The aircraft pulled off on the glacier and we got out already dressed for winter climate. Dimmed light in the aircraft was the last one we should see in next two weeks. Polar day brought a strong light. Sun struck us from beginning and didn’t give us break. Absolute necessity were good UW glasses and strong sun cream. Getting out from the plane and first steps over the seventh continent were unforgettable. Ice was very slippery. Feeling of being in the middle of nowhere comes immediately when one see the huge snow-cats and around a landscape mostly untouched by a human. Our first stop was a “Beach”. It is locally known area around Union Glacier camp. How can a place of eternal snow 800km far from coast in mountains be called a Beach you ask? They say that after I will face conditions which are on Antarctic plateau around South pole, then I will feel in Union Glacier camp as I am on the beach.
Union Glacier camp is situated in Ellsworth Mountains and is a base for most commercial expeditions. Main activities are here the trips to South pole (91 people this season), Mt. Vinson climb (170 people), marathon (55 people) and observing Emperor’s penguins (30 people). Other expeditions are in single digit numbers of participants. Guy named Lenny told us where to build tent, where toilets are, how to work with water and where to eat. I was thinking what kind of food we will have here, but I was nicely surprised – steaks, salmon, fruit, vine… all you can eat. It was great. In the camp there was also a lounge, where we could comfortably sit down and read some of the 300 books about Antarctica, expeditions and mountaineering, what they had there. Now there was no time for this not mood. I was still taken by the fact that WE ARE AT ANTARCTICA!
In the break of 19th and 20th century there was a run for being first to explore Antarctica. There were many explorators, but three of them clearly stands out. Clear winner here was the Norwegian leader Roald Amundsen, who was labeled as “The greatest explorer ever lived”. He firstly led an expedition (1903-1906) to sail through the Northwest passage, which is trip from Atlantic to Pacific Ocean north of Canada. Amundsen has also first undisputed successful attempt to reach North pole (1926) and then he tragically died during the attempt to rescue Nobile’s zeppelin Italia in 1928.
Most famous expedition was the one to the South pole in 1911. Firstly the aim was the North pole (which they told the owner of rented ship Fram), but in June 1910 when Amundsen heard about two American F. Cook and R. Peary who supposedly reached the North pole, he single handedly decided to deviate from intended course and aim for South Pole. He told this to his crew only after few weeks on the sail. All agreed. He sent official note to Robert F. Scott, who was also aiming for South Pole, that the race is on. They landed on Antarctica in Bay of whales (around Mt. Erebus) and built a base camp. They set supply stations on 80., 81. and 82. parallel. First try to conquer South pole was unsuccessful. Second try started 19th of October 1911 with another four members and 52 dogs. After difficult trip their team with only 16 dogs made it to the geographical South pole on 14th December 1911. They built there a small tent, which stood there till 1956. They also put some navigation equipment, some resources and message to Scott, that pole is conquered. They got back to the camp on 25th of January 1912 only with 11 dogs.
The station which is now on the South pole is called Amundsen-Scott station. Also, to the honor of Robert Falcon Scott an exploratory for British royal navy. Scott first made an expedition in 1901-4 with Discovery ship. The crew if 50 men was however inexperienced. Despite they made significant progress inside the Antarctica, they had to turn on 82nd parallel. In the three-men team who went inside the continent was also a young Ernest Shackleton, who took the conditions very badly and according to Scott’s diary he was a main reason for the failure of the expedition. Shackleton and Scott did like each other much and their comments to each other could make a good soap opera. Several years after this Scott made a second expedition together on the ship Terra Nova. Expedition again aimed to conquer South pole. They set a sail in 1910 and besides dogs they took also Manchurian ponies. They were however a bad quality and couldn’t deal with tough Antarctic terrain. They find this out the hard way on their first try in 1910, when they got only to the 80. parallel (some 1100 meters from Pole). They spend winter in a camp about 200km from the Amundsen’s and at the beginning of 1911 the race with Amundsen started. Scott’s five-member strong team set off for extremely challenging trip to South pole. They reached it on 17 January 1912 and find there an Amundsen’s tent. Scott wrote a diary, which is today very valuable material to study of the conditions and good also as real-life engaging story to read. Scott describe the breaking news where he found out that his whole-life dream to be the first to conquer South pole has disappeared and as consequence the moral of the team went downhill. The trip back to camp was accompanied by one complication after another and in the end all dogs and teammates died. Only 4 days before they would reach the camp. They died from exhaustion from both physical and psychical. 29th of 1911 on the brink of polar night Scott wrote a personal letter to his wife and two years old son. Later the word “wife” is crossed out and written “widow”. Scott vs Amundsen heartbreaking fight for being first one to conquer the South pole is one of the most interesting real life story full of emotions, adventure, personality clashes and true fight not against nature but also about the place in history.
Third explorer, which is good to remember is Irish hero Ernest Shackleton. He was a part of Scott’s attempt to conquer South pole in 1901-4, but then he made his own expeditions. In year 1907-9 expedition on ship Nimrod was very successful and together with his team he made it to 88. parallel only 180km from the pole. The decision to turn around so close the goal is something what gave Shackleton a reputation of great leader. He remembered very well what the atmosphere was on the Discovery expedition, when Scott had to turn around because of Shackleton. Besides this point the Nimrod expedition reached some scientific goals and for first time climbed mount Erebus (a volcano with lava lake, which I am so attracted to).
Shackleton did not participate on the run for South pole in 1911, but his part in this big story he earned with expedition on ship Endurance in 1914-17 which aim was to cross the Antarctica. He received 5000 application for this trip and his selective process was very tough. He believed that the one’s character was same important as his physical fitness. He hired people, who could sing, make jokes and so on. In the end he selected 56 men and took another 70 dogs. 5th of September 1914 he escaped WWI for his adventure. But it didn’t take long and the expedition was forced to deviate from its original course. 24th of February 1915 Endurance froze into the iceberg and drifted together with the ice for next 8 months. Then Shackleton ordered to abandon ship and enter the iceberg, because he correctly predicted, that the ship will sink. They put their resourced on back and went for long dangerous walk over the frozen sea towards Elephant island, which they finally reached after another 8 months in April 1916.
Elephant island was however cut from the rest of the world. It was impossible to hope for rescue. Shackleton chose a team of four tough men. They took some resources for four weeks and went to South Georgia island form which they hoped to get a help. First, they sailed on small Endurance’s rescue boat over 15 days in the rough south waters. At the end they caught a strong hurricane, which not allowed them to land until next day. When the hurricane calmed down and they landed on the ground, three of them took a rope and went for 51 km long trek over rocky landscape on the other side of the island. Whaler who found them there commented it: “I have no idea how this is possible, but three heroes with 20m long rope crossed this rocky terrain which we considered as impenetrable”.
From the whaler station Shackleton was able to get the help. First, he sent help for the one member on the other side of the South George island, then he called Chilean navy to rescue remaining part of the crew on Elephant island. Later Shackleton sailed to his supply ship Aurora, which waited for them on the other side of Antarctica and rescue them also.
Shackleton returned to South Georgia Island in 1921, but he died there on stoke and on the request of his wife he is buried there.
Heroic storied of those legendary explorers were with us for whole trip. Before the flight to Antarctica we had a drink in the very same house, where Shackleton went to call for help for his crew. Our team was similar to Amundsen’s or Scott’s five-members. And of course, we have tasted the tough Antarctic conditions which those adventurers faced during their expeditions.