The Tragic Race To The South Pole: Who Won And Who Lost?

Members of the ill-fated Terra Nova expedition at the South Pole.
Members of the ill-fated Terra Nova expedition at the South Pole.

What Is The South Pole?

The South Pole is located on the continent of Antarctica at the opposite end of the world from the North Pole. It is generally accepted as the place where the Earth rotates on its axis, although this is not the exact location. The South Pole sits at an altitude of 9,301 feet above sea level and is surrounded by a flat, frozen plateau. Interestingly, around 9,000 feet of its elevation consists of an ice cap, which means the land is actually much closer to sea level. The Bay of Whales can be reached 800 miles away and is the closest coastline to the South Pole.

The Heroic Age Of Antarctic Exploration

Interest in exploring the South Pole began to gain ground in the middle of the 19th century, when European explorers sought to understand more of the Antarctic region. The time spent focusing on this area of the world is often referred to as the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, which came to an end around the time of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition between 1914 and 1917. The goal of the majority of these expeditions was to explore inland Antarctica, however, they succeeded only in mapping the continent’s coastline.

Beginning The Journey To The South Pole

The desire to reach the South Pole had its peak in 1911 when two men, Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott, tried to beat one another to the destination. Amundsen earned the honor on December 14, 1911, when he and his team (made up of Sverre Hassel, Oscar Wisting, and Helmer Hanssen) planted the Flag of Norway on the site.

The group began the trek on October 19th, taking off with 52 dogs and 4 sledges filled with equipment. Faced with poor weather conditions, the expedition team managed to progress an average of 17 miles each day. In order to track their path, the team members built snow blocks, which they stacked at every 3 miles. After around a month of treacherous hiking, the expedition ran into the Transantarctic mountains and had to determine a safe crossing route. Amundsen chose a 34-mile long glacier as a clear path and later named it the Axel Heiberg Glacier in honor of one of the expedition’s financiers. It took the team 3 days to reach the summit of the glacier, marking the beginning of the final leg of the journey.

The Final Stage Before Reaching The South Pole

By the time they reached the 10,600-foot elevation, 7 of the dogs had died and only 18 of those remaining would continue on with the rest of the trip. The sledge drivers were forced to kill 27 of the dogs for food to give both the dogs and the humans. The team members then prepared 3 sledges for a possible trek of 60 additional days and left the fourth sledge behind with the 27 dog carcasses. They set out again on November 25 in foggy conditions. The landscape before them was pure ice filled with cracks and crevices.

By December 8, the team had reached the point previously reached by Shackleton, the furthest south in the history of Antarctic exploration. On December 14, Amundsen led the team to the South Pole, planting the Norwegian flag and naming the area King Haakon VII’s Plateau. The exploration team stayed an additional 3 days to record the exact location of the pole. Before leaving, the group set up a tent. Inside, they left some supplies for their rival, Robert Falcon Scott, and a letter for Scott to deliver to King Haakon.

A Second South Pole Expedition

Because Amundsen had kept his expedition a secret from the public, Robert Falcon Scott and his Terra Nova Expedition set out for the South Pole just a few weeks later. The plan was that a party of 16 men would make the journey with a team of dogs and ponies for the first stage of the trip. Upon reaching the Beardmore Glacier, 4 men would be sent back to the base with the dogs and the ponies would be killed for food. The remaining 12 team members would be split into 3 groups to climb the glacier and advance across the plateau. The dog teams were to stock up on supplies and return to meet the group coming back from the pole.

The expedition, however, took longer than expected and the dogs were not immediately sent back to camp. On December 4, a blizzard forced the team to camp for 5 days before reaching the Beardmore Glacier. When the blizzard passed, the expedition finally made it to the polar plateau on December 20 and then conditions changed for the better, allowing them to make up lost time. On January 17, 1912, the Terra Nova Expedition reached the South Pole. The next day, the team discovered the tent, supplies, and letter left by Amundsen.

Tragedy Strikes

The team left the South Pole to return to base and for three weeks, conditions allowed the expedition to advance without major problems. After this initial run, however, some of the team members began suffering poor health. Lawrence Oates and Edgar Evans were fighting frostbite (Evans was also experiencing several other ailments). The men were losing moral and becoming weaker. After descending the glacier and almost reaching the bottom, Evans collapsed and died on February 17.

The team, in dire need of supplies, arrived 3 days early to the meeting place where the dog teams were supposed to bring additional supplies. Unfortunately, the dogs didn’t arrive, the temperature dropped severely, and the fuel began to run out. The low temperatures caused ice crystals on the sled runners that made it difficult to progress. This, combined with the frostbite on Oate’s foot, forced the team to cut their daily journeys down to 5 miles. On March 16, Oates (also suffering frostbite on his hands) willingly left the tent, never to return. The team was able to advance further without Oates, however, on March 20, they were hit by another blizzard, just 11 miles from One Ton Depot. Scott made a final diary entry on March 29, which is assumed to be the day the final team members died. Their bodies were recovered on November 12, 1912.


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