The Journey to the South Pole

The story of the first expedition to reach the southernmost spot on our planet

A frozen expanse of white as far as the eye can see, where white sky meets the white horizon. It's bitterly cold, with temperatures reaching -89.2˚ C (-128.6˚ F), and freezing winds reaching up to 320 km/h (200 mph). Welcome to the most remote place on our planet: Antarctica.

The underside of our world has fascinated us for centuries. Over the first few hundred years of Antarctic exploration, scientists, explorers and artists alike had one goal in mind: reaching the South Pole.

2017 marks the 105th anniversary of the first expedition to reach the southernmost point of our globe. Follow in their footsteps and discover the history of daring discoveries to the farthest and most inhospitable place on our planet...

Antarctica, Michael Rougier (From the LIFE Photo Collection)

Mapping the unmappable

The first stop on our journey to the South Pole lands us in the 1500s. As explorers and merchants traversed the seas of the South Pacific and South Atlantic, they began to notice the rugged outline of a new territory that had never been seen before (although as far back as the Romans, many had theorized about its existence).

They called this new place Terra Australis Incognita, an "Unknown Southern Land".

Nova totius terrarum orbis geographica ac hydrographica tabula, Claes Jansz Visscher, 1652 (From the collection of the State Library of New South Wales)

Polus Antarcticus was first issued in 1637 by Hendricus Hondius. It is the earliest map to focus entirely on the Antarctic continent, which is illustrated by a chain of islands and partly by a series of lines. The original cartouche has been removed to make way for land newly discovered.

Antarctica was finally on the map!

Polus Antarcticus, Henrik Hondiusc, 1657 (From the collection of the State Library of New South Wales)

Sneaking off in the name of science

HMS Endeavour set sail from England in 1768, captained by the English explorer and navigator Captain Cook, to record the transit of Venus across the face of the sun in Tahiti.

But at the last minute, botanist Sir Joseph Banks and his team of scientists, artists, servants and two dogs boarded to realize another, secret, mission: to investigate rumors of a huge land mass known as Terra Australis Incognita. They were away for three years, during which Solander and Banks collected and described an important collection of plants and animals from Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific islands.

A map of the southern hemisphere showing the discoveries made in the Southern Ocean up to 1770, James Cook, 1772 (From the collection of the State Library of New South Wales)

In late 1772, Cook came upon his first iceberg in the HMS Resolution and in January 1773, he made the first ever crossing of the Antarctic Circle. However, the thick ice pack forced the ships northward. Without knowing it, Cook came within 129 kilometres of the Antarctic coast!

Portrait of Captain James Cook RN, John Webber R.A, 1782 (From the collection of the National Portrait Gallery)

During the next two years Cook spent the southern winters in the more temperate latitudes of the Pacific. In the summers he again turned south and continued his eastward voyage around the southern continent. Towards the end of February 1775 he completed the first circumnavigation of Antarctica, proving that it was neither as large or habitable as once thought.

English painter William Hodges accompanied Cook on his second voyage and completed a number of sketches and paintings of locations visited on the voyage, which we can see here...

Ice islands, William Hodges, 1772-1775 (From the collection of the State Library of New South Wales)
The Resolution and Adventure, 4 Jan, 1773, taking in ice for water, lat. 61.S., William Hodges, 1773 (From the collection of the State Library of New South Wales)

The Uphill Battle to the Bottom of the World

Now that people knew the continent existed, everyone wanted a piece of the action. A number of national expeditions explored Antarctica at the turn of the 20th century, including expeditions from Belgium, Sweden, Germany, New Zealand and Australia.

It's not known who was exactly the first to set eyes on the continent, or to set foot on it's frozen ice shelf. Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen from Russia, Edward Bransfield from England, and Nathaniel Palmer from the US all encountered the main continent within a few weeks of each other. Similarly, historians disagree on who exactly was the first to land on the continent, but some possible candidates are the sealers Captain John Davis, Nathaniel Palmer and James Weddell.

Seal hunting on the ice, Little Whale River, QC, James Laurence Cotter, ca. 1870 (From the collection of McCord Museum)

The Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration

At the turn of the 20th century, Antarctica remained the only continent largely untouched by humans. In 1895, the Sixth International Geographical Congress declared that Antarctica’s ice-choked seas and frozen peaks were the next frontier for scientific discovery, ushering in what has come to be known as the 'Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration'. Dozens of men, including famed expedition leaders Sir Ernest Shackleton, Robert Falcon Scott and Carsten Borchgrevnik, answered the call and trekked to the bottom of the planet. They erected prefabricated wooden cabins that served both as homes during the coldest months and laboratories for research into the local climate and ecosystem. Using these cabins as bases, the explorers traversed glaciers and scaled Mt. Erebus, the southernmost volcano on Earth.

Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Expedition Hut, view from distance (From the collection of the World Monuments Fund)
Scott's hut, Antarctica

The (Other) Space Race

In 1911, British explorer Robert Falcon Scott and Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen went head-to-head to be the first to reach the South Pole.

Roald Amundsen aboard the 'Fram', Robert Falcon Scott aboard the 'Terra Nova': who would get there first?

Amundsen's  "Fram" (From the LIFE Photo Collection)

Meet Robert Falcon Scott...

British explorer Robert Falcon Scott writing in his diary inside hut at Cape Evans (From the LIFE photo collection)

British Royal Navy officer, Richard Falcon Scott left Britain on June 15, 1910 aboard his ship, Terra Nova. The expedition set off from their base the following October, with Siberian ponies, motorized sledges, and dogs.

A Cavern in an Iceberg; Scott's Last Expedition, Herbert George, 1910  (From the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum)

But they were struck by bad conditions - and some bad luck - from the beginning. First, they were hit by a storm leaving Australia and had to lose tons of coal, gallons of petrol and some of the expeditions animals.

Men, sleds & dogs of Scott's Antarctic expedition on the ice with the ship, "Terra Nova", anchored in background (From the LIFE Photo Collection)

Once in Antarctica, the remaining tough Siberian ponies and mechanical sledges couldn’t cope with the challenging weather conditions and difficult terrain. While setting up their base camps, Scott risked his own life to rescue a dog team that had fallen into a crevasse. Several of the ponies collapsed and, with only a few remaining, the surviving ponies became caught on breaking ice. Scott’s team attempted a rescue but only two ponies returned alive.

In December, the dog teams turned back and by January only five men were left: Scott, Bowers, Oates, Wilson and Evans.

An ice ravine, Frank Hurley, 1911-1914 (From the collection of the State Library of New South Wales)

Meet Roald Amundsen...

Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen on skis during the expedition to the South Pole (From the LIFE Photo Collection)

While Scott’s team struggled on the ice, a daring Norwegian explorer by the name of Roald Amundsen was making his own dash to the Pole.

Amundsen’s team arrived on the ‘Great Ice Barrier’ on January 14, 1911. Eschewing mechanical sledges and ponies for skis and dog sleds, Amundsen’s small team had set out on September 8, 1911, but had to turn back due to extreme weather conditions. But Amundsen was smart: as his dogs collapsed in the extreme cold, Amundsen used them as a source for fresh meat.

Amundsen's "Fram" (From the LIFE Photo Collection)

Amundsen decided to forge his own path; he believed that there were other routes to the Polar Plateau, instead ascending via the Axel Heiberg Glacier.

Amundsen's "Fram" expedition (From the LIFE Photo Collection)

So who won?

On January 17, 1912, Scott’s team reached the South Pole… only to find that Amundsen's party had beaten them to it by just 34 days. Victory for Amundsen and the Norwegian team!

Amundsen's "Fram" expedition (From the LIFE Photo Collection)

But that wouldn’t be the last problem that Scott's expedition would face…

Tragedy on the Ice

Amundsen’s party made it back to their home base on January 25, 1912, and were already back in Australia by March. In Australia, Amundsen announced his victory to the world.

Painting of Roald Amundsen (1872-1928), Norwegian explorer who discovered the South Pole (From the LIFE Photo Collection)

A few weeks into the return journey of Scott's team, Edgar Evans was struck by severe frostbite. They faced terrible weather, and couldn't locate their depot. As they descended the Beardmore Glacier, Evans collapsed and died.

The team reached the spot at which they were supposed to meet up with the dog teams - but they were nowhere to be found. They were abandoned by their teammates, with temperatures dropping every day and, to make matters worse, Oates was now suffering from frostbite in his left leg, slowing the team down even further.

Scott's team and the "Terra Nova" (From the LIFE Photo Collection)

On March 16, Oates said "I am just going outside and may be some time", and walked out into the blizzard to his death...

Oates' suicide increased the team's speed but was still not enough to save them. On March 29th, Scott wrote his last diary entry:

"Since the 21st we have had a continuous gale from W.S.W. and S.W. We had fuel to make two cups of tea apiece and bare food for two days on the 20th. Every day we have been ready to start for our depot 11 miles away, but outside the door of the tent it remains a scene of whirling drift. I do not think we can hope for any better things now. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more.

R. Scott

Last entry

For God's sake look after our people."

A blizzard, Frank Hurley (From the collection of the State Library of New South Wales)

They were only 11 miles (18 km) away from their depot.

Scott's hut, Antarctica

But Amundsen's story is not without its own tragedy.

In June 1928, while taking part in a rescue mission for the Airship Italia in the Arctic, the plane he was in disappeared. No trace of it has ever been recovered...

Amundsen's "Fram" (From the LIFE Photo Collection)

The Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station was later named after these two intrepid explorers.

Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen (1872-1928), who discovered the South Pole, wearing skis in the snow (From the LIFE Photo Collection)

Contemporary Science

If Antarctica was once the stage for battling national interests, territory claims, and rival explorers, it is now a place of scientific and political cooperation on a grand scale.

Scientists from several nations collaborate on a wide range of scientific research projects, conducting experiments that are not reproducible anywhere else on the planet. The scientific bases at Antartica offer the perfect environment for testing the effects of global warming, as well as other fields of scientific research, including marine biology and astronomy.

Excavating fossils, Brandon R. Peecook (From the collection of The Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture)

The conditions in Antarctica are particularly good for finding meteorites. Here we can see a scientist unearthing a huge meteorite.

During the austral summer of 2012-2013, a Belgian-Japanese team collected no less than 425 meteorites on the Nansen Ice Field in Antarctica. Discovered on 28 January 2013, this 18kg specimen is, according to Belgian researchers, the largest meteorite found in East Antarctica for 25 years, and the fifth largest of more than 16,000 meteorites found in this part of Antarctica!

A meteorite from Antarctica, photo by Vinciane Debaille, 2013 (From the Museum of Natural Sciences (Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences) collection)

The Final Frontier?

Whilst scientific work at Earth's South Pole helps us understand the universe beyond our planet, it now shifts our perspective to another possible South Pole... the south pole of Mars. Analysis of the red planet's most southern regions indicates areas that could harbor water in outer space.

Could the south pole of Mars be the next frontier for exploration?!

Color image of Mars from Viking Orbiter 1, 1976 (From the collection of The Viking Mars Missions Education and Preservation Project)
View of the south pole of the planet Mars taken by Mars Odyssey, the blue areas indicating soil rich in hydrogen, which is possible evidence of ice (From the LIFE photo collection)

Who knows where our exploration will take us next!

Learn more about Amundsen and his historic expedition here.

Words by Léonie Shinn-Morris
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