On 14 December 1911, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and his team became the first people to reach the South Pole. They beat Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s British expedition by over a month. One hundred years later and anniversary celebrations included Jens Stoltenberg, the Norwegian prime minister, unveiling an ice sculpture of the man at the south pole’s Amundsen-Scott scientific base.
It was to take several months for news of Amundsen’s success to reach Europe. Confirmation came at the beginning of March 1912 when his ship, the Fram, arrived at Hobart, Tasmania. On 10 March, the Manchester Guardian congratulated the Norwegian and, rather grudgingly, said: “We shall not grudge Amundsen his great success, which none but an explorer of great courage and resolution could win, but we look forward also with keen expectation to the solution of the questions which his success has raised.”
Amundsen Becomes First to Reach South Pole, December 14, 1911
Under the command of Roald Amundsen, the South Pole was discovered 100 years ago.
One hundred years ago the South Pole was reached by a party of Norwegian explorers under the command of Roald Amundsen. The existence of the pole had been known, but the inhospitable landscape presented a barrier until Amundsen’s party made the dangerous trek across ice and snow to stand at the geographical South Pole on this day a century ago.
One of Amundsen’s competitors, Robert Falcon Scott and his party, achieved a different kind of fame: they arrived on January 17, 1912 to find they were second in the race to fame, and they perished on their way back north.
News of Amundsen’s achievement was telegraphed to the world on March 7, 1912, on his return to Hobart, Australia.
The Discovery of the South Pole
It is much too early to give any critical account of Capt. Roald Amundsen’s achievement. Many weeks must elapse before we are in complete possession of all his data. Yet even the laconic account, which he has cabled to the press, throws a flood of light on the mystery of Antarctic geography. Amundsen seems to have collected enough evidence to substantiate the theory that the great chain of mountains which extends almost uninterruptedly from Alaska to Patagonia finds its continuation in a ridge connecting Victoria Land and King Edward VII Land, and which, in honor of his queen, he has named “Queen Maude’s Range.”
The ice barrier, which had proved for a century and a half a formidable obstacle to Antarctic exploration, is found to terminate in a bay, lying between the southeast mountain range running from South Victoria Land and a range which is probably a continuation of King Edward the VII Land and which extends in a southwesterly direction. Contrary to his original plan, Amundsen despatched one of his officers, Lieut. Prestud, to survey the Bay of Whales and the great ice barrier and to explore King Edward VII Land, of which practically nothing is known. No doubt the spur of competition played its part in unfolding the secrets of the last unexplored frigid region of the earth.
The Race to the South Pole
Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian explorer who in 1898 was part of the first expedition to winter in Antarctica and in 1903 became the first man to sail through the Northwest Passage, had been planning an expedition to the North Pole in September 1910, but he lost interest when he heard that Americans Robert Peary and Frederick Cook had each achieved the feat in April 1909.
Amundsen secretly began planning to travel to the South Pole instead. In October, he sent a telegram notifying British explorer Robert Falcon Scott, who was a preparing a South Pole exploration, of his intentions. “Beg leave inform you proceeding Antarctic. Amundsen,” the telegram read.
Thus began the race to the South Pole. Each party arrived in Antarctica in January 1911; Scott established base camp at McMurdo Sound, while Amundsen set up his camp, called Framheim, at the Bay of Whales on the Ross Ice Shelf, located 60 miles closer to the pole.
The two parties prepared for the journey to the pole by making expeditions south and establishing supply depots along their intended paths. The Amundsen party, which relied on sled dogs, reached farther south than the Scott party, whose Siberian ponies were less equipped for the conditions.
Amundsen set off for the pole with seven men in September, the start of the Antarctic spring. Just days into their trip, the weather turned cold, and they retreated back to Framheim. Hjalmer Johansen criticized Amundsen’s leadership and was expelled from the traveling party; the humiliated Johansen would later commit suicide upon his return to Norway.
Amundsen began his second push for the pole on Oct. 20, accompanied by four men and more than 50 dogs. Scott and his 13 men set off from their camp on Nov. 1 with dogs, ponies and motor sledges.
The Scott party was slowed by many setbacks: the motor sledges did not work reliably in the cold and the ponies could not manage the journey. The explorers had to abandon the sledges and they eventually killed all the ponies for food.
Traveling much lighter, the Amundsen team had few difficulties. On the afternoon of Dec. 14, the five explorers—Amundsen, Helmer Hanssen, Olav Bjaaland, Sverre Hassel and Oscar Wisting—became the first men to ever reach the South Pole.
Amundsen later wrote: “After we had halted we collected and congratulated each other. … After this we proceeded to the greatest and most solemn act of the whole journey—the planting of our flag. … I had determined that the act of planting it—the historic event—should be equally divided among us all. It was not for one man to do this; it was for all who had staked their lives in the struggle, and held together through thick and thin.” Bjaaland took pictures of his four fellow explorers as they posed near the flag. Before the group left the pole on Dec. 16, Amundsen left for Scott supplies and a note asking him to tell Norwegian King Haakon VII of his accomplishment. The group arrived safely back at Framheim on Jan. 25, 99 days and 1,860 miles after their departure.
Scott, meanwhile, did not reach the South Pole until Jan. 17, 33 days after Amundsen. He and the four other men chosen to make the final push— Edward Wilson, Henry Bowers, Lawrence Oates and Edgar Evans—were suffering from malnourishment, frostbite, hypothermia and likely scurvy. They were disheartened to find the Norwegian flag waiting for them.
Scott wrote in his diary, “The Pole. Yes, but under very different circumstances from those expected. We have had a horrible day—add to our disappointment a head wind 4 to 5, with a temperature -22 degrees, and companions labouring on with cold feet and hands. … Great God! This is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority.”
On the return trip, Evans fell in a crevasse and suffered a head injury, contributing to his death 15 days later. Captain Oates decided to end his life; as he walked out of his tent to certain death, he told his comrades, “I am just going outside and may be some time.” The remaining three men died only a few days later.
Reaching the North Pole
In 1925, accompanied by Lincoln Ellsworth, pilot Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen, and three other team members, Amundsen took two Dornier Do J flying boats, the N-24 and N-25, to 87° 44′ north. It was the northernmost latitude reached by plane up to that time. The aircraft landed a few miles apart without radio contact, yet the crews managed to reunite. The N-24 was damaged. Amundsen and his crew worked for more than three weeks to clean up an airstrip to take off from ice. They shoveled 600 tons of ice while consuming only one pound (400 g) of daily food rations. In the end, six crew members were packed into the N-25. In a remarkable feat, Riiser-Larsen took off, and they barely became airborne over the cracking ice. They returned triumphant when everyone thought they had been lost forever.
In 1926, Amundsen and 15 other men (including Ellsworth, Riiser-Larsen, Oscar Wisting, and the Italian air crew led by aeronautical engineer Umberto Nobile) made the first crossing of the Arctic in the airship Norge, designed by Nobile. They left Spitzbergen on 11 May 1926, and they landed in Alaska two days later. The three previous claims to have arrived at the North Pole: Frederick Cook in 1908; Robert Peary in 1909; and Richard E. Byrd in 1926 (just a few days before the Norge) are all disputed, as being either of dubious accuracy or outright fraud. If their claims are false, the crew of the Norge would be the first verified explorers to have reached the North Pole. If the Norge expedition was the first to the North Pole, Amundsen and Oscar Wisting were the first men to reach