Amundsen’s Race to the South Pole

by Robert C. Brears Blog

Amundsen had acquired Fram from Fridtjof Nansen on the understanding it was to be involved in an expedition to the Arctic. However, before it could set sail it required a number of repairs, including a new diesel engine as it had been out of commission for many years. On June 7 1910, Fram left Oslo for the first leg of what was supposed to be the first leg of a voyage to the North Pacific via Cape Horn: Amundsen’s original plans was to explore the northern part of the polar basin where the North Pole was situated which the first Fram expedition under Nansen in 1893-96 had failed to reach.

Regiones: Antártida

Amundsen’s race to the South Pole

Amundsen had acquired Fram from Fridtjof Nansen on the understanding it was to be involved in an expedition to the Arctic. However, before it could set sail it required a number of repairs, including a new diesel engine as it had been out of commission for many years.

On June 7 1910, Fram left Oslo for the first leg of what was supposed to be the first leg of a voyage to the North Pacific via Cape Horn: Amundsen’s original plans was to explore the northern part of the polar basin where the North Pole was situated which the first Fram expedition under Nansen in 1893-96 had failed to reach.

Amundsen emphasised the novel scientific work that would be undertaken including making depth soundings, measuring seawater salinity and temperature, charting currents, studying terrestrial magnetism etc. However, his true goal was to be the first to reach the North Pole.

The Fram under sail | © Riksarkivet (National Archives of Norway) via Flickr Commons

Amundsen’s secret South Pole intensions

Despite Amundsen’s goal, the crew noted many things that didn’t quite add up: The men, who were under the impression they were on a multi-year investigation of the Arctic region involving both exploration and science, had noted some unusual supplies on the ship including an ‘observation house’ (not suitable for installing on the ever moving sea ice of the Arctic) and 99 Greenland dogs that could have been easily purchased in Alaska or Siberia where Fram was going to make landfall on its journey.

Once the journey was underway properly with the ship entering the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean, and little came out of the curiosity the men had for the unusual supplies, Amundsen felt it was time and headed below deck to write his confession to Nansen on what his true intensions for Fram were, writing:

‘’Dear Professor Fridtjof Nansen, It has not been easy writing you these lines, but there is no way to avoid it, and therefore I will just have to tell you straight. When the news from the Cook, and later from the Peary, expeditions to the North Pole came to my knowledge last autumn, I instantly understood that this was the death sentence of my own plans. I immediately concluded that after this I could not be expected to secure the financial support I required for the expedition. The Norwegian Parliament’s decisions of March and April 1910, to decline my request for 25,000 proved me right…something had to be done to increase the public’s interest. Only one challenge remains in the Polar Regions that can be guaranteed to awaken the public’s interest, and that is to reach the South Pole’’.

Amundsen went on writing about the guilty feelings he had in hiding his intensions:

‘’I have often wished that Scott could have known my decision, so that it did not look I tried to get ahead of his without his knowledge. But I have been afraid that any public announcement would stop me’’.

Amundsen getting the crew onboard

On September 6 Fram arrived at its first stop – the tiny island of Madeira – where the ship was to be restocked and minor repairs made over the next few days. On September 9 at 4:30 a.m. Amundsen ordered the anchor to be raised and Fram to steam off. The crew were taken aback as Fram was not scheduled to depart for a few more hours. It was then the men were told of Amundsen’s true intentions.

Just after departing Norway Amundsen had informed the ship’s commander Lieutenant Thorvald Nilsen as well as the ship’s officers. By this stage the ship had been at sea for two months and Amundsen had ample time to get to know all his men and he imagined they would be startled at first but confident in their enthusiasm for the new adventure he proposed.

However, Amundsen was particularly worried about informing his experienced dog driver Sverre Hassel, a man with a strong personality who Amundsen had in mind for his shore party, as if he felt he was being misled he could easily persuade the crew to abandon the expedition. To avoid this, Amundsen had earlier informed him of his true intentions with Hassel agreeing to keep the secret to himself.

Now it was time to break the news to the crew and so at 4:30 a.m. the men were summoned to find Nilsen waiting with a large map. It was a map of Antarctica. Amundsen then strolled up beside it and said:

‘’There are many things on board which you have regarded with mistrustful or astonished eyes, for example the observation house and all the dogs, but I wont say anything about that. What I will say is this; it is my intension to sail Southwards, land a party on the Southern Continent and try to reach the South Pole’’.

The race is on to the South Pole

The key to getting the men on board with his new plan lay in having to sell it as a minor change in plans. They had to sail around Cape Horn anyway, where they would be ¾ of the way to the South Pole so why not just go the distance? Another important aspect of Amundsen selling the case was by describing the expedition as ‘ours’ not ‘his’ and spoke of common goals and achievements.

Then he delivered the final knockout blow: They were racing England to the South Pole. ‘’Hurrah’’ shouted Olav Bjaaland who then said ‘’That means we will get there first!’’ This was the encouragement Amundsen needed to ensure all the crew were onboard with the new plan and Bjaaland was a convincing voice being one of the best skiers in the world and had now made this race a sporting match, a cross-country ski against Great Britain which everyone knew ‘’The Norwegians were better skiers than the English’’.

© National Library of Norway ("Fram" i høy sjø, 1910), via Wikimedia Commons

Amundsen later wrote of informing his men of the change in plans:

‘’At first, as might be expected, they showed the most unmistakable signs of surprise; but this expression swiftly changed, and before I had finished they were all bright with smiles. I was now sure of the answer that I should get when I finally asked each man whether he was willing to go on, and as the names were called, every single mad had his ‘Yes’ ready….it is difficult to express the joy I felt at seeing how promptly my comrades placed themselves at my service on this momentous occasion…there was so much life and good spirits on board that evening that one would have thought the work was successfully accomplished instead of being hardly begun’’.

Amundsen informs Scott of his intensions

Before Fram departed Madeira Amundsen had one more task to do: Inform Scott of his change in plans. Amundsen thought it would be best to keep it brief and straight to the point: ‘’Fram proceeding to Antarctica’’. Scott was bewildered by the meaning of the telegram summoned Tryggve Gran, the young Norwegian skiing expert appointed to the expedition on the recommendation of Fridtjof Nansen, hoping he, as a fellow countryman, would be able to make sense of the message. But little could be made of the wording of the text.

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