January 17th 2012 marks the centenary of Captain Robert Scott’s arrival at the South Pole. Scott’s deserved scientific rehabilitation is well underway, but of course he and his men were beaten to the pole by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen, and overcome by the weather on their return journey, perishing from cold and starvation. The Guardian published a fascinating Science Weekly podcast on the subject back in December, and a gallery of photographs today. The Natural History Museum in London has an exhibition Scott’s Last Expedition, starting this weekend.
On December 14th, 1911, Roald Amundsen, Olav Bjaaland, Helmer Hanssen, Sverre Hassel and Oscar Wisting became the first humans to reach the South Pole. Much will be made, in Britain at least, of Scott’s tragic failure to return from the pole a month later, but here is Amundsen’s account of his arrival at the Pole, from his book The South Pole:
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. When we had got the tent up, Hanssen set about slaughtering Helge, and it was hard for him to have to part from his best friend. Helge had been an uncommonly useful and good-natured dog; without making any fuss he had pulled from morning to night, and had been a shining example to the team. But during the last week he had quite fallen away, and on our arrival at the Pole there was only a shadow of the old Helge left. He was only a drag on the others, and did absolutely no work. One blow on the skull, and Helge had ceased to live. “What is death to one is food to another,” is a saying that can scarcely find a better application than these dog meals. Helge was portioned out on the spot, and within a couple of hours there was nothing left of him but his teeth and the tuft at the end of his tail. This was the second of our eighteen dogs that we had lost. The Major, one of Wisting’s fine dogs, left us in 88)deg) 25′ S., and never returned. He was fearfully worn out, and must have gone away to die. We now had sixteen dogs left, and these we intended to divide into two equal teams, leaving Bjaaland’s sledge behind.
Of course, there was a festivity in the tent that evening — not that champagne corks were popping and wine flowing — no, we contented ourselves with a little piece of seal meat each, and it tasted well and did us good. There was no other sign of festival indoors. Outside we heard the flag flapping in the breeze. Conversation was lively in the tent that evening, and we talked of many things. Perhaps, too, our thoughts sent messages home of what we had done.
Amundsen’s book The South Pole is available from Project Gutenberg. My illustrated article about his ship the Fram, can be downloaded free from here, or you could buy a paper copy from here.