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Four of the five explorers in Amundsen’s team are pictured at the South Pole by the fifth member, Olav Bjaaland, Dec. 14, 1911.

On This Day: Roald Amundsen Becomes First Man to Reach South Pole

December 14, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Dec. 14, 1911, Roald Amundsen and four fellow Norwegian explorers became the first men to reach the South Pole, beating the ill-fated team of British Capt. Robert F. Scott by just over a month.

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.

Biography: Roald Amundsen

As a child in Norway, Amundsen would sometimes sleep with the windows open during the winter to prepare himself to be a polar explorer. In 1897, Amundsen set foot in Antarctica as a member of the Belgica expedition, which spent the winter of 1898 in Antarctica after the ship became lodged in a pack of ice. The expedition taught Amundsen valuable lessons on how to survive in arctic conditions.

After returning to Norway, Amundsen bought a ship and prepared his own expedition to sail through the Northwest Passage. Departing Norway in the middle of the night to avoid creditors, Amundsen spent three years navigating through the Arctic waters above Canada before he reached the Pacific Ocean, becoming the first man to complete the passage.

Following his South Pole success, he began making expeditions around the Arctic Circle. In 1925, he, American Lincoln Ellsworth and three others flew near the North Pole in flying boats. The boats made difficult landings, but the crew managed to create makeshift runways and barely make it back to Norway.

The following year, Amundsen, Ellsworth and Italian pilot Umberto Nobile led a 16-man crew that flew from Norway to Alaska in the rigid airship Norge, the first flight from Europe to America over the Arctic Circle. As they flew over the North Pole, they threw out American, Norwegian and Italian flags.

Amundsen died in 1928, when his plane crashed in the Arctic Ocean during a rescue mission.

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