Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Race to the South Pole - 100 Years Ago Today

File:Scott's party at the South Pole.jpg
One hundred years ago today, the Norwegian Roald Amundsen and four others in his team were the first explorers to reach the South Pole. A British party led by Robert Falcon Scott, who had made a previous, but unsuccessful, attempt to reach the Pole, was not far behind, and arrived a month later. However, whereas the Norwegian party returned home, Scott’s party all died from cold and hunger. Scott’s diary of his last expedition was first published in 1913, but Amundsen’s diary has only just recently been published in English for the first time.

Amundsen was born in 1872 to a family of Norwegian shipowners and captains in Borge, 80km or so south of Oslo. Initially, he chose to study medicine at the urging of his mother, though gave up at the age of 21 when she died. Having long been inspired by the great Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen (see Siberian driftwood cannot lie), he sold his medical books and took work as ordinary seaman. By 1895, he had obtained his papers as mate, and by 1900 his master’s license. His first experience of the polar regions came in the late 1890s on a Belgian expedition with Adrien de Gerlache.

In 1903, Amundsen led the first expedition to successfully traverse Canada’s Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, though the team had to over-winter three times before returning home in 1906. Significantly, during this time, Amundsen learned various skills from the native Eskimos, such as the use of sledge dogs and the wearing of animal skins.

Amundsen planned next to go to the North Pole, but on hearing in 1909 that others had already claimed that prize, he secretly decided to reorganise his forthcoming expedition - to Antartica. Employing the Fram, the same vessel used by Fridtjof Nansen, Amundsen and his team arrived at the Bay of Whales in January 1911, and made a base camp. Five of them set off on 20 October using skis, four sledges, 52 dogs, and employing animal skins, rather than heavy wool, for clothing. Less than two months later, they were the first to reach the Geographic South Pole. Scott, meanwhile, with four colleagues reached the Pole five weeks later, and were bitterly disappointed to have lost the race. All five of them died on the return journey. So tragic was their fate, indeed, that their story has become far more famous that Amundsen’s

After his venture in Antartica, Amundsen developed a successful shipping business, and set out on more ventures using a new vessel, Maud. An expedition, starting in 1918, during which he planed to freeze the Maud in the polar ice cap and drift towards the North Pole (as Nansen had done with the Fram) proved troublesome, costly and ultimately unsuccessful.

Subsequently, Amundsen focused on air travel to reach the Pole. After a promising effort using flying boats, he, and 15 others (including the Italian aeronautical engineer Umberto Nobile), succeeded in flying an airship from Spitsbergen to Alaska in two days, crossing the Pole, in May 1926. However, the last years of Amundsen’s life were embittered by disputes over credit for the flight. He died in 1928 while on a mission to rescue Nobile who had crashed an airship returning from the North Pole.

Wikipedia and the Fram Museum website have more biographical information. And The International Journal of Scientific History has a briefing on the claim that Amundsen and his colleague Oscar Wisting were not only first to the South Pole, but also to the North Pole.

Scott’s diary of his ill-fated expedition was published (by Smith, Elder & Co) as early as 1913, in the first volume of Scott’s Last Expedition. This is freely available at Internet Archive. However, it was not until last year (2010) that Amundsen’s diary of his South Pole expedition was published in English, thanks to Roland Huntford. According to the publisher Continuum, Huntford is ‘the world’s foremost authority on the polar expeditions and their protagonists’. His book - Race for the South Pole: The Expedition Diaries of Scott and Amundsen - contains Amundsen’s diary entries alongside those of Scott, and also Olav Bjaaland, one of Amundsen’s colleagues.

‘Cutting through the welter of controversy to the events at the heart of the story,’ Continuum says, ‘Huntford weaves the narrative from the protagonists’ accounts of their own fate. What emerges is a whole new understanding of what really happened on the ice and the definitive account of the Race for the South Pole.’

Here are entries from both Amundsen’s and Scott’s diaries concerning their arrivals at the South Pole. The one by Amundsen is taken from Huntford’s book, while the Scott entries are taken from the 1913 publication. It is worth noting, though, that the British Library website has made available, since last year, photographs of Scott’s original 1911 Antarctic diary.

By mistake, Amundsen’s calender was not put back when the Fram crossed the International Date Line, and when the mistake was discovered Amundsen decided it would be too difficult to revise all the diary and log entries, and so he kept the wrong calendar dates going - hence he actually arrived at the Pole on the 14th, even though his diary dates it the 15th. Håkon VII was King of Norway at the time.

14 December 1911, Roald Amundsen
‘Thursday 15 Decbr.
So we arrived, and were able to raise our flag at the geographical South Pole - King Håkon VII’s Vidda. Thanks be to God! The time was 3pm when this happened. The weather was of the best kind when we set off this morning, but at 10am, it clouded over and hid the sun. Fresh breeze from the SE. The skiing has been partly good, partly bad. The plain - King H VII’s Vidda - has had the same appearance - quite falt and without what one might call sastrugi. The sun reappeared in the afternoon, and now we much go out and take a midnight observation. Naturally we are not exactly at the point called 90°, but after all our excellent observations and dead reckoning we must be very close. We arrived here with three sledges and 17 dogs. HH put one down just after arrival. ‘Hlege’ was worn out. Tomorrow we will go out in three directions to circle the area round the Pole. We have had our celebratory meal - a little piece of seal meat each. We leave here the day after tomorrow with two sledges. The third sledge will be left here. Likewise we will leave a little three man tent (Rønne) with the Norwegian flag and a pennant marked Fram.’

16 January 1912, Scott
‘[. . .] Half an hour later he detected a black speck ahead. Soon we knew that this could not be a natural snow feature. We marched on, found that it was a black flag tied to a sledge bearer; near by the remains of a camp; sledge tracks and ski tracks going and coming and the clear trace of dogs’ paws - many dogs. This told us the whole story. The Norwegians have forestalled us and are first at the Pole. It is a terrible disappointment, and I am very sorry for my loyal com- panions. Many thoughts come and much discussion have we had. To-morrow we must march on to the Pole and then hasten home with all the speed we can compass. All the day dreams must go; it will be a wearisome return. [. . .]’

17 January 1912, Scott
‘Camp 69. T. -22° at start. Night - 21°. The POLE. Yes, but under very different circumstances from those expected. We have had a horrible day - add to our disappointment a head wind 4 to 5, with a temperature -22°, and companions labouring on with cold feet and hands.

We started at 7.30, none of us having slept much after the shock of our discovery. We followed the Norwegian sledge tracks for some way; as far as we make out there are only two men. In about three miles we passed two small cairns. Then the weather overcast, and the tracks being increasingly drifted up and obviously going too far to the west, we decided to make straight for the Pole according to our calculations. At 12.30 Evans had such cold hands we camped for lunch - an excellent ‘week-end one.’ We had marched 7.4 miles. Lat. sight gave 89° S3’ 37”. We started out and did 6 1/2 miles due south. To-night little Bowers is laying himself out to get sights in terrible difficult circumstances; the wind is blowing hard, T. -21°, and there is that curious damp, cold feeling in the air which chills one to the bone in no time. We have been descending again, I think, but there looks to be a rise ahead; otherwise there is very little that is different from the awful monotony of past days. 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, and the wind may be our friend to-morrow. We have had a fat Polar hoosh in spite of our chagrin, and feel comfortable inside - added a small stick of chocolate and the queer taste of a cigarette brought by Wilson. Now for the run home and a desperate struggle. I wonder if we can do it.’

Posted by Paul K Lyons

Amundsen himself died on June 18, 1928, while flying on a rescue mission in the Barents Sea. Unlike Scott, Amundsen’s body was never found.

But today is Amundsen’s day, and history is long overdue in saluting the achievements of this consummate explorer.

One hundred years ago and today -


Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg in Antarctica on Monday for the centennial of Amundsen's expedition.

Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and employees p... - / AFP/Getty Images

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