In the final few months of 1911, two separate expeditions departed their winter camps on the Ross Ice Shelf at the northern edge of our most forboding continent Antarctica. Both set a course due south, both readied themselves for the historic, monumental challenge ahead. The race to become the first humans to reach the South Pole had begun.
In just a matter of months, one of Earth’s final frontiers would be conquered with one of the teams returning home victorious, while the other would never make it back to their camp alive.
The story of the early 20th Century race to the south pole is a true old-fashioned swashbuckling adventure that combines unimaginable hardship with a ferocious drive to succeed at all costs. Long before helicopter rescues, GPS and modern equipment, this was a time of hardy pioneers and their epic journeys – a period known as the Heroic Age of Antarctic Explorers.
The South Pole
The South Pole is no doubt somewhere you’ve seen on TV plenty of times, but it remains one of the most utterly perplexing and foreboding locations on the planet. Antarctica is the highest, driest, windiest, coldest, and iciest continent by far, and with a total landmass of 14.2 million square km (5.5 million square miles) it’s around the same size as the entire United States – plus India – plus South Africa.
Around 95% to 98% of the continent is covered by snow and ice making trekking across it for weeks on end brutally hard going. And that’s before we’ve ever talked about temperature. During the winter months, temperatures in Antarctica can crash down to – 60C (-80F) and even during the relative heatwave of the summer months don’t expect things to get much past -26C (-14F). In short, if you’re not prepared, there is nowhere on Earth quite as inhospitable for human beings.
Our story today concerns two groups of intrepid explorers who essentially raced each other to the South Pole, but they were certainly not the first to try and by 1911 numerous countries around the world had already fixed their sights on reaching the South Pole first.
The idea of a large southern continent stretches back to antiquity with Terra Australis appearing on early maps used during the heyday of the Roman Empire. But before you get too excited, this didn’t mean that the Roman Legions stamped their mark on the frozen continent, but rather that geographers at the time correctly assumed that there must be a large southern expanse of land to counterbalance the abundance of land in the north.
It wasn’t until the 15th Century that brave explorers began inching further south and in 1675, an English merchant by the name of Anthony de la Roche – he did have a French father if that name doesn’t exactly sound very Anglo-Saxon to you – was blown off course during a voyage between Europe and South America and he and his crew became the first people to see land south of the Antarctic Convergence – an area of water encircling Antarctica where freezing water meets the relatively warmer waters of the Subantarctic.
Over the next two hundred years, ships crept ever closer to Antarctica. Captain James Cook circumnavigated it between 1772 and 1774, and on 7th February 1821, an American, John Davis, became the first person to set foot on this vast and mysterious continent. We should add a slight disclaimer here. It’s generally accepted that Davis was the first to land on Antarctica, but in truth, we can’t be 100% sure on that.
It wasn’t for another 74 years until we had our first undisputable landing on the frozen continent in 1895. Over the next 15 years, several expeditions from Britain, France, Belgium and Sweden slowly inched their way into the interior or surveyed the islands in the region. With public excitement growing, the race to be the first to reach the south pole was very much on.
In 1908, Ernest Shackleton’s Nimrod Expedition came agonisingly close when they were forced back while still 180.6 km (112.2 miles) from the south pole. This had been a privately funded expedition with limited resources that was hurried in its final preparatory stages. To the steely adventurers waiting in the wings, it became clear that a well-planned expedition with the right teams would likely lead to the conquering of the pole.
The two teams that departed south in the summer of 1911 had hugely contrasting fortunes on the endless expanse of snow and ice. One team came from Britain and was led by the indomitable Robert Falcon Scott, a man who had led the British National Antarctic Expedition between 1901 and 1904 and had trekked overland to a then-record 82°17′S.
The other team hailed from Norway and was led by thirty-eight-year-old Ronald Amundsen, who had been the first mate on the Belgian Antarctic Expedition between 1897 and 1899 and also among the six men to complete the first successful navigation of the Northwest Passage after a three-year voyage in 1906.
The two expeditions were led by two of the finest, most experienced Antarctic explorers at the time. But this was an age of intense rivalry that saw men pushing themselves to the very limit to achieve some of the planet’s final measurable exploratory achievements. This was a rivalry that would eventually see one man return home a hero, and cost the other his life, starving to death in a tent just 20 km (12.5 miles) from a resupply depot that would have almost certainly saved him, and his companion’s lives.
Amundsen’s South Pole expedition
In 1908, Ronald Amundsen announced that he would be embarking on a groundbreaking expedition – to the North Pole. The announcement was met with great interest and soon the Norwegian royal family and the government had chipped in to assist this historic attempt. Robert Falcon Scott was even kind enough to supply Amundsen with scientific instruments so that both groups could conduct the same experiments from opposite poles.
The next year, however, news reached Amundsen that two separate expeditions had already reached the North Pole. Exactly what came next is still up for debate, but what is certain is that Amundsen’s focus shifted from the north to the south pole. He kept this almost entirely secret and had not even informed his crew when they set sail for Madeira on 3rd June 1910.
Once on the Portuguese island in the Atlantic, his crew were told that they wouldn’t be turning north after all, but rather making the mammoth journey south to Antarctica.
Terra Nova Expedition
The ship Terra Nova set sail from Britain on 15th June 1910 with a crew of 65 onboard. Their route took them south with stops in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand before plotting a course for Antarctica. Unlike the Amundsen expedition, which appeared made for speed with the sole objective of reaching the southern pole quickly, the Terra Nova expedition placed a large emphasis on geological, magnetic and meteorology studies as well as further exploration of King Edward VII Land and Victoria Land.
Scott was in New Zealand when he was first informed that Amundsen was also heading south and it didn’t take long for newspapers to begin stirring the competition between the two. Scott for his part carefully avoided the term ‘race’ and insisted that the expedition’s scientific objectives would not be sacrificed to beat his Norweigen rival – whether that’s how he felt privately was quite another matter.
Amundsen had an advantage from the get-go, in that his base camp was 96 km (60 miles) closer to the pole than Scott’s camp which lay 648 km (402 miles) east of the Norwegian’s. Scott had chosen the western edge of Ross Ice Shelf for a base because it came with a rich area around it for further exploration and also it had been where his previous expedition had begun.
After arriving on 4th January 1911, Scott established his winter camp, Cape Evans, and a 15.2 metre × 7.6 metres (50 by 25 feet) prefabricated hut was erected and made livable by 18th January.
Amundsen on the other hand chose the Bay of Whales further east, which is the southernmost point a ship can get to the south pole, so it kind of made sense. His team arrived in the area on 14th January and by 27th, their winter camp and accompanying hut had also been erected.
Things got a little awkward for everybody involved on 3rd February when the two groups met. The Terra Nova was out scouting the area when it arrived in the Bay of Whales. Apparently, everything was cordial with Amundesen’s group inviting the crew of the Terra Nova for breakfast, an act that was reciprocated later in the day with lunch onboard the British ship.
Scott was not with the Terra Nova at the time with his crew passing on the information once they had returned to Cape Evans. Scott later wrote in his diary, with stiffest of upper lips,
“One thing only fixes itself in my mind. The proper, as well as the wiser, course, is for us to proceed exactly as though this had not happened. To go forward and do our best for the honour of our country without fear or panic.”
Both men were now fully aware of the intentions of the other. Scott may have been a little perturbed by Amunsden choosing a spot closer to the pole, while the Norweigan was said to be slightly put out to hear that Scott’s motorised transportation was performing well on the ice. These were both fine upstanding early 20th gentlemen so there would of course be no distasteful competitiveness, but no doubt the fear of losing must have haunted both men.
Before we go any further with the story, it’s important to highlight some fundamental differences between the two expeditions. Amundsen was placing all of his faith in sledges and 52 dogs, whereas Scott would be using a wide variety of animals and machines. Included with the British expedition were three motorised sledges, 19 ponies and a small group of dogs.
There was a much-discussed ‘British aversion’ to using dogs for this kind of expedition, born partly out of failures in the past but also that the British didn’t have the same kind of cultural knowledge needed to operate dogs like this in these kinds of conditions for a prolonged period. The British ponies would not be going all the way to the pole, but rather would help with initially depot drops along the way.
With winter creeping closer, both teams set about establishing resupply depots along the route that would allow them to carry smaller amounts. The Norwegians established considerably more depots than the British, containing 7,500 pounds (3,400 kg) of supplies, which included 3,000 pounds (1,400 kg) of seal meat and 180 Litres (40 gallons) of paraffin oil. It’s also worth noting that they went to considerably more effort in marking out where the depots lay.
Scott’s team laid out fewer depots which were also more spread out than their Norweigan rival’s. The ponies almost immediately proved to be a bad idea, while the motorised sledges couldn’t be used because of the weather. The largest depot, known as One Ton Depot, was even established 48 km (30 miles ) short of its intended location after the ponies began collapsing. Of the 8 that had departed on the depot missions, only one pony returned. The British expedition was off to a rocky start.
With the depots now established, there was little the two teams could do but ride out the brutal Antarctic winter and wait for spring.
Race to the Pole
On 8 September 1911, with temperatures creeping upwards, Amundsen had grown tired of waiting and after readying the sledges, dogs and equipment, he and his seven companions began heading south – but it was a false start that very nearly ended in tragedy.
After only four days and with temperatures reaching −56 °C (−69 °F), Amundsen was forced to concede that they had departed too early and that Antarctica was still very much in the grip of winter. The group backtracked haphazardly and only just made it back to camp safely. Almost a month later, on 19th October, the group once again prepared and set a course for the south pole.
Just under two weeks later, on 1st November, Scott and his party of 16 departed Cape Evans following a two-man team that had left seven days before on the motorised sledges. These sledges had got barely 80km (50 miles) before failing, leaving the two men to haul 336 kg (740 pounds) of supplies for the remaining 240 km (150 miles) to where they would rendezvous with the main party. Scott’s group was working in a relay system where groups would eventually peel off and return to camp. Eventually, only five men remained as they slogged slowly through the snow and ice, man-hauling their sledges towards the South Pole.
If there was any doubt over the usefulness of the dogs, the speed and relative ease in which Amundsen hurtled towards the pole put paid to it. His team built up a sizable lead over the British expedition and that grew to 34 days at its greatest. If this was a race, it was over before it had even begun.
Victory and Death
Amundsen and his men arrived at the south pole on 14th December 1911. The previous day there had been a nervy moment when a black object appeared in the distance, which the team thought could have been a British flag flying in the distance – but it was just some dog crap and a confusing mirage.
A Norwegian flag was planted firmly in the ground, along with a small tent – which they called the Polheim – while they named the polar area King Haakon VII’s Plateau. Amundsen later wrote in his diary,
“Never has a man achieved a goal so diametrically opposed to his wishes. The area around the North Pole—devil take it—had fascinated me since childhood, and now here I was at the South Pole. Could anything be more crazy?”
On 18th December, the team turned north and 99 days later, they arrived back at their winter camp after having travelled for an astonishing 3,440 km ( 2,137 miles).
It shows just how lopsided this race had been, that Scott and his four companions did not reach the South Pole until 17th January 1912 – a month after the Norwegians had left. Scott famously recorded in his diary,
“The Pole. Yes, but under very different circumstances from those expected … Great God! This is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority. Well, it is something to have got here.”
Disappointment perhaps isn’t enough of a word for how the five men must have felt when the Norweigan flag first appeared in the distance. Not long after arriving, the team turned for Cape Evans and over the next three weeks made excellent progress.
However, things soon began to unravel. The first to die was a man by the name of Edgar Evans who collapsed from exhaustion on 17th February. At this point, the group were still on schedule but a series of misfortunes would be disastrous for the British expedition. Firstly, a huge drop in temperature meant that dragging the sledges across the ice became increasingly difficult with Scott likening it to dragging a sledge through sand. Then there were the resupply dog runs – or lack of them.
The plan had been for a resupply mission to reach the One Ton Depot where food and supplies would be left – but it never arrived. The debate over why continues to this day and it’s not entirely clear whether this was down to individual mistakes – or dare I say it cowardice – or through miscommunication. In the end, they didn’t even make it to the One Ton Depot.
The final days of the Scott expedition are difficult to comprehend. With terrible weather and weakening bodies, the group slowly struggled forward. On 10th March, it became clear that no extra help was coming, and the group now seemed resigned to their fate. The second to die was Lawrence Oates who famously left the tent so as not to slow the party down further with the heartbreaking, yet now-iconic final words,
“I am just going outside and may be some time”
The 29th March saw Scott pen his final diary entry, in which he wrote,
We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far.
The point at which Scott and the three remaining men in his team died lay just 18km (11 miles) from the One Ton Depot where small amounts of food and supplies remained. Their bodies were discovered frozen inside their tent by a search party on 12th November and a cairn was built over it which stands to this day.
Telling the World
After arriving back at camp, Anundsen wasted no time before heading for New Zealand where news of his triumph could be relayed around the world. The British press, no doubt a little miffed that it hadn’t been their man, was generally positive but there were certainly grumblings about how the expedition had been kept secret until the last moment.
His glorious success was of course soon contrasted with the desperate news that the revered Captain Scott had perished while attempting the same journey. The British generally love their lovable, heroic failures, and in Scott, they had just that. It wasn’t until the 1970s when sentiment began to shift away from the heroic failure to begin examining the mistakes Scott and his team had made. While we can nitpick about individual orders and missteps, the truth is that Amundsen and his men were far better adapted to travelling with sledges and dogs for a prolonged period. Their superior cold-weather skills and knowledge were the main reasons they were the first to reach the South Pole and the death of Scott and his men must be attributed to poor expedition management.
Few expeditions throughout history can match the extraordinary struggle that took place during 1910 and 1911. The race to the South Pole remains one of the most astonishing feats of human exploration and endurance ever seen. Where the finest of margins between success and death began to blur in the great white expanse of Antarctica.