The Race To The South Pole

The competition in the early 20th century still stands as a symbol of the harrowing nature of polar exploration.

European and American explorers had attempted to reach the South Pole since British Capt. Robert Falcon Scott's expedition of 1904. Scott, along with fellow Antarctic explorers Ernest Shackleton and Edward Wilson, came within 660 kilometres of the pole, but turned back due to weather and inadequate supplies.

Shackleton and Scott were determined to reach the pole. Scott worked with scientists, intent on using the best techniques to gather data and collect samples.

Shackleton also conducted scientific surveys, although his expeditions were more narrowly focused on reaching the South Pole. He came within 160 kilometres of the pole in 1907, but again had to turn back due to weather.

Scott gathered public support and public funding for his 1910 Terra Nova expedition. He secured provisions and scientific equipment. In addition to the sailors and scientists on his team, the Terra Nova expedition also included tourists – guests who helped finance the voyage in exchange for taking part in it.

On the way to Antarctica, the Terra Nova expedition stopped in Australia to take on final supplies. Here, Scott received a surprising telegram from Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen: "Beg leave to inform you Fram [Amundsen's ship] proceeding Antarctic."


[Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott and his group – Creative Commons]

Amundsen was apparently racing for the pole, ahead of Scott, but had kept all preparation secret. His initial ambition, to be the first to reach the North Pole, had been thwarted by American explorers Frederick Cook and Robert Peary, both of whom claimed to reach the North Pole first. (Both claims are now disputed, and Amundsen's flight over the North Pole is generally recognised as the first verified journey there.)

The Terra Nova and Fram expeditions arrived in Antarctica about the same time, in the middle of the Antarctic summer (January). They set up base camps about 640 kilometres apart. As they proceeded south, both expeditions established resupply depots with supplies for their return journey. While Scott's team stuck to a route forged by Shackleton years earlier, Amundsen took a new route.

Scott proceeded with scientific and expeditionary equipment hauled by dogs, ponies, and motor sledges. The motorized equipment soon broke down, and the ponies could not adapt to the harsh Antarctic climate. Even the sled dogs became weary. All the ponies died, and most members of the expedition turned back. Only four men from the Terra Nova expedition (including Scott's friend Wilson) proceeded with Scott to the pole.

Amundsen travelled by dog sled, with a team of explorers, skiers, and mushers. The foresight and navigation paid off: Amundsen reached the pole in December 1911. He called the camp Polheim, and the entire Fram expedition successfully returned to their resupply depots, ship, and Norway.


[The routes to the South Pole taken by Scott (green) and Amundsen (red) – Creative Commons]

More than a month later, Scott reached the South Pole, only to be met by Amundsen's camp – he had left a tent, equipment, and supplies for Scott, as well as a note for the King of Norway to be delivered if the Fram expedition failed to make it back.

Disheartened, Scott's team slowly headed back north. They faced colder temperatures and harsher weather than Amundsen's team. They had fewer supplies. Suffering from hunger, hypothermia, and frostbite, all members of Scott's South Pole expedition died fewer than 18 kilometres from a resupply depot.

American explorer Richard E. Byrd became the first person to fly over the South Pole, in 1926, and the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station was established thirty years later.

However, the next overland expedition to the South Pole was not made until 1958, more than 40 years after Amundsen and Scott's deadly race.

The 1958 expedition was led by legendary New Zealand mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary, who had become the first person to scale Mount Everest in 1953.

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