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The race to the South Pole
Robert Falcon Scott | Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton | Roald Amundsen | Discovery – Scott's first expedition | Nimrod – Shackleton's first solo expedition | Terra Nova – Scott's second expedition | Fram – the Norwegian challenge | The race | Endurance – The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition
South: the Race to the Pole was a 2001 exhibition at the Museum about the 'heroic age' of Antarctic exploration, from the beginning of the 20th century to the end of the First World War. The exhibition focused on the expeditions of Captain Robert Falcon Scott, Sir Ernest Shackleton and the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen.
Scott was born on 6 June 1868 near Devonport. Having successfully completed the cadet's exam he joined the Royal Navy, serving on several ships from 1881–87. He spent the winter of 1887–88 at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich. In March 1888 he achieved the highest marks in his class, subsequently serving as an officer in the Mediterranean and at home.
By the summer of 1897, Scott had joined the flagship of the Channel Squadron, HMS Majestic, as torpedo lieutenant. Many of the Discovery expedition members, including Edgar Evans, were to come from this ship and it was during his service in Majestic that Scott again met Markham (who he had first met ten years previously), who outlined his plans for a prospective Antarctic expedition. Scott was inspired by the idea, which he saw as a route to promotion, and applied to lead the expedition.
He received his letter of appointment as commander on 9 June 1900 and the Discovery sailed from London on 31 July 1901. After two winters spent trapped in the ice, Discovery returned to London in September 1904 to a muted reception. However, Scott's achievements were much praised and the Admiralty and scientific community alike approved the expedition's scientific work.
In September 1909, following the triumphant return of Shackleton in Nimrod, Scott announced his next Antarctic expedition. This was intended to secure the honour of being first to reach the South Pole for the British Empire. The Terra Nova expedition sailed on 1 June 1910. Beset by difficulties, including poor weather conditions, Scott reached the Pole on 17 January 1912 to find that he had been beaten by Amundsen.
The tortuous return journey was faced with stoicism and dignity. Scott died in his tent alongside Wilson and Bowers. Weak from exhaustion, hunger and extreme cold, his last diary entry is dated 29 March 1912. He was posthumously made a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath.
Skackleton was born at Kilkea House, Co. Kildare on 15 February 1874. Ernest's father, Henry, was a doctor who later settled in England, practising at Sydenham in south-east London. Ernest was one of ten children. After schooling at Dulwich College (1887–90), Shackleton went to Liverpool to become an apprentice on a sailing merchantman. By 1899 he was Third Officer on the Union Castle liner Tintagel Castle.
Through contact with a passenger there, Cyril Longstaff, whose father sponsored Scott's Discovery expedition, Shackleton was taken on as Third Officer in the Discovery, which departed for Antarctica in the summer of 1901. Scott selected him for the southern journey across the Great Ice Barrier, where Shackleton's temporary breakdown partly due to scurvy became a turning point in his life. Scott sent him home but he was devastated at having to leave the expedition and resolved to return to the Antarctic to prove himself as a polar explorer.
In 1903 Shackleton was approached by the Admiralty to sail as chief officer on the Terra Nova to assist the Morning in bringing Scott and his men home from the Discovery expedition. Shackleton declined, his mind fixed on leading his own expedition to Antarctica.
In 1907, with the backing of various sponsors, including Clydebank shipbuilder William Beardmore (later Lord Invernairn), Shackleton's expedition sailed in Nimrod to try and reach the South Pole. His party failed by 97 miles. Shackleton received a hero's welcome on his return home in 1909 and was subsequently knighted.
The aim of Shackleton's second expedition, the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914–17), was to cross the Antarctic continent but his ship, Endurance, was crushed by ice and Shackleton and his crew became stranded on Elephant Island. The subsequent rescue of his trapped men, involving a perilous boat journey to South Georgia and an arduous crossing of the mountainous island to reach the Norwegian whaling station at Stromness, is Shackleton's most memorable achievement.
Shackleton sailed on his third and last expedition in the Quest in 1922 to explore the Enderby Land coast and investigate various Antarctic islands. He died on board of heart failure, aged 47, on 5 January 1922, just after arriving at South Georgia, where he is buried.
Roald Engebreth Gravning Amundsen was born in 1872 at Borge, near Christiania (Oslo), Norway. At an early age, Amundsen became fascinated by Polar exploration, sleeping with his bedroom windows open during the worst Norwegian winters to help condition himself for his future career. He left his university medical studies to head north to sea with Arctic whaling skippers.
In 1899, Amundsen was part of the Belgian Belgica expedition to the Antarctic and in 1903–06 became the first explorer to sail through the North-West Passage, in his own ship Gjøa. After this expedition, Amundsen had planned to drift across the North Pole in Fram, like Nansen, but when he heard the news of the Pole having been claimed by two Americans, Peary and Cook, he turned his attention south. He planned to claim the South Pole for Norway.
Amundsen was as highly regarded for his skills in organization and planning as he was for his expertise as an explorer, and he kept his plans to head south very secret. He set out in Fram with his crew, ostensibly planning to head north round South America to the Arctic, but all the time intending to head south to Antarctica first and then continue north. Fram reached the Ross Ice Shelf on 14 January 1911, Amundsen having chosen to land at the Bay of Whales. This gained the Norwegians a 60-mile advantage over Scott, who returned to land at McMurdo Sound.
On 18 October 1911, after the Antarctic winter, Amundsen's team set out on its drive toward the Pole. Captain Scott began his trek three weeks later. At approximately 15.00 on 14 December 1911, Amundsen raised the flag of Norway at the South Pole. He had reached the Pole a full 33 days before Captain Scott arrived. Amundsen and his crew returned to their base camp on 25 January 1912, 99 days and approximately 1400 nautical miles after their departure.
During the First World War, Amundsen supplied 'neutral' shipping and made money doing so. Later, he became only the second person to complete the North-East Passage around Siberia. He made history again when, with his backer Lincoln Ellsworth, he flew the airship Norge to Alaska via the North Pole – the first trans-Arctic flight across the Pole. Amundsen now felt able to retire, a fulfilled man. But he always felt slighted by the extreme British reaction to his secretive plans to capture the South Pole and ended his life embittered. In 1928 Amundsen died when his plane crashed into the Arctic Ocean while he searched for the survivors of a lost airship.
'…the exploration of the Antarctic Regions is the greatest piece of geographical exploration still to be undertaken…'
Sixth International Geographical Congress, 3 August 1895
By the late 19th century, Antarctica was the last unexplored continent on earth. Western nations began to compete in its discovery, to gain knowledge and claim land. In 1900, the Norwegian explorer, Carsten Borchgrevink reached latitude 78°50' south, less than 700 miles from the South Pole. The race for the Pole had begun.
Sir Clements Markham, the influential President of the Royal Geographical Society, championed British interest in the Antarctic. Markham had developed a life-long passion for polar exploration since his Naval service in the search for Sir John Franklin, who perished with all his men in the Arctic in the 1840s. Markham campaigned for a British National Antarctic Expedition. In 1899 he won support for the first official Antarctic expedition since that of James Clark Ross in 1839.
For leader, he secured the appointment of his protégé, Robert Falcon Scott, a 31-year-old Royal Naval lieutenant. Scott set sail from Britain on 6 August 1901, with a mixed crew of scientists and Naval and merchant seamen, including Ernest Shackleton.
Scientific discovery and the journey south
'…I found it was a mistake to try and mix the merchant service & naval element on the mess deck…I am therefore sending most of them away.'
Scott to Sir Clements Markham from Antarctica, 27 February 1903
Scott set up his winter quarters in McMurdo Sound, on Ross Island, in February 1902. Unlike other European parties in Antarctica at the same time, the British National Antarctic Expedition was the first to explore land extensively. A programme of scientific work was undertaken, including zoology and geology. For most of the men, it was their first experience with skis and dog-driving.
The main summer task was the journey south by a sledging party made up of Scott, Dr Edward Wilson and Ernest Shackleton. They left on 2 November with 19 dogs and a support party ahead. The party reached 82°17' south, about 460 miles from the Pole, on 30 December. Sickness and hunger then forced them back. They returned on 3 February 1903 but the journey had nearly cost them their lives. With Discovery frozen in, they were greeted by a relief ship, Morning. Eight men were ordered home by Scott, including a reluctant Shackleton, who had been near death. The rest of the party remained for a second winter, until February 1904, when they were relieved by a Royal Naval expedition.
Scott returned a celebrity and was promoted to Captain. The scientific results of the expedition were substantial although there was some criticism of its organization and public costs.
'I have had offers sometimes up to £60,000 for book and lectures if I reach the South Pole...'
Shackleton to Elspeth Beardmore (Lady Invernairn) 3 May 1907
Ernest Shackleton became unhappy serving under Scott on the Discovery expedition. Different in temperament, Shackleton was a charismatic leader. He was keen to lead his own expedition with the stated purpose of reaching the South Pole first. With international competition threatening, he had to rely on his own skills to secure funds, men, a ship and supplies.
Shackleton's ship, Nimrod, was an old Arctic vessel in poor condition. He recruited a mixed crew of scientists, sailors, civilians and even a paying guest. For transport on the ice, ponies and a motor car were taken. A few dogs were added as an afterthought. After a mere seven months of preparation, Nimrod finally left England on 7 August 1907.
Shackleton's journey south
'The only comment he made to me about not reaching the Pole was "a live donkey is better than a dead lion isn't it?"'
Shackleton's wife, Emily, to H. R. Mill, 16 August 1922
Base camp was established at Cape Royds in McMurdo Sound. This proved controversial, as Scott had claimed 'territorial rights' to this area and Shackleton had agreed not to land there. On board Nimrod were Australians recruited during the voyage south, including the geologists Professor Edgeworth David (who was Welsh-born) and Douglas Mawson. In 1908, David led the party that climbed the active volcano on Ross Island, Mount Erebus (13500ft/3794m). He also led the team that that reached the South Magnetic Pole in 1909.
However, the main focus was Shackleton's party heading towards the Pole. Accompanied by Frank Wild, Eric Marshall and Jameson Boyd Adams, he set off on 29 October 1908. Ponies were initially used to pull the sledges but they all died after suffering badly in the sub-zero conditions.
The men reached the high Polar plateau in December 1909 and claimed it for Edward VII. On 9 January, in danger of starving, Shackleton decided to turn back. He had reached 88°23' south, only 97 miles from the Pole. The decision saved their lives but the three-month journey back to base was harrowing.
On his return, Shackleton was hailed as a national hero and was knighted.
'…the main object of the expedition is to reach the South Pole for the Empire...'
Scott, quoted in The Times, 12 September 1910
Scott had decided to return to Antarctica well before Shackleton's Nimrod set sail in 1907. He had support from the Admiralty and the Government, which made a grant of £20,000. Scott recruited assorted men from Discovery and Nimrod, including Naval seamen, scientists and paying members, notably Captain Lawrence Oates, an army officer who came to care for the ponies. In addition, he took Herbert Ponting, a professional photographer who was also to film the expedition.
Terra Nova finally sailed from Cardiff on 15 June 1910. By the time she left New Zealand for Antarctica on 29 November, there were 33 dogs, 19 ponies, three motorized sledges and provisions for a shore party of 25 men on board.
Survival on the ice
'It appears that with all our resources, there is little margin, and a few accidents or a spell of bad weather would not only bring failure but very likely disaster.'
George Simpson, meteorologist on Terra Nova
Scott's second expedition set up camp at Cape Evans, in McMurdo Sound, in January 1911 and 25 men spent the winter there. They undertook scientific experiments and explored around the Ross Sea. Scott aimed to follow the route Shackleton had pioneered towards the Pole, up the Beardmore Glacier. He laid depots on the southern route early in the year, although his motor sledges failed and his ponies suffered. The result was that his main 'One Ton' depot was not as far south as he intended. This had dire consequences for his return journey from the Pole.
Scott left with support parties, dogs and ponies for his journey to the Pole on 1 November 1911. His motor sledges, which Amundsen feared would put the British ahead, rapidly broke down and were abandoned. The support parties and the dogs successively turned back as they laid further depots. The ponies were shot as they weakened to provide meat, some left as supplies for Scott's return.
Scott did not pick his final team until the last support party turned back 150 miles from the Pole. At the last moment, he added a fifth man, Henry 'Birdie' Bowers, to his man-hauling Polar party of Dr Wilson, Petty Officer Edgar Evans and Captain Lawrence Oates. This created significant difficulties in managing the rations and fuel.
'…my plans made the Pole the first objective.'
Captain Roald Amundsen was a respected Norwegian explorer, having been the first to sail through the North-West Passage (1903–06). He had also wintered south of the Antarctic Circle in 1898.
Norway revolutionized Polar exploration in the late 19th century, with Fridtjof Nansen's pioneering attempt to drift across the Arctic Ocean to the North Pole in his unique ice-resistant ship, Fram. With Norwegian independence from Sweden in 1905, Nansen became an international ambassador for his country as well as a polar authority.
Amundsen wanted to be the first to reach the North Pole but, with two American claims to have done so in 1909, he shifted his attention to the South Pole. He kept his plans secret from most of his crew and backers, for fear he would be stopped. He left Norway in the Fram on 9 August 1911, with 19 men and 97 dogs. Compared with Scott's party, this was less men and three times as many dogs.
Two months into his voyage, he announced publicly his plans to head south, sending a cable to Scott in Australia:
Beg leave to inform you Fram proceeding Antarctic. Amundsen
Survival on the ice
'We are going like greyhounds over the endless flat snow plain.'
Amundsen, 8 November 1911
The Norwegian Antarctic Expedition arrived at the Bay of Whales on the Ross Ice Shelf on 15 January 1911. They were 400 miles from the British base. They set up winter quarters, called 'Framheim' (Fram home), on the ice and nine men wintered there. Amundsen and his men made extensive preparations and laid supply depots southwards in 1911. These extended much further south than Scott's thanks to the Norwegians' expert use of dogs and skis. They were pioneering a new route to the Pole.
Amundsen set out from Framheim on 8 September 1911 but was driven back in disarray by intense cold. This prompted a mutiny from one of Nansen's former men, Hjalmar Johansen, and led to Amundsen reducing his Polar party from eight to five. They were: Amundsen, Oscar Wisting, Olav Bjaaland – a skiing champion – and the two expert dog-drivers, Helmer Hanssen and Sverre Hassel. The party finally left with four sledges and 52 dogs on 20 October.
Having departed from their base camps within two weeks of each other, Scott and Amundsen were in an undeclared race to the South Pole. Scott not only intended to reach the Pole but also to gather scientific information on the way. Using extracts from the diaries of the men involved, the story of the two expeditions is told below, illustrating the contrasting fortunes of both.
1 November 1911
'The future is in the lap of the gods. I can think of nothing left undone to deserve success.' Scott
20 October 1911
'…Our plan is one, one and again one alone- to reach the pole. For that goal, I have decided to throw everything else aside.' Amundsen
15 November 1911
'…we have decided to give the animals a day's rest here, and then to push
17 November 1911
'We were extraordinary lucky. Just enough loose snow for the dogs' paws, and a gradient not steeper than they can manage– the first day at any rate.' Amundsen
3 December 1911
'The changes of conditions are inconceivably rapid, perfectly bewildering…we have managed to get 11½ miles south and to this camp at 7 p.m. – the conditions of marching simply horrible.' Scott
2 December 1911
'…the plateau over which we are now travelling resembles a frozen sea…excellent going for a skater, but unfortunately unsuitable for our dogs and ourselves. I drag myself with my sticks ahead on skis. It is not easy.' Amundsen
9 December 1911
'Thank God the horses are now all done with and we begin the heavier work ourselves' Wilson
9 December 1911
'We stayed in bed late today…to prepare for the final onslaught.' Amundsen
16 December 1911
'Our fuel only just does it, but that is all we want, and we have a bit in hand for the summit.' Scott
14 December 1911
'So we arrived and were able to plant our flag at the geographical South Pole. God be thanked!' Amundsen
'…the great thing is that we are here as the first men, no English flag waves, but a 3 coloured Norwegian.' Olav Bjaaland
1 January 1912
'Evans' party going ahead on foot. We followed on ski. Very stupidly we had not seen to our ski shoes beforehand, and it took a good half-hour to get them right…when we did get away, to our surprise the sledge pulled very easily, and we made fine progress, rapidly gaining on the foot-haulers.'
29 December 1911
'We went with the speed of lightning. The [dog] drivers support themselves on their sledges, are pulled along on skis, and have halcyon days.' Amundsen
17 January 1912
'Great God! This is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority.' Scott
'It is sad that we have been forestalled by the Norwegians, but I am glad that we have done it by good British man-haulage.' Bowers
17 January 1912
'We had a special meal to celebrate our arrival at civilization's furthermost outpost in the South…a mixture of pemmican and seal steak. For dessert: chocolate pudding.'
24 January 1912
'…God help us, with the tremendous summit journey and scant food. I don't like the easy way in which Oates and Evans get frostbitten.' Scott
26 January 1912
'…gathering round the breakfast table at Framheim after the end of the trip, belongs to the moments in one's life one never forgets.' Helmer Hanssen
17 February 1912
'A very terrible day…[Evans] was on his knees with clothing disarranged, hands uncovered and frost-bitten, and a wild look in his eyes. ..we got him into the tent quite comatose. He died quietly at 12.30 a.m.' Scott
9 February 1912
'[Fram] crept forwards miserably slowly, headwinds and fog and rain and high seas on the beam.' Olav Bjaaland
7 March 1912
'One feels that for poor Oates the crisis is near, but none of us are improving…' Scott
7 March 1912
'Treated as a tramp…given a miserable little room.' Amundsen
'I have had some hard knocks…but I let the past rest, and am now looking forward to carrying out the last big thing to be done in the South'
Shackleton to Elspeth Beardmore (Lady Invernairn), 13 January 1914
Despite the conquest of the South Pole and the subsequent national outpouring of grief over Scott's death, Shackleton wished to return to Antarctica. His bold plan was to cross the Antarctic continent via the Pole – an idea that had been proposed by other explorers. He was restless at home and this was his last chance to fulfil his ambitions. Shackleton tirelessly sought official backing and eventually managed to raise support and money for his grand scheme. He bought a Norwegian ship called Polaris, renamed her Endurance (from his family motto), and hand-picked 27 men, including experienced Antarctic explorers, scientists and a professional photographer. Endurance left England on 1 August 1914.
Endurance in the ice
'We were frozen like an almond in the middle of a chocolate bar'
Thomas Orde-Lees, storekeeper on Endurance
Shackleton left England on the brink of World War I but the Admiralty allowed the expedition to proceed. Endurance sailed via South Georgia to the relatively unknown Weddell Sea. The pack-ice closed round the ship and she became trapped on 19 January 1915, despite desperate efforts to free her. From January to October, the men endured great boredom as the ship drifted north nearly 800 miles with the ice. On 27 October, its pressure began to crush Endurance and Shackleton ordered his men to abandon ship: on 21 November she finally sank. The loss of Endurance left the crew marooned on the ice, far from land and with just three ship's boats for survival.
Life on the ice
'…a good deal of cheerfulness is due to the order & routine which Sir E. establishes…'
Frank Worsley, Master of Endurance
The men lived on the drifting ice, killing penguins and seals for food and fuel. Shackleton initially planned to drag the boats over the ice, making for Graham Land on the Antarctic Peninsula, but hauling them was back-breaking work. It nearly caused a mutiny and the idea was abandoned. After five and a half months, winter began to close in and the ice began to break up as it drifted into the Southern Ocean. Shackleton now planned to reach Clarence or Elephant Island, about 100 miles to the north, and the three boats were launched on 9 April 1916. The voyage was dreadful but they eventually reached Elephant Island on 15 April, their first landfall for 16 months.
'Thank God I haven't killed one of my men!'
Shackleton to Frank Worsley after landing on Elephant Island, 15 April 1916.
Shackleton and his men were castaways on an uninhabited island. No-one would look for them there and they did not have enough food to last the winter. Shackleton, Wild and Worsley agreed that a party would have to risk sailing 800 miles in one of the boats to South Georgia, to seek help from the Norwegian whaling stations there. The James Caird was the largest and most seaworthy and their carpenter, 'Chippy' McNeish, adapted her for the voyage. Five men accompanied Shackleton: Frank Worsley as navigator, Tom Crean, 'Chippy' McNeish, Tim McCarthy and 'Bosun' Vincent. He left his trusted friend Frank Wild in command of the 22 remaining men. On Elephant Island, Frank Hurley, the photographer, captured the agonising wait for Shackleton's return.