14 December, 2011

One century ago today, on 14th December 1911, Norwegian Roald Amundsen became the first man to reach the geographical South Pole. He led a party of five men, with four sledges and 52 dogs, in what remains one of the most famous rivalries in the history of exploration. The other team attempting to reach the Pole was led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott, who arrived at 90°S 34 days later and did not survive the return journey to his ship.

Amundsen was an experienced polar explorer who had previously become the first to sail across the Northwest Passage, a potential shipping route north of North America which connects Europe and Asia. He had also spent a winter in Antarctica as a member of an earlier expedition, which taught him valuable lessons for survival in this harsh and unforgiving environment.

As news of Amundsen’s achievement spread, some accused him of using underhanded methods to beat Scott. Indeed, his initial plan had been to reach the North Pole, and he only changed his mind when he received news of two Americans claiming to have reached the North Pole before him. He then sailed his ship, the Fram, south instead and only telegraphed to inform Scott of his intentions when it was too late for him to receive a response: “BEG TO INFORM YOU FRAM PROCEEDING ANTARCTIC—AMUNDSEN”

Despite this controversy over his behaviour, Amundsen’s achievement was widely praised by his contemporaries and he earned great respect and admiration for his efficiency, stamina, meticulous preparation and his willingness to try new, untested methods. Unlike Captain Scott, he crossed uncharted territory on his way to the Pole and used skis and sled dogs, which he found to be remarkably efficient. Indeed, Amundsen’s journal reads, “The English have loudly and openly told the world that skis and dogs are unusable in these regions and that fur clothes are rubbish. We will see — we will see…”

These lessons he learned from inhabitants of the Arctic regions, along with his single-minded pursuit of his goal at the expense of everything else — for example, Amundsen only took two photographs during his expedition — probably contributed to his ultimate success. Scott, on the other hand, made important contributions to Antarctic science during his expedition, which may have slowed him down.

We can catch a glimpse into what motivated one of the greatest explorers of the 20th century from an excerpt from his report of the South Pole expedition:

“Why? On account of the great geographical discoveries, the important scientific results? Oh no; that will come later, for the few specialists. This is something all can understand. A victory of human mind and human strength over the dominion and powers of Nature; a deed that lifts us above the grey monotony of daily life; a view over shining plains with lofty mountains against the cold blue sky, and […] the triumph of living over the stiffened realm of death. There is a ring of steeled purposeful human will — through icy frosts, snowstorms and death.”

True to the spirit of these words, Roald Amundsen continued his legacy of polar exploration after returning from the Antarctic. He reached the North Pole by airship in 1926 and may, in fact, be the first to reach both geographical Poles as all previous claims to reach the North Pole are disputed.

Like Scott, Amundsen died a heroes’ death in 1928. When Umberto Nobile, a member of his flight over the North Pole, went missing on another expedition to the Pole, Amundsen joined a rescue mission. The rescueplane also crashed, however, and while Nobile survived and returned to civilization several weeks later, Amundsen’s bodies — or his plane — have never been found.

The 100th anniversary of Amundsen’s successful bid to reach the Pole will be celebrated around the world. Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg has become the second head of a government to visit the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, where an ice sculpture of Amundsen is due to be unveiled tomorrow. Tromsø in northern Norway will host the official celebration of the anniversary. In the UK, an Amundsen exhibition was recently concluded at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, which is now focusing on the centenary of Captain Scott reaching the pole on 17th January 1912.

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