Amundsen Sets Out, With A Slight "Detour" In Mind

October 1910-January 1911: Many Dogs and Odd Cargo, Allegedly For Arctic Work, Questioned by Amundsen's Crew

In October 1910, the Fram sailed into the North Atlantic, carrying men, several years' worth of supplies, and about 100 Greenland dogs. Actually, Amundsen's crew didn't think that setting out with all of these dogs bred to withstand cold weather was a sensible idea. Because the Panama Canal was unfinished, the sailing route required the Fram to pass through the tropics, around Cape Horn, and up through the Pacific to the Bering Strait. This would be a long, difficult trip for these cold-adapted animals and they would need to be fed and exercised for months at sea. Why not pick up dogs in Siberia or Alaska, the men asked? Amundsen diverted these questions toward other topics--until the Fram paused at the mid-Atlantic island of Madeira to resupply.

There Amundsen announced he was going to make a slight "detour" to claim the South Pole before continuing on--eventually--to do the job he had said he would do in the Arctic. The men were floored for a moment, then a flood of questions commenced. Was Amundsen mad? With the British already well on their way? Where would they land? With absolutely no hope of backup, what if something went horribly wrong on the way to the pole?

Amundsen Lays Out His Secret Master Plan

Amundsen then displayed his prowess as a master planner. He had prepared for everything and answered every question. Slowly, the men came around to the drastic change in plans. The tipping point came when Amundsen noted that the British would not be using many dogs and didn't know how to ski. "That means that we will get there first," shouted champion skier Olav Bjaaland.

And that was that. They were heading to the pole, only it wouldn't be the North Pole. The men hurried below to write their last letters home. Amundsen sat down to compose a difficult telegram. He felt he had to tell Scott that he now had some competition, but how? In the end he simply wrote that he was "going south," leaving it up to Scott to connect the dots. Now, the race was on.

With his plans laid bare, it was time to head south as quickly as possible. Although Fram was wonderfully engineered for working in the ice, her tub-like profile and lack of a keel meant that she was a poor sailor--bobbing like a cork whenever bad weather came on. The men and dogs endured a 16,000 mile, non-stop trip between Madeira and the Bay of Whales on the eastern side of the Ross Ice Shelf, which they reached in the second week in January in 1911.