An awful place

January 16, 1912, at a latitude somewhere beyond 89° 42′:

Bowers’ sharp eyes detected what he thought was a cairn; he was uneasy about it, but argued that it must be a sastrugus. Half an hour later he detected a black speck ahead. Soon we knew that this could not be a natural snow feature. We marched on, found that it was a black flag tied to a sledge bearer; near by the remains of a camp; sledge tracks and ski tracks going and coming and the clear trace of dogs’ paws—many dogs. This told us the whole story. The Norwegians have forestalled us and are first at the Pole. It is a terrible disappointment, and I am very sorry for my loyal companions. Many thoughts come and much discussion have we had. To-morrow we must march on to the Pole and then hasten home with all the speed we can compass. All the day dreams must go; it will be a wearisome return. We are descending in altitude—certainly also the Norwegians found an easy way up.

And the next day:

Wednesday, January 17.—Camp 69. T. -22° at start. Night -21°. 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°, and companions labouring on with cold feet and hands.

We started at 7.30, none of us having slept much after the shock of our discovery. We followed the Norwegian sledge tracks for some way; as far as we make out there are only two men. In about three miles we passed two small cairns. Then the weather overcast, and the tracks being increasingly drifted up and obviously going too far to the west, we decided to make straight for the Pole according to our calculations. At 12.30 Evans had such cold hands we camped for lunch—an excellent ‘week-end one.’ We had marched 7.4 miles. Lat. sight gave 89° 53′ 37”. We started out and did 6 1/2 miles due south. To-night little Bowers is laying himself out to get sights in terrible difficult circumstances; the wind is blowing hard, T. -21°, and there is that curious damp, cold feeling in the air which chills one to the bone in no time. We have been descending again, I think, but there looks to be a rise ahead; otherwise there is very little that is different from the awful monotony of past days. Great God! this is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority. Well, it is something to have got here, and the wind may be our friend to-morrow. We have had a fat Polar hoosh in spite of our chagrin, and feel comfortable inside—added a small stick of chocolate and the queer taste of a cigarette brought by Wilson. Now for the run home and a desperate struggle. I wonder if we can do it.

Sometimes it just doesn’t matter how much you want something, how much work you put into it, what you’ve given up, or what you’ve suffered. The universe doesn’t owe you a thing. A blank, white, untouched field of snow doesn’t always mean that the promise offered will be fulfilled. Sometimes it means an awful soul-wearing trudge and the discovery that someone else has beat you to the punch.

Still, you march on. You do the thing you set out to do. You’ve come this far, after all. And when you’ve reached the bottom of the world, you have no other choice than to head back the way you came.

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.