January 13, 2009 / 3:55 PM / in 9 years

Norwegians lead South Pole ski race at midpoint

OSLO (Reuters Life!) - A two-man team from Norway has taken the lead from British rivals in a race to the South Pole nearly a century after Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen beat Britain’s Robert Scott, organizers said on Tuesday.

<p>The Trans Antarctic Mountains are clearly visible from the flight deck of a ski-equipped cargo plane flying from McMurdo Station to Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica, December 11, 2006. REUTERS/Deborah Zabarenko</p>

The race that began on January 4 with six teams has become a dead heat between the front-running Norwegians and second-placed Brits by the halfway point, underscoring similarities of the dash for the Pole that Amundsen won in December 1911.

Scott arrived a month later only to find Amundsen’s tent. He and his men perished of exhaustion, hunger and cold in March 1912 trying to return.

Norwegians Rune Malterud and Stian Aker reached the halfway point in the race across the Antarctic ice cap on January 12, eight days and 51 minutes after setting out and about five hours before the British runners-up, race officials said.

“It has turned into a race between the British team and the two Norwegians,” organizer Tony Martin told Reuters from the checkpoint, 86 degrees, 38 minutes South. “For the past four to five days they have been racing within eyesight of each other.”

The second-placed Brit team consists of television presenter Ben Fogle, Olympic rowing gold medalist James Cracknell and Ed Coats, a doctor who has swum the English Channel.

Three other teams had not yet reached the midpoint, where Martin said skies were blue and the temperature minus 32 degrees Celsius (minus 26 Fahrenheit) or around minus 48 C with the wind chill factor.

A sixth team, consisting of an English man and woman who did not keep up with the cutoff pace, was brought to the checkpoint by support crews and no longer qualify to compete, but will continue skiing, he said.

The leading Norwegian and British teams were scheduled to set off again on Wednesday on the second leg of the 430 nautical mile race to the Pole after 24 hours of forced rest, he said.

“The Norwegians are in good form...and they have a five-hour lead on British team,” Martin said. “That translates into about 12-15 km (7.5-9.3 miles).”

“The whole Scott-Amundsen thing is discussed on a daily basis -- there is a high spirit around that,” Martin said, adding that many of the racers were reading books about the historic race. “It’s a perfect line-up from that perspective.”

He said he expected the fastest team to reach the Pole in 11 and a half days.

The teams have skied over hundreds of kilometers (miles) of icy crevasses and camped out in tents. Dogs are not allowed.

The route does not replicate that taken by Amundsen and Scott, but the physical hardships are the same as in 1911-1912.

Martin said he aims to stage another South Pole race in 2011 or 2012 to mark the centennial.

Reporting by John Acher, editing by Paul Casciato

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