Discover the First People to Reach and Discover the South Pole
More than 110 years ago, Norwegian explorers under the command of Roald Amundsen trekked through the harshest environment on the planet to reach the South Pole. On December 14, 1911, Amundsen and his party became the first people to reach and discover the geographical South Pole.
Through unimaginably biting temperatures reaching -72 degrees Fahrenheit, the Norwegian polar explorers faced frostbite, scurvy, malnutrition, hypothermia, vast crevasses in the ice, and blinding fog as they braved the unknown desolate wasteland to win the race to the bottom of Earth.
One of Amundsen’s competitors, Robert Falcon Scott, however, cast a shadow on Amundsen’s victory when he and his men perished on their way back from the South Pole after discovering they were second in the race to fame. Amundsen had kept his plan to compete with Scott in the race to the South Pole a secret from the world. The news of Scott’s death brought accusations of deception that overshadowed Amundsen’s achievement.
Both Amundsen and Scott were lifelong explorers during the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. The story of their race to reach the South Pole, and its tragic outcome, would link the two forever in history.
The Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration
The 30-year period between 1892-1922 was designated the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. It was a time when international efforts to explore the southern polar regions advanced scientific and geographical knowledge of the area. It is called “heroic” because of the immense obstacles the explorers had to overcome while pushing their mental and physical limits to the extreme. A total of 19 men died on the various expeditions to the Antarctic.
Explorers reached both the geographical and magnetic South Pole during this time. Aside from winning the title of the first people to reach the South Pole, many pioneers accomplished other objectives that provided valuable geographical and scientific information. The explorers discovered and mapped much of the continent’s coastline and significant areas of the interior. They also collected substantial amounts of scientific data across a wide range of disciplines.
Many countries took part in the Antarctic adventures during that time. Belgium, the United Kingdom, Germany, Sweden, France, Norway, Australia, and New Zealand all contributed to exploration of the southern polar regions. Japan became the first non-European country to participate. Its ship, the Kainan Maru, carried out a coastal exploration of King Edward VII Land. The Japanese also investigated the eastern sector of the Great Ice Barrier from 1910-1912.
Check out these amazing period maps of Antarctic voyages from the U.S. Library of Congress.
Setting Out to Discover the South Pole
While many expeditions set out with objectives that included collecting scientific information, Amundsen’s efforts had a single goal. He wanted to be the first to the South Pole. To accomplish that objective, however, the Norwegian explorer deceived his investors, as well as his crew.
Amundsen originally planned an expedition to be the first to travel to the North Pole. His plans were dashed when he got word that Americans Frederick Cook and Robert Peary each made rival claims to have taken the honor. He decided, instead, to change course and make a bid to be the first to reach the South Pole. Fearful of losing his financial backers, Amundsen set sail keeping his change of plans a secret. He allowed his investors and crew to believe he was still on his way to the north. Only three other men, including the captain, were told of their real destination.
In October 1910, Amundsen’s ship, the Fram, sailed into the North Atlantic. Certain supplies they carried, however, caused suspicion among his men. They complained that setting out with 100 Greenland dogs didn’t make sense. The cold-adapted dogs would suffer on a long, difficult trip that required traveling through the tropics. The men thought it made more sense to pick up dogs in Siberia or Alaska.
Amundsen successfully dodged these questions until the Fram stopped at the mid-Atlantic island of Madeira to resupply. It was at that point Amundsen announced they were going to make a slight “detour” to claim the South Pole.
The Plan to Be the First People to Reach the South Pole
Amundsen and his crew knew that a British team led by Scott was already en route to discover the South Pole. When his men voiced concern that Scott had a lead on them, Amundsen calmed his crew. He explained that because Scott would not be using many dogs on his expedition and his men didn’t know how to ski, the Norwegians could still overtake him.
Amundsen had planned for every detail and convinced his men. As they prepped the ship for departure to the Antarctic, Amundsen decided he needed to inform Scott that he now had competition. The telegram he sent Scott simply read “Beg leave to inform. Fram heading south. Amundsen.” The Norwegian surprised Scott with his contrived race knowing his dogs likely gave him an advantage over Scott’s Siberian ponies and motor sledges.
From Madeira, the men and dogs endured a 16,000-mile, non-stop trip to the Bay of Whales on the eastern side of the Ross Ice Shelf. They reached their destination in January 1911.
Meeting the Competition
Amundsen’s party had been hard at work constructing their winter quarters, named Framheim, for almost a month when the ship’s watch spotted another ship passing into the Bay of Whales. On the morning of February 3, 1911, Scott’s ship, the Terra Nova, discovered Framheim. The Terra Nova was scouting for a second base of operations. The second base would allow a team to explore King Edward VII Land on the eastern ice shelf.
The British knew the Norwegians were looking to beat them to the South Pole, but they had no idea where Amundsen intended to settle. Scott’s men were surprised to find their rivals only 400 miles away from their own base in McMurdo Sound. Framheim’s location alarmed Scott as it gave the Norwegians a 60-nautical mile advantage.
Despite the rivalry, both groups were respectful and gracious. Some members of Scott’s group ate breakfast on the Fram and the British reciprocated with lunch upon the Terra Nova. Both groups used the opportunity to scrutinize one another’s preparedness.
Amundsen was pleased that the British had no radio equipment aboard their ship. He didn’t want them to get news of the expedition to the outside world first. His strategy was to be the first to broadcast news of a victory once his ship returned to civilization, as his ship lacked a wireless radio as well. The Norwegian’s growing population of hardy sled dogs and the expert drivers accompanying them impressed Scott’s men.
Preparing to Win the Race to the South Pole
Setting Up Depots
Amundsen goes down in history as a meticulous planner. Great effort went into the three depots he and his men laid. They spaced the supplies at strategic intervals on his planned route to the South Pole. Amundsen’s depot-laying parties loaded the caches with a total of 7,500 pounds of supplies. Three tons of seal meat, 40 gallons of paraffin oil for cooking, and other supplies were lodged in the caches six months before the Norwegians planned to start their journey.
The push to lay the depots was the first true test of the Norwegians, their dogs, and their equipment. Amundsen had no first-hand experience in the Antarctic. His only knowledge of the area was from books. Anticipating difficult traveling conditions, Amundson was surprised by his dogs’ stellar performance and favorable weather on their trip to lay the first depot.
Conditions deteriorated sharply, however, on their second trip. Temperatures dropped to -26 Fahrenheit on their return to base. The sharp ice shredded the paws of many of the 42 dogs that set out for the journey. By the time they pulled back into Framheim on March 22, eight dogs had died.
Despite the setbacks, Amundsen learned valuable lessons on the journeys to establish the depots. Realizing that had overtaxed his dogs, Amundsen decided to increase the number of dogs for the polar journey. He also discovered, as did Scott’s party, that the boots they had been using for skiing weren’t holding up in the harsh Antarctic conditions. The Norwegian leader gave his men and dogs a week’s rest between laying depots to repair the boots using kamiks, the sealskin boots used by the Inuit in the Arctic.
Amundsen’s obsession with planning paid off. The Norwegians’ boots held up. He’d also instructed his men to install signal flags half a mile apart along an east-west line to a distance of six miles from every depot. They never missed a single supply dump during the journey.
A Historic Adventure
Once Amundsen’s preparations were set, there was nothing left to do but wait for winter to pass. After four long months of darkness, the thought of Scott’s motorized sledges carrying the British team to victory tormented Amundsen. He could wait no longer. The Norwegian set out on September 8, 1911, when the temperature rose to -27 degrees Fahrenheit.
Forced to abandon that first attempt and return to base, Amundsen finally began his journey on October 19, 2011, with five men, four sledges, and 52 dogs. By October 24, Amundsen’s robust sled dogs enabled his group to get a 150-mile head start over Scott, who wouldn’t leave his base for another week.
The Norwegians covered more than 15 nautical miles a day and by November 5 reached the Transantarctic Mountains. It took three days of difficult climbing for the party to reach the glacier summit. Upon reaching the 10,600-foot summit, Amundsen ordered his men to butcher all but 18 of the 45 dogs who had accompanied them. They divided the meat between the men and the remaining dogs. Amundsen called the spot the “Butcher’s Shop.”
Finally, on December 14, 1911, Amundsen’s fears of reaching the South Pole after the British were put to rest. The Norwegians had won. They were the first people to reach the South Pole. Amundsen, Helmer Hanssen, Sverre Hassel, and Oscar Wisting pitched a tent as near to the pole as possible with the instruments at their disposal and named the local part of the plateau for their king, Haakon VII. They returned to base 99 days after their departure, 10 days less than they anticipated. They had covered 1,860 nautical miles.
Announcing Victory to the World
On March 7, 1912, Amundsen arrived in Hobart, Tasmania, aboard the Fram. The explorer was eager to share news of his victory. He sent telegrams to his brother and his king before alerting the media. On return to civilization, Amundsen promoted his win through interviews, lectures, and a book he titled “The South Pole.” He made a good living off of his adventure.
Scott’s Death Casts a Shadow on Amundsen’s Win
The day the Fram cruised into Hobart’s harbor, Scott and his men were still on the Ross Ice Shelf struggling to survive their return from the South Pole. The British reached the pole on January 18, 1912, about a month after Amundsen. Scott’s diary entries after discovering they lost the race drained of all optimism. From that day onward, they chronicled an increasingly desperate tale of a battle for survival that ended in tragedy.
After one of the men in Scott’s party was injured, the group chose to slow the pace of their return journey from the South Pole. Scott’s decision to support an injured subordinate, rather than abandon him, cost all five of the men their lives. The U.S. Naval Institute describes Scott’s impossible decision as “A terrible choice for Scott: to risk his life to support Oates, or lose his humanity by abandoning him. Ultimately, Scott opted for slowing down to support Oates.”
Oates ultimately gives up his life in an attempt to save his comrades. On March 16, with strong winds blowing outside their tent, Army Captain Lawrence Oates walked out. His last words to the men would go down in history: “I am just going outside and may be some time.” Tragically, his sacrifice was not enough to spare the three remaining polar explorers’ lives.
Scott’s polar party died in late Mach 1912. A search party found their frozen bodies only 11 miles from their supply cache, One Ton Depot, in November. When news of their deaths reached the world in February 1913, Amundsen’s victory was eclipsed by the tragedy. For the rest of his life, Amundsen endured criticism for keeping his true plans to compete with Scott secret for so long and was said to have been greatly disturbed by their fate.
Despite the criticism, the expedition’s success was widely applauded. Over the years, history has gone back and forth with its evaluation of Amundsen. He has been portrayed as ruthless and self-seeking, while recent polar historians have recognized him for his meticulous preparation, outstanding skills, and extraordinary courage.
Managing to discover the South Pole in the early 20th century was a fantastic accomplishment. The feat required extraordinary strength of mind, body, and spirit. Amundsen and Scott will both go down in history for their achievement. The U.S. permanent scientific Antarctic base, the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, was named to commemorate the sacrifices and courage of these two remarkable pioneers.
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