Dec. 14, 2021

The Race to the South Pole

The Race to the South Pole

December 14th, 1911. Roald Amundsen becomes the first person to reach the South Pole.

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Cold Open

It’s October 21st, 1911 in Antarctica.

Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian explorer, rides on a two-man sled that cuts its way through the snowy white terrain. Dogs strain to pull Amundsen and his fellow explorer along, and he struggles to see through the thick fog of snow. As Amundsen looks back over his shoulder, he can barely make out the three sleds that follow behind.

Two days earlier, Amundsen and a small group of explorers climbed on board four different sleds and departed from their basecamp near the Antarctic coast. They’ve set out to become the first men to reach the South Pole, one of the few remaining undiscovered regions on Earth. Amundsen intends to be the first man there and plant the flag for Norway.

But he knows that somewhere out here in the Antarctic wasteland, traveling via a different route, there is a rival expedition led by Captain Scott of Great Britain. Amundsen is desperate to beat Scott in this race. 


Just then, Amundsen hears a thump as his sled flies over a patch of smooth, icy ground. Amundsen, a veteran explorer, knows exactly what this sound means: the ground he is traveling over is hollow. He barely has time to react before it begins to crack.

Amundsen and his companion leap from the sled just as it plunges through the ice into a huge crevasse concealed below the surface.

As he climbs to his feet and catches his breath, Amundsen knows he is lucky to be alive. But he also knows there is no time to dally. He and his crew must quickly retrieve the sled, and its vital supplies, to continue their journey.

Amundsen hopes this near-death delay won’t cost him the victory he’s worked so hard to achieve. Because in less than two months' time, on December 14, 1911, one of these expeditions will beat the other to the South Pole. The winner will return to their country in glory. The loser will not just fail in their attempt, but meet a tragic end.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world. 

Today is December 14th, 1911. The Race to the South Pole.

Act One: The Terra Nova

It’s early December 1909, at the Royal Geographical Society in Savile Row, London, two years before a flag is planted at the South Pole.

Captain Robert Falcon Scott, the famous explorer, drinks a brandy with a group of friends and supporters in a high-ceilinged room whose walls are covered with maps of the world. Members of the Geographical Society’s staff hang brightly colored baubles from a Christmas tree in the corner of the room as Scott quietly outlines his plan to take another expedition to Antarctica.

As Scott lays out his vision, his mind floats back to how he first became involved with Antarctic exploration ten years earlier. After a chance encounter with the then President of the Geographical Society, Sir Clements Markham, the 31-year-old Royal Navy Officer was placed in full command of the British National Antarctic Expedition, more commonly known after the name of its ship, the Discovery. Scott was told that the Discovery’s goals were scientific and geographical.

On the expedition, Scott and his Discovery explored previously unmapped areas of the Antarctic continent and made thorough studies of its oceans, marine life, and weather conditions. He charted new lands and climbed mountains, calculating their heights and positions. His crew sledded over newly discovered plateaus, collecting thousands of biological specimens to be brought home for museums. He even discovered a new colony of Emperor Penguins.

When he returned to Britain, Scott received a hero’s welcome and a cluster of medals. Yet, tonight, as he sips his brandy with friends, Scott knows that the Discovery failed in the one objective that really matters. 

Scott wants Britain to become the first country to plant a flag in the South Pole and thereby claim the right to name the area after the current monarch King Edward VII. His Discovery expedition managed to reach 858 kilometers away from the Pole -  breaking Norway’s record at the time. But on his next expedition, Scott wants to go the full distance and to arrive in the southernmost part of the world before anyone else.

To this end, he’s already secured a strong ex-whaling ship called the Terra Nova as well as financial backing for the expedition. He’s publicly declared that the Terra Nova expedition will “reach the South Pole and secure for the British Empire the honor of the achievement.”

When Scott finishes laying out his plan, one of his companions asks him about potential rival expeditions, especially Roald Amundsen of Norway. Scott knows Amundsen is a formidable explorer. Years ago, he became the first man to successfully navigate Canada’s Northwest Passage, a tempestuous stretch of sea between the Atlantic and the Pacific. But when Scott’s companion asks if Amundsen might beat him to the South Pole, Scott waves the concern away as he swirls his brandy.

Amundsen is fixed on reaching the North Pole, Scott assures his companions. The path to the South Pole is clear for the British. 


It’s September 9th, 1910, on the Portuguese island of Madeira in the Atlantic Ocean. Roald Amundsen’s ship the Fram has been docked here for three days as he and his crew prepare for an arduous journey. Most of the crew believe Amundsen intends to reach the North Pole as Scott did.

But today, Amundsen makes an announcement that takes them all by surprise. This expedition will be heading South.

According to recent newspaper reports, two separate American expeditions have already made it to the North Pole. But the South Pole remains unclaimed, for now. Amundsen tells his crew that the British have launched an expedition to the South Pole led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott. But Amundsen wants to beat Scott to it.

He asks each crewmember if they’re willing to make the journey South instead of North, and each one replies with a quick and enthusiastic yes.

But just before the Fram leaves Madeira, Amundsen sends a telegram to Scott who he knows will be departing soon. It reads simply: “Beg to inform you Fram proceeding to Antarctica”

Act Two: The Fram

It’s January 14th, 1911 in the Bay of Whales on the Antarctic coast. Exactly one month before the first man reaches the South Pole.

Roald Amundsen stands on the deck of the Fram and looks over the natural ice harbor. This is where he has decided his ship will remain while he makes the long, arduous journey to the Pole.

His breath freezes in the air as he surveys the unspoiled continent he and his men have traveled to. Some of his men remark on the large number of whales nearby but Amundsen isn’t interested. His focus is on one thing only: getting to the South Pole before Scott.

Amundsen is not shocked by the freezing temperatures. He prides himself on his preparation. When he traveled across the Northwest Passage, he encountered native Inuit people and learned a lot from them about surviving in hostile conditions. Inspired by their outfits, his crew have all clothes made from wolf and reindeer skins.

Still, Amundsen knows that it would be extremely unwise to set off toward the South Pole as the Antarctic winter begins in April so his priority, for now, is hibernation. He sets about establishing a base camp two miles south from the ship. They call it Framheim, meaning home of Fram, and it takes his 19-man crew a week to build a sturdy hut for them to wait out the winter.

But then on the morning of February 3rd, 1911, Amundsen is astonished when he learns that Scott’s Terra Nova ship has sailed into the same harbor where their ship is docked. He had not expected the British to choose the same coastal port but is glad to have this chance to shake hands with Captain Scott.

But when the six Terra Nova crewmen disembark, he finds that they are led by a young British officer named Victor Campbell, not Scott. Campbell tells Amundsen that he is using the ship to carry out scientific research on the local area; Scott and the rest of his crew have already made camp further north.

When Amundsen learns of Scott’s precise location, he smiles inwardly. Scott is positioned further away from the Pole by 70 miles. Once Winter clears, Amundsen will have a head start.

But, Amundsen is concerned when he learns that Scott’s party is employing motorized sleds. He worries that this innovation could give Scott the upperhand in the race.


Months later, on October 19th, 1911, Amundsen is eager to set off for the Pole.

He is tormented by the idea that Scott’s party might have already left their camp. With those motorized sleds, Scott could already be in the lead.

A month earlier, Amundsen tried to set off with a small crew when the conditions were still harsh. But after a few days of traveling through temperatures of minus 69 degrees Fahrenheit, Amundsen gave up and returned to Framheim. But now, the long Antarctic winter, which lasts from April to October, is finally over. Amundsen is ready.

He travels lights with just four other crewmen and manages to cover 28 kilometers per day, a pace he is happy with. But Amundsen knows this is the easy part of the journey. Soon, he will come upon the TransAntarctic mountains, an intimidating range Scott has already experienced as part of his earlier Discovery expedition. But the only way forward is up and through these mountains. And after three days of slogging through the thick, soft snow, Amundsen, his men, and dogs climb a distance of 56 kilometers until they reach the glacier summit.

Atop the great height of the polar plateau, Amundsen knows they have overcome the biggest physical obstacle that lies between them and victory. But the journey here has been long, and they are running out of food. So, with a heavy heart, Amundsen gives a ruthless order; Of the 45 remaining dogs, he commands that 27 be shot so that they can be skinned and cooked.

Amundsen later writes in his memoirs that “we called the place the Butcher’s shop... There was sadness and depression in the air; we had grown so fond of our dogs.”

As Amundsen and his men enter the final stage of their journey, he still has no idea if Scott is far ahead or lagging behind. But Amundsen is determined to be the first; to win the honor of naming the Pole after his nation’s monarch; and to plant his flag, victorious.

Act Three: The Winner

It’s December 14th, 1911 at the South Pole.

As the Antarctic sun smiles down, Roald Amundsen and his four comrades lay their hands on the Norwegian flag post. Triumphant, Amundsen declares: “Thus we plant thee, beloved flag, at the South Pole, and give to the plain on which it lies the name of King Haakon VII's Plateau."

Once their ceremony is done, on Amundsen’s orders, his men establish the exact position of the Pole and leave clear indicators so no one can dispute their victory.

Then the Norwegians solemnly say farewell to the site and begin the long journey home.


Over a month later, on January 17th, 1912, Scott and his men arrive at the South Pole and find the Norwegian flag flying proudly before them. Scott is filled with bitter disappointment.

He curses himself for the disastrous decisions he made on the way here, including those motorized sleds that broke down only a short time into their march south. He also regrets bringing along Siberian ponies. They couldn’t cope with the violent weather conditions and had to be shot, leaving Scott and his men to manhaul their sleds most of the way. The Norwegian flag confirms to Scott that Amundsen’s expedition was simply better prepared.


But for the Terra Nova crew, the disaster is just beginning. On their return march from the Pole, Scott and the rest of his party all perish due to a combination of freezing cold and starvation.

When word gets out of Scott’s death, many British citizens feel a deep sadness for a man they see as a tragic hero. His supporters argue that Amundsen cheated Scott by announcing his expedition at the last minute. Scott, they claim, was the better explorer. Amundsen simply got lucky.

Later, in his memoirs, thinking of this sentiment, Amundsen will reflect on his victory. He will write, “I am sure some will say we had good luck. But what they call good luck, I call good planning.”

Roald Amundsen, his team, and good planning are the forces behind this historic day, December 14th, 1911, when the first explorers reached the South Pole. 


Next on History Daily. December 15th, 1890. Native American chief Sitting Bull is killed by agents of the US Federal government on the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by James Benmore.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.