On this day in 1911, Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen becomes the first known human to reach the South Pole, beating his British rival, Robert Falcon Scott, by 35 days. Amundsen originally intended to be the first man to the North Pole, and he was about to embark in 1909 when he learned that the American Robert Peary had achieved the feat.
Setting his course southward, Amundsen completed preparations and in June 1910 sailed instead for Antarctica, where priggish Englishman Scott was also headed, with the aim of reaching the South Pole. In early 1911, Amundsen sailed his ship into Antarctica’s Bay of Whales and set up base camp 60 miles closer to the pole than Scott. In October, both explorers set off, with Amundsen using simple skis and sleigh dogs; Scott deployed Siberian motor sledges, Siberian ponies, and dogs. On December 14, 1911, Amundsen’s expedition won the race to the Pole and returned safely to base camp in late January. This is where the Bugs Bunny patina of the story ceases abruptly.
Due to planning and execution errors, as well as his characteristic sententiousness, Scott’s expedition fared far less well. The motor sleds broke down, the ponies had to be shot, and the dog teams were sent back; Scott and four companions elected to continue on foot. On January 18, 1912, they reached the pole only to find the Norwegian flag flying proudly in the icy wind. Weather on the return journey turned brutal, two members perished, and the unrelenting conditions later trapped Scott and the other two survivors in their tent only 11 miles from their base camp. Scott’s frozen body and those of Henry “Birdie” Bowers and Edward Wilson were found the following November.
Amundsen went on to other notable expeditions and became a shipping magnate. In June 1928, while taking part in a rescue mission for the airship Italia, his aircraft disappeared. Unlike Scott, however, Amundsen’s remains were never found.
And here, the chilly lesson endeth.