The Race to the South Pole


I like museums that encompass a large boat – my trip to Vasa buoyed what was otherwise a shipwreck of an experience in Stockholm. Which is why I immediately pinned Bygdøy as a must-see destination in Oslo, Norway, considering it has many such museums.

I arrived so early that no museum was open. This was the perfect opportunity to just sit on the pier and watch the snow drift across the bay, covering the city in a brilliant white sheen. The waters were bouncing to and fro, yet somehow didn’t make a sound. Mist hid the distant mountains from view and brought my attention to the rugged branches of trees on the nearby peninsulas, contrasting the silver clouds that obscured the Sun from view.

It was freezing and my hands, despite being covered by gloves, were chilled. My beard quickly formed icicles, which amused me. As someone who finds mountains and large bodies of water calming, the environment couldn’t have been more soothing. It was impossible for me to feel depressed in this land to the north.

Soon, the museums opened, and I tore myself away from spectacular views to become the first visitor of the day. The warmth was intense but welcoming, and as I took off my wet jacket I couldn’t help but be stunned by the sight of the legendary Fram.

21st Century Jacobsweg: Fram, the boat that took Roald Amundsen to the South Pole
The Fram, the boat that Roald Amundsen took to the South Pole.


The Fram (“forwards” in Norwegian) was the talk of the day before the Titanic came along. Propelling through the water at 7 knots (13kph), her speed was pretty standard at the time. What wasn’t typical was its design. Built in 1892, the Fram was specifically designed to explore polar regions. How does one navigate those fields of impenetrable ice? Sometimes, ice drifted apart and created passages through the fields. But what would happen if the passage closed up? Gigantic chunks of sheet ice (larger than most countries!) could crush ships trapped in their path and consign sailors to certain death on the ice.

The Fram stood out because instead of fighting the ice, she would work with it. This worked because she is a rounded ship, almost chubby in appearance, with no straight or sharp edges. With a reinforced hull to protect from impact (ramming into ice was not part of her repertoire), the Fram would get pushed upwards if pushed too much from the sides, allowing her to sit on top of the endless white plains.

Once frozen in place, the ship transformed into a science lab, recording data about weather, water, geography and everything in between. The Fram was insulated with wood, felt, reindeer hair and linoleum, which worked so well that apparently condensation never appeared within the ship during any of its operations! She was a reliable port in the storm.

The Fram was first deployed in 1894 by Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen on his attempt to reach the North Pole. He successfully froze her above the icefields and drifted across the Arctic Circle for three years! Ultimately, the expedition didn’t reach North Pole – they were at the mercy of the drift. Nonetheless, Nansen managed to get to within 400km of the North Pole, the closest anyone had ever gotten up to then. Nansen is hailed as a legend to this day for his exploits.

The Fram made another expedition under the command of Norwegian explorer Otto Sverdrup, who spent four years with her exploring the fjords of Greenland and Canada. His achievements are not as legendary, but his exploration provided invaluable information (and territorial claims for Norway). Afterwards, Fram was put into retirement.

21st Century Jacobsweg: Fur suit worn by Amundsen's team during the Norwegian South Pole expedition
A fur suit worn by Amundsen’s team during their expedition to the South Pole.

That is, until Roald Amundsen came along.

An experienced explorer, Amundsen became interested in the Fram after hearing about Nansen’s expedition and decided to use her for his own expedition. By then, she was sixteen years old and battered, but that didn’t bother Amundsen. He had her repaired, gathered a crew together and set sail on 9th August 1910.

But where were they going? Most of the crew were under the impression they were heading back north. After all, that was familiar territory for the Fram and Amundsen’s obsession with the North Pole was obvious.

21st Century Jacobsweg: Artifacts from the Norwegian expedition, including a miniature version of the Fram, on display in Canterbury Museum, New Zealand
Artifacts from the Norwegian expedition, including a miniature version of the Fram, on display in Canterbury Museum, New Zealand.

But they slowly caught on that they were heading the wrong way. After a month of keeping aloof, Amundsen finally showed his true colours: They were heading in the polar opposite direction, literally: They were going to the South Pole. Taken aback and rightfully indignant, the crew nonetheless accompanied him to the South Pole.

There was one problem with Amundsen’s plan – Somebody else was trying to get to the South Pole first. But why all the fuss over Antarctica anyway?


Antarctica literally means “opposite the bear.” The Greek word for bear is arktos, and since the Ursa Major constellation, the “great bear”, is always visible in the northern sky, the northern region of Earth is called the Arctic. Anti means “opposite.” The South Pole is thus anti-Arctic: Antarctica. Coincidentally, polar bears live in the Arctic, but not in Antarctica. But just because these apex predators are absent from the barren southern continent, doesn’t make Antarctica any less dangerous…

Antarctica was known about for thousands of years. In the 2nd century AD, Ptolemy, the Roman mathematician, stated that a giant landmass on the bottom of Earth counterbalanced everything on the top. Speculation, yes, but he was right. Antarctica became less of a myth as islands and archipelagos were sighted in the 17th and 18th centuries. The continent proper was first sighted in 1820 by Russian explorer Thaddeus von Bellingshausen, but it was the American sealer John Davis who first set foot on it in 1821.

21st Century Jacobsweg: Penguin display in Canterbury Museum, Christchurch, New Zealand
No bears in the Antarctic, but plenty of penguins (these guys are fake, so no chance of me killing one accidentally).

As with all things new, Antarctica was poked and prodded, but not willing to invest resources for such dangerous journeys to an inhospitable wasteland, interest in Antarctica went cold for several decades. But interest thawed in the 1890s as whalers, meteorologists, physicists, geographers, military strategists and knowledge seekers across the globe decided, somewhat spontaneously, that the hidden corner of the world needed to be understood. The ‘Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration’ had begun.

The first significant expedition of the Heroic Age was the Belgian Expedition of 1897, the first to spend a full, dark winter within the Antarctic circle. (Roald Amundsen was aboard this ship!) Throughout the next decade, the British, Germans, Swedes and French mapped the coastlines and dared to land on the continent, while the Scots established the first permanent weather station. The Japanese were the first non-Europeans to explore the continent.

But while the coasts were becoming familiar, nobody had attempted to find the South Pole. Sure, the Magnetic South Pole was reached by an Australian named Edgeworth David in 1909, but nobody had stood at the very bottom of the Earth! The closest was Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton during the Nimrod Expedition of 1907-1909, who came within a hundred kilometres before being forced to turn back. When his wife asked why he didn’t keep going, he remarked:

“I thought you’d rather a live donkey to a dead lion.”

If Shackleton was the donkey, then Robert Falcon Scott was the lion.

21st Century Jacobsweg: Steering wheel of Roald Amundsen's ship the Fram
Steering wheel of the Fram. Yep, you can climb aboard the ship, go below deck and explore!


Scott was a British naval officer who had big ambitions of reaching the South Pole. He had tried it once before on the Discovery expedition (1902), but the attempt was abandoned. He was itching to conquer the frozen continent. He painstakingly (and very, very publicly – this is important) raised funds for years for the Terra Nova Expedition. Thousands of men volunteered for the job, and the best of the best were handpicked by Scott. Everyone knew about his expedition and its lofty goals – everyone.

Amundsen was not among the volunteers. In fact, after the Belgian expedition, he focused on the Arctic, successfully navigating the Northwest Passage (1903-1906). He was also exploring ways to reach the elusive North Pole, which sits in the middle of an impenetrable, frozen sea.

He was dismayed to hear others had reached it first. However, their claims were (and still are) heavily disputed. The modern consensus is Frederick Cook is a tow rag and Robert Peary, although close, didn’t actually reach the North Pole. Perhaps Amundsen could be the first to reach it with no doubts to his claims. (In fact, Amundsen was the first person to verifiably visit it when he flew over it in 1926. However, he never set foot on it).

But there was a big problem: Amundsen was heavily in debt. He was supposed to make money from his Northwest passage voyage, but the newspaper with exclusive rights to the story was scooped and the lucrative deal was abrogated. Amundsen needed that money, and the controversy over the North Pole was unlikely to generate enthusiasm for another expedition.

So when he caught wind of Scott’s Terra Nova expedition, Amundsen had an idea: A race to the bottom. If he got there first, he could earn some serious money. However, everything had to be kept under wraps: he didn’t want to risk the story being leaked and losing out on payments again. That’s why he misled his crew about their true destination.

Amundsen was breaking a lot of social norms by doing this.

You see, this was an era of growing internationalism, as well as gentlemanliness. Explorers informed each other of their plans, particularly if they were from different nations, so they could avoid treading on each other’s ‘claims’ in unexplored territory. Competing with or keeping secrets from other explorers was incredibly disrespectful. Instead, you gave explorers with prior claims some latitude to make their attempt before you started your own expedition.

21st Century Jacobsweg: Supply sled from the Norwegian South Pole Expedition
Think you could do what Amundsen did? This is a supply sled that weighs over 300kg!

Amundsen justified his dishonesty by pointing out that the British had no inherent right to the South Pole. If the Terra Nova men got there first, so be it, but he wasn’t about to concede it on an open platter. Plus, he did inform Scott he was coming – just as they both arrived in Antarctica.

The race was underway. At least, it was for Amundsen.


Scott finally set sail from Cardiff on 15th June 1910, reaching Antarctica on 4th January 1911. However, he wouldn’t start his South Pole trek until 1st November 1911. This was to avoid the worst of the freezing temperatures, storms and eternal Winter darkness. He planned many activities to pass the time until then, including many scientific endeavours. The South Pole was just the icing on the cake.

When Amundsen informed Scott of his expedition, Scott couldn’t fathom it. Amundsen wasn’t serious, was he? In any case, Scott wasn’t interested in a race and stuck to his original plans. But when the Fram was encountered by some of Scott’s men in February 1911 in Antarctica, Scott is said to have been enraged. He wanted to confront the cocky Norseman, but his crew calmed him down and he stayed put. Scott and Amundsen never met each other.

*                           *                           *

Amundsen left Norway on 9th August 1910 and arrived in Antarctica on 14th January 1911, landing roughly 100 kilometres closer to the Pole than Scott. He too was going to wait the long Winter out, but he only had the South Pole in mind. In fact, his haste to win the ‘race’ nearly cost lives. He foolishly tried to start the expedition to the Pole at the end of August (read: it was still Winter!), but he needed to turn back after the weather was too cold and nearly jeopardised the entire mission. It became an ‘every man for himself’ situation, and it was miraculous nobody died.

Undeterred, Amundsen set off after the Antarctic Winter on 18th October 1911, two weeks earlier than Scott.

*                           *                           *

Poor decision-making severely hampered the Terra Nova expedition. First, Scott brought nowhere near enough dogs. Dogs were tried and tested in the inhospitable snow, but he opted instead to bring along Siberian ponies, which were unsuccessfully used on Shackleton’s Nimrod Expedition. In any case, his team were undertrained in using dog-teams, so the inadequate supply of dogs were used inefficiently.

Plus, he opted to use experimental technology – motor sledges. He reasoned that he could use the sledges as far as possible across the expansive ice sheet, then ride the ponies up the mountains towards the Polar plateau. Although you can only know by trying, this was not the best time to test new equipment. In addition, Scott’s pride as a military man led to lots of man-hauling of supplies – it was more ‘honourable’.

Honourable? Maybe. Foolhardy? Indeed.

That was just the tip of the iceberg. There’s no food in Antarctica – food for several months has to be brought with you. And Scott’s men were woefully underfed. Sure, they were eating 4,500 calories per day – twice what the average person needs – but they expended 6,000-7,000 calories a day. Initially, they used up their fat, so they lost insulation against the cold. Then, as the fat ran low, the energy was leeched from their muscles instead. The physical demands in such a harsh environment remained high, and they got weaker. Worse, their rations were nutritionally unbalanced – nowhere near enough fats, too much protein, and deficient in vitamins and minerals. Scurvy started to develop, devastating their already deteriorating bodies.

21st Century Jacobsweg: Entertainment area of the Fram
Entertainment area of the Fram. Imagine being cooped up in here for three years straight!

Further, the ‘creeping’ phenomenon diminished their fuel supplies. See, kerosene ‘creeps’ up and out of containers, especially in colder environments. Their fuel was diminishing even when not in use. There wasn’t enough fuel for their stoves, let alone the motor sledges, often leading to eating their food half-cooked. Plus, fuel melted snow for water, so they drank less water, causing dehydration.

Perhaps the biggest mistake Scott made was deciding to bring Henry Bowers on the last leg of the journey. The plan was originally to have four men reach the final destination: Scott, Lawrence Oates, Edgar Evans and Edward Wilson. Hence, now five men were sharing four men’s rations a day. Meagre supplies dwindled even faster. Bowers also didn’t have skis, so he had to trudge through fields of snow, slowing the party down considerably.

Exhausted, cold and with the situation snowballing out of control, the party of five nonetheless pushed through, determined to achieve their objective: To be the first men at the South Pole…

21st Century Jacobsweg: Ernest Schackleton's Nimrod Expedition artifacts, Robert Falcon Scott fails to learn
Artifacts from Ernest Shackleton’s Nimrod Expedition. There were many lessons that Scott failed to heed, which would cost him dearly…

*                           *                           *

Amundsen took a more direct route towards the Pole. It took considerably less time, but was incredibly reckless – it’s a miracle they survived the perilous route.

Amundsen’s rations weren’t better than to Scott’s – they were both using what were the commonly accepted (but wrong) nutritional ratios. But there were some crucial differences: Amundsen’s team had plenty more to tide them over, thus mitigating the starvation issue. Amundsen also used dog-hauled sledges, bringing over a hundred dogs to Antarctica, thus conserving precious energy. Of the hundred and sixteen dogs brought along, eleven survived the journey and were given to Australian explorer Douglas Mawson for his own expedition.

What happened to the other hundred dogs? They were harvested for fresh meat. Gruesome, yes, but Amundsen knew fresh meat was key to survival in the polar regions, something he learned from the Belgian expedition. Scott did not have any fresh meat in his diet plan, which contributed to nutritional deficiencies and the outbreak of scurvy.

All things considered, fate smiled upon the plucky Norwegian: Amundsen raised the Norwegian flag over the South Pole on the Afternoon of 14th December 1911. There was no British flag: He had beaten Scott. In a little tent he erected, Amundsen left a letter for Scott, requesting the Brit personally deliver it to the King of Norway. This was to be used as evidence of Amundsen’s achievement, thus avoiding the controversy that plagued the North pole expeditions.

Amundsen’s team returned to base camp on 25th January 1912, ninety-nine days since they started (and ten less than anticipated). The weather was perfect and all five men were in great spirits. They were ready to sail off and rake in the glory…

21st Century Jacobsweg: Statues of the first men to reach the South Pole outside the Fram Museum in Norway: Olav Bjaaland, Oscar Wisting, Roald Amundsen, Sverre Hassel and Helmer Hanssen.
Statues of the first men to reach the South Pole outside the Fram Museum in Norway. Left to Right: Olav Bjaaland, Oscar Wisting, Roald Amundsen, Sverre Hassel and Helmer Hanssen.

*                           *                           *

As Amundsen’s team were reaching the coast, Scott was still edging forwards to the South Pole. He was in dire straits: the first symptoms of a brutal cold-snap began to trouble them. They needed more fuel to warm up food, water and themselves. Furthermore, the unseasonal weather was ruining the slippery ice surface’s smoothness, meaning more energy for hauling the sledges. Violent blizzards forced them to batten down the hatches for days at a time, meaning scarce supplies being consumed and no progress being made.

But still, the dream inside him burned so bright that it pushed him through. It was within grasp. He was going to accomplish this. He needed to accomplish this.

Then, in the distance, he saw it: a blue cross on a red background fluttered about in the wind. There was no way; he had to be seeing things. But as they reached the pole on 17th January 1912, it was unmistakeably the Norwegian flag. They found the letter and were dismayed to find that not only had they been beaten, they had been beaten by over a month.

All that planning, all that dreaming, just to be upstaged by that disgraceful Norwegian. The team could take consolation in being the first Brits to conquer Antarctica and still took pictures, but the mood was hardly celebratory. Scott, ever a man of due diligence, took the letter with him, intending to deliver it to King Haakon VII of Norway.

21st Century Jacobsweg: Recreation of the tent and flag erected by the Norwegians at the South Pole
Recreation of the tent and flag erected by the Norwegians at the South Pole.

Disaster soon struck. Edgar Evans had suffered several injuries, including hypothermia, a head injury and an infected cut on his hand sustained from before reaching the Pole. His body gave up on him on 17th February 1912. Lawrence Oates, for whatever reason, decided to leave his tent in the middle of a snowstorm and disappeared on 17th March 1912. Some speculate an honour-driven suicide due to an injury that slowed everyone down, but we will never know.

The three remaining explorers were determined to survive. But every day, they made less and less progress – barely a couple a kilometres a day. Still, they inched to safety. But as they were about to reach a crucial supply depot, a blizzard prevented them from continuing. They were put on ice, mere miles from survival. Their bodies weakened from the infinite chill, unable to produce heat. Frostbite prevented them from walking.

Scott resigned to fate. Even though he never entertained the race, the upstaging seems to have sapped of vigour out of Scott. He was dead in the water; he could go no further. He set up a tent, crawled inside, and never came back out.

Sometime after 29th March 1912, Robert Falcon Scott froze to death. The remaining two, Henry Bowers and Edward Wilson, had died hours before. Scott lay between them, his last written words lamenting their families’ losses.

21st Century Jacobsweg: Some of the scarce artifacts from the doomed Terra Nova expedition in Canterbury Museum, New Zealand. In the upper right corner is a haunting painting of Lawrence Oates leaving the tent.
Some of the scarce artifacts from the doomed Terra Nova expedition in Canterbury Museum, New Zealand. In the upper right corner is a haunting painting of Lawrence Oates leaving the tent.

The remaining Terra Nova membersback at base camp started to wonder where the South Pole team were. Winter was approaching; it was too dangerous to search for them – and too dangerous to be wandering Antarctica. Fearing the worst, a search team was established on October 29th 1912 to find Scott and his men.

They found their mummified corpses on 12th November 1912.


Amundsen’s expedition made waves around the world, but not in a totally positive way. His determination to beat Scott wasn’t very gentlemanly. And as the telegrams of congratulation flooded in, as he was engulfed by a wave of praise and wealth, still nothing was heard from the Terra Nova expedition. People were starting to get worried. An entire year went past since the polar team was last heard from. Still no news. Scott’s disappearance was an iceberg that lurked deep within everyone’s mind: impassable, unavoidable, and running much deeper than it appeared.

Then, in early 1913, the news broke: Henry Bowers. Edward Wilson. Lawrence Oates. Edgar Evans. Robert Falcon Scott. They had all perished. All could have been forgiven if Scott survived. Instead, his death left a black mark on Amundsen’s Antarctic legacy.

21st Century Jacobsweg: The Fram Museum outside Oslo, Norway. In that triangular prism houses one of the most important boats in the world.
The Fram Museum outside Oslo, Norway. That triangular prism houses one of the most important boats in the world.

It must be mentioned: Amundsen is not responsible for Scott’s death. They never crossed paths. No sabotage, no misdirection, no meddling whatsoever from Amundsen. But Amundsen was keelhauled for secretly planning his expedition. Scott had announced his intentions years earlier. Amundsen secretly sailed to Antarctica, hoping the publicity and success would rescue him from drowning in debt.

This has given the Norwegian a mixed legacy in several countries. The Norwegians, naturally, hailed him as a hero. The Americans, competitive as they are, saw him as a winner and a spectacle. The British, however, viewed him as an underhanded cheat, especially after Scott’s death was announced in 1913. For Amundsen to upstage Scott like that, especially when Britain was instrumental in securing Norway’s independence from Sweden in 1905, was incredibly disrespectful in their eyes. Sometimes, they turned a blind eye to him, claiming instead Scott and his men were first, or toasted the dogs on their achievements instead of the men.

But the attitude slowly thawed. They began to begrudgingly acknowledge Amundsen’s achievement, but not without prefacing Scott’s expedition. Scott was instrumental to Amundsen’s success, after all. Remember the letter? Scott confirmed the Norwegian had indeed reached the pole.

But what of the ships?

Although the Fram had the achievement of being the ship that sailed the furthest north and south, after being towed back to Oslo in 1914, she was neglected. WWI occupied the minds of the nascent, ‘neutral’ Norwegian government; the old ship was not on their radar. However, Otto Sverdrup could not let this magnificent ship, one which he once captained, be cast aside. He established a committee in 1916 to preserve the legacy of the boat. A museum was built around her in 1936, immortalising the achievements of Amundsen and its men.

On the other hand, the Terra Nova sunk off the coast of Greenland in 1943, succumbing to the unforgiving polar regions just like its former captain, Robert Falcon Scott, three decades before…

*                           *                           *

Thanks for reading! This article took a bit more time to produce due to research, as well as experimenting with formats and whatnot – let me know what you think! Also, the power went out so it’s gone up a bit later than I preferred, but that’s neither here nor there. Stay safe and I’ll have another article ready soon (that is, if the power stays on)! – Jacob

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