Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration:Roald Amundsen.

Once I’m at Halley I’ll be using this blog to keep people up to date with what I’m doing and also post some great photos of the place. I’ve not put my photography skills to the test yet but I get the feeling that in such a beautiful place it will be hard to not at least get some good shots.

In the meantime I’ll be posting about my training (more to come on that later) and about the Antarctic continent itself. This post is about the men who set off to discover the place, if only very briefly. The most famous are Amundsen, Scott, Shackleton and Mawson. A lot has been written about them over the years and opinion has changed in that time.

Roald Amundsen

Roald Amundsen

Probably the most uncontroversial of them is Roald Amundsen, the first man to reach the South Pole. Although not entirely without difficulty, Roald Amundsen’s attempt to be the first man to reach the South pole was without major incident and easy when compared to the harrowing stories of tragedy and endurance that typified the journeys of his contemporaries, and indeed his achievement was overshadowed by their heroic failures. This is a testament to the planning, preparation and single mindedness of  Amundsen as opposed to simple good fortune.

In the words of the man himself:

I may say that this is the greatest factor—the way in which the expedition is equipped—the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it. Victory awaits him who has everything in order — luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck.

— from The South Pole, by Roald Amundsen

An accomplished polar explorer who had already become the first man to traverse the northwest passage Amundsen had made plans to be the first to reach the North pole but, upon hearing that Frederick Cook and then Robert Peary had taken that honour, decided to head south instead.  To avoid losing financial backing he kept this quiet and later informed Robert Falcon Scott about his intentions whilst en-route with the following sent in a telegram:

"Beg to inform you-fram proceeding Antarctic-Amundsen"

Whilst Scott and Shackleton did surveying and scientific work on their attempts (with Scott carrying thirty pounds of rock collected on the way to the pole) Amundsen had the single aim of being the first to the pole, taking only two photographs on the way.  Amundsen took dog and sled teams with him, and, importantly, men experienced in their use, these would be the principle method of travel. Dogs, as well as having a history of polar travel in the Arctic had the added benefit of being able to provide both meat for the men and for the other dogs. Of the 45 dogs who set off to the pole, only 18 would arrive, with the rest killed for food. Unlike the ponies favoured by Scott they would require no fodder and could be fed on food caught in the Antarctic such as seal and penguin.

As well as sled teams the men would also use skis. the team was at least proficient in there use, with some members being world-class skiers.

The equipment he used was the best available including boots that had been tested for years in the Arctic and clothes similar to those used by the Inuit. Sledges and ski’s were of the best design and the primus stove Amundsen used is similar to those used today. The tents were described as the best and most practical that had ever been used.

Roald Amundsen

Amundsen on the ice.

Amundsen’s journey to the pole and back took ninety nine days and he reached the pole on the 14 December 1911, planting flag poles and leaving a tent that Scott would later find on his ill-fated attempt.

Amundsen at the South Pole December 1911

Amundsen at the South Pole December 1911

Amundsen was respected amongst explorers and although he was hailed as a hero this was somewhat muted. In Britain, it was thought that his preparation, use of dogs as opposed to man-hauling the sleds and his general approach to his attempt were somehow not in keeping with the spirit of the age – that he was too professional, something that would be considered ludicrous today.  Amundsen reached the pole because of excellent planning, the vast experience of a squad of men picked for their skills and physical capabilities and because he used both tried and tested means of transport and modern equipment. He focussed on a single goal and was unsentimental about his source of food. Despite a false start to the attempt and some disagreements with team members the journey was an example of how polar expeditions should be accomplished.

The U.S. Antarctic base at the pole bears his name, along with that of Scott and Roald Amundsen is remembered as a giant of the era and a true Antarctic hero.


3 thoughts on “Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration:Roald Amundsen.

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