The Race To The South Pole.
The Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration is probably best remembered and recounted for its gruesome tragedies and not its glorious triumphs. The public outpouring of grief that followed the news of the deaths of Scott and his Polar Party, eclipsed the acclaim that Roald Amundsen had earned by not just becoming the first human to reach the South Pole, but to also survive and complete the effort, with an efficiency that has forever rendered the forlorn efforts of his rival, to be the subject of intense scrutiny. Scott and his four companions had also gallantly attained the Pole, but did so around 34 days after Amundsen, and all five men would die in wretched circumstances on their return journey.
Amundsen would later convey the details of his successful quest in his book The South Pole, but it was the contents of Scott’s expedition journal that had captured the publics imagination. In defeat, failure and death, Scott’s memory and acclaim was better served than those of the victorious Amundsen.
Amundsen first Antarctic venture was as first mate to Adrien de Gerlache, aboard the RV Belgica, on the Belgian Antarctic Expedition (1897–99), where he was among the first group ever to winter on the continent. In 1903 Amundsen led an expedition that would become the first to traverse the long sought after and fabled Northwest Passage, finally proving its existance, in the wake of countless failed and tragic crusades to do so.
The expedition spent two winters on the ice of northern Canada, where they acquired invaluable skills in Arctic survival from Inuit tribes, most notably the wearing of animal skins and the use of sled dogs.*
After this success Amundsen made plans to take an expedition to the North Pole, and borrowed the ship Fram, from Fridtjof Nansen. But in 1909, both Robert Peary and Frederick Cook made separate claims to have reached the North Pole, neither of which have ever been fully vindicated, but Amundsen, deeming the Pole conquered, set his sights on a new target – the South Pole.
He did so in the utmost of secrecy, and even Nansen knew nothing of his intentions when Amundsen set sail from Oslo on June 3rd 1910. It was only when the Fram arrived at Madeira, that Amundsen told his crew of their destination, and he sent a telegram to Scott, informing him that the Fram was proceeding south. The race had begun.
Amundsen arrived at the Bay Of Whales, on the Ross Ice Shelf, and set up his base camp, which he named Framheim, and quickly set about establishing his supply route. With depots laid at 80º, 81º and 82º south, a five man team set off for the South Pole, on 19th of October 1911, following one previous aborted attempt.
Whereas Scott would use a route pioneered by Shackleton on the Nimrod expedition, Amundsen’s route was literally a journey into the unknown. With four sleds and 52 dogs they made steady progress, and they discovered the Axel Heiberg Glacier, which they climbed in four days and arrived on the Polar Plateau on November 21st.
Amundsen and his team reached the South Pole on December 14th 1911, set up a camp which they called Polheim, in which they left a letter for Scott, to be delivered to the King of Norway, should they not survive the return trip.
As it transpired Amundsen and his men arrived safely back at Framheim base camp, on January 25th 1912, and were in Australia to publicly announce their achievement by March 7th, while Scott, Oates, Bowers and Wilson were still hundreds of miles out, on Antarctica’s icy Barrier, fighting for their lives, having already lost Edgar Evans.
The correlative ease with which Amundsen achieved success, and Scott befell such hardship and tragedy, scarcely merits comparison, if a dissertation of methods, preparedness and leadership is considered. Yet with a little more fortune Scott could have returned home, defeated yes, but in having reached the Pole, with a momentous achievement accomplished, and avoided the scrutiny his expedition has been subject to in latter years.
*The animal skins could deter cold even when wet, unlike the heavy woolen parkas worn by Scott and his men, and Amundsen’s use of dog teams gave him a real advantage over Scott who had opted otherwise, and used ponies to haul the sleds, with minimal use of dogs.
Source & Photographs – Wikipedia