Wednesday, December 14, 2011


The pole is an ambitious four letter word.

One hundred years ago on this date, Norwegian Roald Amundsen and his team became the first explorers to reach the South Pole.

It was a strange sort of path to get there.  Amundsen's original goal was the North Pole, which he planned to reach through a unique scheme - drifting a boat through the ice over a span of several years.  He was beaten to his objective, however, by overland expeditions from Cook and Peary.  Although still enthralled by the North Pole, he planned a "detour" to the South Pole, then having been attempted twice previously by Scott and Schackleton, both seeking to make the claim for Great Britain.  The plan was not well received - his sponsors were expecting an attempt to the North Pole, his ship was uniquely designed for the ice-drift mission, and Scott was about to stage another attempt on the South.

But his expedition was different than Scott's.  Rather than taking the previously explored route, he selected a base camp slightly closer to the pole and he landed a season previous to his actual attempt and spent the time laying in supplies and preparing for the actual run.  Instead of using motorized sledges, he went in with dog sleds.  His plans demonstrated he was aware of the risks he and his crew were facing - and he devised ways to mitigate those risks and prepare for contingencies.

Photo from wikipedia
His planning paid off.  His advance provisioning, extensive weather preparation, and use of dogs allowed him to get to the pole and to return to tell the tale.  His fellow explorer, Scott, was not as fortunate.  Scott reached the Pole 34 days after Amundsen, and perished on his return.

The South Pole today is, in many ways, the same place it was 100 years ago... and in many ways it is very different.  The weather forecast for today calls for freezing fog, with temperatures around -40F (and -40C for that matter).  It is still a harsh and dangerous landscape, although the Amundsen-Scott Research Station is now permanently manned there, just a few hundred meters away from the site of their namesakes' remarkable feats. There are still races - although these days they are in the form of Marathons and even longer distance races.

Photo courtesy of the Norwegian
Office of the Prime Minister
Today, another Norwegian is visiting the South Pole to mark the remarkable achievement of his countryman 100 years earlier.  Although he skied part of the way, he will have taken an airplane there instead of the ship and dogsled of his predecessor.  He will likely have been well rested and fed at the research station.  But it is telling that the Prime Minister of Norway, the head of government, can now visit lands that required nearly impossible, and fatal, feats only a century before.

What do you want to explore?  What will it take to get there?

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