First expedition to the South Pole: Five facts you may not know about humanity's first Antarctic trip

The Norwegian explorer would go on to be denigrated in the UK press, before being rescued from his reputation as a cheat and a liar

Andrew Griffin
Tuesday 13 December 2016 19:09
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Google doodle: 5 things you probably didn't know about the first South Pole expedition

Google is celebrating 105 years since Roald Amundsen arrived at the South Pole, on a pioneering mission that tested the limits of human endurance. But relatively little is known about the man, who would go on to be painted as a cheat and a liar in the wake of Robert Falcon Scott's failed attempt to reach the same point.

Here are five facts about the man whose risky and death-defying trip landed him in the record books – and who would go on to disappear in mysterious circumstances years later.

Nobody knows where the tent and flags from the Google Doodle are

The camp is the centre of Google’s commemorative Doodle. But nobody actually knows where it is. (People have had a good guess, and you can find out about that here.)

Amundsen never really wanted to go to the South Pole at all

All of his planning had in fact focused on being the first to get to the North Pole. Amundsen had confirmed use of a ship, named the Fram, and had raised money on the promise that he would make it through the Arctic.

But that was scuppered when two American explorers – Frederick Cook and Robert E Peary – announced that they’d made it to the North Pole themselves.

That led Amundsen to switch and start planning, as he did meticulously, for his journey to the South Pole instead. He kept that plan secret to avoid putting off his supporters and backers, and didn’t even reveal it to his crew until their ship had left its last port of call, bound for the South Pole.

For all his reputation for planning and ruthlessness, Amundsen’s first attempt to get to the South Pole didn’t go to plan at all

Rushing to get to the goal before Scott did, Amundsen arrived in the Antarctic and rushed into the harsh landscape before the arrival of springtime, when the weather is more manageable. His dogs died and his men caught frostbite, which forced them back to base.

Amundsen was criticised by the men he had taken with him. He would end up dropping colleagues who behaved badly during that retreat.

Amundsen has been praised for his ability to know when to turn back, and to plan in the face of his mistakes. But the retreat also bursts a myth that surrounds him – that he was so methodical that he would never slip up, and that nothing would ever go wrong around him.

Amundsen’s expedition was ignored by many in Britain

Scott found out, like everyone else, fairly late on that Amundsen was headed for the South Pole. While Scott was docked in Australia, he received a telegram from his Norwegian rival – indicating that he was “proceeding to Antarctic”, and beginning the race that would lead to tragedy for Scott.

The two of them rushed to the pole. But when Scott arrived there on 17 January 1911, they found the black flags that had been left there by Amundsen and his team, and realised that they had lost the important race.

Scott’s mission would go on to end in tragedy, and he and his whole team died on the way back because of the terrible conditions.

But he would go on to become a hero in his home country, at the height of a British empire that was convinced that it was Scott’s right to become the first person at the South Pole. Many were unable to accept that loss, and Scott became a hero that overshadowed Amundsen’s success.

And he was vilified by others

The intensely negative reaction to Amundsen’s achievement meant that he would go on to be hated by some in Britain, and that his success was seen as cheating. Scott was hailed as an honourable and fair man, while Amundsen was seen as a glory-hunter.

Amundsen was criticised by people who believed he hadn’t revealed his true intentions about going to the South Pole. And yet others criticised the way he’d got there – arguing that by using dogs that he later ate for food, he was less honest than Scott whose team hauled themselves there.

Scott’s reputation would falter over the years until he became to be seen as a bungler who made mistakes, a misconception that in itself would later be cleared up.

Amundsen’s reputation changed with it, bringing a gradual realisation that he had won at least partly through good planning and cautiousness.

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