The Nimrod Expedition (1907 – 1909).
How the loss of Shackleton’s Socks changed the course of Antarctic History
On December 6th, 1908, as Ernest Shackleton, Frank Wild, Eric Marshall and Jameson Adams scaled Antarctica’s Beardmore Glacier; Socks plummeted to his death, lost to one of the many crevasses that fractured the pathway to the polar plateau. He was the last to die, of the four ponies that had started the southern journey. Many of the unfortunate beasts had perished in Antarctica prior to the loss of Socks, and many more would die on subsequent expeditions, but the death of this particular pony would have ramifications that reverberate to this very day.
With each step, each mile and each expedition, the explorers of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration, gradually unravelled the enigmas, of the mysterious white continent. Between the years 1902 and 1911, Antarctica was considered the last great prize in exploration worth striving for. To garner support, and more importantly funding, each expedition sailed with the promise of scientific discovery, but at the heart of all quests was the ambition to be first to stand at the South Pole.
In 1901, Robert Falcon Scott’s DiscoveryExpedition, was the first to set off for Antarctica, with the intention of a ‘southern journey’. This was the term the explorers had coined for an assault on the South Pole. Scott’s effort commenced on November 2nd, 1902 and he took with him Third Officer, Ernest Shackleton, the expedition’s junior doctor and zoologist, Edward Wilson, and a party of sled dogs.
The course of their intended route to the pole can be broken down into three basic sections. A journey of roughly 450 miles, across the Great Ice Barrier was the first obstacle, and though they knew not what lay beyond, once completed, the explorers would find themselves at the foot of the Beardmore Glacier. The crevasse ridden glacier was a 120 mile expanse that rose 7,200 feet, to the polar plateau, which was the last section of the journey. From here, a trek of over 300 miles separated the men from their goal. Continue Reading →
On the Nimrod Expedition (1907-1909), Shackleton, Wild, Adams and Marshall had reached a new Furthest South record at latitude 82°17′S, on January 9th 1909, before electing to abandon their quest, 97 miles from the South Pole.
Shackleton had astutely surmised that he and his team were capable of reaching the Pole, but would not have the provisions to survive the return trip. As it transpired Shackleton and Wild were extremely fortunate to make it back to Hut Point, on February 28th 1911, the day before their ship Nimrod was due to leave Antarctica. The departure was delayed, and rescue was raised for Marshall who had collapsed, around 38 miles from the hut, and Adams who had remained behind to care for him.
Despite falling short of actually reaching the South Pole, Shackleton received much acclaim and recognition for his brave effort, and he had pioneered the route from the Barrier to the Polar Plateau, via the Beardmore Glacier.
This seemed to be the catalyst for Scott’s decision to return to Antarctica with his Terra Nova Expedition (1910-1913), and he opted to follow in Shackleton’s footsteps, treading the same route, southwards, towards the Pole, and indeed by using ponies as a means of hauling supplies, just as the Irishman had.
Scott’s assault on the South Pole was finally set in motion on October 24th 1911, when the Motor Party rolled out of Cape Evans with two motorised sledges, which carried vast quantities of supplies. On November 1st, Scott and the pony party would follow in their tracks, and the two groups were scheduled to meet beyond One Ton depot, at latitude 80° 30′ S.
Meanwhile Roald Amundsen in his desperation to beat his rival Scott, to the accolade, had set off on from his base Framheim on September 8th, but the desperate, freezing conditions forced him into an inglorious retreat. The temperature had plummeted to -56º C.
Amundsen had decided to pioneer his own route south, from his base in the Bay of Whales, and he would reach the Plateau by being the fist to scale the Axel Heiberg Glacier. Crucially, in terms of the ‘race’ Amundsen had elected to use dog teams instead of ponies, for hauling the sledge loads, and he did so with utter proficiency.
The Last Place On Earth
A Central Television Production, 1985
The story itself is long over a century old, and this television production has notched three decades since its first airing. This is the story of Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition, which was well under way, and southward bound, before Roald Amundsen announced his intention to beat them to the prize, and Scott suddenly found himself a contender, as well as an expedition leader. But most of all it is the tale of two groups of brave men who had ventured into the realm of the unknown, to claim the last place unknown to man – the South Pole.
The Last Place on Earth is a 1985 Central Television seven part serial, written by Trevor Griffiths based on the book Scott and Amundsen by Roland Huntford. The book is an exploration of the expeditions of Captain Robert F. Scott (played by Martin Shaw) and his Norwegian rival in polar exploration, Roald Amundsen (played by Sverre Anker Ousdal) in their attempts to reach the South Pole.
The series ran for seven episodes and starred a wide range of UK and Norwegian character actors as well as featuring some famous names, such as Max von Sydow, Richard Wilson, Sylvester McCoy, Brian Dennehy, and Pat Roach. It also featured performances early in their careers by Bill Nighy and Hugh Grant.
Subsequently Huntford’s book was republished under the same name. The book put forth the point of view that Amundsen’s success in reaching the South Pole was abetted by much superior planning, whereas errors by Scott (notably including the reliance on man-hauling instead of sled dogs) ultimately resulted in the death of him and his companions.
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.