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Reaching the South Pole During the Heroic Age of Exploration

During the early 20th century, the British explorers Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton, and the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, led expeditions to the South Pole. Roald Amundsen’s polar party was the first to reach the South Pole on December 14th, 1911; five weeks later the polar party led by Robert Falcon Scott was the second. In this post I am sharing early 20th century maps that show the routes and surveys that were taken on expeditions to the South Pole by Scott, Shackleton, and Amundsen.

During the late 18th century, James Cook was one of the first explorers to cross the Antarctic Circle. In 1820, the Russian explorers Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev discovered islands in the Antarctic Ocean. Captain James Ross discovered the Ross Sea and the Ross Ice Shelf in 1841. Interest in exploring Antarctica waned until the “Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.” The “Heroic Age” began in 1897 and lasted until 1922. Explorers came from nine countries to carry out expeditions and scientific research in Antarctica.

Clements Markham, the president of the Royal Geographical Society, encouraged British involvement in polar exploration. He organized the Discovery Expedition which took place from 1901 to 1904. The goal of the expedition was to reach the South Pole and to carry out scientific research. Royal Navy officer Robert Falcon Scott led the expedition, the second in command was Albert Armitage, and Ernest Shackleton served as the Third Officer. The team discovered King Edward VII Land and came within  530 miles from the South Pole. The map below shows the routes that were taken during the Discovery Expedition, the location of their winter quarters, and the spot where Scott had tethered an observation balloon at Barrier Inlet.

The enlarged image below shows the location of the winter quarters for the members of the Discovery Expedition. The name of the relief ship, Morning, is shown on the map with a note “Morning” left coal here.

A detail from the map of the Discovery Expedition that shows the location of the winter quarters.

Detail from Antarctica Exploration Sketch map...Royal Geographical Society, 1903. Geography and Map Division.

The British made a second attempt to reach the South Pole during the Nimrod Expedition which was led by Ernest Shackleton. The Nimrod Expedition lasted from 1907 until 1909. During the expedition Shackleton came only 97 geographical miles from the South Pole. The map below shows the explorations and surveys of the Nimrod Expedition.

A map that shows the route of the Nimrod Expedition of Antarctica that was led by Ernest Shackleton.

General Map showing the Explorations and Surveys of the Expedition, 1907-09. Royal Geographical Society, 1909. Geography and Map Division.

The Terra Nova Expedition, led by Robert Falcon Scott began in 1910. Scott and his team left Ross Island on November 2, 1911 to begin their journey to the South Pole. Ten days later the Norwegian team led by Roald Amundsen left their base camp with the same goal. Scott was unaware of Amundsen’s plan to reach the South Pole; Amundsen was secretive about his planned expedition.

Both teams had to cross the Ross Ice Shelf and climb the Transantarctic Mountains to reach their destination. Amundsen’s team crossed the mountain range in only seven days and reached the South Pole on December 14, 1911. Scott’s team arrived at the South Pole on January 17, 1912.

The routes taken by Amundsen’s polar party are shown on the map below. The locations of their supply depots are also shown. An inset shows the track of Amundsen’s ship the Fram.

A map that shows the routes taken by Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen during their expeditions to the South Pole.y

The Antarctic Regions. Edward Stanford, 1926. Geography and Map Division.

Below is a detail from the map featured on the right. The detail shows the routes taken by Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen on their expeditions to the South Pole.

Earlier in his career, Amundsen also explored the northern Arctic regions and was the first person to successfully navigate the Northwest Passage by boat. His voyage lasted from 1903 to 1906. During his northern arctic explorations he stopped at a harbor on King William Island. Members of a local Inuit community taught him how to drive dogs and the skills needed for surviving arctic weather. He applied these skills during his explorations in Antarctica. He used 52 dogs and four expert skiers during his expedition to the South Pole. Scott used very different methods to reach the South Pole. He used a combination of dogs, ponies and motor sledges. The motor sledges broke down and the ponies did not survive; it was necessary for Scott’s team to man-haul their supplies.

A map showing the routes taken by Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen to the South Pole.Detail from The Antarctic Regions. Edward Stanford, 1926. Geography and Map Division.

After reaching their destination, all five members of the Norwegian team, Roald Amundsen, Olav Bjaaland, Helmer Hanssen, Sverre Hassel, and Oscar Wisting safely returned to their base camp. According to Scott’s diaries, Scott and the other members of his polar party, Edward Wilson, Edgar Evans, Lawrence Oates, and Henry Bowers encountered a blizzard, frostbite, and starvation after reaching the South Pole. They did not survive the trip back to their base camp. Edgar Evans suffered from injuries and frostbite. He collapsed near the base of the Beardemore Glacier and was the first to die. The other four members of the team continued north and pitched a tent only 12 miles from a supply depot. Lawrence Oates stepped out of the tent during the blizzard in an apparent suicide. The bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers were found in their tent by a search party on November 12, 1912; the bodies of Oates and Evans were never found.

The locations where the five men died are shown on the map below. The names of Scott, Wilson, Bowers, and Oates are shown near One Ton Depot; the name E. Evans is shown further south near the Beardmore Glacier.

Pictured below are Wilson, Scott, Evans, Oates, and Bowers at the South Pole in front of the tent that was left a month earlier by Roald Amundsen. According to Scott’s journal, Bowers saw a black object in the distance as the team came close to reaching the South Pole. They hoped that the object was a mirage; when they reached the South Pole they realized that the object was the Norwegian flag. Scott’s team accomplished a lot. They reached the South Pole and collected fossil samples that were later used for important scientific research. Amundsen’s team focused only on reaching the South Pole.

A photograph of Scott, Bowers, Evans, Wilson and Oates at the South Pole.

Herbert George Ponting, copyright claimant. Camp at the South Pole. 1912. Prints and Photographs Division.

Learn more:

Race to the pole : tragedy, heroism, and Scott’s Antarctic quest by Sir Ranulph Fiennes. 

The story of polar conquest, the complete history of arctic and antarctic exploration, including the discovery of the South Pole by Amundsen and Scott; the tragic fate of the Scott expeditionedited by Logan Marshall.


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