Antarctic Polar Regions | A short History of the Antarctic

Dramas, Tragedies and Exploits (Page 1)

A question of Immortality...
The Belgica's adventure in the Antarctic waters was a turning point in the history of the discovery of the sixth Continent. From then on, man knew, in effect, that he was capable of enduring the rigors of the terrible southern winter; he could therefore contemplate spending a longer period on the spot and organising major ski-treks into the interior of the land. He knew also that time was of the essence and that the Antarctic - even if it was increasingly asserting itself as a gigantic Continent - was sooner or later going to be crossed and its pole conquered.

It was thus that the first decade of the 20th Century was to see southern expeditions at a sustained rate along the entire 20,000 kilometres of coast that represent the Antarctic shoreline. A common denominator of all these voyages; unlike what had happened during the previous century when economic interests had prevailed, all the expeditions that set off for the Antarctic after 1900 did so in the name of exploration and science.

Hunting for Firsts

  • February-December 1899 : The British expedition of the Norwegian-born Carsten Borchgrevink successfully completed the first wintering on the continent; he set up a small base not far from Cape Adare, in the Ross sea. He was also the first to use dogs for pulling sledges.
  • 14 October 1900 : The naturalist Hanson, who was a member of the Carsten Borchgrevink expedition, mysteriously died. He was the first man to be buried on the Antarctic Continent.
  • 03 February 1902 : The first balloon flight was accomplished in the Antarctic. There was on board, in particular, the famous Robert Falcon Scott. Tethered to the ground by steel lines, the balloon rose to nearly 244 metres above the ground.
  • October 1902 : During a 611-kilometre ski-trek within the Antarctic lands, Otto Nordenskjöld found the first fossils of the continent.
  • December 1902 : Scott and two of his men got to the closest point to the South Pole ever reached by man; 80°16' latitude South.
    January 1903: A German expedition experimented for the first time with a method consisting of spreading waste matter on the ice floe that was keeping the Gauss ship prisoner in order to provoke thermal reactions and melt the ice.
  • 12 February 1903 : This was the first time that an expedition sailing boat, the Antarctic, sank in southern waters. A too important leak had been caused by the pressure of the ice on the hull.
  • January 1908 : Six men, including the English explorer Ernest Shackleton, succeeded with the first ascent of the Erebus volcano (3,794 metres). It was also in the course of this expedition that the first vehicle was disembarked in Antarctica. It was an Arrol Johnston. It was supposed to help pull the sledges but it proved to be completely ineffectual.

Linking the words immortality and exploration is to invoke characters such as Scott, Amundsen, Shackleton, Nordenskjöld and Charcot. Following the example of what Nansen and Peary had done in the Arctic, these men were to write the most heroic pages of the great history of South Pole exploration.

Chronologically, Scott was the first. At the beginning of his life, not being attracted by polar exploration, he chose a career in the Royal Navy because he adored the sea. When he was 31 years old, however, his fate was turned upside down following the meeting he had, in January 1899, with Sir Clement Markham, the Chairman of the Royal Geographic Society of London. The latter believed, in effect, that it was high time for his country to involve itself once again in polar conquest. Having decided that the operation would be primarily naval, he turned to a naval officer and asked Scott to take command of the National Antarctic Expedition. On 06 August 1901, the Discovery, the first British vessel built especially for Antarctic expedition, left the Isle of Wight. Within the crew, there was a certain Ernest Shackleton, a future great name of Antarctic exploration. As at that time wintering seemed to be in fashion, the expedition's programme envisaged that the Discovery would not return to port for two years. During that time, explorations, scientific observations, balloon flights and inland ski-treks were to keep Scott's men busy.

A year later, after spending the winter in cabins built on an ice promontory, Scott prepared his ski-trek towards the Great South. The man who was capable of satisfying his hunger by smoking a nice pipe was going to do his utmost to beat the record of 78°50' that had been achieved three years earlier by Borchgrevink. In that month of September 1902, the race to the pole had begun.

On 02 November, Scott, Shackleton and Wilson (the expedition's zoologist) set off with sledges and dogs on their great adventure. Two stockpiles of rations had been set up on the way; they could count on 68 kilos of food or six weeks' worth of provisions. At the beginning, the weather was set fair and they needed barely eleven days to establish a new southern record: 79° latitude South! But, rapidly, the journey began to go wrong. The dogs grew weak and blizzards blew. In December, when only 14 of the 19 dogs remained and scepticism prevailed, Wilson diagnosed that Shackleton had symptoms of scurvy. Furthermore, they were ravaged by hunger. At 80°16', they had reached their limit and decided to return. The return was difficult; the dogs were dying one after the other, and the team lost their strength, and their moral. When they arrived at the stockpile of rations, starving, they fell on the food and became ill. Shackleton's gums became blacker and blacker; he was spitting blood. On 03 February 1903, when the team had been gone for three months, it was a veritable bunch of ragged zombies that the Discovery's lookouts saw on the top of a hill. Shackleton was lying on a sledge, only a handful of dogs remained, and Wilson was almost blind, as was Scott himself.

One month later, when they were preparing to return to their native land, a major setback occurred to create havoc with the troops' morale; despite several attempts to free themselves from the ice with the help of a second ship called in to help, the Discovery remained its prisoner. Scott and his men would have to spend a second winter on the spot. But the Naval Officer had certain ideas in his head; no matter what was happening in England, he knew that all this time spent on the icy continent was ideal training for those who, sooner or later, would attempt to conquer the South Pole. In April 1904, the Discovery got back to England. The quantity of scientific observations brought back by Scott's expedition forced the admiration of the international community.

Great Suffering For Great Men
Adrien Adrien de Gerlache had inaugurated the era of scientific research in the Antarctic; Scott, for his part, started the era of polar exploration itself.
Whether it was a question of going to find men isolated on a strip of coastland penetrating the unknown of extreme latitudes or exploring a shore that was inaccessible by ship, it was a question, each time, of extraordinary adventures that are enshrined in the memory of the annals of great human exploits.
What happened to the Swedish expedition commanded by the geologist, Otto Nordenskjöld, is an example of the suffering that men can endure to extract themselves from the critical situations in which the unfolding of their projects can sometimes plunge them.

January 1901: The expedition's ship, the Antarctic, left Gothenburg. Eleven months later, the sailboat disembarked 5 men, dogs and equipment on the island of Snow Hill (East Coast of the Antarctic Peninsula) and returned to the Falklands.

The explorers spent the winter on the spot constructing a cabin of 26m² and a magnetic observatory. When the good weather returned (September 1902), Nordenskjöld had the time, before the Antarctic came to find them, to take two men to go and explore a strip of coastland situated 300 kilometres away; they returned safe and sound to the base camp after 33 days of tedious travel. There a surprise awaited them: despite the fine weather, the ice had not melted. Which meant that the Antarctic was undoubtedly going to be unable to force a passage through to them. What should be done? Wait… The five men were condemned to spend a second winter on the spot, from June to August 1903.
To get out of that hell, Nordenskjöld had no alternative but to set off in a northerly direction to look for help with one of his companions.

October 1903 : After five days of progress, they saw in the distance some black dots that they took to be penguins. They were three of their other companions. But they were so dirty and thin that they hardly recognised them! The story of those three men, Andersson, Duse and Grunden, is mind-blowing. As envisaged, the Antarctic returned to look for the expedition. But, once he had arrived in the high latitudes, the captain feared that the open water that had allowed him to approach the island the previous year would on this occasion be closed. For greater safety and before going on his way nevertheless, he landed these three men on the ice floe, on the 29 December 1902, giving them the mission of getting to the geologist's camp, this time by land by land, in order to increase the chances of their being reached.
But the Andersson-Duse-Grunden trio did not know the topography of the area and they soon found themselves blocked by a gigantic channel; the site of this open water nevertheless comforted the three men in the idea that the Antarctic would indeed be able to reach Nordenskjöld and his men. They therefore applied the phase of the plan that envisaged that if the Antarctic could reach Snow Hill, the three men sent by land would have to retrace their steps to Hope Bay and wait.
The rendezvous with the Antarctic occurred between 25 February and 10 March. The weeks went by and the trio saw nothing arrive, an infernal wait! At the end of the month of March, convinced that something serious had happened, they then decided to construct a little stone cabin and to spend the winter snugly inside. Seal and penguin meat, fish caught through a hole in the ice floe, seal fat for lighting and heating; four months of an interminable Calvary. Each evening, even if they did not want to, one of the three told a new story to make his two companions laugh; this small detail kept them alive..

En In September they had no choice but to leave the area; nobody, in effect, would be coming to look for them there. The base where Nordenskjöld should in principle be was more than 300 kilometres away! So a great ski-trek was required. On the 29 September, they set off and, on 12 October, they had the unexpected encounter related earlier. But the joy of reunion was short lived; they still, in effect, had no idea of what had happened to the ship…
The answer was to come two months later, when an Argentinian ship, the Uruguay, set off to look for them, reached them (07 November) and some of their expedition companions arrived, at almost the same moment, but, as though materialising from thin air coming on foot from Hope Bay as far as the place of the Snow Hill wintering. The Antarctic, in fact, had sunk on 12 February as prey to the incessant pressure of the blocks of ice against the hull. The crew took refuge on an island (Paulet Island), and spent the winter on the spot. Perceiving that the waters were becoming free and that nobody was coming to look for them, they put a boat to sea and attempted to reach the Hope Bay rendezvous. Having got there after innumerable attempts, (because they were travelling more through chaotic ice than in free water) they found a message from the Andersson-Duse-Grunden trio, announcing the departure of the three men for Snow Hill. All they had to do was to follow their tracks…
It was thus that after an action-packed and dramatic story (there had been several deaths on the island where the crew of the Antarctic had taken refuge) and after two years of blind peregrinations in Antarctica, Nordenskjöld's men found each other. It was a real miracle.


Bien It was thus that after an action-packed and dramatic story (there had been several deaths on the island where the crew of the Antarctic had taken refuge) and after two years of blind peregrinations in Antarctica, Nordenskjöld's men found each other. It was a real miracle.
Although the chronicles consider him to be a hero, the adventures of Jean-Baptiste Charcot in the southern Hemisphere waters were less dramatic than those experienced by the Swedes. A Doctor by profession and the son of the neurologist Jean Martin Charcot (famous for the lessons he had given at a Saltpetre Works), Jean Charcot was to devote the immense fortune left to him by his father to concretise his dreams of adventure. He would even go as far as selling a Fragonard canvas belonging to the succession in order to equip the Français (a ship that he had had built especially for polar exploration) with a laboratory and with scientific instruments.
At the beginning, Charcot was attracted by the wide-open spaces of the Great North and by the Greenland coasts. So why had he chosen the South? Because the expeditions patronage committee and some of his friends, including Adrien de Gerlache, realised that the neighbouring countries were speaking only of the Antarctic and because, if France wanted to play a role in polar exploration, it was to the South it should go and not to the North.

The Français was not to spend too a long time in the cold Antarctic waters. Certainly, the crew spent the winter in a cove of Booth Island, opposite Graham Land (Antarctic Peninsula) busying themselves with the traditional occupations of scientific expeditions in Antarctica; ski-treks on the island, collecting topographical data, magnetic observations and so on, but coming out of the polar night, the Français struck a rock in a plankton bloom: a wide leak to starboard! It was impossible to continue the exploration; it was with the greatest care that Charcot conducted his ship to Buenos Aires, (February 1905), where the Français was sold. On his return to France, Charcot received a hero's welcome. The French doctor's contribution to the discovery of the Antarctic is above all based on the abundance of his topographical readings and the quality of his scientific observations. During a second voyage in southern waters (1908-1910), in effect, Charcot covered several hundreds of kilometres of Antarctic coastline aboard the Pourquoi Pas? This not only enabled him to discover new lands but also, and above all, to complete the observations that he had made three years earlier aboard the Français. He would doubtless have gone still further had not serious damage (the same story as with the Français) obliged the expedition to head for the ports of South America.

To be continued next page (page 2)

The following sources were used to draft this chapter, as well as Chapter 1 'A Discovery Waiting To Happen'.
Antarctica, The Extraordinary History Of Man's Conquest Of The Frozen Continent, Reader's Digest Association Limited, Australia, 1985.
The Explorations of Antarctica, The Last Unspoilt Continent, G.E. Fogg & David Smith.
Fifteen Months In The Antarctic, Adrien de Gerlache.
Victory Over The Antarctic Night, Adrien de Gerlache.
The Odyssey Of The Endurance, The First Attempt To Cross The Antarctic, Sir Ernest Shackleton. Explore Antarctica, Louise Crossley.
At The Heart Of The Antarctic Toward The South Pole, 1908-1909, Sir Ernest Shackleton.
Explorers & Explorations, Raymond Cartier.