In the early 1910s, explorers Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott launched competing Antarctic expeditions as part of a race to be the first person to set foot on the geographic South Pole. Yet while both men would eventually reach their goal at the bottom of the world, only one of them would return to tell the tale.
“Another hard grind in the afternoon and five miles added,” British explorer Robert Falcon Scott wrote in his diary. “Our chance still holds good if we can put the work in, but it’s a terribly trying time.” It was mid-January 1912, and the 43-year-old Royal Navy officer was nearly 800 miles into a journey to one of the last unexplored places on the globe: the geographic South Pole. Scott’s five-man party had already endured brushes with blizzards and frostbite during their trek. They were now less than 80 miles from the finish line, but a single question still loomed over their progress: would they be the first group of men in history to reach the South Pole, or the second?
Scott’s frozen ordeal had begun over a year earlier, when his ship Terra Nova had arrived on Ross Island in Antarctica’s McMurdo Sound. His 34-man shore party was tasked with conducting scientific research and collecting wildlife and rock samples, but Scott, who had previously led an Antarctic mission in 1902, was also determined to make a run at the Pole. Before leaving on the expedition, he had vowed “to reach the South Pole and to secure for the British Empire the honor of this achievement.”
Scott’s mission was made all the more urgent by the knowledge that another explorer was seeking the Pole. Roald Amundsen was a 39-year-old Norwegian who had spent most of his life venturing to the far corners of the globe. He had been to Antarctica in the late 19th century, and later became the first man in history to sail the treacherous Northwest Passage linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. In 1909, Amundsen had announced a new expedition to navigate the ice floe-riddled waters of the Arctic to the North Pole. He had hoped to be the first man to achieve the feat, but after the American explorers Frederick Cook and Robert Peary both claimed to have beaten him to the punch, Amundsen secretly changed his plans. Without telling his financial backers or even his own crewmen at first, the Norwegian steered his ship Fram toward Antarctica and set his sights on reaching the South Pole. Before arriving, he sent a letter to Scott, who was still outfitting his own expedition in Australia. It read simply: “Beg leave to inform you Fram proceeding Antarctic. Amundsen.”
The Norwegian expedition enjoyed a few clear advantages in what newspapers were soon calling the “race for the South Pole.” Amundsen set up his camp on the Ross Ice Shelf in the Bay of Whales, a point that was over sixty miles closer to the Pole than Scott’s home base in McMurdo Sound. And unlike Scott, whose expedition was burdened by its scientific obligations, Amundsen was focused only on reaching the Pole and returning safely. “Science,” he later admitted, “would have to look after itself.”
After spending the early part of 1911 laying down advance caches of food and supplies for their polar journeys, Amundsen and Scott’s expeditions took shelter and spent several months waiting out the dark and frigid Antarctic winter. Amundsen later tried to get a head start by beginning his journey early in September 1911, but was forced to turn back after temperatures dipped as low as 68 degrees below zero. Finally, on October 20, 1911, conditions improved enough for his five-man team to begin their dash to the Pole. Scott got underway just a few days later on November 1.
Amundsen and Scott relied on vastly different forms of transport during their journeys. Scott employed a combination of sled dogs, Manchurian ponies and even a few motorized tractors. The machines quickly broke down, however, and his ponies grew weak in the cold and had to be shot. After sending the dogs back to camp, he and his team were forced to spend much of their journey man-hauling their heavy supply sledges on foot. Amundsen, meanwhile, relied solely on skis and sled dogs to cross the tundra. The dogs helped his men save their strength, and the explorers later killed the weakest of the animals to supplement their food supply.
Thanks to the speed of his dog teams, Amundsen’s party managed to race toward the Pole at a pace of over 20 miles per day. The Norwegians took an untested route that forced them navigate a frozen maze of crevasses, mountains and glaciers, but by early December, they had penetrated farther into the heart of Antarctica than anyone in history. Amundsen would later write that he “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.” Finally, on December 14, 1911, he and his companions arrived at the South Pole. The men planted the Norwegian flag, smoked celebratory cigars and posed for snapshots, but they only remained for a few days before beginning the arduous trek back to their base camp. “The goal was reached,” Amundsen wrote, “our journey ended.”
Over a month later on January 17, 1912, Scott and his weary British team finally reached the Pole. To their dismay, they spotted the remnants of Amundsen’s camp just as they were approaching. “Great God!” Scott wrote in his diary. “This is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have labored to it without the reward of priority.”
Scott had been beaten to the Pole, but his troubles were only beginning. The British team had reached their destination late in the Antarctic summer, and temperatures were dropping rapidly. They began the slow slog north, but exhaustion, frostbite and malnourishment had soon spread through their ranks. On February 17—more than 20 days after Amundsen’s group had returned to their base camp—a man named Edgar Evans became the first of the British party to die. The severely frostbitten Lawrence Oates followed a month later after sacrificing himself in a blizzard to avoid slowing down the team. “I am just going outside and may be some time,” he said before leaving the group’s tent and vanishing.
Scott, his friend Dr. Edward Wilson and another man Henry Bowers gamely continued the journey for another few days, but temperatures continued to plunge, and they were later caught in a blizzard only 11 miles away from one of their supply depots. All three would perish in their tent just days later. “We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far,” Scott wrote in his last diary entry. “It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more.”
By the time the bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers were found later that November, Roald Amundsen had already returned home in triumph and embarked on a lecture tour. Despite having won the race without losing a single man, he was in many ways overshadowed by Scott, whose doomed march had made him a hero in his native Britain. Undeterred, Amundsen continued his wandering and eventually explored the Arctic both at sea and in a dirigible, which he used to reach the North Pole in 1926. Two years later, he died in a plane crash while searching for a missing explorer over Norway’s Svalbard archipelago.
Explorers continued to venture to Antarctica in the years after Amundsen and Scott’s legendary race, but it was not until 1956 that an expedition once again stood on the South Pole. The world’s southernmost point has been continuously inhabited ever since, and its two earliest pioneers are now honored in the name of its permanent research facility: the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.