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”Luck” and Discovery

August 19, 2017

Like it or not, “luck” can have a lot to do with the outcomes of our efforts. Apparently random sequences of events beyond our control can determine the success of our endeavors, for good or ill.

The most carefully planned and industriously executed plans can come to naught, or worse, in the sudden confluence of unforeseen changes to the immediate environment, be it the business world or the Antarctic weather.

Scott’s expeditions were meticulously planned and well-funded, their members some of the most experienced in the field, but in their great reaches they were caught from time to time in circumstances beyond anticipation or control. Add to this mix the fact that by its very nature exploration means going where no man has gone before to test out the routes and try out the equipment.

When in 1903 Robert F. Scott, William Lashly, and Edgar Evans had extended their track to the very limit of human endurance on the high altitude of the polar plateau, they were already quite accustomed to the sudden drop through a thin ice-bridge into the depths of a crevasse. They took such falls as a matter of course, trusting to their harness as their safety line, and their own strength to climb back out.

But when, on this journey, two of the three dropped together, leaving only William Lashly on top to pull them out. Had he been in a slightly different position, Lashly would not have been able to stop the careening sledge from following them down into the bottomless depths. He managed to hang onto the sledge with one hand, jamming a ski stick into the snow at the very lip of the crevasse to keep his tenuous hold.

This is where luck comes into play. Had those few seconds played out differently, the entire party would have been doomed in that moment—two down the crevasse, and one looking down after them, hundreds of miles from home with nothing to sustain him from the cold.

The rest of their remarkable recovery from this near-disaster is a tale of human spirit and endurance, but the fact of it depends on circumstances outside human control. Similar tales are woven through the fabric of Antarctic exploration, object lessons for all of us in our modern lives.

“Luck” is nothing to depend on—ask any gambler. But its influence on our affairs—the random convergence of uncontrollable events on even the best laid of our plans—is hard to deny.

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