The dangerous race for the South Pole by Elizabeth Leane (TED ed). Roald Amundsen had spent nearly two years preparing his Arctic expedition. He had secured funding from the Norwegian Crown and hand-picked a trusted crew. He’d even received the blessing of the famed explorer Fridtjof Nansen, along with the use of his ship, Fram, specially constructed to withstand the ice.
Now, with the voyage departing, he had one final announcement to his shipmates: They were going to head in the opposite direction. By the early 20th century, nearly every region of the globe had been visited and mapped, with only two key locations remaining: the North Pole, deep in the frozen waters of the Arctic region, and the South Pole, nestled within a recently discovered icy continent in the vast Antarctic Ocean.
A veteran of several expeditions, Amundsen had long dreamed of reaching the North Pole. But in 1909, amidst his preparations, news came that the American explorers Frederick Cook and Robert Peary had staked rival claims to the achievement. Instead of abandoning the planned voyage, Amundsen decided to alter its course to what he called “the last great problem.”
But Amundsen’s crew weren’t the only ones kept in the dark. British naval officer Robert F. Scott had already visited the Antarctic, and was leading his own South Pole expedition. Now, as Scott’s ship Terra Nova reached Melbourne in 1910, he was greeted with the news that Amundsen was also heading south. Reluctantly, Scott found himself pitted against the Norwegian in what the newspapers called a ‘race to the Pole.’ Yet if it was a race, it was a strange one.
The expeditions left at different times from different locations, and they had very different plans for the journey. Amundsen was focused solely on reaching the Pole. Informed by his Arctic exploration, he drew on both Inuit and Norwegian experience, arriving with a small team of men and more than a hundred dogs. His explorers were clothed in sealskin and furs, as well as specially designed skis and boots. But Scott’s venture was more complicated.
Launching an extensive scientific research expedition, he traveled with over three times more men than Amundsen, alongside over 30 dogs, 19 Siberian ponies, and three state-of-the-art motorized sledges. But these additional tools and bodies weighed down the ship as it battled the storms of the southern ocean. And as they finally began to lay supplies, they found both their ponies and motor-sledges ineffective in the harsh ice and snow.
In the spring of 1911, after waiting out the long polar night, both parties began the journey south. Scott’s team traveled over the Beardmore Glacier, following the path of Ernest Shackleton’s earlier attempt to reach the pole. But although this course had been documented, it proved slow and laborious.
Meanwhile, despite an initial false start, Amundsen’s five-man team made good time using a previously uncharted route through the same Transantarctic Mountains. They stayed ahead of Scott’s team, and on December 14, arrived first at their desolate destination. To avoid the ambiguity that surrounded Cook and Peary’s North Pole claims, Amundsen’s team traversed the area in a grid to make sure they covered the Pole’s location.
Along with flags and a tent marker, they left a letter for Scott, which would not be found until over a month later. But when Scott’s party finally reached the pole, losing the ‘race’ was the least of their problems. On the way back towards the camp, two of the five men succumbed to frostbite starvation, and exhaustion.
The remaining explorers hoped for a prearranged rendezvous with a team sent from their base, but due to a series of mishaps, misjudgements and miscommunications, their rescue never arrived. Their remains, along with Scott’s diary, would not be found until spring.
Today, scientists from various countries live and work at Antarctic research stations. But the journeys of these early explorers are not forgotten. Despite their divergent fates, they are forever joined in history, and in the name of the research base that marks the South Pole.
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Credit: Elizabeth Leane