Home  |  Authors  |  Books  |  Stories  |  What's New  |  How to Get Involved 
   T h e   B a l d w i n   P r o j e c t
     Bringing Yesterday's Classics to Today's Children                 @mainlesson.com
Search This Site Only
 
 
A Book of Discovery by  M. B. Synge


 

 

THE QUEST FOR THE SOUTH POLE

[536] AN American had placed the Stars and Stripes on the North Pole in 1909. It was a Norwegian who succeeded in reaching the South Pole in 1911. But the spade-work which contributed so largely to the final success had been done so enthusiastically by two Englishmen that the expeditions of Scott and Shackleton must find a place here before we conclude this Book of Discovery  with Amundsen's final and brilliant dash.

The crossing of the Antarctic Circle by the famous Challenger  expedition in 1874 revived interest in the far South. The practical outcome of much discussion was the design of the Discovery, a ship built expressly for scientific exploration, and the appointment of Captain Scott to command an Antarctic expedition.

In August 1901, Scott left the shores of England, and by way of New Zealand crossed the Antarctic Circle on 3rd January 1902. Three weeks later he reached the Great Ice Barrier which had stopped Ross in 1840. For a week Scott steamed along the Barrier. Mounts Erebus and Terror were plainly visible, and though he could nowhere discover Parry Mountains, yet he found distant land rising high above the sea, which he named King Edward VII.'s Land. Scott had brought with him a captive balloon in which he now rose to a height of eight hundred feet, from which he saw an unbroken glacier stream of vast extent stretching to the south. It [537] was now time to seek for winter quarters, and Scott, returning to M'Murdo Bay named by Ross, found that it was not a bay at all, but a strait leading southward. Here they landed their stores, set up their hut, and spent the winter, till on 2nd November 1902 all was ready for a sledge-journey to the south. For fifty-nine days Scott led his little land-party of three, with four sledges and nineteen dogs, south. But the heavy snow was too much for the dogs, and one by one died, until not one was left and the men had to drag and push the sledges themselves. Failing provisions at last compelled them to stop. Great mountain summits were seen beyond the farthest point reached.

"We have decided at last we have found something which is fitting to bear the name of him whom we most delight to honour," says Scott, "and Mount Markham it shall be called in memory of the father of the expedition."

It was 30th December when a tremendous blizzard stayed their last advance. "Chill and hungry," they lay all day in their sleeping-bags, miserable at the thought of turning back, too weak and ill to go on. With only provisions for a fortnight, they at last reluctantly turned home, staggering as far as their depot in thirteen days. Shackleton was smitten with scurvy; he was growing worse every day, and it was a relief when on 2nd February they all reached the ship alive, "as near spent as three persons can well be." But they had done well: they had made the first long land journey ever made in the Antarctic; they had reached a point which was farthest south; they had tested new methods of travel; they had covered nine hundred and sixty miles in ninety-three days. Shackleton was now invalided home, but it was not till 1904 that the Discovery  escaped from the frozen harbour to make her way home.

Shackleton had returned to England in 1903, but the [538] mysterious South Pole amid its wastes of ice and snow still called him back, and in command of the Nimrod  he started forth in August 1907 on the next British Antarctic expedition, carrying a Union Jack, presented by the Queen, to plant on the spot farthest south. He actually placed it within ninety-seven miles of the Pole itself!


[Illustration]

SHACKLETON'S SHIP, THE NIMROD, AMONG THE ICE IN MCMURDO SOUND, THE WINTER LAND QUARTERS OF THE BRITISH ANTARCTIC EXPEDITION.

With a petrol motor-car on board, Eskimo dogs, and Manchurian ponies, he left New Zealand on 1st January 1908, watched and cheered by some thirty thousand of his fellow-countrymen. Three weeks later they were in sight of the Great Ice Barrier, and a few days later the huge mountains of Erebus and Terror came into sight. Shackleton had hoped to reach King Edward VII.'s Land for winter quarters, but a formidable ice-pack prevented this, and they selected a place some twenty miles north of the Discovery's  old winter quarters. Getting the wild little Manchurian ponies ashore was no light job; the poor little creatures were stiff after a month's constant buffeting, for the Nimrod's  passage had been stormy. One after another they were now led out of their stalls into a horse-box and slung over the ice. Once on terra firma they seemed more at home, for they immediately began pawing the snow as they were wont to do in their far-away Manchurian home.

The spacious hut, brought out by Shackleton, was soon erected. Never was such a luxurious house set up on the bleak shores of the Polar seas. There was a dark room for developing, acetylene gas for lighting, a good stove for warming, and comfortable cubicles decorated with pictures. The dark room was excellent, and never was a book of travels more beautifully illustrated than Shackleton's Heart of the Antarctic.

True, during some of the winter storms and blizzards the hut shook and trembled so that every moment its [539] occupants thought it would be carried bodily away, but it stood its ground all right. The long winter was spent as usual in preparing for the spring expedition to the south, but it was 29th October 1908 before the weather made it possible to make a start. The party consisted of Shackleton, Adams, Marshall, and Wild, each leading a pony which dragged a sledge with food for ninety-one days.

"A glorious day for our start," wrote Shackleton in his diary, "brilliant sunshine and a cloudless sky. As we left the hut where we had spent so many months in comfort we had a feeling of real regret that never again would we all be together there. A clasp of the hands means more than many words, and as we turned to acknowledge the men's cheer, and saw them standing on the ice by the familiar cliffs, I felt we must try to do well for the sake of every one concerned in the expedition."

New land in the shape of ice-clad mountains greeted the explorers on 22nd November. "It is a wonderful place we are in, all new to the world," says Shackleton; "there is an impression of limitless solitude about it that makes us feel so small as we trudge along, a few dark specks on the snowy plain."

They now had to quit the Barrier in order to travel south. Fortunately they found a gap, called the Southern Gateway, which afforded a direct line to the Pole. But their ponies had suffered badly during the march; they had already been obliged to shoot three of them, and on 7th December the last pony fell down a crevasse and was killed. They had now reached a great plateau some seven thousand feet above the sea; it rose steadily toward the south, and Christmas Day found them "lying in a little tent, isolated high on the roof of the world, far from the ways trodden by man." With forty-eight degrees of frost, drifting snow, and a biting wind, they [540] spent the next few days hauling their sledges up a steep incline. They had now only a month's food left. Pressing on with reduced rations, in the face of freezing winds, they reached a height of ten thousand and fifty feet.

It was the 6th of January, and they were in latitude 88 degrees, when a "blinding, shrieking blizzard" made all further advance impossible. For sixty hours the four hungry explorers lay in their sleeping-bags, nearly perished with cold. "The most trying day we have yet spent," writes Shackleton, "our fingers and faces being continually frostbitten. To-morrow we will rush south with the flag. It is our last outward march."

The gale breaking, they marched on till 9th January, when they stopped within ninety-seven miles of the Pole, where they hoisted the Union Jack, and took possession of the great plateau in the King's name.

"We could see nothing but the dead-white snow plain. There was no break in the plateau as it extended towards the Pole. I am confident that the Pole lies on the great plateau we have discovered miles and miles from any outstanding land."

And so the four men turned homewards. "Whatever our regret may be, we have done our best," said the leader somewhat sadly. Blinding blizzards followed them as they made their way slowly back. On 28th January they reached the Great Ice Barrier. Their food was well-nigh spent; their daily rations consisted of six biscuits and some horse-meat in the shape of the Manchurian ponies they had shot and left the November before. But it disagreed with most of them, and it was four very weak and ailing men who staggered back to the Nimrod  toward the end of February 1909.

Shackleton reached England in the autumn of 1909 to find that another Antarctic expedition was to leave our shores in the following summer under the command [541] of Scott, in the Terra Nova. It was one of the best-equipped expeditions that ever started; motor-sledges had been specially constructed to go over the deep snow, which was fatal to the motor-car carried by Shackleton. There were fifteen ponies and thirty dogs. Leaving England in July 1910, Scott was established in winter quarters in M'Murdo Sound by 26th January 1911. It was November before he could start on the southern expedition.

"We left Hut Point on the evening of 2nd November. For sixty miles we followed the track of the motors (sent on five days before). The ponies are going very steadily. We found the motor party awaiting us in latitude 80 ½ degrees south. The motors had proved entirely satisfactory, and the machines dragged heavy loads over the worst part of the Barrier surface, crossing several crevasses. The sole cause of abandonment was the overheating of the air-cooled engines. We are building snow cairns at intervals of four miles to guide homeward parties and leaving a week's provisions at every degree of latitude. As we proceeded the weather grew worse, and snowstorms were frequent. The sky was continually overcast, and the land was rarely visible. The ponies, however, continued to pull splendidly."

As they proceeded south they encountered terrific storms of wind and snow, out of which they had constantly to dig the ponies. Christmas passed and the New Year of 1912 dawned. On 3rd January when one hundred and fifty miles from the Pole, "I am going forward," says Scott, "with a party of five men with a month's provisions, and the prospect of success seems good, provided that the weather holds and no unforeseen obstacles arise."

Scott and his companions successfully attained the object of their journey. They reached the South Pole on 17th January only to find that they had been forestalled [542] by others! And it is remarkable to note that so correct were their observations, the two parties located the Pole within half a mile of one another.

Scott's return journey ended disastrously. Blinding blizzards prevented rapid progress; food and fuel ran short; still the weakened men struggled bravely forward till, within a few miles of a depot of supplies, death overtook them.

Scott's last message can never be forgotten. "I do not regret this journey which has shown that Englishmen can endure hardship, help one another, and meet death with as great fortitude as ever in the past. . . . Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale; but surely, surely, a great, rich country like ours will see that those who are dependent upon us are properly provided for."

It was on 14th December 1911 that Captain Amundsen had reached the Pole. A Norwegian, fired by the example of his fellow-countryman, Nansen, Amundsen had long been interested in both Arctic and Antarctic exploration. In a ship of only forty-eight tons, he had, with six others, made a survey of the North Magnetic Pole, sailed through the Behring Strait, and accomplished the North-West Passage, for which he was awarded the Royal Medal of the Royal Geographical Society. On his return he planned an expedition to the North Pole. He had made known his scheme, and, duly equipped for North Polar expedition in Nansen's little Fram, Amundsen started. Suddenly the world rang with the news that Peary had discovered the North Pole, and that Amundsen had turned his prow southwards and was determined to make a dash for the South Pole. Landing in Whales Bay some four hundred miles to the east of Scott's winter quarters, his first visitors [543] were the Englishmen on board the Terra Nova, who were taking their ship to New Zealand for the winter.

Making a hut on the shore, Amundsen had actually started on his journey to the Pole before Scott heard of his arrival.

"I am fully alive to the complication in the situation arising out of Amundsen's presence in the Antarctic," wrote the English explorer, "but as any attempt at a race might have been fatal to our chance of getting to the Pole at all, I decided to do exactly as I should have done had not Amundsen been here. If he gets to the Pole he will be bound to do it rapidly with dogs, and one foresees that success will justify him."

Although the Norwegian explorer left his winter quarters on 8th September for his dash to the Pole, he started too early; three of his party had their feet frostbitten, and the dogs suffered severely, so he turned back, and it was not till 20th October, just a week before Scott's start, that he began in real earnest his historic journey. He was well off for food, for whales were plentiful on the shores of the Bay, and seals, penguins, and gulls abounded. The expedition was well equipped, with eight explorers, four sledges, and thirteen dogs attached to each.

"Amundsen is a splendid leader, supreme in organisation, and the essential in Antarctic travel is to think out the difficulties before they arise." So said those who worked with him on his most successful journey.

Through dense fog and blinding blizzards the Norwegians now made their way south, their Norwegian skis and sledges proving a substantial help. The crevasses in the ice were very bad; one dog dropped in and had to be abandoned; another day the dogs got across, but the sledge fell in, and it was necessary to climb down the crevasse, unpack the sledge, and pull up piece by [544] piece till it was possible to raise the empty sledge. So intense was the cold that the very brandy froze in the bottle and was served out in lumps.


[Illustration]

CAPTAIN ROALD AMUNDSEN TAKING SIGHTS AT THE SOUTH POLE.

"It did not taste much like brandy then," said the men, "but it burnt our throats as we sucked it."

The dogs travelled well. Each man was responsible for his own team; he fed them and made them fond of him. Thus all through November the Norwegians travelled south, till they reached the vast plateau described by Shackleton. One tremendous peak, fifteen thousand feet high, they named "Frithjof Nansen."

On 14th December they reached their goal; the weather was beautiful, the ground perfect for sledging.

"At 3 p.m. we made halt," says Amundsen. "According to our reckoning, we had reached our destination. All of us gathered round the colours—a beautiful silken flag; all hands took hold of it, and, planting it on the spot, we gave the vast plateau on which the Pole is situate the name of 'The King Haakon VII.' It was a vast plain, alike in all directions, mile after mile."

Here in brilliant sunshine the little party camped, taking observations till 17th December, when, fastening to the ground a little tent with the Norwegian flag and the Fram  pennant, they gave it the name "Polheim" and started for home.

So the North and South Poles yielded up their well-hoarded secrets after centuries of waiting, within two and a half years of one another.

They had claimed more lives than any exploration had done before, or is ever likely to do again.

And so ends the last of these great earth-stories—stories which have made the world what it is to-day—and we may well say with one of the most successful explorers of our times, "The future may give us thrilling stories of the conquest of the air, but the spirit of man has mastered the earth."


 Table of Contents  |  Index  | Previous: Peary Reaches the North Pole  |  Next: Dates of Chief Events
Copyright (c) 2000-2017 Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.