When Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen decided that he wanted to lead the first successful expedition to the South Pole, he didn’t tell many people what he had in mind. After all, he was already in the middle of a fundraising campaign, and the money was supposed to go toward a journey to the North Pole. But Amundsen lost interest in his original plans when two Americans (Frederick Cook and Robert Peary) announced that they had separately reached the northernmost point of the planet.
Quietly, Amundsen began making new arrangements, drawing from his previous experiences in Antarctica. He adopted more than 100 sled dogs, mortgaged his house to get the rest of the money he needed, and told his ship officers what he had in mind.
The change in plans meant that Amundsen would have to race a British expedition — sailing on the Terra Nova, under Robert Falcon Scott’s command — to the South Pole. But Amundsen waited until September 1910, weeks after his own ship had left Norway, to tell his crew where they were actually going and to telegram the news to Scott. It was a controversial move, but whether the world liked it or not, the race to the South Pole had begun.
In January 1911, a large schooner sailed into a natural harbor in Antarctica and anchored itself to the ice. There was nowhere left for the ship to go. It had reached the Bay of Whales, the world’s southernmost point of open ocean.
Crewed by an expedition from Norway, the ship was called the Fram (after the Norwegian word for “forward”). It had been the men’s home for several months as they sailed toward Antarctica, but now that they had arrived, it was time to build a semi-permanent base. After all, the Fram expedition had only just begun — its members still needed to reach the South Pole, located hundreds of miles away at 90°S. Under Captain Roald Amundsen’s direction, the crew began constructing Framheim (“home of the Fram”) by digging rooms out of ice, raising tents, and creating storehouses of fuel and food.
In early February, another ship cruised into the bay. It was the Terra Nova, belonging to an English group that was racing the Fram expedition to the South Pole. The ship was nearly empty, as most of its members had gone ashore elsewhere, sending the Terra Nova onward for additional scouting. The explorers from the two expeditions met up, greeted each other politely, and even compared tactics for their journeys. Although the English were impressed with the Norwegians’ dogs, Amundsen worried that the Brits’ motorized sleds would guarantee them an earlier arrival to the Pole.
Not long after the Terra Nova’s brief visit to the Bay of Whales, Amundsen’s expedition split into two parties. About half of the explorers left on the Fram, planning to conduct research in the Southern Ocean, while the other half remained behind at Framheim, intent on reaching the South Pole. Amundsen, of course, belonged to the latter group. He didn’t expect to set eyes again on the Fram for months, and he knew that, if he perished, he’d never see it again.
To prepare for the push to the South Pole, the Framheim group began building depots along their intended route. By establishing these supply banks at 80°S, 81°S, and 82°S, Amundsen hoped that his explorers wouldn’t have to carry as much paraffin oil or seal meat. But dropping the supplies took quite a while. Even with dogs pulling the sleds, it took weeks to set up the depots and build the snow cairns that marked the explorers’ official route.
Before long, the seasons changed. In the constant darkness of the Antarctic winter, the men endured four months of isolation, eating meals made from seal meat and preserved berries, trying to remember why they had ventured to Antarctica in the first place.
Despite the conditions, Amundsen did everything he could to prevent depression, disillusionment, and boredom. He had once spent more than a year in an icebound ship trapped elsewhere in Antarctica, and he knew that staying busy would help his crew make it through the long months. That winter passed by in sled repairs, food preparation, and equipment improvement.
“We are all adventurers here, I suppose, and wild doings in wild countries appeal to us as nothing else could do. It is good to know that there remain wild corners of this dreadfully civilised world.” — Robert Falcon Scott, leader of the Terra Nova expedition
When the sun rose in late August, Amundsen was all too eager to get moving. He waited until early September for the temperatures to creep a little higher, then rashly led his team on a near-disastrous attempt to reach the South Pole. Before long, frostbite had set in over the sled dogs’ paws and the men’s feet, and several dogs had even frozen to death. Finally, Amundsen realized he needed to turn the expedition around. Without waiting to check on the others, he immediately set course for Framheim, his own sled arriving hours before anyone else made it back to camp. The men were furious with Amundsen, who didn’t seem to realize how badly he had treated his team members.
The false start set the men back quite a bit, so they didn’t make another attempt until October 19. Venturing out with 52 dogs, five men, and four sleds, they knew it would take weeks to reach the South Pole, but they also knew that this was their only shot. They pressed forward, building snow cairns at three-mile intervals, skirting deadly crevasses, and giving names like “Devil’s Ballroom” to uncharted territory.
Although the journey wasn’t easy, it was less eventful than most of their contemporaries would have expected. For much of the route, the men followed accounts that had been written during previous attempts to reach the South Pole. When they needed to forge their own path, they spent a few days surveying the land before continuing their journey.
After the explorers crossed 88°23’ S (the southernmost latitude that any previous expedition had reached), they kept a sharp eye out for signs of human activity. After all, they knew that Scott’s team was also driving through the bleak, blustery wilderness, hell-bent on reaching the South Pole before they did.
But they never saw signs of another group. On December 14, 1911, Amundsen’s team arrived in the general vicinity of the South Pole, then spent three days skiing throughout the area, trying to calculate the South Pole’s precise location.
Finally, the five explorers pitched a tent — Polheim, or “home at the Pole” — at 90°S. They ditched a few supplies and left a note for Scott to deliver to the Norwegian king, in case Amundsen’s team didn’t make it home safely.
In the heat of competition and in the face of danger, they had become the first people to reach the South Pole.
After leaving the South Pole, Amundsen and his team enjoyed a safe return to Framheim. The Fram sailed into the Bay of Whales shortly after the explorers made it back, its crew having spent the intermittent months gathering important data about the Southern Ocean. Once reunited, both halves of the expedition set sail for Tasmania, where they announced their victory and received congratulations from several world leaders.
Scott and his team made it to the South Pole just over a month later, arriving on January 17, 1912. They found Polheim, and although they were not the first people to reach the site, they had still achieved a considerable victory.
Sadly, Scott and his polar explorers perished on the return journey. They succumbed to cold and starvation just a few miles from one of their own depots, but were lauded as heroes by the British press.
Today, the race to the South Pole remains one of the most controversial expeditions in modern history. Amundsen’s unpopular decisions and selfish leadership, and Scott’s underwhelming preparation, have been justifiably criticized by millions of people from nations around the world.
Sometimes, history leaves no right answers and no real winners. This just might be one of those instances.