South Pole Race: 100 Years Ago

A member of the five-man Antarctic expedition team led by Roald Amundsen poses with sled dogs during the journey to the South Pole in 1911. The team reached the pole on Dec. 14. (Credit: Corbis).

On Dec. 30, 1902, three men — Robert Falcon Scott, Ernest Shackleton and Edward Wilson — stood on the Antarctic ice sheet, looking south. They were farther south than any human beings had ever been before. The three men were weak and weary, and increasingly ravaged by scurvy. They had achieved a victory of sorts, but now they had to turn around. Their new direction was north, their destination was their home base, and their primary battle was one of survival.

Shackleton was particularly weak, and on occasion Scott and Wilson had to drag him on a sled. By the time they reached the expedition’s base on Ross Island on Feb. 3, 1903, Shackleton had begun to recover and it was the other two who were particularly afflicted. Nonetheless, Scott ordered Shackleton be invalided home on the expedition relief ship, Morning, which would soon be departing. Devastated and resentful, Shackleton resolved to return on his own terms; six years later, he set a record for the farthest south yet achieved — in fact, at that time, it was the highest latitude yet reached north or south. He and three companions had closed to within 97 miles of the South Pole; but, having pushed this far, it was obvious to all involved that they could go no farther if they hoped to return alive. And so, on Jan. 9, 1909, Shackleton — later telling his wife he would rather be “a live donkey than a dead lion” — turned around.

Ernest Shackleton

His record would last for less than three years. On Dec. 8, 1911, a Norwegian team of five people, led by Roald Amundsen, had been sledding south, en route to the South Pole, for a little more than six weeks. The going was good, and spirits were high. Amundsen knew that Shackleton’s record was close, and he had given one of his companions, who was responsible for monitoring their progress and location, the Norwegian flag so that he could hoist it on his sled when Shackleton’s latitude had been reached. In his diary, translated into English for the first time in Roland Huntford’s book The Race for the South Pole, Amundsen recorded:

The weather had improved more and more, and the sun was in the process of breaking through in dead earnest. My snow goggles bothered me from time to time. Light airs from the S. made them cloud over, making it difficult to see. Then suddenly I heard a stout, hearty cheer behind me. I turned around. In the light breeze from the S., the brave, well-known colors were flying from the first sledge, we have passed and put behind us the Englishman’s record. It was a splendid sight … My goggles clouded over again, but this time it was not the south wind’s fault.

Roald Amundsen

That night, Amundsen noted that the sunshine was such that it was “pure summer inside the tent. Everything of ours that is damp, dries in the course of a few hours.”

Three hundred miles to the north, Scott, himself battling to reach the South Pole, was in a less agreeable mood. The temperature was warm — too warm. The going was hard, and the group’s mood was sombre. The night before Amundsen’s achievement, Scott, trapped in a tent for several days because of a snowstorm, wrote:

Little or no improvement … [T]o feel the wet clinging dampness of clothes and everything touched, and to know that without there is but a blank wall of white on every side – these are the physical surroundings. Add the stress of sighted failure of our whole plan, and anyone must find the circumstances unenviable. But yet, after all, one can go on striving, endeavoring to find a stimulation in the difficulties that arise.

Amundsen was less than a week from the South Pole. Scott would reach the Pole too, eventually, but for him, the achievement would be a disappointment and the beginning of a desperate battle for survival that he would not win.

via South Pole Race: 100 Years Ago Today

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3 Responses to South Pole Race: 100 Years Ago

  1. alfy says:

    I read, about twenty years ago, a fascinating account comparing the Scott and the Amundsen 1912 expeditions. Unfortunately I have forgotten the author and title. Three aspects stuck in my mind however.
    (1) Skis
    Amundsen’s party. as one may imagine, had skiied since childhood and found this an excellent way to make progress over snow. Although Scott’s party took skis with them, none of them had ever skiied before and it never occurred to Scott to make them have lessons from experts before leaving for the pole. They quickly abandoned skis as cumbersome and ineffective, and went for man-hauling sledges.
    (2) Huskies
    Both parties discovered to their surprise that huskies ate excrement, both human and animal, because in extreme climates it was essential to get the maximum out of available resources and excrement does contain undigested food. Amundsen’s response was to construct “ice loos” for his men where their excrement fell into a narrow tunnel wide enough to let the huskies have access to it.
    Scott was horrified by the discovery, and ordered that if any of the pups born on the expedition showed any inclination to eat excrement they were to be killed immediately.

    (3) Messing
    Amundsen’s men all messed (ate) together in one tent, and were on largely equal terms. except for accepting the authority of the leader and his deputies. By contrast, Scott’s expedition was based on naval discipline, so that the officers ate in the “wardroom” and the lower deck (non-commissioned men )ate separately. Often the “wardroom” was no more than a blanket draped across a big tent, separating the two groups of men by a nominal barrier. Captain Oates, initially in charge of the ponies, was an army captain and of lower rank than the naval Captain Scott, but as a commissioned officer ate in the “wardroom” with the other gentlemen.

    Amundsen, who brought all his men home safely, was all but neglected by earlier British writers who found his success somehow unfair. Shackleton too, was neglected until recently, because of his unfortunate tendency to run a rather democratic expedition and to get all his men back home again home safely.

  2. Tom says:

    Didn’t Scott also take horses?

    I was just reading about Amundsen with my students. His real dream was to reach the North Pole but another Scott (an American, forget his first name) got there first so he decided to go for the South and raced Captain Scott for it (winning of course).

    Later in life he finally went to the North Pole, in a plane (another first) with his friend Umberto Nobile. Later on Nobile would be flying in this area and crash which would lead Scott to take up the job of finding his friend only to crash himself and die for his troubles. Nobile survived.

    • Deskarati says:

      Yes Scott did take horses (and motor sleds), but evidently they were not the best type for the terrain and presumably ended up as food. But after an ill fated exhibition where lots things went wrong (not all – he did get to the pole remember) he left us with these great words:

      “We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last … Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale, but surely, surely, a great rich country like ours will see that those who are dependent on us are properly provided for”

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