A happy Roald Amundsen just passed a dangerous ridge of ice up towards the South Pole Plateau, which he called Hell’s Gate, November 30, 1911.
It’s the early 20th century, the heroic age of Arctic exploration. Pretty much the whole world has been explored, contacted, settled and conquered by Western Nations at this point, save for the Polar Regions. Early expeditions to both the poles have failed.
There were a couple of famous Arctic explorers at the time, but these two are remembered for the race to their pole:
- The Norwegian Roald Amundsen, part of both the first crew to survive the Antarctic winter, and captain of the first crew to successfully navigate the Northwest Passage (the long sought after route from the Atlantic to the Pacific via the Canadian Arctic).
- The English Royal Navy Officer Robert F. Scott, who took part in the Discovery expedition from 1901-1904 together with Sir Ernest Shackleton.
Although Scott and Shackleton collaborated on the earlier discovery exploration where they reached as far as 82°S (they did not intend to reach the pole), they had a fallout over the future of the British Antarctic Program. Shackleton returned to Antarctica in 1907, ascending Mount Erebus (the highest mountain in Antarctica), and reached 88°S in 1909. Intending to surpass Shackleton’s achievements, Scott announced another British expedition for 1910, the Terra Nova Expedition. He knew he had limited time, as the French, Australians, Japanese and Germans were all planning expeditions to Antarctica (again, not all had in mind to reach the South Pole). The expedition soon made headlines, and was scheduled to leave in June 1910.
Meanwhile, famed Norwegian Arctic Explorer Amundsen had one dream: being the first man to reach the North Pole. Although Robert Peary claimed to have reached the Pole in 1906, this feat was and still seen as pretty dubious, so the Pole was still unclaimed. Starting from 1908, Amundsen was preparing for a voyage to the Arctic, he would go round Cape Horn (the Panama Canal had yet to be constructed), resupply in San Francisco, and reach the Arctic through the Bering Strait. However, in 1909, news reports reached him that first Frederick Cook (in April 1908) and Robert Peary again (in April 1909) had reached the North Pole, and this time the reports seemed genuine (the debate goes on whether they truly reached it, it is now widely believed that they did not reach the Pole, though Peary was 3 miles away). His expedition was rapidly running out of funds now the Pole was (thought to be) conquered, and Amundsen, still dreaming of claiming Polar glory as the first man to walk on the Pole, silently changed his plans.
Amundsen set sail as well in 1910, seemingly for the Canadian Arctic. However, at what turned out to be the only resupply port on the voyage, Madeira, Amundsen sent a telegram to Scott, whose ship was on it’s to the pole via Melbourne and Port Chalmers. “BEG TO INFORM YOU FRAM [Amundsen’s ship] PROCEEDING ANTARCTIC–AMUNDSEN”. Scott found himself in a race to the South Pole.
Both the Terra Nova and the Fram reached the Ross Ice shelf, the start of shortest route to the South Pole, in January 1911, although Amundsen reached the east side, starting from the Bay of Whales, while Scott reached the west side, starting from the McMurdo sound near Ross Island. Actually, an early expedition by the British Party without Scott encountered the Fram, (the British guessed Amundsen to start on the other side of Antarctica), further fueling the race (though the meeting was civil). Meanwhile, both teams had set up base camps near their landing positions, Framheim (House of Fram) for the Norwegians and Scott’s Hut at Cape Evans for the British. Because the oncoming winter eliminated any chance for advances towards the Pole, the last summer months were used to set up supply points towards increasing higher (or lower) latitudes. Winter set in around April 1911, and both parties returned to their base camps. It still was a race around the clock, both parties wanted to leave as soon as possible but where held back by the fierce winter conditions.
An early attempt by Amundsen with a party of 9 in September 1911 was aborted after the weather was still too fierce and because some men had been defiant, left with a party of 5 on the 20th of October 1911. Scott left on the 1st of November. The reason why Amundsen was keen on leaving early was because Scott possessed motor sledges, ponies and sled dogs, while Amundsen possessed only the latter. Actually, the motor sledges had been part of a supply mission, waiting for Scott’s actual mission the dogs. After reaching the intended supply latitude of 80°S, Scott would head south on the motor sledges while the dogs would return to Cape Evans and meet them at the same point later. Disaster struck early however, and the sledges were rendered incapable after a mere 50 miles of travelling. The men continued to haul to the intended location on foot, reaching it in two weeks, and catching up with Scott on the 21st of November 1911.
Although Scott and Shackleton were fighting, Scott still used the same route Shackleton took, across the Beardmore Glacier, giving him a tactical advantage. Amundsen was left to his own devices to find a route from the Bay of Whales. The race to the pole took the two parties across three regions: the Ross Ice Shelf, the Transantarctic Mountains, and the Antarctic Plateau. Scott hoped to reach the Transantarctic Mountains in the same timeframe as Shackleton, but was forced to move at a slower pace, and had to continue to rely on sled dogs and ponies, not on just the ponies as he had intended.
Scott reached the Transantarctic mountains on the 4th of December, but a sudden blizzard halted his advance until the 9th of December, forcing him and his crew to consume valuable rations. When the blizzard finally settled after five days, the ponies were about to succumb to the extreme Antarctic cold, and had to be put down. The new rations did not make up for the lost ones. Two days later, the dog teams were dismissed and sent back to Cape Evans, to help them on their return journey later. Scott’s party of 12 resumed the journey on foot up the glaciers of the Transantarctic, which they cleared in 9 days.
Meanwhile, Amundsen was racing towards the Transantarctic Mountains on the Ross Iceshelf. Amundsen’s journey across was not perfect as well, and almost was forced to return again when his expedition got stranded in heavy fog, and almost fell into a deep chasm in the ice. He did not have an earlier route to fall back on when he arrived at the Transantarctic Mountains on the 17th of November, and had to look for a route of his own once he arrived. The initial climbing to select a route was harder than expected, but they finally found a way upwards across the Axel Heiberg glacier. The ascent was steep and intensely demanding, but all but 7 dogs survived the ordeal.
At the top of the glacier, Amundsen was forced to kill 27 of the surviving 45 dogs for food and fur, both for the expedition and the dogs themselves. Although the fresh food was welcomed, it was still a rough time for the team to kill their beloved dogs. The food that they could not carry themselves on their way to the Pole was buried for the return journey. Worsening weather delayed their departure until the 25th of November, but the fog was still heavy, as they gradually moved on into the unknown white land.
The final leg of the journey was across the Transantarctic plateau, a massive sheet of ice some 3 to 4 miles thick. Scott, having faced troubles on the ascent on the Transantarctic Mountains, where they made a supply point on the 20th of December, and moved on towards their goal, to claim the Pole for King and Empire. Two days later, four men were also ordered to return to base. Scott assembled his final Polar crew of five on the 3rd of January 1912 at 87°S, while the rest of the crew was to help them on their return mission. The decision to have 5 men go on proved to be a determining factor later on, as initial plans were designed for four men, further diminishing scarce rations. The pole became ever closer.
Amundsen broke the Southernmost reached distance of 88°S on the 8th of December, and continued onwards with his final push, constantly vigilant for signs of Scott. On the 14th of December, 1911, around 3 pm, they reached their target: The South Pole. Amundsen and his party became the very first to reach the absolute South of the world, well before Scott had even cleared the Transantarctic Mountains. “Never has a man achieved a goal so diametrically opposed to his wishes. The area around the North Pole—devil take it—had fascinated me since childhood, and now here I was at the South Pole. Could anything be more crazy?”
The next three days were spent determining the exact location of the South Pole. They knew they reached the approximate area, but not the exact area. Three member of his party went in different directions and tried to “circle” the pole, planting markers at various distances, intended to be used as an instrument for calculation, and as a beacon for Scott. Meanwhile, Amundsen was using a sextant to make calculations of the angle of the sun in the sky, and determined the true pole to be just 3 miles away from them, just 1 mile short of the actual pole. They set up camp here on the final “day”, and left the reserve tent, again as a beacon for Scott, containing both a letter to Scott, congratulating him on reaching the pole as well, and to King Haakon VII, king of Norway, if Amundsen and his party were to perish on the return to the Fram.
Setback by all his problems, Scott pushed on and on towards the pole. They did not reach 88°S until the 9th of January. The crew was very setback when they discovered Amundsens beacons on the 16th of January, and finally made it to the Pole on the 17th. Although he clearly had been defeated, he still hoped to be the first one to announce victory of the conquest of the pole. “The Pole. Yes, but under very different circumstances from those expected … Great God! This is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority. Well, it is something to have got here […] Now for a desperate struggle to get the news through first. I wonder if we can do it.”
Amundsen continued meanwhile on his way home, the return journey going relatively smooth. He reached the supply point of dead dogs, nicknamed “the Butcher’s Shop”, on January 4th, and reached the supply point at the bottom of the Axel Heiberg on the 7th. Finally, on the 27th, after a journey of 99 days and nearly 3600 miles, he and his party reached their base camp – Framheim! The Fram had already returned, and was ready to take them of Antarctica towards the safer haven of Howard, Australia, which they reached on March 7th, where Amundsen announced his victory to the world. He was congratulated by many, including President Theodore Roosevelt, King George V and of course King Haakon VII, but also by his own family.
The Antarctic might be beautiful, but it is no fairytale world for the unprepared. And poor Scott was very unprepared. The conditions on his journey back from the Pole, which was already disaster struck on the way to the pole, grew only worse. Health and morale fell rapidly among the members of the party, who were struck with scurvy and frostbite amongst other injuries. They began their descent of the Beardmore Glacier on February 7th, but as they had difficulty finding a depot near the base of the Glacier, one of his crew members, Edgar Evans, who was too badly injured due to frostbitten hands, collapsed. He died on the 17th. It only got worse from here.
The relief dogs did not arrive as Scott had tried to arrange. As they dragged themselves along across the barren landscape of the Ross Ice Shelf, the temperatures started to drop. The Antarctic summer was coming to a close, winter was coming, and still no signs of any dog sleds. Due to faulty engineering, the much needed fuel to evaporate ice found into drinkable water found at a supply point on the 2nd of March ran short, and their food supply was running out as well. The same problems arose on a supply point they found on the 9th of March. On the 17th march, Lawrence Oates, another party member, stepped outside Scott’s tent, stating “I am just going outside and I may be some time.” His health was already failing, and he sacrificed himself for the surviving three men.
They were caught in a storm on the 20th of March 11 miles away from their next supply point, but they were caught in a blizzard, and could not advance, no matter how hard they tried. Their supplies were running short. On the 29th of March, 1912, Scott noted in his diary: “Every day we have been ready to start for our depot 11 miles away, but outside the door of the tent it remains a scene of whirling drift. I do not think we can hope for any better things now. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity but I do not think I can write more. R. Scott. For God’s sake look after our people.” All three probably died the same day.
Various rescue missions were launched from Cape Evans, but most of them failed. Only Lt. Evans, one of the final eight to be sent back to Cape Evans, survived the Antarctic Cold after being rescued by the other two to be sent away before the final Stretch, who had returned to cape Evans earlier.
Because no sight of Scott had yet to be seen, the whole crew wintered at Cape Evans after a final unsuccessful rescue mission on the 30th of March. The body of Scott and his two party members were only discovered on the 12th of November 1912.
Summary: Scott and Amundsen race to the Pole, Amundsen wins, Scott dies a very unfortunate cold death.
*Scott landed at what is now called McMurdo station and/or Scott Base (The US and Kiwi bases). Both of which are technically on an island, but due to the annual temperatures there the ocean remains mostly frozen through out the year. Only during the ‘hottest’ few months does the sea ice start to break up (some years it goes away completely, others not). During the transition time fantastic structures called ‘pressure ridges’ form. They can be really massive and have wild shapes.. This is another cool shape.
(*Scott’s expedition was documented on film and released in 1924: “The Great White Silence”. A clip with a shot of the cave in this photograph from the outside is at 0:55)