Ghosts of Scott and Amundsen still haunt the South Pole

Roald Amundsen and team at the South PoleExactly 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.Robert Falcon Scott and his men at the Pole tooScott’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.

British woman attempting solo crossing of Antarctica

Crossing Antarctica with Felicty Aston33-year old British adventurer Felicity Aston is preparing to set out on an epic journey that is guaranteed to push her to both her physical and mental limits. In just a few days, she’ll set out to do what no other woman has ever done – complete a solo and unsupported crossing of Antarctica on foot.

Felicity’s adventure will begin on the Ross Ice Shelf, where she’ll start a 248 mile trek on skis to the South Pole. For most Antarctic explorers, that would be the stopping point of their expedition, but for Felicity, it won’t even be the halfway mark. Once she reaches 90º South, she’ll start the second phase of her journey – a 683 mile trudge back to the coast, ending at Hercules Inlet. The entire expedition is expected to take roughly 70 days to complete, covering more than 930 miles in the process. During that time, Aston will be completely alone, with little contact from the outside world.

Traveling across Antarctica is no easy task. Felicity will be forced to contend with harsh weather conditions, including extreme cold, high winds, blizzards, and whiteout conditions. Since she’ll also be alone, and not receiving any kind of outside support, she’ll also be dragging a heavy sled behind her at all times. That sled will contain all of her gear, food, and other supplies that will be necessary for her survival while out on the ice for more than two months.

At the moment, Felicity is actually in Antarctica at a base camp located at Union Glacier. She’s waiting for a flight to take her, along with her gear, to her starting point out on the Ross Ice Shelf. She had hoped to be well underway by now, but bad weather and mechanical problems with the aircraft have caused numerous delays to the start of the expedition, but if all goes well, she hopes to get finally hit the trail tomorrow.

Spending 70 days alone, in one of the harshest environments on the planet, takes an incredible amount of strength, both physically and mentally. The next two months will not be easy ones for Aston, but she is about to embark on amazing adventure unlike any other.

Best of luck Felicity!

[Photo credit: Felicity Aston]

Explorer to make back-to-back journey to North and South Pole

Mark Wood will visit both the North and South PoleBritish adventurer Mark Wood is currently in Punta Arenas, Chile where he is preparing to start an epic journey. If all goes as planned, later this week, Mark will fly to the Antarctic, where he’ll begin a four-month odyssey that will take him to both the North and South Poles back-toback. While he certainly won’t be the first person to visit those two remote places, he does hope to become the first to make consecutive journeys to the opposite ends of the Earth.

Weather permitting, the first stage of the expedition will begin on Wednesday, when Wood will start his solo and unassisted trek to the South Pole. That leg of the journey is expected to take roughly 50 days to complete and will cover approximately 680 miles of ice and snow. Upon arriving at his destination, Wood will be picked up by plane and shuttled back to Chile, where he’ll immediately set off for Canada to start the second stage of the expedition. That will entail crossing another 700 miles of ice, over an estimated 65 day period, culminating with his arrival at the North Pole. If he is successful, he’ll then be plucked from the ice once again, and flown directly to an environmental conference that will focus on the effects of climate change.

In order to reach the two Poles, Wood will travel on skis, dragging a sled behind him. That sled will be weighted down with his gear, food, and other supplies, enabling him to survive for weeks on end, by himself, without any outside assistance. While on the trail, he’ll burn in excess of 8000 calories per day, enduring bitterly cold temperatures, whiteout conditions, and treacherous terrain.
Wood is making this journey to raise awareness of the impact of climate change on our planet and he is asking for support from others to help him achieve his goal. But rather than looking for monetary donations, Mark is instead asking for others to pledge to do some simple environmental actions that will cumulatively amount to a savings 100,000 kilograms of CO2. You can find out more about this program, and pledge your support, on the expedition’s DoNation page.

It will be a tremendous display of strength and endurance if Wood is able to pull this off. Spending 115 nearly-consecutive days in polar environments, alone no less, will take its toll on anyone. Additionally, the changes to our planet have made it increasingly more difficult to travel by foot to the North Pole, so he’ll have to have a bit of luck on his side for that to happen as well. Still, you have to applaud his ambitions and wish him the best along the way.

[Photo courtesy of Mark Wood]


National Geographic Traveler announces 2011 Tours of a Lifetime

National Geograpic Travelers Tours of a LifetimeNational Geographic Traveler magazine has announced its annual list of their picks for Tours of a Lifetime, selecting 50 fantastic journeys to the far flung corners of the globe. For each of the past six years, Traveler has examined thousands of tours in a variety of categories, including volunteer vacations, family friendly trips, small-ship voyages, and adventure travel. From all of those itineraries, they’ve narrow down their choices to this select group, which represent the absolute best in travel, offering amazing cultural experiences, unique activities, and a commitment to sustainability.

On their website, Traveler has broken down the selected tours into six regions of the world, including Africa, Asia, Central and South America, Europe, North America, and Oceania. By clicking on one of those options, readers are presented with the magazine’s recommendations for the very best tours operating in that area, complete with a brief description, links to the tour operator’s website, and price, which can vary wildly depending on the destination and options.

Amongst the selections for this year’s Tours of a Lifetime are Serengeti bush treks, whitewater paddling in Siberia, and a journey deep into the interior of Guyana. There is a journey along the Inca Trail on horseback and cycling tours of Italy and France, as well an expedition to the South Pole on skis. In short, there is a little something for everyone, depending on their interests and budget.

Since all of these trips are researched and vetted by National Geographic, you can rest assured that all of the tour operators are not only legitimate, but also top tier. These trips were specifically selected because they offer something that is a little out of the norm. Something unique that you can’t generally get anywhere else. I’m pretty sure, even if you think you’ve been everywhere and done everything, you’ll still find something to appeal to you on this list.

[Photo credit: Christian Heeb, laif/Redux]

Swedish explorer hopes to go Pole2Pole in one year

The Pole2Pole expedition will have Johan Ernst Nilson traveling from the North to the South PoleEarlier this week, Swedish explorer Johan Ernst Nilson set out on an ambitious, 12-month long journey that will see him travel from the North Pole to the South Pole in a completely carbon neutral manner. The so called Pole2Pole will use skis, dogsleds, sailboats, and a bike to accomplish its goals.

This past Tuesday, Nilson was shuttled by helicopter to the North Pole, where he embarked on his epic journey that will see him traveling south for the next year. He’ll start by skiing across the frozen Arctic Ocean to Greenland, where he’ll use a dogsled that to carry him to Thule Airbase on the northwest side of the country. Once there, he’ll climb aboard a sailboat and cross the North Atlantic to Ottawa, Canada, where he’ll get on a bike and ride to Tierra del Fuego, Chile at the far end of South America. Once he has completed the cycling leg of the journey, he’ll get back in his sailboat and sail across the Southern Ocean for Antarctica, where he hopes to kite-ski to the South Pole, arriving before April 5th, 2012.

When he’s done, Nilson will have traveled nearly 23,000 miles, averaging roughly 63 miles per day, without using a single bit of fossil fuel himself. The same can’t be said about his support team and the documentary crew that will be following him around. They’ll be outfitted with cars from Audi, the major sponsor of the expedition. The auto manufacturer aided Nilson by helping to design and build a new lightweight sled that he’ll be using to pull his gear behind him while in the polar regions of the journey.

This is going to be one difficult journey to make in a single year, and traveling in the Antarctic after January is always a dicey proposition. Nilson has his work cut out for him for sure, but it will certainly be an amazing accomplishment if he can pull it off.