One Hundred Years

December 14, 1911. One Hundred years ago.

Superconductivity was discovered, Bingham rediscovered Machu Pichu in Peru, the first public elevator was unveiled, and construction began in Boston for Fenway Park.

Only three years before, in 1908, the Ford Model-T car made its debut. The year after, in 1912, the Titanic struck an iceberg and sank. It would be another three years yet, in 1914, that the First World War began.

One hundred years ago today, Roald Amundsen of Norway (1872-1928) became the first man to reach the Geographic South Pole. He and four companions left the coast, anchoring their ship the Fram in the Bay of Whales in the Ross Sea on October 20th and arriving at the South Pole on December 14th 1911. They stayed for three day to take, and re-take, sun measurements and verify their actual position at the Pole.

Amundsen's team leaving their ship the Fram

Taking a solar observation at the South Pole on Dec 14, 1911

It was a long and arduous journey – a race against England’s Robert F. Scott. Yet as much as it was a competition between contemporary polar explorers it was a competition between the established country of England and the young nation of Norway (which gained independence in 1905). Both were experienced and tenacious men, however the two differed significantly in their planning, preparation, and outlook. The goals of the two teams also differed in that Scott and his financial supporters saw the expedition as a platform for science as much as exploration, whereas Amundsen’s primary purpose was to reach the Pole as efficiently and quickly as possible.

Roald Amundsen

Robert Falcon Scott

Learning from his experience in the North and with the Inuit populations Amundsen’s team brought dog teams and sleds, skiing much of the way. Amundsen had dreamed of being the first to reach the North Pole, but Frederick Cook and Robert Peary beat him to it, reaching the North Pole in 1908-9. He thus turned his passion for polar exploration to the South. Scott on the other hand, was motivated less by passion than by duty. He would have received notable promotion upon planting Britain’s flag at the Pole. He brought ponies, who unlike the dogs could not eat penguin and seal meat and whose fodder had to be brought all the way). They designed special snowshoes for the ponies, but these proved to be fragile. When the ponies succumbed to the harsh cold and exertion they resorted to man-hauling the heavy and cumbersome sledges by foot. While Amundsen’s men had been skiing for many years Scott did not attempt to do so before starting the journey itself. It proved to be difficult and frustrating and in the end they walked. Another piece which I found particularly interesting with a sizable rock collection in storage myself: Scott and his men hauled over 30 lbs of rock samples from the mountains they passed early in the journey all the way to the pole.

Amundsen near the Pole with his dog team

A photo from Amundsen's journey

Perhaps surprisingly Scott did manage to make it to the South Pole, arriving on January 17th, 1912. Heartbroken at finding Amundsen’s tent and Norwegian flag planted and left more than a month prior he turned around depressed and pessimistic. Tragically while Amundsen returned to his base camp, with no casualties, nearly 100 days after leaving, none of Scott’s expedition survived the return march from the Pole.

Upon his return and his telegram announcing their success in reaching the Pole Roald Amundsen penned a manuscript detailing his voyage and experience:
“Brisbane, Queensland, April 13, 1912.
Here I am, sitting in the shade of palms, surrounded by the most wonderful
vegetation, enjoying the most magnificent fruits, and writing — the history of
the South Pole. What an infinite distance seems to separate that region from
these surroundings! And yet it is only four months since my gallant comrades and
I reached the coveted spot.
I write the history of the South Pole! If anyone had hinted a word of anything
of the sort four or five years ago, I should have looked upon him as incurably
mad. And yet the madman would have been right. One circumstance has followed on
the heels of another, and everything has turned out so entirely different from
what I had imagined.
On December 14, 1911, five men stood at the southern end of our earth’s axis,
planted the Norwegian flag there, and named the region after the man for whom
they would all gladly have offered their lives — King Haakon VII. Thus the veil
was torn aside for all time, and one of the greatest of our earth’s secrets had
ceased to exist.”

The official photo of Amundsen's team and the tent and flag they erected

On November 29th, 1929 Admiral Byrd flew over the South Pole, but Scott’s arrival in January 1912, marked the last man stood at the Pole itself until 1957. It was the International Polar Year (IPY) and the US Navy constructed the first South Pole Station. There has been a US station manned year-round ever since. The first women did not make it to the Pole for another 12 years. In November 1969 six women stepped off the back of a US Navy plane, so none could claim to be the first, these women were Pam Young, Jean Pearson, Lois Jones, Eileen McSaveney, Kay Lindsay, and Terry Tickhill.

The first women to stand at the South Pole - US Navy photo

The first station, now familiarly called “Old Pole”, was built of simple rectangular buildings and covered walkways placed on the snow itself. Steadily the drifting snow began to bury the place and in the end it was buried completely. In 1972-73 the iconic Dome was built and Old Pole was abandoned. Construction of the new Elevated Station began in 2000 and was finally completed in 2008. The Dome has since been completely deconstructed and Old Pole was demolished last year. (a post about that event will come shortly)


Today the new Elevated Station rises almost majestically above the wide flat polar plateau. It looks a bit futuristic, standing eerily out of place reminiscent of the obelisk in 2001 Space Odyssey. Shinning a dark grey-green with a sloping aerodynamic bottom it sits about 15-20 feet above the ice beneath on numerous columnar legs. Four wings or “pods” stretch back towards the cargo yard, summer camp, and the berms. The front of the station faces the Ceremonial Pole; the galley windows looking out over the white nothingness to the often indistinct flat line of the horizon. There are over 230 people here today: support staff, research groups, and DVs or Distinguished Visitors and over 90 tourists/visitors – a record for the largest number of people at the South Pole yet! Of note the Prime Minister of Norway is here for the centennial along with several camera crews and advisors. A small tent city of tourists has grown about 500m on the other side of the Pole, facing the station. Two larger tents have been erected as a visitor’s center in something of the middle ground. Tourists are not allowed into the station except in small guided groups, we are not to go marching into their tent area without express permission. Most are on Chile’s time. It’s a bit surreal sometimes to be having breakfast and watching men and women pose next to the Pole in their expensive and brightly colored expedition down suits. Some have skied in all the way from the coast, some flew in today, some are self-supported, but most are with tour companies. There are world renowned adventurers and mountaineers and people who just had enough cash to buy the ticket. And then there are us – here for several months in the name of science to maintain the U.S. presence at the axis of the Earth.

It’s remarkable really, to think of all that has happened in the past 100 years; from World War 1, to putting men on the Moon, to the development of the internet and cell phones. There are few places as untouched as this. If one were to walk away from the station, off the groomed and pushed or drifted snow, past the bamboo poles and little nylon colored flags, past the buildings and berms and antennas, past the snowmobiles/machines and heavy equipment, past the exhaust of the power plant and furnaces…if one were to pass beyond these signs of habitation the view is exactly the same as Amundsen and Scott and their men witnessed a century ago. Beyond our bubble, our island of influence here, we are surrounded by literally hundred of miles of snow and ice, the emptiness that is the Great Flat White.

An excerpt describing in detail the arrival at the Pole from The South Pole Vol. 1 and 2 by Roald Amundsen:

“The weather during the forenoon had been just as fine as before; in the afternoon we had some snow-showers from the south-east. It was like the eve of some great festival that night in the tent. One could feel that a great event was at hand. Our flag was taken out again and lashed to the same two ski-sticks as before. Then it was rolled up and laid aside, to be ready when the time came. I was awake several times during the night, and had the same feeling that I can remember as a little boy on the night before Christmas Eve — an intense expectation of what was going to happen. Otherwise I think we slept just as well that night as any other.
On the morning of December 14 the weather was of the finest, just as if it had
been made for arriving at the Pole. I am not quite sure, but I believe we despatched our breakfast rather more quickly than usual and were out of the tent sooner, though I must admit that we always accomplished this with all reasonable haste. We went in the usual order — the forerunner, Hanssen, Wisting, Bjaaland, and the reserve forerunner. By noon we had reached 89º 53′ by dead reckoning, and made ready to take the rest in one stage. At 10 a.m. a light breeze had sprung up from the south-east, and it had clouded over, so that we got no noon altitude; but the clouds were not thick, and from time to time we had a glimpse of the sun through them. The going on that day was rather different from what it had been; sometimes the ski went over it well, but at others it was pretty bad. We advanced that day in the same mechanical way as before; not much was said, but eyes were used all the more. Hanssen’s neck grew twice as long as before in his endeavour to see a few inches farther. I had asked him before we started to spy out ahead for all he was worth, and he did so with a vengeance. But, however keenly he stared, he could not descry anything but the endless flat plain ahead of us. The dogs had dropped their scenting, and appeared to have lost their interest in the regions about the earth’s axis.

At three in the afternoon a simultaneous “Halt!” rang out from the drivers. They had carefully examined their sledge-meters, and they all showed the full distance — our Pole by reckoning. The goal was reached, the journey ended. I cannot say — though I know it would sound much more effective — that the object of my life was attained. That would be romancing rather too bare-facedly. I had better be honest and admit straight out that I have never known any man to be placed in such a diametrically opposite position to the goal of his desires as I was at that moment. The regions around the North Pole — well, yes, the North Pole itself — had attracted me from childhood, and here I was at the South Pole. Can anything more topsy-turvy be imagined? We reckoned now that we were at the Pole. Of course, every one of us knew that we were not standing on the absolute spot; it would be an impossibility with the time and the instruments at our disposal to ascertain that exact spot. But we were so near it that the few miles which possibly separated us from it could not be of the slightest importance. It was our intention to make a circle round this camp, with a radius of twelve and a half miles (20 kilometres), and to be satisfied with that. After we had halted we collected and congratulated each other. We had good grounds for mutual respect in what had been achieved, and I think that was just the feeling that was expressed in the firm and powerful grasps of the fist that were exchanged. After this we proceeded to the greatest and most solemn act of the whole journey — the planting of our flag. Pride and affection shone in the five pairs of eyes that gazed upon the flag, as it unfurled itself with a sharp crack, and waved over the Pole. I had determined that the act of planting it — the historic event — should be equally divided among us all. It was not for one man to do this; it was for all who had staked their lives in the struggle, and held together through thick and thin. This was the only way in which I could show my gratitude to my comrades in this desolate spot. I could see that they understood and accepted it in the spirit in which it was offered. Five weather-beaten, frost-bitten fists they were that grasped the pole, raised the waving flag in the air, and planted it as the first at the geographical South Pole. “Thus we plant thee, beloved flag, at the South Pole, and give to the plain on which it lies the name of King Haakon VII.’s Plateau.”

That moment will certainly be remembered by all of us who stood there. One gets out of the way of protracted ceremonies in those regions — the shorter they are the better. Everyday life began again at once.

Discovery has a brief and interesting article at:
http://news.discovery.com/adventure/100-years-ago-today-amundsens-farthest-south-111208.html

Bill Spindler has a great summary of Antarctic history at: http://southpolestation.com/trivia/igy/intro.html. More recent history can be found by following the link at the bottom back to the Timeline.

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1 Comment

Filed under Antarctic, History, South Pole

One response to “One Hundred Years

  1. bonnie foz

    Marie—–This is SO interesting, and beautifully written!
    Thanks greatly for sharing!
    Love and hugs,
    Bonnie

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