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Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Amundsen Reaches The South Pole, December 14, 1911

Today in 1911, Norwegian Roald Amundsen became the first explorer to reach the South Pole. This feat marked the high point of Amundsen’s life as an explorer, a path that he had been following for almost all his adult life.

Amundsen’s polar adventures began in 1897 when he joined a Belgian expedition bound for the Antarctic. This expedition gained fame as the first group to ever spend a winter in the harsh environment. In 1903, Amundsen guided a ship through the famed Northwest Passage, that area of ocean between Canada and the Arctic Circle. The journey was long and treacherous, and when it was over, Amundsen and crew had accomplished another first.

The next step for Amundsen was a journey to the North Pole. As he prepared for the journey, he received word that Robert Peary had become the first man to visit the top of the world. Undaunted, Amundsen continued his preparation but instead of heading north, set sail for the Antarctica with the hope of being the first human to reach the South Pole.

Amundsen was not alone in his desire; British explorer Robert Scott was also on his way south. Amundsen set up his base camp in the Bay of Whales, 60 miles closer to the pole than Scott’s camp. Their means of travel varied greatly: Amundsen was using tried and true sled dogs while Scott employed motor sleds and Siberian ponies in addition to dogs. Both men set out with their teams in October.

Amundsen’s journey was relatively uneventful and after reaching the pole, the team headed back for base camp, which they reached in January, 1912. Scott arrived at the pole 35 days later, unaware of Amundsen’s success until he found his left-behind tent. On the return journey, weather brought tragedy to Scott’s team. The motor sleds broke down, the ponies proved unfit for rough weather and had to be shot and the dog teams had to be sent back on the journey to the pole. After losing two of his party, Scott and the other survivors became trapped by a terrible storm. A year later, their frozen bodies were discovered a mere 11 miles from their base camp.

Amundsen did not rest on his success but continued in his pursuit of other firsts. For example, he passed over the North Pole in a dirigible in 1926 just 72 hours after Richard Byrd flew over the same point in an airplane. Unfortunately, it was air travel which claimed Amundsen’s life in 1928 when he died trying to rescue a friend whose dirigible crashed at sea off the coast of Norway.

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