Geography in the News: The Races to the Pole

By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM  and Maps.com

A little more than 100 years ago, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. While the feat was an amazing story in itself, the races that preceded it to reach the southernmost point on the Earth are even more fascinating—and heartbreaking.

The storied races to the South Pole are highlighted again as the currently ongoing Shackleton Epic blog documents a re-creation of Ernest Shackleton’s epic exploits to complete a ‘double’ voyage from Elephant Island to South Georgia and dangerous crossing of its mountainous interior to save the members of his expedition. But Shackleton was but one of many expedition leaders who attempted to be the first to reach the South Pole. Tragedy was but one footstep away for all of them and those who survived counted themselves lucky.

The geographic coordinates of the South Pole are expressed in latitude as 90 degrees south latitude. The point has no longitude because it lies where the Earth’s lines of longitude converge. Of course, the location of the South Pole is unidentifiable from the surface without the assistance of navigational aids, such as a sextant.

The South Pole is located near the center of the continent of Antarctica on a windswept, ice plateau. The point is about 800 miles (1,300 km) from the nearest ocean access at the Bay of Whales in the Ross Sea.

Early in the 20th century, many countries including Germany, Britain, Japan, Sweden, Norway, France and Belgium mounted expeditions to the still unexplored South Pole. While the explorers were looking for discovery, they also were performing important research and hoping to claim territory for their countries.

Captain Robert Falcon Scott led the first British expedition attempting to reach the Pole. The expedition planned to undertake significant scientific research. Along with Ernest Shackleton and Dr. Edward Wilson, Scott came within 440 miles (660 km) of the Pole in 1904.

Ernest Shackleton mounted his own expedition and came within 100 miles (160 km) of the Pole in 1909. According to the BBC (March 3, 2011), “…to push on to the Pole would have meant certain death and the four men [in Shackleton’s party] were lucky to return alive.”

Learning that Shackleton’s expedition was unsuccessful, Scott became determined to be the first to reach the South Pole. His plans received substantial world media attention. Little did he know, however, that Norwegian Roald Amundsen, was simultaneously planning his own expedition, keeping most of the details secret.

Scott’s party arrived at Antarctica in their ship, Terra Nova, in January 1911. At a stopover in Australia, he received a telegram from Amundsen that said the Norwegian also was headed to Antarctica on his ship, the Fram. Otherwise, Scott knew nothing of Amundsen’s ambitions.

Scott set up his camp on Ross Island in McMurdo Sound, while Amundsen chose a camp on the ice itself further along the Ross Ice Shelf at the Bay of Whales. This put the two camps about 400 miles (640 km) apart and Amundsen 60 miles (97 km) closer to the South Pole. Each team spent the first few months making extensive preparations and laying supply depots southward toward the Pole.

Unfortunately, Scott’s team suffered technical problems with their motorized sledges (early snowmobiles). They were unable to position their largest depot, the “One Ton,” as close to the Pole as their leader intended.

Amundsen, on the other hand, brought expertly trained dog teams that allowed him to lay his supply depots closer to the Pole than Scott had. Along with more than 50 dogs and four other men, including a champion skier and two expert dog handlers, Amundsen left for the South Pole on October 2, 1911.

Scott, along with support parties, dogs, motorized sledges and ponies, left his base on November 1, 1911. The cold quickly left the motor sledges inoperable and the ponies suffering terribly.

In his final push to the Pole, Scott had decided to have his men pull their own sleds the last 150 miles (240 km). He also felt the effort would be nobler without the use of dogs. Furthermore, at the last moment, Scott added a fifth man to his final party, complicating the management of rations and fuel.

Meanwhile, with its dogsled teams, Amundsen’s party was much faster. Using an untried new but shorter route, Amundsen was able to reach the South Pole on December 15, 1911. His party planted a Norwegian flag at the Pole and began their northward return to their base camp. Scott reached the Pole on January 17, 1912, only to find Amundsen’s flag already in place. This was a heartbreaking discovery for the British team.  Amundsen had also left a tent with surplus supplies, but it was not enough to save Scott’s team.

With temperatures at -30 degrees C (-22 degrees F) and high winds, Scott’s team suffered from starvation, dehydration, hypothermia and most likely scurvy. The five men perished in their attempt to return to their base camp, three of them in their tent engulfed in a blizzard. Sadly, the “One Ton Depot” was only 11 miles (18 km) away. The race for the South Pole had ended.

Despite valiant efforts by Robert Falcon Scott and his team, disappointment and tragedy were prices paid 100 years ago by five bold explorers who gave their lives.

And that is Geography in the NewsTM.

Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor.

Sources: GITN 1131 The Race to the South Pole, Feb. 3, 2012; http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/britain_wwone/race_pole_01.shtml; http://news.discovery.com/adventure/south-pole-race-100ya-scott-amundsen-at-same-latitude-111231.html; and http://geography.about.com/od/antarcticamaps/a/south-pole.html

Nearly 900 of the 1200, full-length weekly Geography in the News articles are available in the K-12 online education resource Maps101, including maps and other supporting materials and critical thinking questions.


Neal Lineback has written weekly Geography in the News (GITN) articles for more than 25 years (1,200 published articles) while he was Chair of Geography and Planning at Appalachian State University and since. In 2007, he brought his daughter Mandy Gritzner in as a co-author. She is also a geographer with a graduate degree from Montana State University. GITN has won national recognition and numerous awards from the Association of American Geographers, the National Council for Geographic Education and Travelocity, among others..
  • David Vandenbroucke

    This is an odd article, in that it focuses so much on Scott. Amundsen was well organized and used proven technology for the time. Scott experimented with four different kinds of transportation (ponies, tractors, dogs, and man-hauling). Shackleton’s first expedition had already shown that ponies were unsatisfactory, and the tractors were untested in antarctic conditions. Amundsen’s story was much less dramatic because his expedition worked the way he had planned. Scott had drama because it was so badly managed.

  • Neal Lineback

    Yes, this article was about Scott’s tragedy, bracketed between two success stories, Amundsen’s because he reached the pole first and Shackleton’s because his heroic efforts (and good luck?) saved his party from certain death. The lesson is that even gargantuan effort alone doesn’t always save the day.

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