December 14, 1911, 90º S

Amunden's party and Polheim at the South Pole

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.

The Pole Journey ~ November 6 – 10, 1911

After reaching the depot at 82º S on the fifth, it appears that Amundsen’s party tarried for two days to rest and resupply before continuing their journey on the 8th. Amundsen’s brief account of the next several days describes the daily trek of thirty-some miles as if it were a leisurely stroll through the Tuscan hills. Not a care in the world.

On the 8th we started southward again, and now made a daily march of about thirty miles. In order to relieve the heavily laden sledges, we formed a depot at every parallel we reached. The journey from lat. 82º to 83º was a pure pleasure trip, on account of the surface and the temperature, which were as favourable as one could wish. Everything went swimmingly until the 9th, when we sighted South Victoria Land and the continuation of the mountain chain, which Shackleton gives on his map, running southeast from Beardmore Glacier. On the same day we reached lat. 83º, and established here Depot No. 4.

In contrast, during those same days, Scott’s party is enduring blizzard conditions and the motor sledges have broken down for good. He writes of his worries about the ponies, who are made miserable by the fine, driving snow. Although there are some bright spots and he keeps his spirits high in most of what he writes, his tone, even at this early stage, is beginning to reveal some despair.

Monday, November 6.—Camp 4. We started in the usual order, arranging so that full loads should be carried if the black dots to the south prove to be the motor. On arrival at these we found our fears confirmed. A note from Evans stated a recurrence of the old trouble. The big end of No. 1 cylinder had cracked, the machine otherwise in good order. Evidently the engines are not fitted for working in this climate, a fact that should be certainly capable of correction. One thing is proved; the system of propulsion is altogether satisfactory. The motor party has proceeded as a man-hauling party as arranged.

With their full loads the ponies did splendidly, even Jehu and Chinaman with loads over 450 lbs. stepped out well and have finished as fit as when they started. Atkinson and Wright both think that these animals are improving…

Tuesday, November 7.—Camp 4. The blizzard has continued throughout last night and up to this time of writing, late in the afternoon. Starting mildly, with broken clouds, little snow, and gleams of sunshine, it grew in intensity until this forenoon, when there was heavy snowfall and the sky overspread with low nimbus cloud. In the early afternoon the snow and wind took off, and the wind is dropping now, but the sky looks very lowering and unsettled.

Last night the sky was so broken that I made certain the end of the blow had come. Towards morning the sky overhead and far to the north was quite clear. More cloud obscured the sun to the south and low heavy banks hung over Ross Island. All seemed hopeful, except that I noted with misgiving that the mantle on the Bluff was beginning to form. Two hours later the whole sky was overcast and the blizzard had fully developed…

The ponies, which had been so comparatively comfortable in the earlier stages, were hit as usual when the snow began to fall.

We have done everything possible to shelter and protect them, but there seems no way of keeping them comfortable when the snow is thick and driving fast. We men are snug and comfortable enough, but it is very evil to lie here and know that the weather is steadily sapping the strength of the beasts on which so much depends. It requires much philosophy to be cheerful on such occasions…

The tents and sledges are badly drifted up, and the drifts behind the pony walls have been dug out several times. I shall be glad indeed to be on the march again, and oh! for a little sun. The ponies are all quite warm when covered by their rugs. Some of the fine drift snow finds its way under the rugs, and especially under the broad belly straps; this melts and makes the coat wet if allowed to remain. It is not easy to understand at first why the blizzard should have such a withering effect on the poor beasts. I think it is mainly due to the exceeding fineness of the snow particles, which, like finely divided powder, penetrate the hair of the coat and lodge in the inner warmths. Here it melts, and as water carries off the animal heat. Also, no doubt, it harasses the animals by the bombardment of the fine flying particles on tender places such as nostrils, eyes, and to lesser extent ears. In this way it continually bothers them, preventing rest. Of all things the most important for horses is that conditions should be placid whilst they stand tethered.

Wednesday, November 8.—Camp 5. Wind with overcast threatening sky continued to a late hour last night. The question of starting was open for a long time, and many were unfavourable. I decided we must go, and soon after midnight the advance guard got away. To my surprise, when the rugs were stripped from the ‘crocks’ they appeared quite fresh and fit….

We are picking up last year’s cairns with great ease, and all show up very distinctly. This is extremely satisfactory for the homeward march. What with pony walls, camp sites and cairns, our track should be easily followed the whole way. Everyone is as fit as can be. It was wonderfully warm as we camped this morning at 11 o’clock; the wind has dropped completely and the sun shines gloriously. Men and ponies revel in such weather. One devoutly hopes for a good spell of it as we recede from the windy northern region. The dogs came up soon after we had camped, travelling easily.

Thursday, November 9.—Camp 6. Sticking to programme, we are going a little over the 10 miles (geo.) nightly…

Things look hopeful. The weather is beautiful—temp. -12°, with a bright sun. Some stratus cloud about Discovery and over White Island. The sastrugi about here are very various in direction and the surface a good deal ploughed up, showing that the Bluff influences the wind direction even out as far as this camp. The surface is hard; I take it about as good as we shall get.

There is an annoying little southerly wind blowing now, and this serves to show the beauty of our snow walls. The ponies are standing under their lee in the bright sun as comfortable as can possibly be.

Friday, November 10.—Camp 7. A very horrid march. A strong head wind during the first part—5 miles (geo.)—then a snowstorm. Wright leading found steering so difficult after three miles (geo.) that the party decided to camp. Luckily just before camping he rediscovered Evans’ track (motor party) so that, given decent weather, we shall be able to follow this. The ponies did excellently as usual, but the surface is good distinctly. The wind has dropped and the weather is clearing now that we have camped. It is disappointing to miss even 1 1/2 miles.

It sounds bad already, doesn’t it? If you didn’t know how the story ends, who would you be rooting for?

I feel gloomy for Scott, that the whole enterprise is doomed even at this early stage in the march, but maybe that’s only because I know how it ends.

I like to imagine that it could have turned out differently, with just a little bit of luck. With more dogs and fewer ponies, with an earlier start or with slightly kinder weather, even for a few critical days, there could have been a happier ending for Scott. In one of the “possible worlds” posited by my semantics professor, Scott reached the pole first, and lived to tell the tale to his grandchildren. And in another, he never went to Antarctica at all. Instead, he opened a gelato shop in Italy, rode his bicycle to work every day, and wrote romance novels in the evenings.

Everything’s possible in the multiverse.

The Pole Journey ~ November 1 – 5, 1911

For those of you wondering how the polar explorers have been faring, below are excerpts from their accounts of the last few days.

As of the 5th, Amundsen has reached a latitude of 82º S., where his last supply depot had been laid, 893 kilometers from the Pole. Scott has not yet reached his One Ton depot, at a latitude of 80º S. Though both parties are at different points on their journeys, the thoughts of both men are, rightly, occupied by the condition and care of the support animals (dogs and ponies) they are relying on at this stage.

From Amundsen:

There was a thick fog next morning, and very disagreeable weather; perhaps we felt it more after the previous fine day. When we passed this way for the first time going south, Hanssen’s dogs had fallen into a crevasse, but it was nothing to speak of; otherwise we had no trouble.

From 81º S. we began to erect beacons at every nine kilometres. The next day we observed the lowest temperature of the whole of this journey: -30.1º F The wind was south-south-east, but not very strong. It did not feel like summer, all the same. We now adopted the habit which we kept up all the way to the south — of taking our lunch while building the beacon that lay half-way in our day’s march. It was nothing very luxurious — three or four dry oatmeal biscuits, that was all. If one wanted a drink, one could mix snow with the biscuit — “bread and water.” It is a diet that is not much sought after in our native latitudes, but latitude makes a very great difference in this world. It anybody had offered us more “bread and water,” we should gladly have accepted it.

That day we crossed the last crevasse for a long time to come, and it was only a few inches wide. The surface looked grand ahead of us; it went in very long, almost imperceptible undulations. We could only notice them by the way in which the beacons we put up often disappeared rather rapidly.

On November 2 we had a gale from the south, with heavy snow. The going was very stiff, but the dogs got the sledges along better than we expected. The temperature rose, as usual, with a wind from this quarter: +14º F. It was a pleasure to be out in such a temperature, although it did blow a little. The day after we had a light breeze from the north. The heavy going of the day before had completely disappeared; instead of it we had the best surface one could desire, and it made our dogs break into a brisk gallop. That was the day we were to reach the depot in 82º S., but as it was extremely thick, our chances of doing so were small. In the course of the afternoon the distance was accomplished, but no depot was visible. However, our range of vision was nothing to boast of — ten sledge-lengths; not more. The most sensible thing to do, under the circumstances, was to camp and wait till it cleared.

At four o’clock next morning the sun broke through. We let it get warm and disperse the fog, and then went out. What a morning it was — radiantly clear and mild. So still, so still lay the mighty desert before us, level and white on every side. But, no; there in the distance the level was broken: there was a touch of colour on the white. The third important point was reached, the extreme outpost of civilization. Our last depot lay before us; that was an unspeakable relief. The victory now seemed half won… The depot stood as we had made it, and the sledge as we had left it. Falling snow and drift had not been sufficient to cover even this. The little drift that there was offered an excellent place for the tent, being hard and firm. We at once set about the work that had to be done. First, Uranus was sent into the next world, and although he had always given us the impression of being thin and bony, it was now seen that there were masses of fat along his back; he would be much appreciated when we reached here on the return. Jaala did not look as if she would fulfil the conditions, but we gave her another night. The dogs’ pemmican in the depot was just enough to give the dogs a good feed and load up the sledges again. We were so well supplied with all other provisions that we were able to leave a considerable quantity behind for the return journey.

Next day we stayed here to give the dogs a thorough rest for the last time. We took advantage of the fine weather to dry our outfit and check our instruments. When evening came we were all ready, and now we could look back with satisfaction to the good work of the autumn; we had fully accomplished what we aimed at — namely, transferring our base from 78º 38′ to 82º S. Jaala had to follow Uranus; they were both laid on the top of the depot, beside eight little ones that never saw the light of day. During our stay here we decided to build beacons at every fifth kilometre, and to lay down depots at every degree of latitude. Although the dogs were drawing the sledges easily at present, we knew well enough that in the long-run they would find it hard work if they were always to have heavy weights to pull. The more we could get rid of, and the sooner we could begin to do so, the better.

From Scott (note that Jehu, Michael, Nobby, Chinaman, Christopher, Bones, and Snippets are the ponies):

November 1.—Last night we heard that Jehu had reached Hut Point in about 5 1/2 hours. This morning we got away in detachments—Michael, Nobby, Chinaman were first to get away about 11 A.M. The little devil Christopher was harnessed with the usual difficulty and started in kicking mood, Oates holding on for all he was worth.

Bones ambled off gently with Crean, and I led Snippets in his wake. Ten minutes after Evans and Snatcher passed at the usual full speed.

The wind blew very strong at the Razor Back and the sky was threatening—the ponies hate the wind. A mile south of this island Bowers and Victor passed me, leaving me where I best wished to be—at the tail of the line.

About this place I saw that one of the animals ahead had stopped and was obstinately refusing to go forward again. I had a great fear it was Chinaman, the unknown quantity, but to my relief found it was my old friend ‘Nobby’ in obstinate mood. As he is very strong and fit the matter was soon adjusted with a little persuasion from Anton behind. Poor little Anton found it difficult to keep the pace with short legs.

Snatcher soon led the party and covered the distance in four hours. Evans said he could see no difference at the end from the start—the little animal simply romped in. Bones and Christopher arrived almost equally fresh, in fact the latter had been bucking and kicking the whole way. For the present there is no end to his devilment, and the great consideration is how to safeguard Oates. Some quiet ponies should always be near him, a difficult matter to arrange with such varying rates of walking. A little later I came up to a batch, Bowers, Wilson, Cherry, and Wright, and was happy to see Chinaman going very strong. He is not fast, but very steady, and I think should go a long way.

Victor and Michael forged ahead again, and the remaining three of us came in after taking a little under five hours to cover the distance.

We were none too soon, as the weather had been steadily getting worse, and soon after our arrival it was blowing a gale.

Thursday, November 2.—Hut Point. The march teaches a good deal as to the paces of the ponies. It reminded me of a regatta or a somewhat disorganised fleet with ships of very unequal speed. The plan of further advance has now been evolved. We shall start in three parties—the very slow ponies, the medium paced, and the fliers. Snatcher starting last will probably overtake the leading unit. All this requires a good deal of arranging. We have decided to begin night marching, and shall get away after supper, I hope. The weather is hourly improving, but at this season that does not count for much. At present our ponies are very comfortably stabled. Michael, Chinaman and James Pigg are actually in the hut. Chinaman kept us alive last night by stamping on the floor. Meares and Demetri are here with the dog team, and Ponting with a great photographic outfit. I fear he won’t get much chance to get results.

Friday, November 3.—Camp 1. A keen wind with some drift at Hut Point, but we sailed away in detachments. Atkinson’s party, Jehu, Chinaman and Jimmy Pigg led off at eight. Just before ten Wilson, Cherry-Garrard and I left. Our ponies marched steadily and well together over the sea ice. The wind dropped a good deal, but the temperature with it, so that the little remaining was very cutting. We found Atkinson at Safety Camp. He had lunched and was just ready to march out again; he reports Chinaman and Jehu tired. Ponting arrived soon after we had camped with Demetri and a small dog team. The cinematograph was up in time to catch the flying rearguard which came along in fine form, Snatcher leading and being stopped every now and again—a wonderful little beast. Christopher had given the usual trouble when harnessed, but was evidently subdued by the Barrier Surface. However, it was not thought advisable to halt him, and so the party fled through in the wake of the advance guard.

After lunch we packed up and marched on steadily as before. I don’t like these midnight lunches, but for man the march that follows is pleasant when, as to-day, the wind falls and the sun steadily increases its heat. The two parties in front of us camped 5 miles beyond Safety Camp, and we reached their camp some half or three-quarters of an hour later. All the ponies are tethered in good order, but most of them are tired—Chinaman and Jehu very tired. Nearly all are inclined to be off feed, but this is very temporary, I think. We have built walls, but there is no wind and the sun gets warmer every minute.

Mirage.—Very marked waving effect to east. Small objects greatly exaggerated and showing as dark vertical lines.

1 P.M.—Feeding time. Woke the party, and Oates served out the rations—all ponies feeding well. It is a sweltering day, the air breathless, the glare intense—one loses sight of the fact that the temperature is low (-22°)—one’s mind seeks comparison in hot sunlit streets and scorching pavements, yet six hours ago my thumb was frostbitten. All the inconveniences of frozen footwear and damp clothes and sleeping-bags have vanished entirely.

A petrol tin is near the camp and a note stating that the motor passed at 9 P.M. 28th, going strong—they have 4 to 5 days’ lead and should surely keep it.

‘Bones has eaten Christopher’s goggles.’

This announcement by Crean, meaning that Bones had demolished the protecting fringe on Christopher’s bridle. These fringes promise very well—Christopher without his is blinking in the hot sun.

Saturday, November 4.—Camp 2. Led march—started in what I think will now become the settled order. Atkinson went at 8, ours at 10, Bowers, Oates and Co. at 11.15. Just after starting picked up cheerful note and saw cheerful notices saying all well with motors, both going excellently. Day wrote ‘Hope to meet in 80° 30′ (Lat.).’ Poor chap, within 2 miles he must have had to sing a different tale. It appears they had a bad ground on the morning of the 29th. I suppose the surface was bad and everything seemed to be going wrong. They ‘dumped’ a good deal of petrol and lubricant. Worse was to follow. Some 4 miles out we met a tin pathetically inscribed, ‘Big end Day’s motor No. 2 cylinder broken.’ Half a mile beyond, as I expected, we found the motor, its tracking sledges and all. Notes from Evans and Day told the tale. The only spare had been used for Lashly’s machine, and it would have taken a long time to strip Day’s engine so that it could run on three cylinders. They had decided to abandon it and push on with the other alone. They had taken the six bags of forage and some odds and ends, besides their petrol and lubricant. So the dream of great help from the machines is at an end! The track of the remaining motor goes steadily forward, but now, of course, I shall expect to see it every hour of the march.

The ponies did pretty well—a cruel soft surface most of the time, but light loads, of course. Jehu is better than I expected to find him, Chinaman not so well. They are bad crocks both of them.

It was pretty cold during the night, -7° when we camped, with a crisp breeze blowing. The ponies don’t like it, but now, as I write, the sun is shining through a white haze, the wind has dropped, and the picketing line is comfortable for the poor beasts.

This, 1 P.M., is the feeding hour—the animals are not yet on feed, but they are coming on.

The wind vane left here in the spring shows a predominance of wind from the S.W. quarter. Maximum scratching, about S.W. by W.

Sunday, November 5.—Camp 3. ‘Corner Camp.’ We came over the last lap of the first journey in good order—ponies doing well in soft surface, but, of course, lightly loaded. To-night will show what we can do with the heavier weights. A very troubled note from Evans (with motor) written on morning of 2nd, saying maximum speed was about 7 miles per day. They have taken on nine bags of forage, but there are three black dots to the south which we can only imagine are the deserted motor with its loaded sledges. The men have gone on as a supporting party, as directed. It is a disappointment. I had hoped better of the machines once they got away on the Barrier Surface.

The appetites of the ponies are very fanciful. They do not like the oil cake, but for the moment seem to take to some fodder left here. However, they are off that again to-day. It is a sad pity they won’t eat well now, because later on one can imagine how ravenous they will become. Chinaman and Jehu will not go far I fear.

Ponies seemed like a good idea at the time

One hundred years ago today, on November 1, 1911, Robert Falcon Scott and a party of sixteen men, dogs, ponies, and motor sledges left their temporary Antarctic home at Cape Evans to begin the march to the South Pole.

Scott had known since January of that year that rival polar explorer Roald Amundsen was also on the Antarctic continent, preparing for an expedition to the pole. What Scott had originally intended as primarily a scientific expedition was now, clearly, a race.

The story is a famous and tragic one: The “polar party”, comprising Scott and his chosen four companions (Oates, Wilson, Bowers, and Evans), made it to the pole, only to find that Amundens’s Norwegian team had arrived there first. Humiliated and dispirited, they took a photograph to record the moment, and then headed back north to rejoin the rest of the party.

After a series of disasters, including blizzards and extreme temperatures they could never have anticipated, Scott and his men perished, just 11 miles from a depot that contained enough food and fuel to save them.

The story of the Race for the Pole has intrigued me since I first saw the PBS miniseries, The Last Place on Earth, as a teenager. My interest in polar exploration actually started a few years before that, when I came across another PBS show, one lazy weekend afternoon, about the equally tragic Franklin Expedition to discover the elusive Northwest Passage.

Something about these stories–the obstinate men; the sometimes madly unpractical plans (ponies? on Antarctica?); the ferocious, unpredictable weather; the reckless bravery; the patriotism; the desire to discover and be the first–I can’t help myself. It’s melodrama of the highest order and I can’t turn my head away.

No matter how many times I read Scott’s journal and his final farewell letters to his family and the general public, I hope for a happier ending, knowing full well how it inevitably ends: Scott, and all of his dreams, freezing to death in a tent in the middle of a Antarctic blizzard, effectively alone in the world, just a few miles away from safety.

Believe me, I don’t want to live Scott’s story. I don’t even want to go out in the cold most days. But I do sometimes wish I had even a little of that unrelenting, focused drive to do something purely amazing, crazy, daring; to do something that no one else has done, or dared to do, or even thought to do. Just because it’s there to do.

But that’s not me. I’m a watcher and waiter. I weigh the options and let others go first. I ponder and worry and second-guess myself.

And I root for Scott every single time.


To read more about Scott and Amundsen’s expeditions to the South Pole, and to follow the day-by-day journal entries of the expedition party members, see the wonderful Race For The Pole site.