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Amundsen Expedition Timeline

Part of the Race to the End of the Earth exhibition.

Key dates on the Norwegian explorer's Antarctic expedition.

October 1910-January 1911

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

Many Dogs and Odd Cargo, Allegedly For Arctic Work, Questioned by Amundsen's Crew

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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.

February 3, 1911

With Camp Set Up, the Norwegians Soon Have Company

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A Visit From Scott's Men Allows Each to Size Up the Other

Since anchoring in the Bay of Whales in mid-January, Amundsen and his men had been hard at work readying their winter quarters, named Framheim. Besides constructing the hut, they unloaded tons of stores from the ship and sledged them 2 miles up and over the ice front to the construction site. By early February they had completed the bulk of the work, and were looking forward to laying depots as soon as they could.

On the morning of February 3, 1911, the ship's watch saw something completely unexpected – another ship passing into the Bay of Whales. All became clear when the watch was hailed in English-accented Norwegian. This new ship was the Terra Nova – Scott's ship. "Curses loud and deep were heard everywhere," one officer aboard Terra Nova noted.

The Terra Nova had been sent to set up a second base of operations, from which a team could be sent to explore King Edward VII Land on the eastern edge of the ice shelf. Of course the British knew by this time that Amundsen was aiming for the South Pole, but they had no idea where he intended to land in Antarctica. They were certainly surprised to find him only 400 miles away from their base in McMurdo Sound. Despite initial tension, good relations prevailed and each team invited the other aboard their ship for a meal. The British were also invited to come out to the site of Framheim for a look around.

A Little Friendly Surveillance; Envy and Boasting

Both sides took advantage of these forays to determine how well prepared their competitors were. Amundsen, who had no radio gear, was glad to see that the British likewise lacked a wireless.

That meant the team that got back to civilization first with news of a successful pole assault would reap the rewards of priority. For their part, the British were both dismayed and impressed by the number of dogs (more than 100) and the expertise of the dog drivers that Amundsen had brought along for the polar journey. But they did not show it, and instead boasted about their motorized sledges–an innovation in polar travel that Amundsen did not have. Why not let Amundsen and his men consider the implications of petrol-powered sledges speeding off toward the pole, even if it was a fantasy?

After further pleasantries, they wished each other good luck and the Terra Nova steamed off. Rather than stick to the original intention to explore King Edward VII Land, however, the ship headed straight back to McMurdo. Scott would want to hear their news as quickly as possible.

February–March, 1911

Laying Supplies For The Push To The South Pole

A black and white photograph that is dated February–March 1911 and labeled "Event #3: Laying caches". The picture shows a small group of people travelling through snow. On the left is a man who travels by sksi, on the right one man is handling the dogsled with a third man on skis next to him. A second group can be seen in the distance.

Facing Uncertainty, Amundsen and His Crew Test the Terrain and Learn Early Lessons

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 12°F (-11°C), 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 80°S. Before setting out again to depot at 81° and 82°, 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 82°S, 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 -26°F (-32°C) 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.

1911: Passing the Winter

Waiting For Antarctic "Spring" to Launch Journey

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Amundsen and his men passed the winter at Framheim working on necessary tasks and improving their equipment. At night they read books, played cards, or engaged in the ritual of the Saturday night sauna. The dogs roamed free and some even disappeared for a few days, but only a few failed to return. Amundsen assumed they fell into crevasses.

On August 24, the sun finally appeared above the horizon for the first time since April. This was the day Amundsen had thought to begin the run for the South Pole. He was familiar with how quickly the Arctic warmed up at the beginning of spring.

Like Scott, he didn't adequately comprehend that "spring" and "fall" do not exist in Antarctica as lengthy periods bounding summer and winter. But with temperatures approaching -72°F (-58°C), Amundsen knew the dogs would have a difficult time, and Johansen warned against starting out so soon.

So day after day he postponed the start, and grew more restless with every lost moment. "The thought of the English gave him no peace," one of the crew later noted. "For if we were not first at the Pole, we might just as well stay home."

Another remarked, "I'd give something to know how far Scott is today."

"Oh, he's not out yet, bless you!" came the answer. "It's much too cold for his ponies."

September 1911

A False Start Leads To A Rift Among The Norwegians

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Plummeting September Temps Send Amundsen and Team Back to Camp

On September 8, 1911, after several days of improving temperatures, an impatient Amundsen decided he could wait no more. A caravan of sledges and ninety barking, rambunctious dogs burst forth from Framheim, intent on winning the last great polar prize.

But the improvement in temperature did not last. By September 11, it was dropping overnight toward -70°F (-57°C) and the dogs were struggling. They lay huddled together and had to be helped into their harnesses. The dogs' paws were frostbitten, and some of the men were having great difficulties with blistering, frostbitten heels. The fluid in their compasses had frozen, the weather became very thick with fog, and they couldn't accurately guess the position of the sun to guide them.

Amundsen knew he had no alternative. "To risk men and animals out of sheer obstinacy and continue, just because we have started on our way–that would never occur to me," he wrote. "If we are to win this game, the pieces must be moved carefully–one false move, and everything can be lost." There was nothing for it but to return to Framheim. The supplies they carried were left at the 80°S depot on September 12.

Amundsen's Quick Departure Riles Crew Member

The decision to head back to camp started a rift between some of the team and its leader. Amundsen uncharacteristically sped off with Hanssen and Wisting, leaving the other men to make their way as best they could. Some barely made it back to camp.

Johansen, who had come in last with the inexperienced Prestrud, was livid that men had been abruptly left behind without food or fuel. At breakfast the following day he confronted Amundsen in front of the others, stating that a leader should not willingly leave his men to fend for themselves. "I don't call it an expedition," Johansen said. "It's panic."

Amundsen's response to Johansen's insubordination was to take him off the pole party and put him on a team with Stubberud and Prestrud that would explore King Edward VII Land while the other five men went to the pole. But first, Amundsen had to wait for the men to recover from their frostbite.

October 1911

Improving Conditions Give Norwegians a Good Start

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Finally, with signs of spring conditions and slightly warmer temperatures around them, Amundsen and his party departed Framheim with fifty-two dogs on October 19.

(Actually, it was October 18; Amundsen was off by one day because he had not made an allowance for Fram's crossing the International Date Line. Dates quoted in these sections should be mentally corrected by one day in the same way.) By October 24, fast sledging with dogs in top condition had enabled Amundsen to get a 150-mile (240 km) head start over Scott, who was still a week away from leaving on his own course to the South Pole.

November 1911

Worsening Conditions Slow Travel; Amundsen And Crew Still 300 Miles From Pole By Late November

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Crew Ordered to Butcher Two Dozen Unneeded Dogs

At the start of their journey south, the Norwegians paced themselves, sledging just five or six hours per day, saving strength for later. The Norwegians were driving their dogs expertly, resting them at hourly intervals to maximize their efficiency. "We had reason to be satisfied that we had come off so easily," Amundsen wrote. "Thus far the trip had been a good one for the animals," he continued. "We never had to move a foot; all we had to do was to let ourselves be towed." And still they were traveling twice as fast as Scott.

Thanks to their fall depot-laying trips, they had managed to cache, on a per man basis, ten times the food and fuel that the British had. Amundsen had built a safety net, allowing for a missed depot or a prolonged storm.

By contrast, Scott was always skirting the edges of his possibilities. Any grave mishap or miscalculation would have placed him and his men in serious danger.

Even Amundsen could only manage his circumstances up to a point. On November 1, coasting into pea-soup thick fog that restricted visibility to a few sledge lengths, Amundsen pressed on despite being hampered by crevasse after crevasse. At one point, Hanssen, who had been leading the sledge train, fell into a crevasse and soon after his rescue, Hassel did the same. But, at least according to Amundsen's account, the Norwegians simply laughed off these brushes with disaster. Once out of immediate danger, they went back into position and carried on with their journey.

Searching For a Way Onto the Plateau

On November 17, the Norwegians reached the Transantarctic Mountains, which line the continental edge of East Antarctica. They left provisions in a depot, carrying enough for sixty days, and then began a laborious search for a passage up and onto the plateau (now named the East Antarctic Ice Sheet) beyond. For Shackleton in 1909, the route to the plateau had been up the massive feature that he named the Beardmore Glacier, a frozen torrent of plateau ice 125 miles (200 km) long and 25 miles (40 km) wide.

Amundsen needed the same brand of luck to find his highway. After three days' search he saw what he was looking for, a great glacier 30 miles (48 km) long leading up to the plateau. He named it for Axel Heiberg, a venture capitalist who was one of his major financiers.

Amundsen discussed strategy with his men. They would use all the dogs for the climb, then slaughter twenty-four of them, leaving eighteen for crossing the plateau beyond the mountains. To the sound of ice avalanches crashing in the distance, the Norwegians and their forty-two dogs fought their way up the middle of the glacier for 20 miles (31.5 km), reaching an altitude of 10,000 feet (3,050 m). "Come and say dogs cannot be used here," Amundsen wrote defiantly.

Reluctant Crew Butchers Dogs on Amundsen's Orders

Having achieved the edge, if not the actual top, of the plateau, according to plan Amundsen ordered the dogs that would not continue on to the pole to be shot and butchered to feed those that would. This was a very difficult task for these very tough men to do. They had grown fond of their animals and hated putting them down. But they did what was required and this camp became the Slakteri, or "The Butchery," for its blood-stained snows. "There was depression and sadness in the air," and the men were glad to leave this now-haunted place.

They were still more than 300 miles (480 km) away from the South Pole.

December 14, 1911

Led by Amundsen, The Norwegians Achieve the Pole

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First to Reach South Pole, Amundsen Leaves Letters for Scott

Although the Norwegian team had reached the plateau, travel remained very difficult with many crevasses to cross. On December 7, 1912, they passed Shackleton's farthest point south, prompting Amundsen to mark the occasion: "Now 88°23' was past; we were further south than any human being had been. No other moment of the whole trip affected me like this."

The Norwegians raced toward their goal; all the while they dreaded sighting some indication of Scott's presence. What would it be?

"Shall we see the English flag–God have mercy on us, I don't believe it," Bjaaland wrote the evening before the final push.

Finally, on the afternoon of December 14, 1911, it was over. The race had been won. Roald Amundsen had reached the geographical South Pole.

Wisting, Hassel, Hanssen, and Bjaaland joined Amundsen in holding up a pole with the Norwegian colors. They looked around them, but could see nothing from horizon to horizon - just snow and ice. There was nothing other than their eyes and their instruments to tell them that, yes, they were at the bottom of the planet. And that they were first.

Searching For the Precise South Pole

For the next three days Amundsen fussed. They had reached the area of the pole, but his instruments were not capable of giving an absolutely precise position.

True to his character, Amundsen wanted to leave nothing to chance or later criticism. He got the men up at 11 pm to take sextant readings. Because the sun hardly varied in altitude during its course during this time of year, it is not surprising that their calculations were not in agreement: "It clearly shows how unreliable and valueless a single observation like this is in these regions."

Amundsen sent out Bjaaland, Wisting, and Hassel 12 miles (20 km) in three different directions, thinking that one of them at least would cross the invisible point of approximation of all meridians. Then, Amundsen checked his observations once more and pitched a tent–Polheim–"as near to the Pole as humanly possible with the instruments at our disposal" and named the local part of the polar plateau for his king, Haakon VII.

Inside the tent he placed some letters and other things that Scott would discover nearly five weeks later.

March 7, 1912

As Amundsen Returns With Triumphant News, Scott Still Traveling South

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Norwegians Bask in Victory as World Waits for Word From Scott:

On March 7, 1912, while Scott and his men were struggling back across the Ross Ice Shelf, Roald Amundsen brought the Fram into the harbor of Hobart, Tasmania. He was still worried that the British might have somehow beaten him back from Antarctica and stolen his thunder by being first to announce a successful journey to the South Pole.

Amundsen knew that the race was not won until the world was informed, and when he learned that his rival's ship had not been seen, he set about announcing his news.

The first telegram he sent–in private code to prevent the news from leaking out–was to his brother Leon. Others soon followed, including coded cables to Fridtjof Nansen and King Haakon so that they'd be informed before the general public learned of the Norwegian's historic feat.

Leon Amundsen had arranged for both the London Daily Chronicle and the New York Times to publish exclusive stories. For a few weeks, as the Terra Nova sailed for New Zealand, the conquest of the South Pole belonged to Amundsen alone. But despite acceptance of Amundsen's victory, the world seemed to hold its breath, intent on waiting for theTerra Nova to come back from McMurdo Sound so that the whole story might be known.

No Word From Scott as Terra Nova Returns

When the ship finally arrived in New Zealand on April 1, she brought no news of a British victory, or even of accomplishment. All that could be said was that Scott's party had not returned in time to meet the Terra Nova before she sailed. This was not an immediate cause for alarm, as Scott had said all along that the pole party might be late returning. Privately, the Norwegians were convinced Scott had made it to the South Pole, but they were not so sure he had survived the journey home, given the season's harsh weather.

Amundsen Reaps Reward of First-Place Finish

Meanwhile, Amundsen set out to do what he had always done after completing an expedition. He gave interviews, presented lectures, and wrote the book–in this case, simply called The South Pole. People all over the world were keen to hear his story, and he made good money from lecturing in venues as far afield as Australia, America and, of course, Britain. The audiences in the UK were polite, but small. This irritated Amundsen, who saw it as another example of British haughtiness.

As the months wore on and the new year began, excitement grew. Soon it would be February, 1913. The Terra Nova was expected to arrive again in New Zealand during that month, and the telegrams would begin to flash all over the world. What news would there be of Scott and his men?

1913–1928

Scott's Death Muddles Amundsen's Success

A group of Antarctica explorers, one man holding a United Kingdom flag, another a flag of Norway. The title beneath reads: “1913 to 1928, Amundsen After the End.”

Was the Norwegian's Victory by His Deception?

The effect of Scott's death on Amundsen's fortunes was complex. For nearly a year he had reigned as the conqueror of the South Pole. The Scott tragedy did not change the facts, but it did change the way in which many viewed Amundsen's victory.

In Britain, the sensationalist press insisted that Amundsen's success was built upon a deception no honorable man would have committed. Amundsen may have won the pole, but by his own actions had made himself unworthy of the laurel.

Elsewhere, however, in countries like Germany and America, the fact that Amundsen's competitor had died–whether of cold, hunger, or disappointment–was seen as additional evidence that the victory was hard-earned and deserved respect.

These contrasting evaluations of Amundsen's character have alternated with each other over the past century. He is sometimes evoked as the hardest of hard travelers, taking whatever measures were necessary to ensure his success, no matter who or what lay in his path. At other times, particularly in recent decades, attention has instead focused on his meticulous efforts at preparation and remarkable ability to calculate the odds. Both snapshot assessments touch on the truth in different ways, because like many successful explorers, Amundsen was both shaped and driven by many forces.

Amundsen Continued to Explore; Dies on Mission to Save Others

Amundsen died in 1928, sixteen years after Scott. He continued to explore with some notable successes, such as making the first crossing of the Arctic Sea by airship in 1926. In his last years he was a controversial figure, who quarreled with most of his old companions and died very much alone.

Yet it is important to remember that, once more defying his stereotype, he died in an effort to save others. In 1928, the airship Italia had gone down north of Svalbard on its way to the North Pole. Amundsen intended to look for survivors by airplane, but the aircraft he used was not designed for Arctic conditions. His plane went down somewhere in the Norwegian Sea, and Amundsen and his companions were never found.

There was no reason for Amundsen to risk his life in this way, and certainly he had little reason to look for a man whom he detested–Italia's captain Umberto Nobile. But he did it anyway, for his own reasons. As a result, he may be said to have died a real hero–and not just as the man who made a career of going to the coldest, most isolated places on earth.