Wednesday, September 7, 2011

100th anniversary of the start of Amundsen's quest for the South Pole

On the 8th of September, 1911 -- exactly 100 years ago -- Roald Amundsen of Norway began the first successful mission to the South Pole.

Amundsen had arrived at the Bay of Whales in Antarctica in January of 1911, and spent the Antarctic winter preparing and improving his gear for the expedition (remember that the summer months of the northern hemisphere correspond to the winter months in the southern hemisphere). In September, as the spring months began in the southern hemisphere (just as the fall months are commencing here in the northern hemisphere), Amundsen decided to begin his quest for the pole.

Amundsen began towards the pole with seven other members of his expedition on the 8th of September after warmer temperatures appeared to herald the onset of spring, but temperatures soon dropped to an unforgiving -60° F and by the 12th of September, Amundsen decided to cache supplies at 80° south latitude and turn back to his ship and base in the Bay of Whales (they had previously created supply depots at S 80°, S 81°, and S 82° in February of 1911 in preparation for their push to the pole later in the year).

Amundsen would wait until 19 October 1911 to set out again for the pole, which they would reach on 14 December 1911. It would be the first time in known history that human beings reached latitude S 90°.

The success of the Amundsen expedition would be largely overshadowed in the English-speaking world by the death of the English explorer Robert Scott and his party, who reached the pole in January of 1912 but perished on the return journey in February and March of 1912.

Amundsen's great achievement and the excellent terrain analysis and mission planning that contributed to his success was revived by the 1979 publication of a book entitled Scott and Amundsen by Roland Huntford. The book was the basis for a gripping six-part television miniseries entitled The Last Place on Earth which aired in 1985 and which I clearly remember watching when it was first broadcast. Huntford's book was later retitled The Last Place on Earth as well.

Roald Amundsen was born on 16 July 1872, which means that if you were born on that date in 1972, you are the same age that Amundsen was when he started his push to the South Pole one hundred years ago. He later reached the North Pole in 1925, and because there is some doubt as to the accuracy of the claims of previous explorers who said they had made it to that pole, it is possible that Amundsen was the first there as well.

Roald Amundsen himself disappeared while on a rescue mission in the Arctic, in 1928, looking for survivors of an expedition whose plane had crashed. His body was never found or recovered.

The story of the quest to reach the South Pole is a thrilling one, and well worth studying in greater detail. It reminds us of the tremendous achievements that human beings are capable of accomplishing.

Further, the continent of Antarctica is incredibly important as a source of powerful evidence about the history of the earth. We have examined some of this Antarctic evidence in previous posts, including:
and of course,