THE RACE BEGINS
Norwegians led by Roald Amundsen arrived in Antarctica's Bay of Whales on January 14, 1911. With dog teams, they prepared to race the British to the South Pole. Amundsen's ship, Fram, loaned by renowned Arctic explorer Fridtjof Nansen, was the elite polar vessel of her time.
"September 12—Tuesday. Not much visibility. Nasty breeze from S. -52°C. The dogs clearly affected by the cold. The men, stiff in their frozen clothes, more or less satisfied after a night in the frost … prospect of milder weather doubtful."
The writer of this terse diary entry was Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian explorer who had won renown five years earlier for being the first to sail the Arctic's fabled Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Now he was at the opposite end of the world, in the Antarctic, aiming for the most prestigious prize the world of exploration still offered: the South Pole. Planned with characteristic meticulousness, this bold venture was also the result of happenstance. Two years earlier Amundsen had been immersed in plans to extend his exploration of the Arctic Ocean and to drift over the North Pole, when he received news (later contested) that Robert Peary had already claimed the Pole. At that instant, Amundsen recalled later, "I decided on my change of front—to turn to the right-about, and face to the South." As Amundsen reckoned, if he won the South Pole, fame as well as financing of future exploration would be secure. Ostensibly preparing for the north, he secretly planned for the south.
Winning the South Pole, however, was not to be taken for granted. Also heading south was the well-advertised British Antarctic Expedition, under the command of Captain Robert Falcon Scott. Amundsen was keenly conscious of his rival, as his September 12 diary entry shows. Tormented by the prospect that Scott might beat him, Amundsen had jumped the gun, starting before the arrival of polar springtime and manageable weather. The result was the death of valuable dogs and frostbite on the feet of his men that would require a month to heal. Racing back to his base, Framheim (named after his ship, the famous polar-going Fram, meaning "forward"), Amundsen abandoned two companions, who struggled into camp a day after his return. "I don't call it an expedition. It's panic," Hjalmar Johansen, the most experienced polar explorer of the team, told Amundsen. Bitterly resented, Johansen's damning words cost him a place on the eventual Pole-seeking party.