1 September 2011 - Amundsen makes a break for it
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At the Bay of Whales, as the last days of sunlight ended, the Norwegians prepared for four months of darkness. Amundsen was still refining his plans for his assault on the pole, which now included an intention to start much sooner than he thought Scott possibly could, with or without his damned motor sledges. There were no nightly lectures at Framheim, and about the only scientific measurements being taken by the Norwegians were meteorological in nature. Amundsen was very clear about his objectives:


Our plan is one, one and again one alone – to reach the pole. For that goal, I have decided to throw everything else aside. We shall do what we can without colliding with this plan….What concerns me is that we all live properly in all respects during the winter. Sleep and eat well, so that we have full strength and are in good spirits when spring arrives to fight towards the goal which we must attain at any cost.


Amundsen had even taken diet into consideration during the winter months, whereas Scott had not. Although Lindstrom’s pancakes were delicious, Amundsen’s experiences aboard Belgica taught him to take the ever-looming threat of scurvy very seriously. Amundsen knew nothing of vitamins – in 1911, no one did except a few medical researchers whose results were not yet widely known – but he insisted that his men consume a diet of fresh or frozen seal, underdone, just as his old friend Dr Cook had recommended years before. The livers of seals in particular contain significant quantities of what we now know as vitamin C (The MaD CA: For those of you who do not know, scurvy arises from a deficiency of vitamin C). Lindstrom’s wholemeal breads and wheatgerm provided B complex, another essential vitamin. By contrast, Scott and his men were eating lots of refined foods – white bread and tinned meats – that did not contain these critical vitamins. When they did prepare seal meat, overcooking destroyed much of the vitamin content. Later on, some of Scott’s men would complain that they had been living indolently all winter, eating delicacies instead of training and preparing their bodies for the gruelling work ahead.


The weather, Amundsen wrote, surprised him. He’d heard about the “continual violent winds” that British expeditions had experienced at McMurdo Sound. He would later note in The South Pole that “we were living on the Barrier in the most splendid weather – calms or light breezes” while “Scott at his station some four hundred miles to the west of us was troubled by frequent storms, which greatly hindered his work.”


For his team Amundsen had deliberately chosen men who were good with their hands; he wanted workers, not an intellectual debating society or a “Universitas Antarctica,” Scott’s precious title for the winter lecture series at Cape Evans. When mistakes in planning occasionally revealed themselves – he had, for example, forgotten to bring snow shovels – Amundsen was able to improvise, requesting Olav Bjaaland, a skilled carpenter who made not only skis but violins, to make snow shovels out of iron plates. “Considerably better than one can buy,” Amundsen boasted.


Amundsen had studied Shackleton’s published account of the Nimrod expedition and he decided he would not try to do what the British seemed bent on doing – namely proving their toughness by struggling as much as possible against the elements. Amundsen did not view the race to the pole as a battle against nature, but rather as an opportunity to make nature work for him. He was prepared technically for the terrain he would face, in everything from skis to sledges to dogs to clothing, and he worked all winter long to adapt to whatever nature could throw at him. Ski boots were customised, cooking equipment was perfected and goggles were altered – all to optimise their gear for the polar trek.


Amundsen had his little quirks. Each morning over the winter, Amundsen held a contest to guess the temperature, requiring that the men go outside for several minutes right after they awoke from a night’s sleep. Amundsen gave noteworthy prizes for the man whose guess was closest to the actual temperature, with the winner in the end receiving a telescope. Although probably more than a bit annoying, the contests had a purpose: They gave the men practice at judging temperatures in the event a thermometer broke, and got them used to quickly rising and getting outside to take in the morning air on a consistent basis.


They passed the winter at Framheim working and improving their equipment, and at night they read books, played cards or partook of the Saturday night sauna ritual of rolling naked in the snow. The dogs roamed free and might even disappear for a few days, but only a few failed to return; Amundsen assumed they fell into crevasses. On 24 August, the sun finally appeared above the Barrier 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 comprehend that “spring” and “fall” do not exist in Antarctica as lengthy periods bounding summer and winter. But the thermometer told the tale: With temperatures approaching -58 degrees Celsius, 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.”


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