Journey to the South Pole

A competitor – Roald Amundsen

In an age where the world was running out of new lands to discover, the South Pole became a desirable goal for many explorers.

Both Scott and Shackleton had made attempts to reach it, but neither had succeeded. Although Shackleton had come close in 1909, reaching further south than any other human before, the Pole remained unconquered.

Scott was not the only one with the Pole in his sights. The Norwegian explorer Amundsen was also heading there. He was determined and experienced, having learnt how to survive and travel in polar conditions from Arctic indigenous peoples. Where reaching the South Pole was one of Scott’s aims, it was Amundsen’s only one.

Amundsen portrait

Roald Amundsen
© Royal Geographical Society

Preparing for the journey

To get to the South Pole, Amundsen and Scott would have to travel roughly the distance from Scotland to northern Spain, more than 1,400 kilometres, but in freezing cold conditions and with heavy sledges.

Once in Antarctica, they had more than eight months to refine their plans. Scott studied Shackleton’s account from his Pole attempt, and would follow the same route. They tested and fine-tuned the food rations, and weighed them up in exact portions. Sledging equipment was perfected, and clothing altered.

On 13 September 1911, Scott revealed his final plans. Sixteen men would set out with ponies, dogs and motor sledges, and beyond the Beardmore Glacier they would man-haul. Men would gradually turn back, leaving a smaller group to complete the last stretch. The journey to and from the South Pole would take almost five months.

By the time they set off, the men were used to coping with life and travel in the cold Antarctic environment. They were as prepared as they could be.

Men preparing rations

Bowers, Atkinson and Cherry-Garrard preparing sledging rations
© H Ponting photograph, Pennell collection Canterbury Museum, New Zealand

Laying depots

Both Amundsen and Scott had to ensure they had enough provisions to get them to the South Pole and back.

There were limits to how much they could pack on their sledges and to make sure they didn’t run out of food and fuel, they placed stores along the route in advance. In early 1911, both men and their teams set off to lay supply depots.

Scott aimed for 80° South for the last drop, but his ponies suffered badly in the cold and he decided to turn back early. His last depot was further north than he had planned. Amundsen, on the other hand, laid his last depot at 82˚ South, closer to the Pole than Scott.

Three men uploading supplies

Hooper, Clissold and Demetri laying a depot of Huntley & Palmers biscuits
© Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge

Amundsen’s journey

Amundsen started his journey on 19 October 1911, setting off with five men, four sledges and 52 dogs. Being experienced polar travellers and dog drivers, his group travelled quickly across the frozen landscape and both men and dogs had lengthy periods of rest.

As the journey progressed, dogs were killed to provide fresh meat for the other dogs as well as the men. But Amundsen faced a risk. He was pioneering a new route and did not know if he would find a way through the Transantarctic Mountains to the Polar Plateau and on to the Pole itself. Luckily, he found a steep glacier that opened the way. The dogs struggled, clawing their way up, but after four days they were through.

They reached their final destination on 14 December – Amundsen and his men were the first humans at the South Pole.

  • Route
    Amundsen’s base was at the Bay of Whales, on the Great Ice Barrier. If he was unlucky, the edge of the ice shelf could collapse into the sea, but here he was closer to the South Pole. His route had not been tried before. He had to look for an opening in the mountains to take him to the Polar Plateau.
  • Transport
    Amundsen used only one method of transport: dogs. He set off with 52 dogs pulling four sledges. He and his men were experienced in managing and driving the animals, and in their hands it was a fast and efficient way to travel. They were also expert skiers. Because of their speed, men and dogs were allowed longer periods of rest.
  • Teams
    Amundsen’s team consisted of five men. The dogs pulled the heavy weights, so the men didn’t need to. The dogs transported the supplies and equipment, and along the route were further supplies dropped off earlier in the year. They didn’t need a large team.
  • Food rations
    Amundsen’s team had a similar diet to Scott’s, also designed to be high in calories: pemmican, chocolate, powdered milk and biscuits. As their journey progressed, they also killed their animals. The fresh dog meat was fed to both men and the other dogs.
"So we arrived, and were able to raise our flag at the geographical South Pole … Thanks be to God!" - Roald Amundsen diary, 14 December, 1911
Amundsens group at pole flag

Roald Amundsen and his men at the South Pole
© National Library of Australia, Canberra

Scott’s journey

Scott left 13 days after Amundsen, on 1 November 1911. His southern effort included 16 men in three teams, each transporting supplies for the journey. Men would gradually turn back, leaving one party to complete the last push to the Pole.

Scott was following Shackleton’s route up the Beardmore Glacier and on to the Polar Plateau. He relied on a combination of methods for travel, including man-hauling, two dog teams and 10 ponies, which would be killed along the journey to provide fresh meat.

Scott pioneered a new transport method, motorised sledges, but despite high hopes they broke down soon after leaving. Once the ponies were killed and the dog teams sent back, it was just the men and their sledges.

Although a tested way to travel in the Antarctic, progress was physically strenuous and slow. When Amundsen reached the South Pole, Scott was still on the Beardmore Glacier, about one month behind.

  • Route
    Scott’s base was at Cape Evans on Ross Island. Here, he was further from the South Pole than Amundsen, but on firmer ground. He chose a route established by Ernest Shackleton during his 1907–1909 expedition, accessing the Polar Plateau via the Beardmore Glacier.
  • Transport
    Scott used a combination of transport methods. Two dog teams and 10 ponies would pull supplies and equipment. He also relied on manually pulling the sledges, man-hauling. Shackleton had used ponies and man-hauling before, but Scott’s motorised sledges were a new addition. Unfortunately, they broke down early on in the journey.
  • Teams
    Scott set off with 16 men which allowed for more food and fuel supplies to be taken. At the start of the journey, two men drove the dog teams, a team of 10 men travelled with the horses, and four men with the motor sledges. As they progressed, men gradually turned back, leaving just one smaller party of five, including Scott, to complete the last stretch. They were man-hauling.
  • Food rations
    Scott’s team used a high-calorie diet of pemmican – fat mixed with ground meat – biscuits, sugar and butter, with hot tea or cocoa to drink. This was a common polar survival diet at the time. Ponies were killed along the journey, providing fresh meat for the men, important for avoiding scurvy. Although their diet was similar to Amundsen’s, Scott’s men carried out harder physical work when man-hauling.

The long return

Scott and the Polar Party – Bowers, Evans, Oates and Wilson – reached the South Pole on 17 January 1912, one month after the Norwegians. Bitterly disappointed, Scott wrote, "Now for the run home and a desperate struggle".

The short Antarctic summer was coming to an end and time was running out. As they travelled north, they were slowed by unexpected cold, blizzards and sand-like ice that made man-hauling gruelling. Forced to reduce their daily rations, they began to starve. Exhausted and suffering from frostbite, they knew they might not make it. Evans died one month after reaching the Pole on 17 February.

Four weeks later Oates walked into a blizzard never to return. He suffered from painful frostbite and could not go on. He sacrificed himself to give his comrades a chance to survive. Scott wrote, "He said, “I am just going outside and may be some time”… we have not seen him since". Then there were three.

"The Norwegians have forestalled us and are first at the Pole. It is a terrible disappointment." - Robert Falcon Scott, diary January 1912
Scott and the Polar Party at the South Pole

Scott and the Polar Party at the South Pole
Standing from left: Oates, Scott and Evans. Sitting from left: Bowers and Wilson.
© Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge

Last words of dying men

Scott, Bowers and Wilson were running out of food and fuel and were in desperate need of supplies. If they were to make it back, they had to get to the next reserve, the large One Ton depot, where they would find provisions and fuel. 

But the unusually cold temperatures and violent blizzards trapped them in their tent. They never made it and died sometime in March from cold, exhaustion and starvation, about 10 weeks after reaching the Pole. They were only 20 kilometres from the depot.

Aware of their fate, each man thought of home and wrote farewell letters. These were heartbreaking and powerful goodbyes to parents, wives and friends. Scott kept writing his diary until the very end. His last entry was on 29 March 1912, in which he pleaded "for God’s sake look after our people".

"Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale …" - From Scott’s ‘message to the public’, written as he lay dying in his tent

Edward Wilson's miniature silk flag
This miniature silk New Zealand flag was flown at the South Pole on 18 January 1912 by Edward Wilson. It was given to Wilson by Canterbury resident Miss Anne Hardy of Rakaia and she asked him to take it with him to the Pole. © Canterbury Museum, New Zealand

Terra Nova expedition sledge
This sledge was used on the journey to the South Pole. On the return journey of one of the support parties, Edward Evans started to suffer from scurvy and became very ill. He was saved by expedition members who used this sledge to transport him to Scott's Discovery expedition hut. © Canterbury Museum, New Zealand

Amundsen's sledge
This slightly different sledge design was used by Amundsen's team on the South Pole journey. © Canterbury Museum, New Zealand

Dog shoe
Dogs were used to pull sledges on the first stage of the South Pole journey. They often suffered from cut or damaged feet while running on the coarse ice. This leather dog shoe was trialed on Scott's expedition, but while it protected the dog's foot it also reduced its grip on the icy surface. © Canterbury Museum, New Zealand

Dog harness
Dog harnesses were used to strap the dogs to the front of the sledges. A loop was fitted around the dog's chest allowing the dog to pull from the shoulders. The ends of the loop were sewn onto a ring attached to two leather straps that were fastened to the sledge. © Canterbury Museum, New Zealand

Pony mask
Scott used ponies to pull sledges. This method of transport had been tested on Shackleton's Nimrod expedition and seemed to work, however the ponies struggled with soft snow, extreme cold and insufficient food. This is believed to be an experimental face mask designed to prevent snow blindness. © New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust

Nansen cooker
Nansen cookers, invented by Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen, were a standard piece of equipment on polar expeditions at the time. Designed to make maximum use of the Primus stove, they have an inner and outer cooker and can cook food and melt ice at the same time. They also provided essential heat. © Canterbury Museum, New Zealand

Bovril pemmican
Pemmican was the staple survival food on the South Pole journey. It contained powdered meat, large quantities of fat and sometimes dried fruits. Scott's expedition brought 1,600 kilogrammes of pemmican to the Antarctic. © New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust

Huntley & Palmers Captain biscuits
High-calorie sledging biscuits were developed specifically for the expedition. They were packed in sealed tins to make them water tight and suitable to store in depots. © Canterbury Museum, New Zealand