Antarctica 100 years ago: Amundsen and his team set off; Scott's letter to support teams

Posted: Oct 20, 2011 11:18 am EDT

(By Correne Coetzer) "At long last we manage to get off," wrote Roald Amundsen in his diary about their second start on October 20, 1911. His companions were 4 men and 52 dogs pulling 4 sleds. The start was not easy as they headed too far East on the Ross Ice Shelf and into a maze of cracks and crevasses.

A hundred years later, teams are waiting out the weather in Punta Arenas and killing time by adding blubber and calculating miles.

Roald Amundsen

October 20, 1911 Amundsen set off with Olav Bjaaland, Oscar Wisting, Helmer Hanssen and Sverre Hassel. Kristian Prestrud, Jorgen Stubberud and Hjalmar Johansen stayed behind at Franheim with the cook, Adolf Lindstrom.

Four sleds were packed and 13 dogs in front of each sled lined up for the start of the expedition. The weather was not quite settled, noted Amundsen, but at 9.30 am it cleared a little to the east. Prestrud stood ready with the movie camera to film them.

"Helmer Hansen ran first and set course with his compass. For some reason we ran too far East and into an unknown maze of cracks and crevasses."

Amundsen didn't have his own sled and dogs as he skied many times ahead of the dogs. This day he sat on Wisting's sled at the back of the pack. "Suddenly a large piece of the surface fell away next to the sledge and exposed a gruesome abyss," Amundsen wrote, "big enough to swallow us all. Luckily were so far to the side that we were all saved."

Always finding ways to improve gear, Amundsen wrote they "managed splendidly" in their improved tent with plenty of room for the five men.

Olav Bjaaland

The best skier in the group, Bjaaland saw it as a ski race. On October 20, 1911 Bjaaland wrote in his diary, "Well at long last we were ready, and the weather calmed down after eight days storm. Prestrud and I set off first; he was to film the troop. A lot of seals lay around. In one place, 10 to 15 seals were laying, among them two with pups unfortunately I couldn't photograph them. Distance 20.2m. Temperature -17.5."
Bjaaland was also a keen photographer.

Robert Falcon Scott

On October 20, Scott didn't make a diary entry, but one of his men, Edward "Teddy" Evans, published in his book South with Scott a letter written by Scott on that day.

Scott gave instructions to Cecil Meares, who was in charge of the dogs, about what to do by the time he and his team were to return from the South Pole; instructing Meares to travel towards them, to One Ton Depot with resupplies. Little did they know that Scott would never reach One Ton Depot on his return journey.

Here goes Scott's letter:

October 20. Dear Meares, In order that there may be no mistake concerning the important help which it is hoped the dog teams will give to the Southern Party, I have thought it best to set down my wishes as under:

Assuming that you carry two bags of oilcake to Hut Point, I want you to take these with five bags of forage to Corner Camp before the end of the month. This will leave two bags of forage at Hut Point.

If the motors pass Hut Point en route for the Barrier, I should be glad to get all possible information of their progress. About a day after they have passed if you are at Hut Point I should like you to run along their tracks for half a day with this object. The motors will pick up the two bags of forage at Hut Point - they should be placed in a convenient position for this purpose.

The general scheme of your work in your first journey over the Barrier has been thoroughly discussed, and the details are contained in Table VIII of my plan of which you should have a copy. I leave you to fix the date of your departure from Hut Point, observing that I should like you to join me at One Ton Camp, or very shortly after.

We cannot afford to wait. Look for a note from me at Corner Camp. The date of your return must be arranged according to circumstances. Under favourable conditions you should be back at Hut Point by December 19 at latest.

After sufficient rest I should like you to transport to Hut Point such emergency stores as have not yet been sent from Cape Evans. At this time you should see that the Discovery Hut is provisioned to support the Southern Party and yourself in the autumn in case the ship does not arrive.

At some time during this month or early in January you should make your second journey to One Ton Camp and leave there:
5 units X.S. ration.
3 cases of biscuit.
5 gallons of oil.
As much dog food as you can conveniently carry (for third journey).

This depot should be laid not later than January 19, in case of rapid return of first unit of Southern Party.

Supposing that you have returned to Hut Point by January 13, there will be nothing for you to do on the Southern road for at least three weeks. In this case, and supposing the ice conditions to be favourable, I should like you to go to Cape Evans and await the arrival of the ship.

The ship will be short-handed and may have difficulty in landing stores. I should like you to give such assistance as you can without tiring the dogs.

About the first week of February I should like you to start your third journey to the South, the object being to hasten the return of the third Southern unit and give it a chance to catch the ship. The date of your departure must depend on news received from returning units, the extent of the depot of dog food you have been able to leave at One Ton Camp, the state of the dogs, etc.

Assuming that the ship will have to leave the Sound soon after the middle of March, it looks at present as though you should aim at meeting the returning party about March 1 in Latitude 82 or 82.30. If you are then in a position to advance a few short marches or "mark time" for five or six days on food brought, or ponies killed, you should have a good chance of affecting your object.

You will carry with you beyond One Ton Camp one X.S. ration, including biscuit and one gallon of paraffin, and of course you will not wait beyond the time when you can safely return on back depots.

You will of course understand that whilst the object of your third journey is important, that of the second is vital. At all hazards three X.S. units of provision must be got to One Ton Camp by the date named, and if the dogs are unable to perform this service, a man party must be organised.

(Signed) R.F. SCOTT.

Punta Arenas, October 20, 2011

Although the South Pole ski season starts much earlier this year, it does not necessarily mean that teams have the whole season to complete their expeditions. This year most teams are not only heading to the Pole, they are aiming to be there at December 14 or January 17 to commemorate Amundsen and Scott's respective arrivals at the South Pole.

Calculators are out and they are calculating and speculating how many more miles per day have to be skied to get to the South Pole in time for the centenary celebrations. Norwegians Stein P. Aasheim, Vegard Ullvang, Jan-Gunnar Winther and Harald Dag Jolle plan to ski Amundsen's complete route from the Bay of Whales, a distance of 1300km and be at the Pole on December 14. They say if they assume a one week delay they have to do 30 km average per day.

They should be able to do that, they say, but have many more questions to take into consideration: What if they get stuck at Union Glacier? What if the plane can't land at the Bay of Whales? What about bad weather days during the expedition? What speed will they be able to maintain on the steep Axel Heiberg Glacier?

Huntford, Roland. Race for the South Pole. The Expedition Diaries of Scott and Amundsen. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011.
Evans, Edward R.G.R. South with Scott. Collins, 1938.

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At ExplorersWeb we wrote that Amundsen and his men left for the Pole on October 20 while Wikipedia and others have October 19 down. Which is it?
courtesy National Library of Norway, SOURCE