Celebrations of First South Pole Expeditions

This winter will mark 100 years since explorers first reached the South Pole within weeks of each other — Roald Amundsen on December 14, 1911, and Robert Falcon Scott on January 17, 1912. Commemorations, exhibits, and books are expected; some events have already begun and at least one book published.

Norway will celebrate two anniversaries in 2011, Amundsen’s successful expedition to the South Pole and the birth of Arctic explorer Fridtjof Nansen 150 years ago. Some 130 events are planned in Norway and abroad.

British explorers Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton and their sponsors were motivated more by scientific interest than the glory of reaching the South Pole first, according to Edward Larson, author of a new book on the expeditions, An Empire of Ice (Yale University Press, 326 pages, $28). With the deaths of Scott and his four-man team on their return from the South Pole, public attention turned more to the courage they showed as they died one by one than to the new knowledge gathered by them and other members of the expedition. Politicians used the deaths as examples of serving one’s country and to rally support for their causes.

A professor of history and law at Pepperdine University and a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, Larson calls his book “neither a paean to Shackleton’s leadership nor a critique of Scott’s choices.” The publisher says the book “offers a new perspective on the Antarctic expeditions of the early twentieth century by looking at the British efforts for what they actually were: massive scientific enterprises in which reaching the South Pole was but a spectacular sideshow.” Scott, the publisher points out, has been portrayed as a “a dashing incompetent who stands for little more than relentless perseverance in the face of inevitable defeat.”

Most of the 32 explorers Scott took with him were British scientists. They found that Antarctica was a continent not an archipelago, learned that emperor penguins lived on sea ice, and retrieved fossils that would show a warmer climate in the past.

One of Scott’s explorers, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, wrote his own account of the purpose of the expedition, the accomplishments, and the discovery of Scott’s frozen body — The Worst Journey in the World, available online in Project Gutenberg. His worst journey could have been the one he made with the expedition’s biologist, Edward Wilson, to find embryos of emperor penguins. Scientists back in Britain thought the embryos would provide the link between dinosaurs and birds. Cherry-Garrard, Wilson, and Birdie Bowers had to find the penguins in the Antarctic winter (June to August) when the birds incubate their eggs. They had to travel 130 miles to find the penguin colony on sea ice in minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit and build an observation post in a blizzard. Their teeth cracked from chattering in the cold, but they pickled embryos in alcohol and took them back to London.

The three men were the first to witness the emperor penguin’s huddles, its behavior during hatching, and the care the bird gives to the chicks. Cherry-Garrard’s book describes life and work at the base camp in preparation for the South Pole expedition and the long wait for Scott’s return. While some believe Scott’s choices in sledge hauling, clothing, and rock gathering were causes of his return party’s demise, others note that unexpected cold weather (10 degrees Celsius below normal for three weeks) and a blizzard accounted for the team’s inability to reach the nearby store of supplies on the return trip. Otherwise, they would have probably reached the base camp.

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