published on 14 December 2011 in water
Centenary of the conquest of the South Pole
The conquest of the South Pole
The first centenary of a memorable feat, the conquest of the South Pole, will be celebrated in 2011. In fact, on 14 December 1911, exactly 100 years ago, the Norwegian Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Amundsen left on 20 October 1911 with four companions, three sledges and thirty six dogs. Crossing mountain ranges and crevasses, Amundsen reached the South Pole, at 90° South, an objective that he had long pursued. After about two months Amundsen was able to plant the Norwegian flag, 35 days before his rival, the British Robert Falcon Scott. Since neither of the two expeditions had carried with them the bulky wireless telegraph, the only device that would have allowed them to communicate directly from the South Pole, the success of Amundsen’s expedition was publicly announced only on 7 March 1912.
The American Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, named after the two explorers, was built where Amundsen planted the Norwegian flag.
The steps that led to the discovery of Antarctica
Antarctica is the last continent on Earth to have been discovered and explored. In fact, though it was postulated to exist from ancient times, its existence was demonstrated only in the first half of the 19th Century.
The first explorer who attempted to reach Antarctica was the great navigator James Cook who, in command of the ships Resolution and Adventure, crossed the Antarctic Circle for the first time in 1774. While navigating beyond the Antarctic circle, he was able to sight only numerous icebergs breaking off from the continent’s ice shelves. The danger of the sea off Antarctica led him to believe that the continent could not be approached, and to conclude that no one would be able to reach it. However, Cook had not taken into account man’s tenacity in the pursuit of knowledge and in the desire to explore. In fact, Cook’s expedition was just the first of a series of expeditions to reach and explore Antarctica.
In 1820 Thaddeus von Bellingshausen, in an expedition organised by Czar Alexander I, was the first to sight the continent while the first person to land on the Antarctic continent was the Frenchman Dumont d’Urville, who in 1837 reached a small rocky island inhabited by penguins, near Antarctica. In 1839, the Englishman James C. Ross started exploring the continent, starting from Victoria Land (named after the Queen of England), collecting numerous biological and geological samples. After Ross’s expedition, others followed, aimed not only at exploring Antarctica but also at reaching the South Pole, the southernmost tip of planet Earth.
Two expeditions had tried to reach the South Pole before Amundsen. Scott had led one from 1901 to 1904 and Ernest Shackleton had led another from 1907 to 1909. Both expeditions got close, but failed to achieve their objective.
1911: the race to the South Pole
In 1911 Antarctica was the goal of the most challenging explorations ever carried out. Two explorers, the Norwegian Roald Amundsen and the Englishman Robert Falcon Scott, were the protagonists of a real race to conquer the South Pole. When Amundsen arrived in Antarctica, Scott was focused on the exploration of the Antarctic territory and on the collection of samples and other scientific material. In fact, Scott had reached Antarctica not only with the intention of reaching the South Pole, but mainly with that of making new scientific discoveries. Therefore the arrival of Amundsen caught Scott by surprise. In fact, the Norwegian explorer, should have been 19,000 km away directed to the North Pole, but had changed his mind and rerouted to Antarctica spurred by dreams of honour and glory. What had started as a peaceful exploratory expedition for Scott, soon changed into a real race to conquer the South Pole. Amundsen was an expert skier, dog-sledge driver and Arctic explorer (in 1905 he had been the first to cross the Northwest Passage above Canada) and, contrary to Scott, had only one objective: to be the first to reach the South Pole. He set out on 20 October 1911 together with other four explorers using sledges pulled by dogs and skis to move easily and quickly. Scott, instead, did not plan his expedition as thoroughly: he used Manchurian ponies, motorsledges that turned out to be faulty and sledge dogs that no one knew how to drive. It was clear that Amundsen had organised the expedition better; in fact, the Norwegian explorer reached the South Pole 35 days before Scott, on 14 December 1911, after about two months of travelling. The English expedition, made up of Scott, Edward Wilson, Edgar Evans, Lawrence Oates and Henry Bowers, reached the South Pole between 17 and 18 January 1912. The five explorers were greatly disappointed when they realised that Amundsen had beaten them to their goal: in fact, they found the Norwegian flag already planted in the ice. Moreover, Amundsen was decidedly better prepared for the return journey. The Norwegian explorer and his team returned to their base in just five weeks, thanks to the downhill route and favourable meteorological conditions. Scott’s journey was not as lucky. The five British explorers found adverse meteorological conditions, exceptionally cold weather and snow storms that made advancement with the sledges difficult. The first who perished during the return journey was Evans, who had been injured as a result of a fall. Shortly after, Lawrence Oates’ conditions worsened and hampered the progress of the other members of the expedition. When Oates realised that he had few chances of survival, and above all that he was holding back the remaining members of the expedition, he volutarily left his tent during a blizzard. Oates’ sacrifice made no difference. The bodies of the three remaining party members were found inside a tent six months later, only 18 km from a big food depot that had been prepared for their expedition. Alongside their bodies the search party found journals of the expedition, samples that Scott had collected during the entire journey and a camera.
Edited by Benedetta Palazzo