It is a little past midnight when the Fram weighs anchor just off Amundsen’s home at Svartskog on 7 June 1910.
On land are closest friends and family. They wave with Norwegian flags and white handkerchiefs. There is a slight breeze in the air but the summer night is still warm. In addition to Amundsen, there are nineteen men on board Fram, but only a few know where they are going.
“It may possibly appear to many people that I was running a pretty big risk in thus putting off till the last moment the duty of informing my comrades of the very considerable detour we were to make. Suppose some of them, or perhaps all, had objected! It must be admitted that it was a great risk, but there were so many risks that had to be taken at that time,” wrote Amundsen later.📜
The next day, June 8, the Fram is in Horten and Amundsen uses the opportunity to send a letter to Fridtjof Nansen, the man who has given him permission to use the Fram to drift across the Arctic Ocean.
“Once again before we go, I must send you my warmest thanks for everything you have done for me. We are going today and we will seek to do what is in our power. Respectfully, Roald Amundsen.” 📜
What Amundsen chooses not to mention in Nansen’s letter is that the plan has changed.
After a month-long oceanographic cruise in the waters around the British Isles, on which both crew and engine are tested, the course is eventually set towards Kristiansand. Here, the Greenland dogs come aboard – ninety-seven of them – and are given their different names: Obersten (the Colonel), Lucy, Storm, Suggen, Arne, Kamilla, Knægten, Madeiro and the rest.
On July 10, the journey south begins.
Polar ship Fram
The plan is revealed
On September 9, 1910, the Fram is lying off Funchal in Madeira. In Norway, newspapers can report that the Fram will stay here for three days to load coal and provisions, while in Funchal the newspapers write something completely different. They write that Amundsen is going to the South Pole. They think it seems likely now the expedition has arrived in Madeira.
Little do they know how right they are.
Fortunately for Amundsen, the rumours do not spread beyond Madeira. For it is from here, far from home, that Amundsen will inform the crew and later the world that the planned North Pole expedition is actually going south.
“At 6 o’clock I called all the men together and informed them of my intention to try for the South Pole. When I asked if they were willing to follow me, I got a unanimous – yes,” writes Amundsen in his diary that day.📜
Leon Amundsen, who has met the expedition in Funchal, takes home the mail, including another letter from Amundsen to Nansen. Written on August 22, almost three months after he last wrote to Nansen, this letter has a completely different content:
“It is not with a light heart, that I send you these lines, but there is no way around it, and so I might as well get on with it. […] Yes, it is difficult for me, Herr Professor, to inform you, but since September 1909 my decision has been to take part in the contest to answer this challenge. Many times I have been on the point of confiding all to you, but always waited for fear that you would stop me. I have often wished that Scott had been aware of this decision of mine, so that it did not appear that I would sneak down there without his knowledge to get ahead of him, but I have not dared to make any publication for fear of being stopped.”📜
At the same time, Robert Falcon Scott is also informed. On October 5, after Leon Amundsen has returned home to Kristiania (Oslo), he sends the Englishman a telegram:
”Captain Robert F. Scott
S.S Terra Nova, Melbourne
Beg leave to inform you Fram
While the world tries to digest the news of Amundsen’s new plan, the Fram continues south.
On October 2, there is a party on board the Fram. Equator party. The entire ship is decorated with flags and banners. Coffee, wine, brandy and biscuits are brought on deck. Sundbeck and Prestrud bring out the mandolin. The gramophone is hung under the boom of the mainsail. Out over the ocean ring songs like “Ja, vi elsker” (Norway’s national anthem), “Dollarprinsessen”, “Les millions d’Arlequin”, “Graf von Luxemburg” and “The happy troll”. Hjalmar Fredrik Gjertsen then twirls around in a white dress like a ballerina.
Even the dogs are invited to dance by some of the crew.
The Fram arrived in the Bay of Whales, Antarctica, on January 14, 1911, ten days after Terra Nova and Scott arrived on Ross Island, where they established their base at Cape Evans. About the choice of the Bay of Whales, Amundsen writes in his diary for January 25,
“Here on this barrier [ice shelf], which Ross kept a respectful distance from. Here on this same barrier as Shackleton praised his God that he had not landed – here we have built our house – here we shall have our home. […] But, that Scott did not go in here to take the great opportunities a degree further south offers, I do not understand. Not one of us gave a thought to any danger with this. The future will show if we were right.” 📜
Although their bases are a long way apart, the two expeditions are still close enough to meet.
On February 4, Terra Nova is on its way back to Ross Island after an unsuccessful attempt to land and explore King Edward VII Land. Scott is currently busy establishing depots on his route to the South Pole and not on board, but for the rest of the crew a big surprise awaits when they sail past the Bay of Whales.
There is the Fram.
For the first time, the English get to see the Norwegians’ plans. They are impressed with the dogs, the logistics and the equipment. Even Lindstrøm’s homemade hotcakes are to their liking.
With the Fram settled at the ice edge in the Bay of Whales, the crew quickly begin to move materials, equipment and provisions onto the ice. They move up to 10 tons of equipment and materials every day.
A few kilometres onto the ice shelf, they find a site to build the winter hut. Bjaaland and Stubberud take the job; first several metres must be dug into the snow, then the surface must be levelled, before the various modules for the hut are erected. After 10 days, Framheim is ready to move in to.
Equipment and clothing
Before winter, the Norwegians make three trips to lay depots on the route to the South Pole.
The first starts on February 10. Amundsen, Johansen, Prestrud and Hansen head towards 80° S. The sledges weigh around 250 kg, and six dogs are harnessed in front of each. The trip gives a taste of what they have in store for them next season.
The day after they set off, Amundsen writes in his diary:
”Have throughout gone only in one shirt and undertrousers -11 ° C. The dogs pull superbly to lead, here on the ice shelf is ideal. Do not understand, what the English mean when they say that they cannot use dogs here. There are no better draft animals under these circumstances.”📜
On February 14 they reach 80° S and leave salt beef, chocolate, pemmican, biscuits and more. In total, they leave 500 kg of provisions.
To make the depot visible, they mark it with ten black flags in a line running east-west, at 500-metre intervals. Each flag is numbered so that they know where they are in relation to the depot. In addition, ten numbered bamboo poles with black pennants, one for every 15 km, are deployed to mark the way to the depot. The route home is marked with stockfish every half kilometre.
On the return trip, with unladen sledges, they really get to prove what the dogs are capable of. The first day they cover 70 km, the second day 100, which takes them back to Framheim in two days.
One week later, on February 22, it is time for a new depot trip. This time they leave 500 kg of provisions and fuel at 81° S and 620 kg at 82° S. Both depots are just as properly marked as the first. A month later, every man is sitting around the long table at Framheim again. But the trip had its cost. Eight dogs lost their lives in the hard drive, leaving 85 adult dogs and 22 puppies still available for more sledge journeys.
The third trip goes to the depot at 80° S, but due to a wound in the rectum that would not heal, Amundsen is left at Framheim with Lindstrøm. Hjalmar Johansen is set to lead the trip. This time, approx. 1200 kg of seal meat was left in the depot.
When winter comes, Amundsen knows that he has more than enough food and fuel established on the route to the Pole. In addition, they have acquired valuable experience with the equipment and dogs, and with the Antarctic weather.
Life in Framheim is characterized by careful preparation and planning and high well-being. In the kitchen, Lindstrøm rules. In the large living room, people sleep, eat, play cards and throw darts at the bullseye. In the various snow caves that are dug around Framheim during the winter, the men get their different workspaces.
The journey to the South Pole
On July 4, 1911, Amundsen presents what he calls an improved plan:
“We leave Framheim around mid-September, 8 men, 7 sledges, 84 dogs and provisions & equipment.”📜
The plan is to stop at each depot, eat well and save energy. At the depot at 82°, they will build snow houses and wait for the midnight sun to return around mid-October, before moving further south. Everyone around the table guesses on what date they will reach the South Pole, Amundsen himself bets on December 2, 1911.
Amundsen is still impatient, preparing for departure on several occasions, but the cold and weather conditions make things difficult. Everyone knew what was going on: “if you were not the first at the South Pole, you might just as well just stay at home,” wrote Sverre Hassel in his diary.
On Friday, September 8, 1911, it is finally clear. Outside, the thermometer shows -38° C. Lindstrøm is the only one left at Framheim. He thinks it means bad luck to leave on a Friday. From Framheim, he watches the caravan with 84 dogs on seven sledges and eight men moving across the ice shelf.
But not many days pass before the first problems arise.
When they crawl out of the tent on Monday 11 September, the temperature has dropped almost 30 degrees since they left Framheim. It is -55.5° C and getting colder. As the breath of men and dogs freezes in the air, it’s like walking through a dense fog. The alcohol in the compasses freezes, and the mood drops to match. On September 14, they reach the depot at 80° S, where they decide to leave equipment and return to Framheim. Both dogs and men struggle with frostbite.
“To risk men and animals to stubbornly continue once I had set off – this never entered my mind. If we are to win the game, the pieces must be moved well – one mistake and everything can be lost,” writes Amundsen in his diary for 12 September. 📜
With 75 km still left to Framheim, the decision is made to drive without stopping. The decision is bold – the distance is double that of a normal day’s march – but the weather conditions are promising, and for several of the men and dogs, their frostbite is starting to get serious.
Nine hours later, Hanssen, Wisting and Amundsen are the first to enter Framheim. Two hours later, Bjaaland arrives, and half an hour later, Stubberud and Hassel come through the door.
But there are still two men left, Prestrud and Johansen. They still have a mile to go, with neither food nor fuel, and both they and the dogs have frostbite. Prestrud is badly hurt; with great pain in his feet, and staggers after Johansen and the dogs. As darkness sets in, the temperature drops below minus 50 degrees.
Only after midnight do Prestrud and Johansen set eyes on the light from Framheim. At the door, they are greeted by Amundsen and Lindstrøm’s hot coffee. Little is said before they all go to bed, but the next morning the reaction comes.
“At the breakfast table this morning I asked about the reason for their long absence. To my surprise, Joh. saw fit to make unflattering statements about me in my position as leader of our enterprise here,”📜 writes Amundsen in his diary for 17 September.
“The grave and unforgivable in these statements is that they were made for all to hear. Here the bull had to be taken by the horns and the example established immediately. At the dinner table I then said that after these statements of his I found it most appropriate to exclude him from participating in the journey to the Pole. Instead, I have written ordering him to take part in a research expedition to King Edward 7’s Land under the leadership of Pr.”📜
Later in the day, Hjalmar Johansen delivers a rejection of Amundsen’s new order to proceed under Prestrud’s command to King Edward VII Land.
“At the dinner table I asked each individual what he thought of my actions. There was only one opinion that I had acted correctly. This was a sad end to our excellent unity. But I found it only right to exclude him after his behaviour. On our journey south, there must be no critical elements. Especially, when they come from an old polar explorer like him, they become doubly dangerous.”📜
There are several sources for the story of this episode. Amundsen’s diary reveals only his version of the situation. From the others who were in Framheim that day come several different descriptions, and their diaries reveal more details about both the trip home and the settlement the following morning. The way Amundsen handled Johansen’s criticism has in modern times been often used to characterize both men’s personalities and leadership qualities.
What is known for sure is that the mood and the plan changed. Johansen felt betrayed, not only by the leader of the expedition, but also by all the others. In his diary on September 17, he writes,
“They are now relieved that what should be said has been said by another, and they smile and are now even gentle towards the leader. The scapegoat has been found.“📜
The plan had to be changed, and it had consequences for several.
Three men were expelled from the polar party. Johansen, Prestrud and the carpenter Jørgen Stubberud were commissioned to undertake a sledge expedition eastwards towards King Edward VII Land. Johansen joined in the end.
It’s 20 October when they try again; Amundsen, Wisting, Hassel, Hanssen and Bjaaland.
Four sledges with thirteen dogs in each team. The departure is captured on film by the four who remain at Framheim.
The journey as far as 82° S follows known sledge tracks, but beyond that is unknown terrain, seen by no one. Several times they have to fight their way through dangerous crevasse fields; both sledges and men fall, but each time they recover.
The map Amundsen has in the tent gets new lines for each day and for each latitude they pass.
On November 21, they slog their way onto the plateau, 2,800 metres above sea level. For 24 of the dogs, this will be the end of the journey; they are shot and distributed as food to both dogs and men. The place is named Slakteren (The butcher’s shop). The party pushes on with three sledges, provisions for 60 days and 18 dogs.
As they approach the top of the plateau, they also encounter new crevasse fields.
”‘Fandens bre’ [Devil’s glacier] has proved worthy of its name. One walks two miles to make one. Chasm after chasm, abyss after abyss, must be walked around. Treacherous cracks, among other things, make progress extremely difficult. The dogs are struggling, and the drivers no less.”, writes Amundsen in his diary on 30 November. 📜
When they pass 88° 23′ S, the point where the British Ernest Shackleton had to turn back in 1909, they are closer to the South Pole than anyone has been before them. The moment makes Amundsen struggle to hold back his tears:
“My snow goggles annoyed me from time to time. A rather weak breeze from S fogged them up and made it difficult to see. Then all of a sudden I hear a loud, powerful hurrah behind me. I turn around. In this light breeze from S wave the dear, familiar colours of this first sledge, where they have surpassed the Englishmen’s record and left it behind. – It was a wonderful sight. The sun had just broken through in all its splendour to illuminate in such a wonderfully beautiful way the lovely little flag – gift from Helland Hansen and Nordahl Olsen –. My goggles now misted again. But it was not the southerly wind, which this time was to blame. We stopped at 88° 23.2′ to congratulate each other. We were all happy and satisfied.“ 📜
Six days later, on December 14, 1911, they are there.
”Then we managed to plant our flag at the geographical South Pole – King Haakon VII’s Plateau. Thank God! It was 3 p.m. when this happened.” 📜
But the job is not yet complete. The next day, they begin circling the pole. Getting to the South Pole first has little value if you cannot prove it. Bjaaland, Hassel and Wisting set out, 20 kilometres in each direction, carrying with them a sledge runner with a black flag attached.
In fact, they are doing something foolhardy and life-threatening.
Without a compass, they rely on either navigating back with the sun or following their tracks back. Amundsen later wrote:
“But to trust to tracks in these regions is a dangerous thing. Before you know where you are the whole plain may be one mass of driving snow, obliterating all tracks as soon as they are made […] That these three risked their lives that morning, when they left the tent at 2.30, there can be no doubt at all, and they all three knew it very well.”📜
On Sunday 17 December, the five Norwegians get up early, break camp and begin the journey towards what they have calculated is the actual Pole. Olav Bjaaland gets the honour of going first. The course must be kept straight if they are to hit the Pole exactly. Amundsen goes to the back to check.
At 11 o’clock they stop. They are there. They erect the small tent, which they name Polheim, and begin the work of calculating the observations. Every hour throughout the day, they are out with the sextant and the artificial horizon to take the position.
“We’re going to observe all night, as these results are quite noteworthy. We must, after all, now consider this place the Pole. We pitch our little tent here tomorrow to leave the place heading N. A boil gave 11000 feet a.s.l. Here we are at the South Pole – an extremely flat snow plain. Almost nothing uneven to see. The sun passes around the sky at practically the same height to shine and warm from a cloudless sky. It’s quiet tonight and so peaceful. The dogs are all stretched out in the sun to enjoy, despite the slight hustle and bustle – apparently life is pretty good” .📜
The fear is there all the time, that they are not the first.
“We have all used the binoculars diligently to see if there were signs of life in any place – but in vain. We are probably the first here.”📜
Above is a 3D version of one of the sledge compasses they took with them on the journey to the South Pole. In total, they had four instruments. Amundsen later took this compass home with him, and it is still in his study today at Uranienborg.
It is approaching eight in the evening of December 18 when Amundsen and the others get ready to begin the journey home.
“We have erected the small tent, and the Norwegian flag with [the pennant] “Framvimpel” beneath fly from the top of the tent pole. In the tent are left several things: My sextant with horizon glass, a hypsometer, three reindeer skin foot bags, some kamiks and mittens and incidentally some trifles. I leave in a folder a letter to the King and a few words to Scott, who I must assume will be the first to visit the place after us. To the tent pole we staple a plaque, on which we all write our names – And so goodbye, dear Pole – we will probably not see each other again.”📜
They decide to travel at night, so that they get the sun on their backs. Bjaaland goes first, then the others follow with the dogs. On Christmas Eve, they arrive at the depot they had left at 88° 25′ and celebrate the evening with a porridge of biscuits and the last cigars. There is still more than 1,000 km to Framheim.
They reach the severely crevassed areas around Fandens Bre in early January, but confusion reigns. They are off-course and do not recognize their surroundings. They arrive at the depot at Slakteren on 5 January. Amundsen writes in his diary:
“HH it was, with his sharp eyes, discovered it. Had that not been the case, I certainly do not know how it would have gone. The land was utterly unrecognizable – entirely as if I had never seen it before.“📜
Two days later, they reach the depot at 85° 09′, by the mountain named after Amundsen’s nanny, Betty. Amundsen sent Hanssen and Wisting up to the small peak to build a cairn.
“HH & W are going now – after having packed the depot on the sledges – up to ‘Bettytoppen’ to build a stone cairn and leave a report. In the cairn, a can of paraffin is walled in (17 l.) together with 2 packs of matches (20 boxes). They could possibly come in handy in the future.”📜
The cairn was rediscovered in 1929 and has since been visited by a few expeditions.
A contrasting return
17 January 1912 becomes a red-letter day for Roald Amundsen and the four other Norwegians.
They reach the depot at 82°. Now only around 370 km remain before they are home at Framheim, a distance that is also well marked from the year before.
“Had a small feast tonight on the occasion of our arrival at ‘civilization’s most southerly outpost’. W. must cook on such occasions. He treated me to a mixture of pemmican and seal meat. For dessert chocolate porridge. – Milk flour, which has been lying on top of the depot in a fairly thin sack exposed to strong moisture and burning sun, was just like the day we put it on board. The sweet biscuits were also just as nice as before. The chocolate too.” 📜
On the same day, five Britons stand around a tent at the South Pole.
They had realized their defeat the day before, when they spotted a black flag fluttering in the wind in front of them. The flag was one of the markers the Norwegians had set up when they circled the pole. Robert Falcon Scott, who until that day had had a hope that they could reach the South Pole as the first, realizes the defeat when he sees the flag.
”The worst has happened, or nearly the worst. […]. This told us the whole story. The Norwegians have forestalled us and are first at the Pole. It is a terrible disappointment, and I am very sorry for my loyal companions. Many thoughts come and much discussion have we had. Tomorrow we must march on to the Pole and then hasten home with all the speed we can compass. All the day dreams must go; it will be a wearisome return.” 📜
When the five Britons arrive at the South Pole on January 17, they find the tent with the Norwegian flag at the top. Inside are the letters and things from Amundsen.
On January 26, 99 days after departure, Amundsen and the four other Norwegians are back at Framheim. Four days later, on January 30, everyone is back on board the Fram, which has spent the meantime at the quay in Buenos Aires and on an oceanographic cruise in the South Atlantic. A course is set for Hobart, Tasmania.
At the same time, Scott and his four comrades are still on their way home from the Pole. They are in the middle of the plateau, at an altitude of over 3000 metres, surrounded by ice and over 1000 kilometres from the expedition’s base at Cape Evans. But this far they never reach. All five die on the way back, and only Wilson, Bowers and Scott are later found. With Scott is found the letter Amundsen had left to King Haakon.
Upon arrival in Hobart, the Fram drops anchor and Amundsen goes ashore in disguise.
From Hobart he sends the first telegrams, all written in code, to his brother Leon, to Nansen and to King Haakon.
Amundsen, Roald: “Sydpolen: den norske sydpolsfærd med Fram 1910-1912”, 1912.
Amundsen, Roald: “The South Pole : an account of the Norwegian Antarctic expedition in the Fram 1910-1912”, 1912. 📜
National Library of Norway: Roald Amundsens privatarkiv , Roald Amundsens sydpolsferd (film) 1910–1912.
British Library: Robert Falcon Scott’s diary