Calendar Curiosities: Dec. 14, 1911: Amundsen Reaches South Pole

Very short backstory: In the Antarctic summer of 1911, two teams set out to be the first explorers to reach the navigational South Pole. Of Earth. Roald Amundsen and his team of four reached 90 degrees south 100 years ago today, winning the race to the bottom of the world, and forever securing Amundsen’s place as the greatest polar explorer for all time. Robert Scott, the leader of the other team and Amundsen’s Antarctic rival, did not reach the pole until more than a month later.

Skepchick point of interest: Not so long after cartographers had filled in most of the “here be dragons” places on world maps, Earth’s poles were still untouched. (Amundsen was also the first explorer to successfully cross the Northwest Passage, and would go on to be the first to reach both poles, doing a North Pole flyover in 1926.)  It was a great scientific exploration, which would captivate the whole world, and last well beyond the breaking of the next great frontier of humans in space. Personally, Antarctic exploration captivated me growing up. Stories of Amundsen, Scott, and Schackleton could keep me up all night reading and chilly even during August in New York City.  So much so that I visited Antarctica in 2000 (see attached pic!)

See the penguins over my shoulder? PENGUINS, people.

Not-so-Skepchick?: For all the romance of the story of the race to the South Pole, Amundsen was far better prepared than his counterpart Scott.  Scott, and his entire crew, died without ever making it off the continent after this trip.  From the very start of this “race” Amundsen was vastly better prepared, and a final raging 10-day blizzard after the winning team had left the island (so to speak) sealed their fate.  It’s sad to think of the lives lost in such an uneven match-up.  Then again, in the big picture, Antarctica is a vastly unforgiving place for all humans. Sc0tt’s last entry in his journal, penned some six months before his final campsite was found the following summer, was “Last entry. For God’s sake, look after our people.”


A B Kovacs is the Director of Døøm at Empty Set Entertainment, a publishing company she co-founded with critical thinker and fiction author Scott Sigler. She considers herself a “Creative Adjacent” — helping creative people be more productive and prolific by managing the logistics of Making for the masses. She's a science nerd, a rabid movie geek, and an unrepentantly voracious reader. She doesn't like chocolate all that much.

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  1. I live in a place where the winter temperature drops to more than 30 below zero and yet I freely admit that I can’t even begin to comprehend the suffering that Scott’s team must have gone through.

  2. I watched Attenborough’s Life in the Freezer recently on Netflix. Two really cool things stuck with me. One, there was a dead seal lying on the ground in the desert area of Antartica. It was mummified. He said, I think, that it was probably thousands of years old. It was just lying on rock, in the open.

    The other was, I think, one of Scott’s huts. They’d shot Emperor Penguins and were going to take them back home. But one of them was just sitting on a table in one of the huts, and had been there for 100 years.

  3. Though I have great admiration for Amundsen and his racing team, the journals and scientific data that Scott had kept in his logs, and the observance of the penguins and collection of geophysical data remains in the annals of scientific discovery as equal to and tragically beyond even Darwin.
    In our part of the world it is Scott who is remembered for his courage and commitment to his team, not Amundsen for his speedy flag raising.
    Though they all, especially Shackleton, exemplify the human quality of adventure.
    “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

  4. Attirbution seems uncertain, but several explorers expressed the sentiment:

    “Scott for scientific method, Amundsen for speed and efficiency but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”

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