The Race to The South Pole

Wenesday 6 March 2019  by Michael Smith

Michael Smith

Even in the 16th Century, it was speculated that an unknown southern continent existed, known, in Latin, as Terra Australis Incognita; the ancient Greeks had also reasoned that, since there was evidence of land in the Northern Hemisphere beneath the Great Bear, it must be counterbalanced by territory at the opposite end.

There was scant interest during the 18th and 19th Centuries. Captain Cook had attempted a first-ever crossing of the Antarctic Circle, but, having reached 60 miles from a foggy coast, declared that it was “not worth having, if there”. Similarly, a Northumbrian ship rounded Cape Horn in 1819, drove south in bad winds, and ran among uncharted islands. Reporting the experience to the Royal Navy in Chile, the ship’s master found the RN uninterested. Later that year, the same ship reached land, unfurled a flag, and went again to the RN. The RN contacted one Edward Bransfield, who travelled south 2000 miles to reach the islands. In January 1820, Bransfield came upon the Antarctic Peninsula, mapped it, charted it, but received little in the way of interest. His records became lost, as did those of an Estonian Russian, von Bellingshausen, who thought he had sighted land.

It is worth noting that Bransfield, born at Cork, had been press-ganged, in 1803, as an 18-year-old, served during the Napoleonic wars, became a ship’s master, entered the Merchant Navy, and disappeared from view, eventually living, and dying, at Brighton. Reports suggest that the Republic of Ireland will raise a monument to him in 2020.

During the 1830s, Sir James Clark Ross and Francis Crozier went to the Antarctic, spending four years there, on the greatest maritime expedition of the 19th Century. They found volcanoes which they named Erebus and Terror, after their ships, which, at one point, became entwined in the darkness, separated, and passed through an incredibly narrow gap in the icebergs. On returning to Britain in 1843, they found that no-one really cared, and so it was for most of the the remainder of Queen Victoria’s reign.

The mid-1890s saw an intention to look anew at the Antarctic. Carsten Borchgrevink, a Norwegian, persuaded Sir George Newnes to grant him funds for a first overwintering on land in 1898. It is dark for four months in winter, the sun never rising, yet Borchgrevink penetrated 100 miles into the interior.

In 1901, Robert Falcon Scott took Discovery on an expedition, the first concerted attempt at exploring the interior. Although the coast was relatively warm, temperatures fell to 40° Celsius/Fahrenheit in the interior. Scott, Shackleton, and Wilson found themselves suffering the early stages of scurvy, and just about made it back.

The anti-English Scot, William Spears Bruce, a supreme Antarctic scientist, established the first scientific weather station in Antarctica; Jean-Baptiste Charcot, an intelligent French adventurer, took pictures of Loubet Sound and the Palmer Archipelago.

Shackleton, in 1907, made the best attempt to that date, reaching within 67 miles of the Pole. He took four ponies, rather than dogs, but three died and one fell into a crevice, together with all the equipment. Shackleton discovered the route of the Beardmore Glacier, 125 miles long, running into a plateau two miles high. He had food for 91 days, most insufficient, but, by rationing supplies, eked out the period to 122 days. Although his body temperature fell below the standard 98.4°F, he had the judgement to turn back, telling his wife that she might prefer “a live donkey to a dead lion”.

This gave Scott the spur to go again. Although Shackleton was always  keen to help the scientists, Scott was a difficult character, singlemindedly purposing to reach the Pole. At that same time, Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian, who had desired, since his youngest days, to be a tough, driven explorer,  wanted, in 1910, the North Pole to be his focus.  Amundsen borrowed Fram, a ship  specially designed by Fridtjof Nansen to ‘ride’ the ice, seized his moment, and set off from Oslo on 6 June 1910, but sailed due south, and, on reaching Madeira, explained to his men his true purpose. He had with him a champion skier, men who had trained dogs, a handyman, and one of Nansen’s men. He journeyed 14000 miles from Madeira in one go, trying to overtake Scott.

Scott, at Melbourne, received a telegram from Amundsen, stating “proceeding South”. A little concerned that Scott had the use of  three ‘tractors’ (vehicles on runners), Amundsen was not to know that those vehicles were unreliable. When Scott, Oates, Bowers, Wilson, and Evans got underway, the final push of the Race to the South Pole had really begun.

Amundsen took 48 dogs, and sent his champion skier forward, in order to give the dogs a focus. He set out two weeks before Scott, who followed Shackleton’s route. Inspired, or foolhardy, Amundsen chose to build his hut on a floating piece of ice, ‘welded’ to the island beneath (a fact unknown for the next 30 years), and laid several tons of food in dépôts, which he numbered with flags, lest they be missed. Scott also laid dépôts, marked by black flags on mounds of snow.

Scott’s progress was 3 or perhaps 10 miles a day without rest days, whereas Amundsen built in rest days, and averaged 15 to 20 miles a day, reaching the Pole on 14 December 1911, remaining there for three days. Scott arrived one month later, to find a letter from Amundsen, addressed to the King of Norway, which Scott was to carry back for him.

Amundsen had left for Hobart, Tasmania, arriving on 7 March 1912, unaware, at that stage, whether Scott had reached the Pole. In fact, Scott and his colleagues were now in a bad way, suffering from starvation and frostbite; Scott penned his last diary entry on 29 March 1912. Scott, Bowers, and Wilson died at about that time, and were later buried out in Antarctica.

Thus ended the Race to the South Pole, at a time of appalling weather conditions. On their return, the heroic Amundsen and his colleagues weighed themselves, finding that they had put on weight, realising that all their careful planning, including their Eskimo-style clothing had been eminently suitable for the Antarctic. Amundsen asked his Norwegian cook “any chance of a cup of coffee?”

Stefan Gatward