Exactly 100 years ago today, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen became the first man to reach the South Pole, effectively ending a race that he had been engaged in for years with his British rival, Robert Falcon Scott. Both men had been eager to become the first to plant his country’s flag at 90ºS, and in doing so, they created one of the most indelible and tragic stories in the history of exploration.
As the first decade of the 20th century came to an end, both Amundsen and Scott had become seasoned polar explorers. The two men had spent years in the remote, cold regions of our planet, and while Scott had remained largely focused on the Antarctic, and reaching the South Pole, his Norwegian counterpart had split his time between both the North and South Polar regions. Along the way, he had also managed to become the first person to traverse the Northwest Passage, where he learned the secrets of arctic survival from the indigenous Inuit tribes. Those lessons would come to serve him well in the Antarctic too and play a large role in his eventual triumph at the South Pole.
In the spring of 1910, with an air of optimism and determination, Scott set off from London for New Zealand aboard his ship the Terra Nova. He held no sense of urgency however, as he believed that he would have the Antarctic to himself, while Amundsen would be content to head north once again aboard his ship the Fram. When he arrived in Melbourne in October of that year, Scott was surprised to find a telegram from the Norwegian awaiting him that simply read: “BEG TO INFORM YOU FRAM PROCEEDING ANTARCTIC–AMUNDSEN.”
The race was officially on, as Amundsen and his crew had set sail in June and were in hot pursuit of Scott and the Terra Nova. Scott didn’t panic however, as he knew that he had a considerable lead on his rival and a good strategy for proceeding south. Those plans were disrupted by a series of mishaps however, which included his ship being trapped in the Antarctic pack ice for 20 days and the onset of particularly bad weather. Those mishaps caused Scott to miss his window of opportunity during the austral summer of 1910, although he was able to establish a series of supply depots which would give him a potentially large advantage the following year, when he and Amundsen would duel head-to-head for the Pole.Scott’s plan for reaching the South Pole was grounded in tradition and years of British exploration on the continent. He would take a small team of men, and a mixture of both dogs and ponies to help pull the sledges and the carry gear. They would proceed along a route that had been pioneered by his countryman, Ernest Shackleton, who had turned back just shy of the Pole only two years earlier. The team had been outfitted with the best cold weather gear of that era and they had their supply caches in place from the previous year, so there was a general sense of optimism about their chances.
In contrast, Amundsen elected to employ sled dog teams to help carry his squad to their destination. He had become an experienced musher while living with the Inuit tribes, and he knew the value of using that method of transportation in the harsh arctic conditions. He also preferred the use of animal skins over the heavy wool clothing that Scott’s team was equipped with – something he had also adopted from the Inuit. The use of sled dogs and warm furs would prove to be a great advantage for the Norwegian and would ultimately contribute greatly to the success of his expedition.
On October 19, 1911, Amundsen took another calculated risk by launching his expedition along a route that had never been explored before. The team started at a point that was closer to the Pole, but would wander over the uncharted Axel Heiberg Glacier, which could present unknown challenges and barriers to their passage. On November 1, Scott set out from his base camp along his longer, but much more well known, route.
In the weeks that followed, both teams endured brutally cold temperatures, unexpected storms, and days of whiteout conditions. Their support teams dwindled the closer the got to the Pole and numerous dogs and ponies died from exposure. Ultimately though, Amundsen’s strategy proved to be the wiser, as his sled dogs traveled quickly and efficiently over the frozen wastes and his crude looking, but highly effective, furs provided more warmth and protection from the elements.
On December 14, Amundsen, and four companions, arrived at the South Pole at last. Planting the Norwegian flag at 90ºS and establishing a temporary camp at that location, they took little time to celebrate their accomplishment. Amundsen and his men spent three days at the Pole before they started the trek back to their teammates, who were awaiting them at the coast. In the event that the did not make back however, Amundsen left a lone tent and a letter denoting their arrival.
33 days later, on January 17, 1912, Scott and his party reached the Pole as well. They were greeted by the disheartening sight of Amundsen’s flag, tent, and letter. As you can imagine, this was tremendously deflating for the explorer and his companions, who expected glory, but found that they had been beaten by their rivals. That night, a defeated Scott wrote in his journal that all of his “day dreams must go.” His love affair with the Antarctic was clearly over and he lamented his situation, saying “Great God. This is an awful place.”
Amundsen and his men returned to the Fram on January 25 and soon set sail for warmer climes. They arrived back in Melbourne on March 7, and word of his accomplishment soon spread across the globe. Stories of his adventures held readers enthralled, as every major newspaper led with the tale of the conquering of the South Pole at last. Back in the U.K. however, Scott’s countrymen watched and waited for word of his fate.
After discovering that they had come in second in the race to the Pole, the British explorer and his men turned back for their ship and companions as well. They faced a very long and cold 800-mile trek to the coast, and early on they were able to set good pace. But after several weeks, things began to take a turn for the worse. Weather conditions began to deteriorate and their pace slowed to a crawl. Along the way, one of Scott’s five remaining companions took a nasty fall that left him “dull and incapable.” Several days later, that same men would tumble again, this time resulting in his death.
With exhaustion setting in and a dark mood falling over the party, Scott and his remaining men pressed on, even as temperatures plummeted further and whiteout conditions returned. Frostbite and snow blindness became a part of their daily existence, as they stumbled on mile after mile. With their food supplies and fuel dwindling there only hope was in reaching one of their precious supply depots.
On March 16, two months after their arrival at the Pole, another of Scott’s men died. While lying in the tent that evening, the man suddenly stood up, mumbled that he was “going outside and may be awhile.” He disappeaed into the blisteringly cold night and was never seen again. It was another moment of anguish and dispair for the doomed expedition.
After that, Scott and his two remaining companions managed to cover another 20 miles before they were caught in a blizzard that raged outside their tent for ten days straight. Trapped and unable to move forward, the last of their meager supplies ran out, and the three men died in their tent. Scott’s last entry into his journal was recorded on the 29th of March and simply said “For God’s sake look after our people.” They were just 11 miles from what would have been a life-saving supply depot.
Eight long months passed before the final resting place of Scott and his companions was discovered by search parties from the Terra Nova. It would be another three before the world learned of their fate. Back home in the United Kingdom, the public both mourned and celebrated their hero. Scott and his men may have lost the race to the Pole, but in true British fashion, they showed an indomitable spirit, and a never-quit attitude, that stuck with them to the end. Nearly a century after his death, Scott remains an inspirational figure to his countrymen to this day.
Amundsen, who mourned his respected rival as well, would continue a life of adventure and exploration. His travels would take him to other remote places, although the polar regions seemed to always call to him. Eventually he became the first person to visit both the North and South Pole and he pioneered a route through the Northeast Passage as well. The Norwegian explorer died in 1928 when the plane he was flying in went down over the Arctic Ocean. He was leading a rescue mission to save two other downed pilots at the time.
Today, there are many travelers to the Antarctic each year, and some of them still follow in the footsteps of these two great explorers. The Amundsen-Scott Research Station, located at the South Pole, is named in honor of both men, and in their respective home countries, there are numerous statues, monuments, and museum displays dedicated to their legacy. Both men inspired generations of explorers that followed, and the story of their great race is as compelling now as it was a century ago.
In celebration of the 100th anniversary of Amundsen’s accomplishment, a special ceremony will be held at the South Pole today. A number of visiting dignitaries will be on hand, including Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, who will be joined by a host of explorers and adventure travelers.
I have a feeling the ghosts of Amundsen and Scott just might be there as well.