Disappearance In Antarctica – The Pirlo Expedition

Olaf Pirlo was not the first man to disappear in Antarctica on a quest to reach the South Pole, but his attempt did have many unique elements, which had become necessary in order to capture the public imagination. Ever since Roald Amundsen reached the Pole in December 1911 and Scott and his team perished on their return journey having arrived there a month later, the South Pole had been considered well and truly conquered. For men who still yearned to take up the challenge and raise the funds to do so, there had to be some new slant to the journey, to afford it the title of some form of First.

There are many examples, from Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1914, when the veteran explorer aimed to be first to cross the entire continent by foot, from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea via the South Pole, to Maria Leijerstam who became the first person to cycle to the South Pole in 2013. In between there have been several other escapades, each unique in its title and overall aim, but perhaps none more tragic or indeed ambitious as that of the Pirlo Expedition in 1938.

Pirlo left Oslo in May 1938 and eventually reached Antarctica’s McMurdo Sound on August 4th of that year and established his base near the site of Scott’s Hut, which had been erected during the Terra Nova Expedition in 1910. From here he hoped to follow in the footsteps of Scott and successfully reach the South Pole, with a three man team, and the twist to the tale was that he planned to be the first man to arrive at the South Pole, drunk.

Alfe Geir - On return from the Pole.

Alfe Geir – On return from the Pole.

After establishing their supply route along the Great Barrier to the foot of the Beardmore Glacier, during the preceding months, the team left their base “in a state of utter sobriety and determination”* on November 8th 1938. They made excellent early progress, and even their ascent of the perilous Beardmore went without much incident, despite having to weather two ferocious blizzards in a four day period.
By the 29th of December 1938 Pirlo, Andersson, Geir and Jorunn were advancing across the Polar Plateau, and on January 1st 1939 they estimated a distance of 387 miles between them and their goal. Geir and Andersson were suffering from frostbite but spirits were high according to Jorunn’s diary, as the men set up camp on January 17th “so close to the Pole we could barely contain our excitement or indeed believe our luck.” The team were in fact only six miles from the Pole, and the plan now was ” ….to rest a while, before we can complete this thing.”

It was Pirlo who had tasked himself with arriving at the Pole in a state of utter inebriation, while his support team would remain sober. Rising early on the morning of January 18th, Pirlo began drinking from one of four bottles of vodka which had been retained for the purpose. Jorunn noted “Geir is getting anxious that we proceed as he has speculated a deterioration in the weather, but Olaf has said he is not yet ready, or indeed drunk enough.”
Shortly afterwards a blizzard raged across the Plateau and the men were stranded in their tent for the remainder of the day, where all four partook in drinking as they waited for the weather to abate. As night fell Jorunn noted, ” … Olaf has passed out, after hours of utter nonsensical rantings. …… indeed in an ideal state for the goal he has set himself, but alas for the weather. Perhaps tomorrow we can complete the journey.” On awakening the next morning Andersson noticed the tent flap was open and outside the weather appeared relatively moderate. It was while rousing the other men he noticed that Olaf was not present, and by his own admission, he later stated that he had felt no alarm, simply assuming Pirlo had ventured outside in readiness for the task ahead.

But no trace of 46 year old Olaf Pirlo was ever found again, despite the efforts of the three men to locate him. Because of the overnight blizzard no tracks of his movements were visible in the snow, and though they completed their journey to the Pole, in the vain hope that he had forged ahead alone, and they may meet him en route, they never found him or his body. It can only be speculated that he had awoken during the night and had to answer a call of nature. Had his hungover companions thought to search nearer their camp, rather than assume he had wandered afar, perhaps they may have located his body, which had no doubt been concealed by the heavy snowfall.

Prior to his attempt to be the first man to reach the South Pole whilst drunk, the expedition had stirred quite an interest in both the media and the public, and great agitation among experienced explorers and historians alike. For the latter it seemed their trepidations had been fully justified when news of the tragedy broke. Andersson, Geir and Jorunn did survive the gruelling return march and Andersson later had his badly frostbitten left foot amputated.

The last known photograph of Olaf Pirlo taken on the Polar Plateau.

The last known photograph of Olaf Pirlo taken on the Polar Plateau.

*The Pirlo Expedition – Death At The Pole, Alfhild Bjorg 1961- Page 153.

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