The Race Begins

October 19, 1911. Late news breaking. This just in. Norwegian Roald Amundsen and his party of four sledded off today, bound for the South Pole. They were driving four sleds each with a team of 13 huskies. They had laid depots out to 82° S by the end of the previous summer. As they left this morning, the men voiced confidence that they would make it. But one could perhaps detect a touch of urgency in their gait and the unspoken question: Would they beat the British?

Amundsen's base. Framheim, at the Bay of Whales. Photo from Amundsen's book, The South Pole, 1913.

Poised at Cape Evans on Ross Island, 400 miles to the west, the British expedition, led by Robert Falcon Scott, isn’t up to the starting blocks yet. Last season their furthest depot was 35 miles short of their goal of 80° S. The spring has been busy with preparations not only for the southern party, but also for geological parties working in the mountains to the west of McMurdo Sound. After all, Scott hadn’t planned it to be a race. This was foisted upon him when he reached Melbourne finding the fateful telegraph message posted from Madeira: Beg leave to inform you Fram proceeding Antarctic. Amundsen. Amundsen, with Fridtjof Nansen’s blessing, had commandeered the Fram to sail into the Arctic Sea, there to be frozen in, and to drift, perhaps even striking out to reach the North Pole. The program was set when in September, 1909, both Cook and Peary claimed to have gotten to the North Pole in the preceding year. With that prize lost, Amundsen hatched a bold, new plan, privy only to three others, Prefessor Helland-Hansen, his brother, Leon, and Lieut. Thorvald Nilsen, the commander designate of the Fram. At the last landfall, Funchal on the island of Madeira, Amundsen laid it out to his men, on to Antarctica and the South Pole, or home to warmth with no hard feelings. To a man they headed south. With all his promises and contracts broken, were Amundsen not to reach the Pole first would surely mean imprisonment upon his return. The stakes were high. Both Amundsen and Scott carried the other as a monkey on his back. As fortune would have it, the two camps met when Terra Nova, the British ship, found the Fram moored in the Bay of Whales at the eastern edge of the Ross Ice Shelf. Each party showed the other the utmost courtesy. The officers of the Terra Nova were invited to Framheim, the expedition’s quarters built several miles in from the ice edge, and Amundsen and two others were received on board the Terra Nova. The intelligence that Lieut. Campbell reported to Scott back at Cape Evans was that Amundsen headed a ground party of nine, and that they were well equipped and had more than 100 dogs.

Scott's base at Capoe Evans. Volcanic Mt. Erebus fumes in the distance.

Interior of kitchen portion of the hut at Cape Evans.

So the race is set, Scott sixty miles farther north than Amundsen at the start, following Shackleton’s trail south from McMurdo Sound to Beardmore Glacier where the route crossed the Transantarctic Mountains along a 100-mile corridor of crevasses. Amundsen’s route was south into the unknown. Would the Transantarctic Mountains continue southeast from the mouth of Beardmore Glacier, as seemed likely, and bar their path, or would the great range of mountains rising at Cape Adare and continuing south for 1,000 miles peter out, giving an east access to the polar plateau and the final sprint to the Pole? Only time will tell.

Gallery – Ice Puddles 2.0

A second Gallery featuring ice puddles.

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