As I read on Antarctic exploration, I keep reading about explorers’ efforts to go further south than anyone else. And so on New Year’s Eve at the bottom of the year, we can look at the history of “Farthest South” – efforts to go closer to the pole than anyone else.
As one might expect, Wikipedia includes a pretty good entry on “Farthest South,” and honestly, the striving – like that of Antarctica exploration generally – is fascinating to read about, inspiring to contemplate, and hollow to actually achieve. Quite literally none of the “farthest souths” went anywhere other than an empty spot on the map – and until 1900, only empty spots in the Southern Ocean. Not even land (or ice shelf). There’s more to say at another time about the fascinating, inspiring, hollow spot that is the farthest south, the pole itself.
But look at the fits-and-spurts non-pattern of this list of known farthest south records, which doesn’t include the legendary 7th-century feats of the Polynesian sailor Ui-te-Rangiora, who ventured far enough from to see icebergs, but does include the Yaghan natives of what’s now Tierra del Fuego, who probably sailed as far south as Cape Horn at the end of South America. Once the Europeans began trying transoceanic voyages, they set three successive furthest-souths in the 16th century but then only one in the 17th. Sailing so far south was simply too difficult and too unrewarding – not many places to colonize!
154 more years passed before James Cook set two farthest-south records, both on his second circumnavigation of the planet – and both measured with the famous marine chronometer that allowed sailors (Cook almost first among them) to precisely determine their position on north-south lines of longitude. Cook’s Second Voyage, in fact, was an effort to prove or disprove the existence of a Terra Australis, a huge unknown land at the bottom of the planet. Cook never saw that land, but he did sail far enough to encounter icebergs and other suggestions of a landmass even further south.
Cook died in Hawaii on his Third Voyage, and almost fifty years passed before another British sailor set a new record, then another twenty years before James Clark Ross went almost to 80º south in 1841 and 1842, reaching what’s now the Ross Sea, directly below New Zealand. As Britain and other European powers strived to colonize virtually all the rest of the planet, explorers had less interest in the southern continent itself, which was deemed to have value only as an object of scientific research – not as an object of colonization or even just economic extraction. (The whales and seals in the seas were valuable enough.) Answering calls late in the 19th century to finally investigate Antarctica proper, Carsten Borchgrevink set a new farthest south at 78º 50’ S on the ice shelf in the Ross Sea in 1900. Two years after that, Robert Falcon Scott went further down the shelf, finally passing beyond 80º S – a very forbidding few more degrees from the pole.
Seven years of increasingly intense international competition all around Antarctica (and, at the opposite end of the planet, around the North Pole) culminated in 1909 with Ernest Shackleton getting to within two degrees of the South Pole – a huge leap forward. And then Roald Amundsen finally made it to the pole at 90º S in January 1911, beating Scott by a few weeks. Amundsen brought his men back from the pole safely, but Scott and all his men died as they headed back north.