Since November 1, while we’ve been going about our lives, working, eating, sleeping, writing, fighting, protesting, shopping, laughing, and singing, Scott and Amundsen marched south. And 100 years ago today, Amundsen and four other members of the Norwegian expedition became the first human beings to reach the South pole.
They established a camp, named it Polheim (“Home at the Pole”) and set about making certain they had claim to the pole by taking hourly observations over the next couple of days and performing endless calculations to determine their actual position. Three members of the team set out on a 25-mile round-trip hike in three different directions radiating out from Polheim to ensure that they had “encircled the pole”.
After those men returned, and the calculations were complete, they determined they were still about five-and-a-half miles from standing on the exact pole. They packed two sledges with what they needed for the remaining, brief journey, and, by Amudensen’s account, had a pleasant little ski in a direct line from their first pole camp to the new one.
They set up Polheim again, and spent a day there, taking observations hourly for a further 24 hours, until they determined the pole even more precisely, and then sent two of the party the remaining four miles to be entirely sure of their claim.
Then, finally, on December 17, after they had “thus taken observations as near to the Pole as was humanly possible with the instruments at [their] disposal”, they turned north to head home.
You cannot help but be moved by Amundsen’s own description of leaving the pole and Polheim:
First we set up the little tent we had brought with us in case we should be compelled to divide into two parties. It had been made by our able sailmaker, Rionne, and was of very thin windproof gabardine. Its drab colour made it easily visible against the white surface. Another pole was lashed to the tent-pole, making its total height about 13 feet. On the top of this a little Norwegian flag was lashed fast, and underneath it a pennant, on which “Fram” was painted. The tent was well secured with guy-ropes on all sides. Inside the tent, in a little bag, I left a letter, addressed to H.M. the King, giving information of what we had accomplished. The way home was a long one, and so many things might happen to make it impossible for us to give an account of our expedition. Besides this letter, I wrote a short epistle to Captain Scott, who, I assumed, would be the first to find the tent. Other things we left there were a sextant with a glass horizon, a hypsometer case, three reindeer-skin foot-bags, some kamiks and mits.
When everything had been laid inside, we went into the tent, one by one, to write our names on a tablet we had fastened to the tent-pole. On this occasion we received the congratulations of our companions on the successful result, for the following messages were written on a couple of strips of leather, sewed to the tent
“Good luck,” and “Welcome to 90º.” These good wishes, which we suddenly discovered, put us in very good spirits. They were signed by Beck and Rönne. They had good faith in us. When we had finished this we came out, and the tent-door was securely laced together, so that there was no danger of the wind getting a hold on that side.
And so good-bye to Polheim. It was a solemn moment when we bared our heads and bade farewell to our home and our flag. And then the travelling tent was taken down and the sledges packed. Now the homeward journey was to begin — homeward, step by step, mile after mile, until the whole distance was accomplished. We drove at once into our old tracks and followed them. Many were the times we turned to send a last look to Polheim. The vaporous, white air set in again, and it was not long before the last of Polheim, our little flag, disappeared from view.
Meanwhile, Scott and his men, unaware of Amundsen’s success, trudged on, suffering from bad weather. By December 9, “the ponies were quite done, one and all,” and Scott ordered them shot to put them out of their misery.
They encountered deep drifts of snow that made man-hauling the sledges all the more difficult, frost bite, snow blindness, and many other miseries. On December 13, Scott writes, “A most damnably dismal day.” And on the 14th, the day that Amundsen reached the pole: “Indigestion and the soggy condition of my clothes kept me awake for some time last night, and the exceptional exercise gives bad attacks of cramp. Our lips are getting raw and blistered. The eyes of the party are improving, I am glad to say. We are just starting our march with no very hopeful outlook.”
On the 17th, the day that Amundsen begins his return journey, Scott is still a month from the pole. And that is not nearly the worst of it.