Amundsen's South Pole expedition

Roald Amundsen, Helmer Hanssen, Sverre Hassel and Oscar Wisting (l–r) at "Polheim", the tent erected at the South Pole on 16 December 1911. The top flag is the Flag of Norway; the bottom is marked "Fram". Photograph by Olav Bjaaland.

The first expedition to reach the geographic South Pole was led by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. He and four others arrived at the pole on 14 December 1911,[n 1] five weeks ahead of a British party led by Robert Falcon Scott as part of the Terra Nova Expedition. Amundsen and his team returned safely to their base, and later knew that Scott and his four companions had died on their return journey.

Amundsen's initial plans had focused on the Arctic and the conquest of the North Pole by means of an extended drift in an icebound ship. He obtained the use of Fridtjof Nansen's polar exploration ship Fram, and undertook extensive fundraising. Preparations for this expedition were disrupted when, in 1909, the rival American explorers Frederick Cook and Robert E. Peary each claimed to have reached the North Pole. Amundsen then changed his plan and began to prepare for a conquest of the South Pole; uncertain of the extent to which the public and his backers would support him, he kept this revised objective secret. When he set out in June 1910, he led even his crew to believe they were embarking on an Arctic drift, and revealed their true Antarctic destination only when Fram was leaving their last port of call, Madeira.

Amundsen made his Antarctic base, which he named "Framheim", in the Bay of Whales on the Great Ice Barrier. After months of preparation, depot-laying and a false start that ended in near-disaster, he and his party set out for the pole in October 1911. In the course of their journey they discovered the Axel Heiberg Glacier, which provided their route to the polar plateau and ultimately to the South Pole. The party's mastery of the use of skis and their expertise with sled dogs ensured rapid and relatively trouble-free travel. Other achievements of the expedition included the first exploration of King Edward VII Land and an extensive oceanographic cruise.

The expedition's success was widely applauded, though the story of Scott's heroic failure overshadowed its achievement in the United Kingdom. Amundsen's decision to keep his true plans secret until the last moment was criticised by some. Recent polar historians have more fully recognised the skill and courage of Amundsen's party; the permanent scientific base at the pole bears his name, together with that of Scott.


Gjøa, the small sloop in which Amundsen and his crew conquered the Northwest Passage, 1903–06

Amundsen was born in Fredrikstad (around 80 km from Christiania (now Oslo)), Norway, in 1872, the son of a ship-owner.[3] In 1893, he abandoned his medical studies at Christiania University and signed up as a seaman aboard the sealer Magdalena for a voyage to the Arctic. After several further voyages he qualified as a second mate; when not at sea, he developed his skills as a cross-country skier in the harsh environment of Norway's Hardangervidda plateau.[4] In 1896, inspired by the polar exploits of his countryman Fridtjof Nansen, Amundsen joined the Belgian Antarctic Expedition as mate, aboard Belgica under Adrien de Gerlache.[5] Early in 1898 the ship became trapped by pack ice in the Bellinghausen Sea, and was held fast for almost a year. The expedition thus became, involuntarily, the first to spend a complete winter in Antarctic waters, a period marked by depression, near-starvation, insanity, and scurvy among the crew.[6] Amundsen remained dispassionate, recording everything and using the experience as an education in all aspects of polar exploration techniques, particularly aids, clothing and diet.[7]

Belgica's voyage marked the beginning of what became known as the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration,[6] and was rapidly followed by expeditions from the United Kingdom, Sweden, Germany and France. However, on his return to Norway in 1899, Amundsen turned his attention northwards. Confident in his abilities to lead an expedition, he planned a traversal of the Northwest Passage, the then-uncharted sea route from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the labyrinth of north Canadian islands. Having earned his master's ticket, Amundsen acquired a small sloop, Gjøa, which he adapted for Arctic travel. He secured the patronage of King Oscar of Sweden and Norway, the support of Nansen, and sufficient financial backing to set out in June 1903 with a crew of six.[8] The voyage lasted until 1906 and was wholly successful; the Northwest Passage, which defeated mariners for centuries, was finally conquered.[9] At the age of 34 Amundsen became a national hero, in the first rank of polar explorers.[8]

In November 1906 the American Robert Peary returned from his latest unsuccessful quest for the North Pole, claiming a new Farthest North of 87° 6′—a record disputed by later historians.[10] He immediately began raising funds for a further attempt.[11] In July 1907 Dr Frederick Cook, a former shipmate of Amundsen's from Belgica, set off northwards on what was ostensibly a hunting trip but was rumoured to be an attempt on the North Pole.[12] A month later Ernest Shackleton's Nimrod Expedition sailed for Antarctica, while Robert Falcon Scott was preparing a further expedition should Shackleton fail.[13] Amundsen saw no reason to concede priority in the south to the British, and spoke publicly about the prospects of leading an Antarctic expedition—although his preferred goal remained the North Pole.[14]

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