Amundsen Reaches the South Pole

Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian explorer who abandoned plans to go to the North Pole when Robert Edwin Alexander Peary reached it first, led the first team to reach the South Pole. Amundsen’s expedition beat a British team, led by Robert Falcon Scott, by only a month.

Summary of Event

Roald Amundsen was born in Borge, Norway, and went to school to study medicine but dropped out to go to sea. Most of the world had been explored by the end of the nineteenth century, and Antarctica was one of the few remaining frontiers. Amundsen made his first voyage to Antarctica on a Belgian expedition led by Adrien de Gerlache. Although whaling and sealing ships had visited Antarctica, de Gerlache commanded a three-masted vessel, the Belgica, on the first scientific expedition. In early 1898, the Belgica reached the Antarctic Peninsula, which extends 1,200 miles north toward South America. Although the peninsula had been mapped in 1820 by James Bransfield, de Gerlache discovered a long strait between the peninsula and a chain of small islands. On February 28, a storm opened the pack ice, and de Gerlache sailed ninety miles south before the pack ice closed, trapping the ship for thirteen months. The Belgica expedition was the first to spend the winter in Antarctica, a valuable experience for Amundsen, who went on to lead the first expedition to travel the Northwest Passage, a sea route from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the Arctic Archipelago of Canada, from 1903 to 1906. Exploration;South Pole
South Pole;exploration
[kw]Amundsen Reaches the South Pole (Dec. 14, 1911)
[kw]South Pole, Amundsen Reaches the (Dec. 14, 1911)
[kw]Pole, Amundsen Reaches the South (Dec. 14, 1911)
Exploration;South Pole
South Pole;exploration
[g]Antarctica;Dec. 14, 1911: Amundsen Reaches the South Pole[02910]
[c]Exploration and discovery;Dec. 14, 1911: Amundsen Reaches the South Pole[02910]
Amundsen, Roald
Scott, Robert Falcon
Prestrud, Kristian
Bjaaland, Olav
Johansen, Hjalmar
Wisting, Oscar
Hanssen, Helmer
Hassel, Sverre
Shackleton, Ernest Henry
Gerlache, Adrien de

He considered following this with an attempt to reach the North Pole. In 1893 Fridtjof Nansen had the Fram, Fram (ship) a ship constructed to withstand polar ice, frozen into drift ice north of Siberia, hoping ice movement would carry it over the North Pole, but the expedition drifted too far south. Amundsen arranged to use the Fram and assembled a group to finance his expedition to the North Pole. However, in September of 1909, Robert Edwin Alexander Peary reached the North Pole, and so Amundsen changed his plans: He would try to reach the South Pole. Amundsen kept his plans secret, telling only his brother, Leon. By not announcing his intentions, Amundsen hoped to beat other explorers to the pole. He was heavily in debt, but he believed that a spectacular accomplishment could help him gain financial freedom.

The Fram left Christiania, Norway, on August 9, 1910, eight weeks after Robert Falcon Scott’s Terra Nova expedition left Cardiff, Wales. Scott had publicly announced plans to explore the South Pole.

The Fram’s commander, Lieutenant Thorvald Nilsen, was told in advance of Amundsen’s plans. Two other crewmen, Lieutenants Kristian Prestrud and Fredrick Gjertsen, were told on the eve of the departure. The rest of the crew believed the Fram would stop in Portugal’s Madeira Islands, in the north Atlantic, then sail to Argentina, performing oceanographic research, before heading north to the Arctic. Drawing on his experience from the Belgica expedition, Amundsen planned carefully. He brought ninety-seven dogs from Greenland, and these animals turned out to be crucial to the expedition’s success. When the Fram arrived in Maderia on September 6, the crew loaded enough fresh water and provisions to spend two years in the Antarctic. On September 9, just three hours before sailing, Amundsen announced the destination to the rest of the crew.

Amundsen’s brother, the last person to go ashore, carried letters from the crew to their families and a cable from Amundsen to Scott. Amundsen’s brother was instructed not to send the cable until October. When Scott arrived in Australia on October 12, 1910, Amundsen’s message was waiting for him. It read: “Beg leave to inform you Fram proceeding Antarctic, Amundsen.” After he read the telegram, Scott sailed south, anchoring in Antarctica at McMurdo Sound on January 4, 1911. Amundsen reached the Ross Ice Shelf on January 14, 1911, sailing into base camp at the Bay of Whales, which put Amundsen 60 miles closer to the pole than Scott could get at McMurdo. Wildlife was abundant, and the crew restocked their supplies with seal and penguin meat. Amundsen established his base camp, named Framheim, two miles inland. For three weeks the crew transferred supplies, assembled the hut, and erected storage tents. Then they moved some supplies inland, establishing three supply depots, spaced about 60 miles apart, along the first part of their path to the pole.

On April 21, 1911, the sun set and the crew returned to camp for the long winter. Amundsen provided nutritious food; he had witnessed the effects of scurvy during the Belgica expedition. He knew nine men housed in a small hut might develop social problems, so he assigned each crewman specific chores and maintained a regimented work schedule. Finally, the sun reappeared on August 24. Two months passed before it was warm enough to start toward the pole. On September 8, eight men and their “sledges”—sleds used to haul the supplies—pulled by eighty-six dogs set off, leaving one man at Framheim. They covered 31 miles in three days, then awoke to extreme cold, nearly –70 degrees Fahrenheit. By September 12, several men had frostbite and the fluid in their compass had frozen. Amundsen continued only to the first supply depot, unloaded the sledges, and returned to Framheim.

Amundsen changed the plan. He would lead one group to the pole while Prestrud would lead another to explore King Edward VII Land (now called Edward VII Peninsula), a peninsula projecting into the Ross Sea. Amundsen reasoned that if his team were unsuccessful, they could still be the first to explore King Edward VII Land. On October 20, 1911, Amundsen and fellow explorers Olav Bjaaland, Oscar Wisting, Helmer Hanssen, and Sverre Hassel, left Framheim using four sledges, each of which was pulled by thirteen dogs. It was warm and they made good progress, arriving at the first depot on October 24. The next morning they left on skis, and spotted a cairn (a pile of stones used to mark the way) that had been built in April. Since the cairn had survived, they built a new one during their lunch stop each day, leaving a note indicating the distance and heading to the previous cairn to mark their return route.

On November 11, they saw a mountain range that Amundsen named the Queen Maud Mountains. After camping at the base of the mountains, on November 17 they set out to climb the Axel Heiberg Glacier. They took thirty days’ worth of supplies for the 340-mile trek to the pole. On November 21, they reached the summit; they had carried a ton of supplies to 10,000 feet. At the top, they shot twenty-four dogs that were no longer needed. The five men and remaining dogs struggled against snow, high winds, and fog. By December 8, fewer than 95 miles remained between them and the pole; they were closer than Ernest Henry Shackleton had come in 1909.

The closer they got, the more Amundsen worried that Scott had beaten them. On December 14, 1911, at about 3:00 p.m., Amundsen shouted, “Halt!” when meters on the sledge indicated they had reached the South Pole. Their was no sign that Scott had been there, so the men planted the Norwegian flag and Amundsen named the plain King Haakon VII’s Plateau. They celebrated, but observations that evening showed they were at 89°56′ S, just short of their goal. They made plans to circle around the campsite, to ensure they reached the exact location of the pole. On December 17, observations indicated they were within feet of the pole. They erected a tent, naming it Polheim, and Amundsen left two messages, one for Scott and another addressed to King Haakon of Norway.

Thirty-nine days later, Amundsen’s group returned safely to Framheim. It took a month for them to sail to Tasmania, where, on March 7, 1912, Amundsen cabled his brother that he had reached the pole. Scott’s team reached the South Pole on January 17, 1912. While returning to McMurdo, they faced extreme cold and heavy snow as they tried to carry heavy rock samples for geological research. All of the explorers in Scott’s group perished on the trek. Upon the Fram expedition’s return, expedition member Hjalmar Johansen publicly questioned the ethics of Amundsen’s decision to keep his journey a secret. Amundsen continued his explorations, however, and in 1926, Amundsen and Lincoln Ellsworth flew the Norge over the North Pole. At the time, the journey was the northernmost voyage ever taken by an airplane.


The conquest of the South Pole opened the Antarctic continent to intense exploration. Many studies examined the reasons why Amundsen’s team found success while Scott’s team perished. Amundsen benefited from his experience on the earlier Belgica expedition, on which he learned several important lessons about surviving in the harsh environment. The group’s journey was also made easier by Bjaaland’s work on reducing the sledges’ weight; he was able to keep each sledge at 48 pounds, while Scott’s sledges weighed 165 pounds.

The Antarctic Treaty, signed in 1959 by nations with interests in the Antarctic, prohibited territorial claims and exploitation of the continent’s resources. The region has proven to be a valuable site for scientific research, and the United States established a permanent base at the South Pole in 1957 as part of the International Geophysical Year. British scientists began measurements of Antarctic ozone in 1957 and discovered a hole in the layer, which indicated that damaging ultraviolet light was reaching the surface of the earth. Exploration;South Pole
South Pole;exploration

Further Reading

  • Amundsen, Roald. The South Pole: An Account of the Norwegian Antarctic Expedition, 1910-1912. New York: New York University Press, 2001. English translation of Amundsen’s 392-page account of the journey, complete with photos, maps, and scientific data.
  • Huntford, Roland. Scott and Amundsen: The Race to the South Pole. New York: Atheneum, 1984. A 665-page history of polar exploration that documents the race to the pole.
  • Thomson, David. Scott, Shackleton, and Amundsen: Ambition and Tragedy in the Antarctic. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2002. Discusses why Scott’s team failed while Amundsen’s team succeeded, analyzes key decisions, and considers the experience and character of both leaders.

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