Quest For the South Pole
Discovered in 1840, Antarctica lies almost concentrically about the South Pole. Fittingly enough its name means “opposite to the arctic”, and this fifth largest continent would be essentially circular except for the Antarctica Peninsula. It was here, in this unforgiving environment that two different men chose two different paths, and two different aides in their quests to reach the South Pole. Both made it to their destinations, only one however made it back. There is not any doubt that the difference was the dogs, or lack thereof.
Robert F. Scott (1868-1912) was a British explorer who made several attempts to reach the South Pole. From their base camp on Ross Island, Scott, accompanied by Earnest Henry Shackleton (1874-1922), and E.A. Wilson penetrated as close as 82º 17’ S. to the pole at the Ross Ice Shelf on December 30, 1902. Scott believed that the use of sled dogs was somehow disreputable. “No journey made with dogs,” Captain Scott wrote, “can approach the height of that fine conception which is realized when a party of men go forth to face hardships, dangers, and difficulties by their own unaided efforts.”
Later, Shackleton and another party of five men reached 88º 23’ S. on January 9, 1909, a point a mere 97-miles from the pole. “The successful experimental use of hardy Manchurian ponies, and the pioneering of a route up the great Beardmore Glacier to the polar plateau by Shackleton, paved the way for the epic trip of Scott in 1911-12 to the South Pole.”
The second participant in the epic race was Roald Amundsen (1872-1928). Amundsen was the Norwegian explorer that ultimately discovered the South Pole, but just as with Peary on the other side of the world, his triumph came with a price.
Amundsen began his history-making journey by first studying medicine. In 1897, he joined a Belgian Antarctica expedition as a mate, and was assigned to the “Belgica”. The “Belgica”, under the command of Captain Adrien de Gerlache, became trapped in the pack ice in March of 1898. The ship drifted with the ice of the Bellingshausen Sea until the following March; proving conclusively that one could winter the Antarctic.
It is noteworthy to mention that Amundsen was accompanied to Antarctica by the American physician-explorer F.A. Cook. Amundsen and Cook were largely responsible for bringing the “Belgica’s” crew through severe attacks of scurvy.
A few years later Amundsen made plans to conquer the Northwest Passage. With a crew of only six he sailed secretly on the “Gjöa”, a forty seven-ton sloop, in order to avoid creditors. He was the first man to take a ship through the fabled passage. He then began to focus his attention on accomplishing spectacular polar achievements.
Amundsen planned to drift across the North Pole in a ship called the “Fram”. This plan was secretly altered when the news that Robert E. Peary had reached the North Pole assaulted the wires. He continued his preparations and in June of 1910 Amundsen left Norway; no one save his brother knew that he sailed for the South Pole instead of the already conquered North Pole. Amundsen sailed to the Ross Sea and set up a base camp some sixty-miles closer to the pole than his adversary Captain Scott. As a matter of personal, and nationalistic pride it was vital to him that he reach the pole first.
Unlike Scott’s party who chose to rely primarily on horses and the Beardmore Glacier route, Amundsen and his party chose to travel with sledges pulled by dogs and to take the Axel Heiberg Glacier route. He reached the South Pole on December 14, 1911, beating Captain Scott by thirty-four days. Appley Cherry-Garrard was a member of Scott’s previous excursions, he described the vast differences between the canines’ and ponies’ ability to adapt to the polar environment in the following account:
“The animals suffer the most, and during the this first blizzard all our ponies were weakened, and two of them became practically useless…Nothing was left undone for them which we could manage, but necessarily the Antarctic is a grim place for ponies. I think Scott felt the sufferings of the ponies more than the animals themselves. It was different with the dogs. These fairly warm blizzards were only a rest for them. Snugly curled up in [a] hole in the snow they allowed themselves to be drifted over. Bieleglas and Vaida, two half-brothers who pulled side by side, always insisted upon sharing one hole, and for greater warmth one would lie on top of the other. At intervals of two hours or so they fraternally changed places.”
Amundsen’s team arrived safely back at Franheim Station at the Bay of Whales with very little difficulty. On January 17, 1912, seventy-eight days after leaving camp, Captain Scott’s final assault team achieved the South Pole. The despair of coming so far just to find the Norwegian flag must have been nearly overwhelming. Their return trek was aggravatingly slow as men succumbed to the environment. Scott’s party was caught in a blizzard on the Ross Ice Shelf. There they pitched their tents, and their food and fuel dwindled, then finally ran out. Only eleven-miles from their One Ton Camp, Scott and his companions perished.
Dr. Robert Forto is the Dog Sledding Examiner, a musher training for his first Iditarod under the Team Ineka banner and the host of the popular, Mush! You Huskies radio show.