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Quest for the Pole: Historic Antarctic Land Journeys
by Kelly Tyler

Early explorers skimmed the boundaries of Antarctica in daring sea voyages to the ends of the Earth. In the late 19th century, a new generation plunged into the interior. With only dogs, ponies, and human willpower, the intrepid pioneers of this Heroic Age forged virgin trails to the Pole and beyond. View the paths of glory and despair that revealed this uncharted land to the world.

Quest for the Pole

Captain Robert Falcon Scott, Discovery 1901-1904
Sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society, Scott led the British National Antarctic Expedition with the goal of geographical exploration from a base on Ross Island in the Ross Sea. In 1902, Scott, Dr. Edward Wilson, and Ernest Shackleton set out with dog teams and sledges aiming to be the first to reach the South Pole. They pushed south to 82º16.5'S, when scurvy, frostbite, and a shortage of supplies forced them to turn back and kill their dogs for food to survive the return journey. Antagonism developed between Scott and Shackleton on the trek, which led to the two men subsequently mounting separate expeditions. Scott's expedition contributed geographical discoveries and the first aerial survey of Antarctica via balloon.
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Sir Ernest Shackleton, Nimrod 1907-09
In 1907, Shackleton and the British Antarctic Expedition set sail in the Nimrod for the Ross Sea. Their goal: to trek with the aid of ponies to the South Pole along the Great Beardmore Glacier. Shackleton, with Jameson Adams, Frank Wild, and Eric Marshall, set a record for the farthest south, reaching 88º23'S. Shackleton earned the admiration of generations of explorers by making the agonizing decision to turn back within 97 miles of the pole rather than risk the lives of his men. Writing to his wife Emily, he quipped, "I thought you'd rather have a live donkey than a dead lion." A second party, including Sir Douglas Mawson, was the first to reach the South Magnetic Pole with an epic 1,260-mile march and to scale the volcanic Mount Erebus. The expedition also supported significant scientific research.
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Roald Amundsen, Fram 1911-1912
In June 1911, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen set out in the Fram, bound for the North Pole. At the port of Madeira, he shocked the world and Robert Falcon Scott with a telegram unveiling his secret intention: "Beg leave to inform you Fram proceeding Antarctic. Amundsen." Amundsen landed at the Bay of Whales in the Ross Sea about 400 miles from Scott's base, and the race was on. His team set out on October 19 with four men and 52 dogs and arrived at the Pole on December 15. Exquisitely organized and well-trained in skiing and dog-driving, Amundsen's team covered as many as 40 miles per day without privation or illness. The healthy team returned from their 1,400-mile journey an astonishing 10 days early, and were greeted with champagne by the cook, who had slept with the bottles to prevent freezing. Amundsen's aim was unabashedly competitive; even geographic observations during the trek were scant.
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Captain Robert Falcon Scott, Terra Nova 1910-1912
Fired by his previous failure to capture the Pole, Scott launched the British Antarctic Expedition in 1910. He and four men set out from Ross Island on November 1, 1911, following the Beardmore Glacier route trailblazed by Shackleton in 1908-1909. Novice dog drivers, the team favored manhauling—pulling sledges themselves. They arrived at the Pole on January 17, 1912, only to discover the Norwegian flag planted there by Roald Amundsen almost a month before. With five men sharing rations meant for four, the party was ravaged by malnutrition, scurvy, snowblindness, exhaustion, and injury. The expedition was notable for its exemplary dedication to scientific aims; Scott's team was carrying 30 pounds of geological samples when they died. Another three-man team, including Apsley Cherry-Garrard, conducted a journey to collect the first emperor penguin embryos, chronicled in his book The Worst Journey in the World.
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Sir Douglas Mawson, Aurora 1911-1913
Declining an overture from Shackleton and Scott's invitation to join his dash for the Pole, geologist Douglas Mawson mounted the Australasian Antarctic Expedition to explore the unknown region west of Cape Adare on the Ross Sea. A party led by Frank Wild, a veteran of Nimrod, explored King George V Land and Terre Adélie, while photographer Frank Hurley joined a group making for the South Magnetic Pole. Mawson proceeded east of Cape Denison with Xavier Mertz and Belgrave Ninnis. Just 320 miles into their journey, Ninnis fell into a crevasse and disappeared with most of the food and tools. Desperate to outstrip starvation, Mawson and Mertz killed the huskies for food and fell victim to vitamin A poisoning from eating the dog liver. Unknown at the time, the affliction produced wasting, fissuring of skin, and dementia, and ultimately claimed Mertz's life. Mawson struggled almost 100 miles to his base alone (see Survival Stories), to see the Aurora sailing away. So ravaged that his horrified colleague cried out "My God! Which one are you?," he spent nearly a year waiting for a relief ship. Mawson's exploration contributed more geographical knowledge of Antarctica than any other explorer of the Heroic Age.
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Sir Ernest Shackleton, Endurance and Aurora 1914-1916
Beaten to the Pole by Amundsen and Scott, Sir Ernest Shackleton set the bar higher: He would attempt the first transcontinental crossing of Antarctica. The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition included a party aboard the Aurora, which sailed to the Ross Sea and laid supply depots at intervals to the Pole. The Endurance sailed into the Weddell Sea on the opposite side, where a team was slated to march to the Pole with dog teams. Once at the Pole, they would rely on the depots, lightening the load of supplies needed for the trip. The plan was derailed when the Endurance became frozen in pack ice. Largely unexplored, the Weddell Sea's coast and crushing pack movements were unknown to the crew. The ship later sank, stranding the men. In their epic struggle for survival, Shackleton ensured the rescue of all of the Endurance party (see Timeline 1914-1916). The Ross Sea party, which completed their depot-laying mission and a full program of scientific work, lost three men. The transcontinental journey would not be achieved until 1957-1958, when Sir Vivian Fuchs and Sir Edmund Hillary completed their crossing with the aid of motorized vehicles.
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Kelly Tyler is Online Producer for NOVA.



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