Our ship, SH Minerva, was pretty spectacular inside and out. The interior spaces, from the public areas to my cabin, were wonderfully comfortable, but I really enjoyed the outdoor spaces, which encouraged everyone to spend as much time in the open as possible – whether together for meals or birdwatching or alone to simply contemplate the ocean and the mountains.
Of the several great outdoor spaces, the most spectacular places was the “Swan’s Nest,” a lookout at the very tip of the prow, a spot from which every inch of the ship was behind you and the only thing in front and below was the ocean.
I spent every moment I could in the Swan’s Nest. Between the wind, the waves, and the birds, the spot was a very loud place to be.
Most everyone else on Minerva enjoyed the spot too.
I’d planned to spend as much time in the Swan’s Nest as possible as we sailed back through the Beagle Channel to Ushuaia at the end of our cruise, but alas: I was confined to quarters by COVID. The best I could do – and it was pretty good – was to watch the live feed on the camera aimed down off the bridge over the Swan’s Nest. I drank the last of the previous night’s wine while we sailed back to port.
Enjoying the view virtually, as it were, was nice, but I’ll never forget being crowded with other passengers into the Swan’s Nest early on the morning of February 4 as the captain nosed Minerva into the Lemaire Channel. What a spectacular spot to watch those headlands come toward us.
We wound up not going through the channel that morning, but the Swan’s Nest was still the best place on the ship to watch channel pass that afternoon – a topic for another post.
We saw the British base and Norwegian whaling station at Deception Island on our first proper day in Antarctica. On our next-to-last day, we saw another, far more pleasant and even prosaic sign of man’s encounter with Antarctica: the British and Argentine “huts” at Damoy Point on Wiencke Island. What a place – unreal in that quintessentially Antarctic sense: snow, ice, ocean, mountains, clouds, sky… And of course seals and penguins.
The gentoo penguin colony was small
and, in the soft evening light, quite active. Many of the adults were tirelessly marching back and forth to collect more rocks for their nests.
On the long walking path between the landing beach and the huts themselves, a couple seals and a couple skuas were lounging, unperturbed by the parka’d pax going back and forth.
The huts themselves were tiny and charmingly rustic. The British hut was open to visitors and preserved more or less the way it had looked in the 1990s, when the Brits stopped using it as a station for scientific research and a base for supplying other nearby stations, like Port Lockroy (just a few kilometers over the ridge).
A sign at the door said, in essence, please clean your boots before coming in, please don’t disturb or take anything, and please close the door when you leave. So small and crowded was it that I couldn’t get a good angle for photos, but it looked and smelled like just about every backwoods cabin you might’ve seen. Except, no woods outside. I could imagine spending months there quite happily, hiking over the snowfields all day and hiding from the weather as needed.
The even smaller Argentine hut wasn’t open for visitors (perhaps because it’s actually still in use?), but honestly they have a superior hut-decoration scheme. Nothing really beats los albicelestes, even battered by the weather.
Nothing except maybe the wider, wilder landscape itself. Dorian Bay was a good reminder of just how small and insignificant humans are and should be.
One of my few specific hopes for the trip to Antarctica – separate from from general experiences that I figured I’d have almost no matter what, like seeing icebergs or being close to penguins – was to visit the British facility at Port Lockroy, which had been a military post called “Base A” during World War II, a scientific research station till 1962, and since then, the southernmost post office in the world. I even brought addressed postcards to mail from Port Lockroy! Alas, the place was closed due to the goddamn pandemic, so this is as close as we could get:
For a better look at Port Lockroy, check out some photos of the place. I love the color scheme of the structures themselves, and the neighbors seem nice.
Honestly, I didn’t even know till after the trip that we had sailed past Port Lockroy, so taken I had been by the scenery that day, during which we’d had to stay on the ship due to high winds. And by then, we’d already visited another old British base on Deception Island, “Base B,” which was located on the same beach as an old Norwegian whaling facility, the Hektor factory – the beach where many of us had had our polar plunges.
Base B is now a decrepit old building that we couldn’t even enter, but which the skuas and terns had long ago colonized. One of the ship’s naturalists told us all about “Operation Tabarin,” a slightly bonkers effort by the United Kingdom:
Its primary objective was to strengthen British claims to sovereignty of the British territory of the Falkland Islands Dependencies, to which Argentina and Chile had made counter claims since the outbreak of war. This was done by establishing permanently occupied bases, carrying out administrative activities such as postal services and undertaking scientific research.
According to our guide, Tabarin was also an effort to secure the whale oil that was stored on Deception Island – truly, a disgusting military objective, but one which speaks to the ecocidal nature of man’s relations to Antarctica. Deception Island was among other things a place where thousands of seals and whales were slaughtered and processed for… pretty much nothing – some fuel and lubricants and soap and margarine. What a heinous waste of life. We also saw the oil tanks and the carcass of the Hektor whaling factory, which was falling down and overgrown with lichens.
Up the beach were a few more buildings, and even an old aircraft hangar, but I didn’t go that far. I had polar plunging to do, and honestly I wasn’t relishing the ugly, obscene history of man’s exploitation of Deception Island. Far better to enjoy the place’s insistent, uncompromised nature, like the outcrops that Minerva sailed past as we left the island’s harbor and its fading traces of humankind.
I rocked the parka ‘fit every day of the cruise, but I didn’t wear the parka itself all the time. I had to take it off whenever I did any serious hiking – the thing was just way too warm to wear during any kind of strenuous activity!
And I took off the parka whenever we had some sunshine – like here, during the glorious cruise up the Lemaire Passage, when I accepted some fellow passengers’ invitation to enjoy an afternoon drink:
And I took off the parka – plus everything except my glasses, my watch, and my swim trunks – to do the polar plunge at Deception Island. I had been worrying about this for more than a day, ever since the expedition leader said that we’d probably have the chance to jump in the water at Deception Island. I’m fine being cold, but I was worried about having a heart attack from the shock of the water. When the guides said that they’d have an AED on the beach, my fear of dying in the volcano was greatly lessened. (I never did confirm that they knew how to use the AED, or, come to think of it, actually see it on the beach…)
My lord, though, what a goddamn thrill to dunk myself in the Southern Ocean! As my face in the first photo suggests, the “active” volcano didn’t actually warm the water too much. In fact, our guides pointed out that since salt lowers water’s freezing point, this water was probably slightly colder than 32º F. The air was just about at 32, full of rain and sleet and snow.
Fun as hell, and honestly, not that cold, either. Plus, how many people can say they they did a polar plunge in actual polar water? Well, probably about fifty or so from our ship, which the guides claimed was an unusually high number. Perhaps Carleton alumni are especially brave (or dumb), or perhaps the group’s members were particularly amenable to shared adventures (or susceptible to peer pressure), or or or… Who knows!
I can’t say I won’t ever do another polar plunge, though I am pretty sure I won’t ever have another chance to say that a swimsuit is legitimate work clothing. Unless Carleton sends me on an alumni trip to Alaska or something…
Cycling and loving winter has given me a deep appreciation for good gear. As addictions go it’s probably less destructive but not much less expensive than drinking, drugs, or gambling. And it gives me the chance to smugly tell people, “There’s no bad weather, only bad clothing.” If I could say this in Norwegian, like some Northfielders can (and do), I’d probably collapse into a smug black hole.
I was thus both pretty lucky to have a lot of the “right” stuff for the Antarctic cruise (the value of wool baselayers cannot be overstated!) and somewhat dubious that I really needed the heavy-weather parka that the cruise line provided to everyone. Wouldn’t one of my weatherproof winter jackets suffice? I generously, landlubbingly decided to grant them the benefit of the doubt. At worst I’d get a sweet new jacket; at best I’d get a sweet new jacket that kept me dry and warm in Antarctica.
Well, it turns out those folks knew what they were talking about! The parka was incredibly effective at keeping me dry and warm while standing or sitting in some pretty bad great conditions: sideways rain, pelting sleet, 70-mph winds, snow flurries… Who knew? Besides, I mean, everyone who’s ever gone to Antarctica, been on the ocean, etc. The fabric was great, but the super-snug and easy-to-use hood was fantastic, the snap cuffs were marvelous, and the numerous well-designed pockets were wonderfully useful for phones, gloves, hats, hands…
As for the blue of the jacket? Pretty much the same color as old ice!
While we passengers were able to bring our parkas home with us, we could not keep two other cool bits of gear. Each time we went ashore, we wore insanely great insulated and waterproof Muck boots instead of regular boots. The guides specifically warned us not to bring, much less wear, any landlubbing boots (hiking boots, Sorels, etc.), saying that no matter how good you think they’ll work, they won’t work well in Antarctica. The knee-high Mucks, like the parka, were a revelation. Not only did they provide exceptional traction on snow, ice, wet rocks, and penguin shit, they were completely waterproof and amazingly warm, thanks to the liner and to wool socks. Because of course I did, I tested my boots (size EUR 48 – big clodhoppers) on one of our landings by standing for about ten minutes in shin-deep water that was about 30º F and chock full of ice chunks. Toasty warm! If I had the sort of life that involved frequent splashing in near-frozen water, I’d get a pair.
A life in which I could “need” Muck boots is imaginable, but I can’t imagine a life in which I’d need the amazing lifejacket that we had to wear on all of our landings. On our second night at sea, the ship’s guides provided a detailed orientation to the lifejacket that included such tips as
Wear it over all your clothes, but not over a backpack! Never wear it over a backpack! Reason: if it inflates, it won’t float properly under a backpack, and could actually drown you.
Make sure the straps – even the awkward one running between your legs – are snug before leaving the ship. Reason: you won’t be able to easily tighten the straps when you’re in the boat heading ashore.
Do not ever pull the inflation tab unless you’re already in the water! Reason: somehow the lifejacket senses water and inflates automatically when it’s immersed, or even just wet.
This last bit of guidance caused several passengers at the orientation to reflexively reach for the inflation tab, which in turn caused the guides to shout good-naturedly, “Do not pull the tab!” Relatedly:
Do not take the life jacket into the shower in your cabin to rinse off dirt or penguin shit, because the water will make it inflate and then you’ll be super embarrassed. (I was very tempted to do this on the last night of the cruise.)
The full kit – complemented here with a wool cycling cap from Minnesota’s 45NRTH (one of my very most favorite items of clothing) and by fleece-lined and water-resistant pants from Eddie Bauer (same) – was something to behold! Almost drowned out the dorky grin on our first landing.
I grew up on the edge of Lake Superior, and ventured out onto it a few times, but I always felt and feel most at home when surrounded by tall trees. After moving to Northfield, I had to get used to the prairie. I think I’m pretty comfortable now in wide-open spaces. The Southern Ocean, though, was an entirely other sort of wide open.
I guess I expected to see endless empty ocean when we set sail on Minerva from Ushuaia, a busy port. The commercial pier where we boarded Minerva was lined with other cruise and merchant ships, and not far from a marina that wouldn’t look out of place on any of the Great Lakes.
The Ushuaia harbor was crowded with big vessels. These cruise ships were supposedly full of passengers and crews who were waiting out their COVID quarantines.
But after we left the harbor and steamed down the Beagle Channel toward the Drake Passage, the only craft we saw was the boat the took the channel pilot off Minerva in the middle of the night. (I had just returned to my cabin after watching Ushuaia disappear behind us.)
The Practicaje was the last ship we saw for days. No ships, no other people, nothing but the open ocean. Well, the ocean and the sky. If Ralph Waldo Emerson is right that “the sky is the daily bread of the eyes,” then we gorged ourselves.
When we reached Antarctica, the mountains, glaciers, icebergs, and wildlife added to the feast, as I hope my post are showing. But through the couple hundred of us on Minerva felt like the only people in the world, or at least the only people in our part of Graham Land, we weren’t. Almost every day, we caught a glimpse of another ship.
The night of February 2, after our landing on the continent at Orne Harbor, we headed down the Gerlache Strait and passed two other cruise ships cutting away up the Schollaert Channel. They glowed almost obnoxiously in the midnight gloaming. I’m sure we looked just as artificial to them.
The next day, high winds prevented us from making any landings and forced the Minerva to keep moving. We sailed down the Neumeyer Channel right past the British “Station A” on Goudier Island in Port Lockroy, a tiny cove in the western side of Wiencke Island. Several sailboats were hiding behind Goudier in the cove. Their masts and the antennae of the Station A buildings stood out straight and sharp against the natural shapes of the coastline.
Later that day, still looking for shelter from the wind, we sailed around Cape Errera at the very southern tip of Wiencke Island. Another cruise ship was going in the other direction – one of the two ships we’d seen the previous night. The spectacular cloud plume off the headland suggests the strength of the winds that day.
The winds calmed on February 4, allowing us to try to sail down the Lemaire Channel, a passage famous for its truly jawdropping mountains. More on that cruise another day – suffice to say here that Lemaire’s fame drew other ships too. As we approached the northern end of the channel, we could see the the French cruise ship Le Lyrial coming in behind us.
Our captain found too much ice in the mouth of channel to risk a run, but while he brought Minerva about, Le Lyrial snuck past us, close to the cliffs, threaded its way through the icebergs, and successfully sailed down the channel. We watched its progress on the navigation screens aboard Minerva.
Minerva on the other hand spent the morning sailing counterclockwise around the islands that form the western wall of the channel. Just before noon, we emerged in the French Passage, a more open reach that feeds into the southern end of the Lemaire. The passage was full of ice that had been trapped there by the previous day’s winds. We had a grand outing, to be described in another post, but we also saw a tiny sailboat in the white floes and black water.
As with the boats we saw at Port Lockroy, the straightness of the mast looked alien. I wound up talking for quite a while with another passenger, an experienced sailor, about what that boat’s crew must have been doing and seeing. They were in hazardous waters, which meant they were either stupid or, more likely, consummately experienced. Either way, what an adventure they were having!
That little sailboat was the last ship I saw until we crossed the Drake Passage and headed back up the Beagle Channel to Ushuaia, on February 6 – at which point I was quarantined in my cabin. I took a few bad photos through my water-splattered porthole of traffic in the Beagle and in the harbor after we docked, but nothing worth the pixels. Five days later, when my cuarentena ended, I walked from my hotel outside Ushuaia into the city and down to the harbor. The pier was crowded with beautiful vessels – several cruise ships, a Russian research vessel, an Argentine Coast Guard cutter, even a Greenpeace ship. Minerva had already sailed back to Antarctica.
Even apart from the unusual experience of being inside an active volcano (and, you know, not getting melted), our time on Deception Islands merits more posts – whaling station! steaming beaches! polar plunge!
But Deception was also the first of several landings where we were promised great views of the ocean. The classic vista on Deception Island is from a low spot in the crater wall called Neptune’s Window.
We had to walk about a half mile down the island’s black sand beach from our landing site to the window.
The walk was slow going because the wet sand was hard to walk over, because I kept stopping to marvel at the steam riding out of the geothermally heated sand and water, and because I didn’t notice the many fur seals hauled out on the beach. I got way too close to a couple of them, but they quickly warded me away!
The hike up the crater wall to Neptune’s Window itself was slippery and fun, well staked out by one of the guides from our ship. And man the view through the window, looking southeast onto a gorgeous foggy seascape.
On a clear day, a person could see across the Bransfield Strait all the way to Graham Land on the Antarctic Peninsula. As it was, I’d have to wait to see actual Antarctic land till the next day.
I’ve been back from Antarctica now for almost seven weeks. The Buenos Aires-Antarctic Peninsula-Ushuaia trip was the longest trip I’ve ever taken, and – with the places, the animals, the quarantine – certainly the weirdest. I still can’t always remember whether I was just yesterday studying icebergs from Minerva or watching penguins or running away from seals or hiking in Tierra del Fuego – or conversely whether I just dreamt the whole amazing experience.
So to try to make some sense of the trip, I’m going to try to post some photos and a short essay (a long caption, really) each day this month. This first post is on our very first landing, exactly two months ago today, on the morning of February 1. We put ashore at Walker Bay on Livingston Island in the South Shetland archipelago, just northwest of the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Livingston was “the first land discovered south of 60° south latitude in 1819.”
The island was like no place ever seen before: rugged snow-covered volcanic bluffs that looked black but resolved into a palette of blacks, grays, and browns;
long rubbery strands of kelp that looked like intestines; black sand like Hawai’i and big smooth gray rocks like Lake Superior;
a few penguins wandering to and from the colony on Hannah Point (where we were forbidden to go;
and seals. We saw a leopard or two, a few Weddells, and many elephant seals, a surprising main attraction. Massive. (As big by weight if not volume as Asian elephants – the pachydermal kind.) Colorful in an understated Antarctic way. Slow moving, ridiculous looking, yet somehow dangerous seeming too.
I’d never seen anything like these beasts except maybe bison on the plains. I was riveted, especially by two juvenile males that were practicing the fighting they’d need to do later in life to secure mates.
What a first encounter with Antarctic wildlife. And what a first encounter with Antarctic terrain – as shipwrecked American sealers wrote in 1821, “awfully grand, though terrific and desolate.”
110 years ago today, the British explorer Robert Falcon Scott reached the South Pole – and found that Norwegian Roald Amundsen had reached it five weeks before. I can only imagine Scott’s reaction. He had contorted his entire life to be the first man to the South Pole, and had failed.
Camp 69. T. -22ºF at start. Night -21ºF. The Pole. Yes, but under very different circumstances from those expected….
We started at 7:30, none of us having slept much after the shock of our discovery….; the wind is blowing hard, T. -21ºF, and there is that curious damp, cold feeling in the air which chills one to the bone in no time…. Great God! This is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority. Well, it is something to have got here, and the wind may be our friend tomorrow. We have had a fat Polar hoosh [food in liquid form, typically made of lard, oatmeal, beef protein, vegetable protein, salt, and sugar] in spite of our chagrin, and feel comfortable insideadded a small stick of chocolate and the queer taste of a cigarette brought by Wilson. Now for the run home and a desperate struggle. I wonder if we can do it.
He was correct to wonder. All five of them died on the return trip, defeated by hunger, frostbite, malnutrition, exhaustion – and disappointment.
I’ll be honest and say that I don’t understand enough about science to really understand either the magnetic south pole or the geomagnetic south pole, but suffice to say that the former is the spot where the lines of the earth’s magnetic field point straight up from the surface of the earth, and the latter is… a theoretical spot where a theoretically regular magnetic field would emerge? Sort of? Maybe someone on my trip can explain it! Wikipedia says this, unhelpfully:
Anyhow, neither one is anywhere near the South Pole. The magnetic South Pole moves about three miles a year. It’s now located in the Ross Sea in the Southern Ocean off the north (ha!) coast of Antarctica, just outside the Antarctic Circle and on its way to New Zealand.
And but so, the other other south pole is quite a bit easier to explain, and both quite a bit cooler and colder: the Pole of Inaccessibility! Quite straightforwardedly, this is the spot on the Antarctica continent that’s furthest from the Southern Ocean in each direction (that is, north, north, north, and south).
It’s about 500 miles from the South Pole, about 12,000 feet high (just a shade under the altitude of the highest spot in the contiguous U.S.), and pretty much impossible to reach except by air or unless you were the Soviets in 1958, who established a base there during the International Geophysical Year. Those crazy commies abandoned it a few years later. All that’s there now is a weather station (the forecast is always for cold and wind) and apparently a bust of Lenin.
The South Pole that everyone thinks of is technically the geographical South Pole, the southern end of the earth’s axis of rotation, a fairly straightforward concept. As much as I’d like to go there someday, the trip I’m taking at the end of January doesn’t go anywhere near the South Pole. At our closest point, we’ll be about as far from the geographical South Pole as Chicago is from Los Angeles. Antarctica is big.
One reason I’d love to visit the South Pole is to see the literal South Pole:
The location of the literal south pole changes constantly as the ice at the South Pole flows, at a rate of about 6 feet a year. At least once a year, scientists at Amundsen-Scott station relocate the pole, topping it with a new marker. Here’s the 2021 marker:
Roald Amundsen won the race to the pole on December 14, 1911, reaching that blank, featureless spot with four other men.
Five weeks later, on January 17, 1912, Robert Falcon Scott and four others also reached the pole, discovering Amundsen’s tent and flags as well as a letter to him. They had lost the race, and they lost their lives on the way back.
So who reached the pole next? It depends. But what’s striking about subsequent efforts to reach 90º S was how much later they occurred. Amundsen and Scott did not open a highway to the pole. Rather, they emptied the journey of any meaning.
Only in 1929 did more humans reach the pole: the American Admiral Richard Byrd and a copilot flew over the pole on November 29, 1929. Byrd did did not land at 90º S, so it’s hard to say that – compared to Amundsen or Scott – he even “reached” the pole. The flyover was almost ludicrously American: dependent on on technology, mostly devoid of value except as spectacle, and unreal – they “reached” the pole in the same sense than someone with a layover in a city’s airport can be said to have been to that city. The overflight was also a sequel to Byrd’s apparent flight over the North Pole in 1926, an achievement which has been doubted ever since.
So cross Byrd off the list of those who reached the pole. Next? In October 1956, American rear admiral George Dufek one-upped his former and then-current commander Byrd by actually landing an airplane at the South Pole. Dufek and his six crew members thus became the first Americans to stand at the pole, and humans 11 through 16 to get there.
Dufek’s flight was part of “Operation Deep Freeze,” an huge effort – a campaign, really – to use scientific inquiry as the front for establishing an American military presence in Antarctica. While the possibility of a militarized Antarctica was prevented by the Antarctic Treaty in 1959 (see my post “A continent with no countries”), Deep Freeze and its successor operations did make the United States the key agent of exploration and science in Antarctica after mid-century – a position that has endured till today. Interestingly, that quintessential American Walt Disney was an honorary participant in Deep Freeze, having designed the operation’s official patch and sent employees to Antarctica to film the expedition.
So: Amundsen’s and Scott make “manhauling” expeditions on foot in 1911-1912. 18 years pass, then Peary makes his overflight in 1929. 27 more years pass before Dufek flies to and lands at the pole in 1956. Finally, in January 1958, during the International Geophysical Year that led directly to the Antarctic Treaty, another expedition – the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition – reaches the pole by an honest overland route.
And who led this third, or fourth, or fifth effort to get to the pole? None other then Sir Edmund Hillary, who had with Tenzing Norgay had been the first to the top of Everest/Chomolungma in 1953. Among other innovative aspects to his effort, Hillary drove specially modified tractors to the pole, and used airplanes to both resupply his team and reconnoiter for it.
And – in an amazing echo of the race between Amundsen and Scott almost a half century earlier – Hillary defied, or at least ignored, orders from his expedition’s commander, the Briton Vivian Fuchs, to stop before actually reaching the pole, presumably so Fuchs and his team, coming from the other direction across the continent, could be third/fourth/fifth to the pole. Regardless, Hillary got to the South Pole on January 3, 1958, just over two weeks before Fuchs arrived. The pole then was not the barren spot in the ice that it had been in 1911: in November 1956, as part of Operation Deep Freeze, the U.S. had flown in men and supplies to establish the Amundsen-Scott Station at 90º S.
Fittingly, Hillary did not drive his tractors back to the coast along Fuch’s track. No, he hopped on an American plane and flew out.
So if Amundsen and his three men were the first men to the South Pole, who was the first woman? It took 58 years after the Norwegians, but… it was a six-way tie.
The excellent Wikipedia article on women in Antarctica points out that the continent was, in a very real sense, an extraordinarily male space until fairly recently:
Antarctica was seen by many men as a place where men could imagine themselves heroic conquerors. In Western culture, frontier territories are often associated with masculinity. Antarctica itself was envisioned by many male explorers as a “virginal woman” or “monstrous feminine body” to be conquered by men. Women were often “invoked in terms of place naming and territorial conquest and later even encouraged to have babies in Antarctica.”
The first woman known to have visited the continent was Norwegian Ingrid Christensen, who set foot on the mainland in 1937. Tell me she doesn’t look like the sort of person who would have gone right to the pole if she’d had enough biscuits and tinned beef.
Not till 1969 did women actually visit the South Pole. An international group of scientists, led by Lois Jones, a geologist from Ohio State, interrupted their research elsewhere on the continent to fly to the South Pole for what was basically a tourist jaunt:
Still, first! Honestly, I’m a bit surprised both that the first visit by women took until 1969, and that the Soviets didn’t do it as a sort of Valentina Tereshkova effort to prove the supremacy of socialism. I guess they were too busy measuring temps at Vostok.
The Chileans and Argentines had a different approach to female firsts on the continent:
Using women as territorial conquest is probably at its most literal in the way that Argentina and Chile have flown pregnant women to Antarctica to give birth and stake a national claim to the area. Silvia Morella de Palma was the first woman to give birth in Antarctica, delivering Emilio Palma at the Argentine Esperanza base 7 January 1978.
Madre y bebe Palma are probably still kicking around Argentina. I should look them up!
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.
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!