Exploration and Settlement

Northwest Passage

Who was the first person to reach the South Pole?

Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen (1872–1928) was first to reach the South Pole, in December 1911. Before earning this distinction, he had achieved another first—sailing the Northwest Passage (from 1903 to 1906).

Amundsen’s desire to be an Arctic explorer had been with him almost his entire life. As a teen, he is said to have slept with his bedroom windows open year-round in order to become accustomed to the cold. When he was a young man of 21, he turned his attention away from the study of medicine to making an Arctic passage. He recognized that many of the previous (and failed) attempts to travel to the Arctic shared a common characteristic: “The commanders of these expeditions had not always been ships’ captains.” He resolved to become an experienced navigator and soon took jobs as a deck hand on various ships.

In 1897 Amundsen was chosen as the first mate on the Belgica, the ship that would carry the first Belgian Antarctic expedition under the command of Adrien Gerlache de Gomery (1866–1934). Also on board was the American Dr. Frederick Cook (1865–1940), who had been on one of Robert E. Peary’s (1856–1920) earlier Arctic expeditions and who would, in 1909, dispute Peary’s claim that he was the first to reach the North Pole. This was the same news that Amundsen would hear as he was preparing to make the North Pole. Upon learning of the success of Peary’s 1909 expedition, Amundsen shifted his sights to reaching the South Pole instead, and quietly began to lay plans to do so. In fact, it was not until his expedition, which left Oslo in September 1910, was under way that he telegraphed his announcement back to Norway that he was in fact headed to the South, not the North, Pole. As it turned out, a race was on between the Norwegians and the British: Shortly after Amundsen had set sail, naval officer Robert Falcon Scott (1868–1912) had left England at the head of an expedition to reach the South Pole.

The Norwegians landed at Ross Ice Shelf, Antarctica, on February 10, 1911. It was not until 10 months later, on December 14, 1911, on a sunny afternoon, that they raised their country’s flag at the spot their calculations told them was the South Pole. Before heading north again, they celebrated their achievement with double rations. When British naval officer Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition arrived at the South Pole on the morning of January 18, 1912, they found the Norwegian flag flying over it. On their way back the crew died due to bad weather and insufficient food supplies. Amundsens’s Norwegian expedition arrived safely at their base camp on January 25, 1912.


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