(Image via Wired)
Journey to the Bottom of the Earth
The South Pole in the early 1900s was one of the biggest attractions for explorers. It made heroes of some, fools of others, and claimed the lives of many more.
The most well known stories are those of British Robert Falcon Scott and the Norwegian Roald Amundsen, whose parallel polar expeditions make for an incredible story of Scandinavian efficiency and British amateurishness. Amundsen had initially planned to conquer the North Pole, but hearing that two explorers had done just that in 1909, he changed his plans. Today, the explorers who claimed to have reached the North Pole are largely believed to have been lying, but Amundsen had no way of knowing at the time, and so without telling anybody but his crew, he changed course and headed South. Once on his way, he also informed Scott, who had already announced his plans. The race was on.
Historically, perceptions of the two vary. Amundsen made it to the pole a full month before Scott did, with relative ease, but his victory will forever be tinged with deceit. Although Scott’s team made it to the pole, every single one of them died on the return journey. It’s a story of careless planning and foolhardiness that lead to needless deaths, and extravagant scientific diversions that were largely a waste of time. Scott, nonetheless, became a hero among Brits and received an outpouring of grief comparable to that of Princess Diana.
A year later, Douglas Mawson — who was invited to join Scott’s expedition to the South Pole, but declined — took a crew to the Antarctic in attempt to map some of its more remote areas. It was an unmitigated disaster. A series of odd events early on in the expedition portended the catastrophes that followed — a dream predicting his father’s death, one of the team’s huskies found devouring its newborn puppies, and a seabird appearing from nowhere to smash into one of their sledges — but they were ignored and the team pushed on.
Shortly after, one of the crew members fell into an 11 foot chasm with two of the team’s dogs, most of their food supplies, and their tent. They decided to turn back, but the health of Mawson’s remaining companion eventually took a turn for the worse and he deteriorated into deleriousness and finally died of exposure. Mawson found himself 100 miles from the nearest living human being, his body rotting from malnourishment, and survived only by bathing his eyes in cocaine and eating his dogs.
Finally, Ernest Shackleton, who aimed to be the first to walk across the continent. He set out in August 1914 with a crew of 28 on his ship The Endurance. In January 1915, with the Antarctic mainland in sight, the ship got stuck in thick pack ice, and eventually sunk. In a testament to Shackleton’s leadership skills, 22 of his crew survived to August 1916, when they were rescued, not one of them having set foot on Antarctica.
- Bruno Zehdner was found frozen to death only a mile and a half from his base in the Antarctic, having gone out to photograph Emperor penguins. The mystery surrounding the man and the suspicious circumstances of his demise made him a legend in death.
- You can now buy replicas of the Scotch Shackleton left behind on one of his Antarctic expeditions.
- Despite being the least hospitable place on Earth, the Antarctic is a hot tourist destination.
- Financial Times on the South Pole welcoming tourists and scientists.