Amundsen at the Pole (110 years ago today)

110 years ago today, Roald Amundsen and four compatriots became the first people to reach the South Pole, winning the race against Briton Robert Falcon Scott. Amundsen and his team had started their trek south in the middle of October, using dogsleds and their legs to cross about 700 miles of snow and ice. A experienced explorer, Amundsen treated the effort like a military campaign that included numerous supply depots, reinforcements spread over his route, some cutting-edge technology (wireless) and some ancient technology (wolfskin clothing), massive fundraising, and a truly insane amount of planning.

Amundsen and his team at the pole, December 14, 1911

In reaching the pole first, Amundsen beat Scott’s team by more than a month. He also safely led all his men back to their base on the Bay of Whales on the northern shore* of the continent. Amundsen’s dogs didn’t fare as well as his crew: they were killed and fed to each other or to the men. Scott and his men infamously all died after reaching the pole to find a letter from Roald basically saying, like the kids on Instagram, #first.

The “conquest of the poles” is a strange endeavor to think about. I need as many hands as an octopus has tentacles to decide how I feel about it. First and maybe foremost, the American efforts to reach the North Pole (though amazingly we don’t know who really made it there first!) and then Amundsen and Scott’s efforts to reach the South Pole are incredible feats of human persistence. Second, they are interesting for the way they hover on the edge of science and athletics. Pretty much everything men like Amundsen found was new, from the path to the pole to the effects on a human of prolonged exposure to the harshest temperatures on earth. Third, the races to the poles were also capstones to the rush to colonize all of the planet – but at least in the south, a sort of inversion of the “civilizing” impulse of explorers and colonizers pretty much everywhere else. Exploring the Antarctic differed from “exploration” of the Arctic in that there were no people in Antarctica. The many, many campaigns by Europeans and Americans in the far north were all, in some way, conquests – albeit failures in many cases. (Not for nothing is Alaska the state with the most natives of any U.S. state.)

Fourth and last and I think closely related to the third, attempts to explore Antarctica seem pure in contrast to, honestly, pretty much everything else about Euro-American “exploration” of the world. Even feats that were more purely athletic, like Norgay and Hillary being the first to reach (and return from the) summit of Chomolungma/Sagarmatha/Everest, were inherently tied up in colonialism of the ugliest sort. But getting to the bottom of the world? Ain’t nothing there except the point at which all the lines of longitude converge. So a tip of the fur-lined hat to Amundsen, Helmer Hanssen, Sverre Hassel and Oscar Wisting for reaching the South Pole before any other men, women, or beasts.

* Joke: all of Antarctica’s shoreline is northern!

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