the answer, but there does seem to be a food limit,” says Viribay.

In the Race Across America, runners cross the United States, from California to Washington DC, running the equivalent of 6 marathons a week for approximately 20 weeks: “This challenge shows how energy expenditure readjusts to prolonged demands. A study that measured these athletes saw that at the beginning of the race the runners spent about 6,200 kcal daily. However, towards the end of the 20 weeks, this expenditure decreased to about 5,300 kcal per day. They couldn’t sustain such high spending for so long. Even if energy is available, it seems that the body readjusts to reduce its metabolic rate. Human beings cannot expend unlimited energy,” explains Adrián Castillo.

More than a century after the death of Scott and his men, reaching the South Pole on foot and returning alive remains a terrible challenge, a sporting and physiological feat of such magnitude that running the Tour or climbing Everest seem, in comparison, mere entertainment.

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