The Race to the South Pole

Victory awaits him, who has everything in order – luck we call it. Defeat is definitely due for him, who has neglected to take the necessary precautions – bad luck we call it.

Roald Amundsen


As you may know, seven countries have claims on the southernmost continent: Antarctic neighbours Argentina, Australia, Chile and New Zealand, the two major turn-of-the-century players Britain and France – and Norway.

Norway, you ask? Why does a small country located on the other side of Earth have an Antarctic territory seven times its size?

This is the man responsible:

Race to the South Pole

100 years ago today, intrepid explorer Roald Amundsen won the race to the South Pole. He and his team firmly planted the Norwegian flag on the geographic Pole. (Amundsen is also the first undisputed person to have reached both the North and South Poles).

This is from his diary Thursday 14 December 1911 (translated to English):

Fine weather all morning. Clouded over after we had taken the midday reading and snow clouds came in from SE. Meridian height with both mercury and glass gave 89°37’. Instrument gave 89°38’5”. This is very good indeed. –23°C all day. Afterwards we drove 8 n.m. and are now lying 15 n.m. from the pole.

I’d give… well, perhaps not anything, but quite a lot, to be able to time travel to that particular moment in time on the great, frozen continent.

A little history

This was an important event for Norway back in 1911 (and still is, I think). Our then newly independent after-400-years-of-union little country was now established as a polar force to be reckoned with. To celebrate, the PM, Jens Stoltenberg, unveiled an ice sculpture of Amundsen at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica this afternoon.

Amundsen wasn’t the only one attempting to be first at the South Pole. Famous Irishman, Sir Ernest Shackleton, gave it a good go a few years earlier. In 1909, his Nimrod Expedition managed to get to 88° 23′ S, just 190 km from the Pole.

Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition raced Amundsen for the Pole. Two very different men, two very different approaches. Scott arrived at the South Pole on 18 January 1912, 34 days too late. Tragically, the entire Scott team died on the return journey.

Afterwards, the Brits were a bit miffed with Amundsen – and he wasn’t received so well in London. Perhaps feeling bad about that, a fellow, well… fellow, at the Royal Geographical Society once made a point of telling me what Amundsen said when learning of Scott’s fate:

I would gladly forgo any honour or money if thereby I could have saved Scott his terrible death.

In 1928, Amundsen’s plane disappeared near Bear Island in the Barents Sea, during a rescue mission to find Italian explorer Umberto Nobile. Amundsen’s body was never found.

Amundsen travelled to Antarctica on board the Polar ship Fram. If you’re in Oslo, you can explore the ship. Amble about on the ship’s deck, check out the cabins and get a feel for life on board the world’s strongest polar vessel.

The race to the South Pole has been reenacted a few times : in 2006 for a BBC documentary, and in the South Pole Race in 2009, both featuring one Norwegian and one British team. There’s also the Scott-Amundsen Centenary Race going on right now, this time with two British teams.

Photos of Roald Amundsen: National Library of Norway

Center map


40 Responses to “The Race to the South Pole”

  1. Lisa 15 December 2011 0317 #

    Such an amazing story! We didn’t have time to visit the Fram when we were in Oslo – but next time for sure.

  2. Anne-Sophie Redisch 15 December 2011 0802 #

    @Lisa – It’s really an interesting ship. I always take visitors to see Fram, as well as Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki raft and the Viking ships. These three little museums give a nice little overview of Norway’s 1000-year-old maritime history.

  3. ItalianNotes 15 December 2011 0849 #

    Thanks for the Amundsen revival. It is truly mythological stuff. I even learned something about an Italian explorer I might investigate.

  4. Anne-Sophie Redisch 15 December 2011 0859 #

    @ItalianNotes – Nobile is most famous for travelling in airships over the Arctic. He and Amundsen travelled together to the North Pole in the airship Norge and disagreed on lots of things during and after that mission. They weren’t the best of friends – yet, there seems to have been a bond between explorers (at least in the early 20th century) – so when one was in trouble others stepped in to help.

  5. Laurel 15 December 2011 2104 #

    I would love to check out the ship. I’ve read about the race to the north pole, but not to the south pole, but doing it 100 years ago really puts the “adventure” in adventure travel.

  6. John in France 15 December 2011 2246 #

    This is a real surprise this article. Very well done, very interesting.

  7. Scott - Quirky Travel Guy 15 December 2011 2337 #

    I read a story about this recently and these expeditions were pretty crazy. Lots of men dying, dogs and horses dying and being cut up for food… it did not sound fun at all!

  8. Anne-Sophie Redisch 15 December 2011 2358 #

    @Laurel, John and Scott – thanks for reading 🙂

  9. Christian 16 December 2011 1400 #

    This is an epic story, and one I heard so much about when I was a boy. Being an explorer in 1911 must have been so hard, but so exciting.

  10. Anne-Sophie Redisch 16 December 2011 1410 #

    @Christian – Yes, hard work definitely, yet so pioneering and brave even. I’m fascinated with that age of exploration.

  11. David Bennett 16 December 2011 1415 #

    I saw the TV programme about Scott, which if I recall correctly and I am not libelling the man, showed his team to be very status conscious, with the ‘officers’ separated from the men even in a hut in the depths of the Antarctic .

    In comparison, Shackleton’s team were all in it together.

    The British reaction to Amundsen is not unusual. The Royal Society was miffed with Hooke because he invented a better microscope than others of his time, and they tried to expunge this ‘outsider’ from the history books.

  12. Anne-Sophie Redisch 16 December 2011 1615 #

    @David – Yes, that was one of the differences between Scott and Amundsen, too. Other important differences were nutrition and the use of dogs vs ponies vs man hauling.

    One difference I haven’t read much about, (somewhat surprisingly), is the fact that Norwegians are practically born with skis on their feet – and spend heaps of time outdoors in cold weather as an everyday thing. That was probably even more true 100 years ago. Cross-country skiing has always been a great passion up here. Kids are put on skis as soon as they can walk. Before that, they’re pulled behind their parents in a pulk (a pull-sledge). In fact, most people have skied before they’re even born.

  13. Bret @ Green Global Travel 16 December 2011 1617 #

    Cool story! I usually don’t reference my stuff on other people’s blogs, but we did a pretty cool interview back in April with this guy named Sebastian Copeland, who filmed a 2-man expedition to the North Pole on the 100th anniversary of Peary’s historic trek to draw attention to the melting polar ice caps. He was greatly inspired by Amundsen, and the film (Into The Cold) was awesome. Here’s the link:

  14. Jeremy Branham 16 December 2011 1641 #

    I am glad there were men like this brave enough to take these explorations to such extreme places. I am more thankful that I was not one of them! 🙂

  15. The GypsyNester 16 December 2011 1846 #

    Absolutely nuts! Can’t imagine being that cold – great post Sophie, I learned a lot! -Veronica

  16. Angela 16 December 2011 1855 #

    I’ve never researched in depth this side of the world, this is a very interesting read.

  17. Anne-Sophie Redisch 16 December 2011 1919 #

    @Bret – thanks for the link. I’ll check it out.

    @Jeremy, Gypsynester and Angela – Thanks for reading. I’m absolutely fascinated with the extreme corners of the world.

  18. Annie - FootTracker 16 December 2011 1958 #

    I have seen a movie about the Pole before, though it was about Shackleton and how he brought back his team alive.

    I think those men are amazing and really puts their passion, obsession before their life XD

  19. Anne-Sophie Redisch 16 December 2011 2331 #

    @Annie – I reread Shackleton’s South last year. Interesting, isn’t it – how back then they were gone during most of World War I and didn’t even know there was a war on. Travelling in such extreme conditions must have been so much more challenging when there wasn’t any communication with the rest of the world. You really took your life in your own hands.

  20. Mark Wiens 17 December 2011 0315 #

    Pretty cool, thanks for sharing this bit of history and how Norway claimed a chunk of the South Pole!

  21. Journey of a Jungle Girl 17 December 2011 0544 #

    Great story… all explorers fascinate me-can you imagine that life!
    I remember the first time I learned about Sir Earnest Shackleton… was watching the incredible film at the Omnitheater in Minneapolis, MN -another impressive story and person…
    Great story-I never knew that about Amundsen and Norway’s part of the South Pole! -I will have to check out those documentaries! -shelly

  22. Abby 17 December 2011 1801 #

    I just read that it had been 100 years, but then I forgot to dig in and look up some research on it. Thank you for doing that for me — excellent article! Norway SHOULD be very proud!!

  23. Anne-Sophie Redisch 17 December 2011 2333 #

    @Mark, Jungle Girl and Abby – thanks – and happy to share 🙂

  24. Marie R. 18 December 2011 0030 #

    Amundsen was my childhood hero. Thank you so much for bringing back memories of many, many happy hours of reading and dreaming of polar explorations.

  25. Michael Figueiredo 18 December 2011 0746 #

    I never knew about Amundsen. What a fascinating story!

  26. Anna 18 December 2011 1531 #

    I didn’t know that Amundsen plane was disappeared around Barents Sea.. Great man and great expedition!

  27. David @ Malaysia Asia 18 December 2011 2034 #

    Very interesting story. Just to add on, our King from Malaysia also made a trip to the South Pole in November and the pictures were fascinating when they published it in the newspapers.

  28. Anne-Sophie Redisch 18 December 2011 2055 #

    @Marie – I know so very well what your mean.

    @Michael – I think Scott and Shackleton have probably gotten more attention, at least in the English-speaking world 🙂

    @Anna – Thanks for commenting.

    @David – Interesting. And small world… now.

  29. Scott - Ordinary Traveler 18 December 2011 2103 #

    Wow, I had no there were only seven countries with claims in the south pole, not to mention Norway. It must be all that Viking Blood! Makes me want to read up on these expeditions.

  30. Anne-Sophie Redisch 18 December 2011 2346 #

    @Scott – The Vikings were certainly sea-faring explorers 🙂

  31. Stephanie - The Travel Chica 19 December 2011 1837 #

    Interesting reading… especially because I just met two people who did the Antarctica cruise a couple weeks ago.

  32. Anne-Sophie Redisch 19 December 2011 2348 #

    @Stephanie – I suppose you meet loads of Antarctic cruisers down there in Argentina. Absolutely dying to visit Antarctica (and South Georgia) myself, just waiting for my youngest to hit the age limit required by the expedition companies.

  33. Michelle 20 December 2011 0923 #

    During the south pole’s winter the south pole is tilted away from the sun the same way the north pole is tilted away from the sun in it’s winter. So yes, the sun does disappear for months in the south pole.

  34. Andrea 20 December 2011 1429 #

    So interesting! Must have been wonderful to be a pioneer in travel – though obviously risky…

  35. Anne-Sophie Redisch 20 December 2011 1517 #

    @Michelle and Andrea – Thanks for stopping by 🙂

  36. jenjenk 21 December 2011 0418 #

    i love learning about explorers like this…informative yet with a personal look into the people…

  37. Anne-Sophie Redisch 21 December 2011 1242 #

    @Jen – Thanks. I’m fascinated by the 19th and early 20th centuries’ explorers. Just imagine going where no one has actually been before, like the South Pole. Not much unexplored territory left now. At least not on this planet 🙂

  38. Turkey's For Life 21 December 2011 1339 #

    Ha ha. Strange that the Brits were a bit miffed with Amundsen. We’re a friendly bunch aren’t we?! 😉 Such a coincidence that I’ve just started to reread Michael Palin’s Pole to Pole for the umpteenth time. He’sjust reached Norway from the North Pole. I didn’t realise I’d picked the book from the bookshelf for an anniversary.

    Love the new look blog by the way.


  39. Anne-Sophie Redisch 21 December 2011 2347 #

    @Julia – Ha ha. I think Brits are just as friendly as Norwegians… perhaps even a tad friendlier; we’re both a bit reserved. To strangers, at least.

    I’m rereading Pole to Pole as well. Really enjoy following along on all his journeys.

  40. Alexa Meisler 17 February 2012 2051 #

    Great story. Ronald Amundsen was definitely an honorable man. I always enjoy learning about the history of the world. It’s always fascinating. Thank you for sharing!

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