Past Antarctic Exploration

The intense preparations for deployment in McMurdo didn’t leave much time, but I couldn’t resist reading about the thrill, triumph, and tragedies of Antarctic exploration. In brief, the existence of a “Terra Australis” was postulated a few centuries ago, mostly on the grounds that it would compensate for the relative lack of known land in the Southern Hemisphere compared to the North. In the 18th century, James Cook led expeditions that ventured into the Southern Ocean in search of a continent, but repeatedly had to turn back without being able to go far enough south. Antarctica was first sighted in the early 19th century, and (presumably) the first humans to step on it landed in the Antarctic peninsula south of Patagonia around 1820. In the 20 or so years that followed, expeditions by ship performed the reconnaissance of much of Antarctica’s coast. This included the discovery by Ross of the eponymous bay and ice shelf south of New Zealand, where the coast is as far south as 77º latitude (much of Antarctica’s coast is nearer 70º S). Ross discouraged further exploration of Antarctica, as I believe he thought it was not worth the effort. But when expeditions resumed at the turn of the century, they would strategically land as far south as possible in the Ross sea area.

Interest for terrestrial magnetism and the drive to reach the South pole spurred renewed efforts to explore the Antarctic, starting in the closing years of the 19th century. This “heroic age” of Antarctic exploration lasted until the early 1920s, when mechanical exploration (by airplane, etc.) ensued. I was particularly impressed reading the accounts of the expeditions led by Shackleton (UK), Scott (UK), and Amundsen (Norway). Each of these expeditions lasted 3 to 4 years. In the first year, the parties would sail down from Europe, resupply the ships at a couple of stops on the way, and set up a hut on the coast of Antarctica (in these cases the Ross ice shelf, close to where McMurdo Station is today) by mid-austral fall. A small party would spend the winter (“winter-over”) at the hut while the ship would sail back north to Australia or New Zealand in order to avoid being crushed by the pressures of the sea ice. During winter-over, preparations would be made to launch explorations on land the following summer (Year 2). Some of these included attempts for a party of a few to reach the South Pole, roughly a 2000-mile (3000-km) round-trip journey on sleigh pulled by dogs, ponies, or men. In Year 3 (or 4, if the parties didn’t come back to the coast in time by mid-fall), the ships would sail back to Europe.

Around 1902, the “Discovery” expedition (they are named after the ship used to travel to Antarctica), led by Robert Scott, was well on its way to reaching the South Pole, but one of the party members, Ernest Shackleton, fell sick (scurvy, I think) and they had to turn back. Scott made it clear that Shackleton was to blame for their failure to achieve one the expedition’s key goals. This soured the relationship between them. Back in England, Shackleton sought to outdo Scott and planned his own expedition, which left around 1907 aboard the Nimrod. Unlike Scott, Shackleton did not have the support of the Royal Geographical Society, and as a result had to pull together the expedition from scraps. Amazingly, his party almost reached the South Pole, turning back only 97 miles away short of food. This prompted Scott to launch his second expedition aboard the Terra Nova in 1909. On their way, his party learned that a Norwegian, Roald Amundsen, had left Europe aboard the Fram to do just the same. Back then, you had to announce your plans ahead of time, and the fact that Amundsen didn’t was a no-no in explorers’ circles. In fact, Amundsen’s initial intent was to shoot for the North Pole, but it turned out that the Pole had been reached for the first time the previous year, by two different parties. (Back then the news of an expedition’s outcome had to await the return of the party, so it always took a few months.) It seemed like Scott and Amundsen would be down at the same time, racing to the Pole.

Indeed, shortly after setting up their hut on the Ross ice shelf, the Terra Nova went on a short trip along the shelf coast and stumbled upon Amundsen’s group. Exchanges were civil, the teams inviting each other for meals aboard the ship and on land. But when Scott, who had stayed behind, got the news, he was not happy. The teams wintered over at their respective locations and did not further communicate. When the sun rose for the first time in late August, Amundsen asked his party of 5 men to hasten preparations and get on their way asap, if they were to beat Scott. They left early in the austral spring, but had to turn around as the weather was still too cold. A second start a few weeks later went much better, but they would have to open their own route to the pole, traveling by sleigh pulled by 58 dogs. Scott’s party, in contrast, would follow the route opened by Shackleton two years earlier. Their methodical, military-style plan involved a comparatively larger party with more supplies traveling by sleigh pulled by dogs and ponies. Much of the crew would turn back along the way, and only 5 men ended up on the last segment to the pole, pulling sleighs themselves. For both expeditions, the plan was to kill and eat dogs (Amundsen; only 11 dogs made it back) and ponies (Scott, as the British refused to eat dogs) on the way, burying extra food in caches for the way back. This way, they carried only the minimum.

Scott’s party reached the pole in January of 1912. A few kilometers away from their goal, they spotted a Norwegian flag and found Amundsen’s tent, raised a few weeks earlier, with a message asking Scott to bring the news of Amundsen’s success to the king of Norway. Amundsen’s lightweight party pulled by sleigh dogs had travelled fast and had had no major difficulty opening their new route. The return was similarly quick, and they were able to sail north, avoiding being trapped for an extra winter-over on the continent. Scott’s party did not fare so well. On the return journey, his party was plagued by frostbite and some men got sick. They had trouble finding their food caches. One man died, then another. Eventually, Scott and his last two crewmates died of cold and starvation just about 15 miles / km short of a large food depot, having almost made it back to the coast. They knew they were this close, and yet could do nothing about it. Their bodies were found by other expedition members who went to look for them after winter had passed. Scott’s diary and expedition photos told their story.

If you’re interested in more details, I’d recommend reading the Wikipedia articles linked above about these various expeditions. They link to accounts by expedition members themselves (books, photos), which are in the public domain. I’ve just had somewhat of an expedition of my own, having rung the New Year in New Orleans, jumped on a plane in the middle of the night to DC, switched luggage, and flown to Houston, then Auckland (a 15-hour flight), and finally Christchurch where I’m awaiting briefings and extreme cold weather gear. Still, this is much more comfortable than a 1-year journey on a small ship. I’ve met much of my group, this is going to be a fun bunch.


Left: the Terra Nova viewed from a cave in an iceberg. Scott hired a professional photographer to document the expedition. Top right: Amundsen’s party, victorious at the South Pole. Bottom right: the modern-times 787 ship that took me to Auckland.