One of the most treacherous races in the 20th century took place at the bottom of the Earth.
In 1911, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and British explorer Robert Falcon Scott were each trying to be the first to reach the South Pole. But Amundsen had a major advantage.
From 1903 to 1906, he’d become the first to navigate the Northwest Passage, spending two winters at King William Island in the Arctic Ocean, learning polar survival skills from the Netsilik Inuit.
Amundsen made it to the South Pole on December 14, 1911, almost a month before Scott’s arrival. The story of the Norwegian’s meticulously planned explorations is part of a new Vancouver Maritime Museum exhibition called Lessons From the Arctic: How Roald Amundsen Won the Race to the South Pole.
This travelling display from the Fram Museum in Oslo, Norway features about three dozen panels in English and French, along with many photographs from Amundsen’s expeditions and a videotaped reenactment of how his team survived in Antarctica. Much of the information was gleaned from Amundsen’s diaries, which explain what he did on every day of his journeys.
“We know in detail what he learned from the Inuit and how he used that in Antarctica,” the Fram’s director, Geir O. Kløver, explained to the Georgia Straight in advance of the exhibition’s opening.
First off, Amundsen relied on dogs from Greenland rather than Alaskan huskies because they would run in a “hand” formation, which was more efficient than in a straight line. The advantage? The dogs don’t fight as much, making for more efficient travel.
He also learned from the Inuit that if a runner was placed in front of the dogs, they would chase this person even if they had poor vision due to darkness.
“So what did Amundsen do when he gets home?” Kløver asked. “He hires the fastest skier in the country to be a front-runner because he also understands that in Antarctica, there are the same problems.”
According to Kløver, Amundsen also learned from the Inuit that dogs from Greenland will engage in cannibalism when another dog dies, whereas this isn’t the case with Alaskan huskies. So if a dog from Greenland broke a leg in Antarctica, Amundsen’s team could kill it, chop it up, and feed it to the other animals, making for more efficient travel. Scott’s team never knew this.
That’s not all. The Inuit taught Amundsen about the proper clothing to wear, how to build igloos, and the importance of finding fresh food. So Amundsen set off for the South Pole from a bay full of whales, penguins, and seals, so he would have more fresh meat at the start of his expedition.
But the most important lesson of all from the North, according to Kløver, was that petroleum vaporizes in extremely cold weather, even when it’s in metal containers. That’s because the metal shrinks as the temperature drops. “That creates minute holes between the lid and the actual can,” he said.
Amundsen responded to this by ensuring he had a tinsmith in his crew to make extremely sturdy petroleum containers. Scott never did this and died on March 29, 1912, on the Ross Ice Shelf in -40 ° C temperatures.
Kløver also noted that Amundsen was decades ahead of his time in the humane way he treated his crew, even bringing gifts from their wives, which would be presented to them on their birthdays. In addition, Amundsen frowned upon sexual contact with the Inuit, feeling that the Norwegians were visitors. He also feared contracting syphilis.
Genetic testing of the Inuit conducted by the Fram Museum has not found any evidence that Amundsen has any descendants living in northern Canada.
“He was very disturbed that two married men on the expedition would sneak off into an Inuit tent behind a hill,” Kløver related. “He thought that was very inappropriate. Amundsen also warned his men not to deal with the Inuit on that level.”