Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Antarctic History: 100 Years Ago Today

As we prep for the start of the 2011 Antarctic season to begin, it is a perfect time to reflect back to 1911, when the epic race to the Pole between Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and Britain's Robert Falcon Scott took place. Over the next few months, I'll be sharing important dates for events that took place during that season, which saw the first two expeditions reach the Pole, but only one made it back home.

On October 19th, 1911, exactly 100 years ago today, Amundsen, along with his team (Olav Bjaaland, Helmer Hanssen, Sverre Hassel, and Oscar Wistling) set out on their attempt to the South Pole. They had four sleds and 52 dogs with them when they got underway, along a route that had previously been unexplored. That route ran across the Axel Heiberg Glacier, which would eventually lead them up to the Antarctic Plateau.

At this point, Amundsen was hoping to use a bit of surprise and speed on his rival Scott, who had set out for the Antarctic earlier, but due to a series of set backs, hadn't arrived on the continent yet. In fact, Scott didn't even realize he was in a race with Amundsen until the Norwegian sent him a telegram saying simply: "Beg to inform you Fram proceeding Antarctic -- Amundsen," which arrived after the Brit has already set sail himself.

The Fram was Amundsen ship of course, and he had departed Oslo in June of 1910, first arriving in the Antarctic in January of 1911. From there, he and his team used their time to build supply depots and recon their route in preparation for a serious attempt on the Pole.

Their first attempt came in September of 1911, with Amundsen and his squad setting out on the 8th of that month. But generally poor weather and extremely cold temperatures forced a retreat, and the team returned to the Fram until the 19th of October, when they would make a second attempt.

By this point in his career, Amundsen had spent quite a great deal of time in the Arctic, where he had explored the Northeast Passage and learned a lot from the indigenous people that live there. From them, he learned to use seal skins for warm and sled dogs for travel, both of which would serve him, and his men, well on their way to the South Pole.

This is just the start of the story of course and there is plenty more to come. I'll continue to unravel the tale over the days and weeks ahead, as it is both a heroic and tragic one.