Laying Supplies For The Push To The South Pole
Facing Uncertainty, Amundsen And His Crew Test The Terrain And Learn Early Lessons: February-March, 1911
Unlike Scott, who was traveling through territory that both he and Shackleton had previously crossed, no one had ever ventured onto the ice stretching out as far as the eye could see to the south of Framheim.
Despite his abilities as a meticulous planner, Amundsen now faced some persistent uncertainty: "We could not tell, even approximately, how long the journey would take, as everything ahead was unknown." While the Fram made preparations to leave for the winter season, Amundsen and his men began a reconnaissance and depot-laying journey.
Mild Weather And Smooth Travels Early On
On February 10, Amundsen, together with Johansen, Hanssen, and Prestrud, set off with three sledges, each carrying about 770 pounds (350 kg) of supplies. Although the Norwegians had prepared themselves for the possibility of bad traveling conditions, the going early on was smooth and uneventful. Amundsen was pleased with his choice of skis, and the dogs were pulling splendidly. They covered 15 miles (24 km) on the first day, and were soon traveling twice and even three times as fast as Scott and his men usually managed. "Cannot understand what the English mean when they say that dogs cannot be used here," Amundsen wrote in his diary. At one point, with the temperature a balmy 12ºF (-11ºC), Amundsen took off his reindeer-skin pants and skied in just his shirt and undergarments.
Despite their early, easy marches, the Norwegians had some lessons to learn. As the British were also discovering, the boots they had been using for skiing weren't holding up in Antarctic conditions. Amundsen knew they would have to be rebuilt, using kamiks - the sealskin boots favored by the Inuit - for the uppers. And, although they took care to clearly mark their depot trail with black flags, Amundsen felt the flags were spaced too far apart.
Amundsen had planned to lay a depot at as many parallels as possible. On the first trip the Norwegians managed to place 1,200 pounds (545 kg) of provisions at 80ºS. Before setting out again to depot at 81º and 82º, Amundsen gave both man and dog a week's rest so that boots could be repaired and the sledges packed anew.
Second Depot Drop More Difficult, Costly
Eight men, seven sledges, and forty-two dogs set off to follow the markers they had laid on the previous journey. But this second time around, the going wasn't so easy. The dogs had been running over the sharp-edged sastrugi (wind-hardened ridges on the surface of the ice) and were suffering from cuts on their paws. The difficult terrain left them worn out and thin. Amundsen realized that he had been "over-taxing...these fine animals," a dangerous thing to do.
Finishing their work with a depot of 1,250 pounds (567 kg) at 82ºS, on March 10 the Norwegians headed home. They expected the return trip with empty sledges to be a breeze. It wasn't. Temperatures hovered around -26ºF (-32ºC) and after a 30-mile (48 km) day the dogs, unable to sleep, huddled together through the night.
The next morning, the cold, exhausted and injured dogs had to be helped to their feet. By the time they returned to Framheim on March 22, eight of the dogs had died. In Amundsen's opinion, this loss was partly compensated for by the twenty-two puppies that were now boisterously running around camp.
On Last Depot Laying Trip, Nearly 4 Tons Of Supplies Placed
Amundsen ordered one last depot-laying party to go out and add supplies to existing caches. When the last group returned, a party was held to celebrate the end of the season's work. All of the required depots had been established: 7,500 pounds (3,400 kg) of supplies that included three tons of seal meat; 40 gallons (165 l) of paraffin oil; and other necessary supplies. These supplies were now lodged in three caches, ready for the start of the traveling season more than six months away.
For safety, at each depot signal flags were laid out along an east-west line to a distance of 6 miles (10 km), at a right angle to the intended north-south line of march. The flags were placed half a mile (1 km) apart, with the direction to the cache indicated. Thanks to Amundsen's obsession with planning, the Norwegians never missed a single supply dump during the journey to the pole or the return.