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Team Retraces Historic South Pole Trek

  • Rosanne Skirble

Winther's team retraced Amundsen's landmark South Pole journey during their centenary expedition. (Centenary South Pole Expedition 2011)
Just over 100 years ago, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen was the first human to reach the South Pole. Late last year Jan-Gunnar Winther, of Norway’s Polar Institute, retraced that landmark journey.

“We wanted to use his expedition to reach out with important history," Winther says, "and also the scientific challenges that we have today.”

Race to South Pole

A century ago, Amundsen’s single focus was to beat his rival, British naval officer Robert Scott. And race they did.

Using a sexton, the sun and a watch to guide him, Amundsen made the 3,000-kilometer round-trip journey from a basecamp in Antarctica in 99 days.

Winther charted his trip from Amundsen’s collected writings.

He says the Norwegian explorer used dog sleds, where Scott used ponies and motor vehicles.

Amundsen was also better equipped and dressed, thanks to lessons he learned from Inuit Indians he met on earlier Arctic explorations.

“He set out with 52 dogs and that was extremely successful," Winther says. "He easily made 30 kilometers a day on average because he made speeds up to eight kilometers an hour.”

Retracing landmark journey

The modern-day adventurers had no dogs and pulled their gear on skis, aided at times by sails attached to the sleds and by GPS systems.

“We followed his route with a few deviations because we wanted to avoid the more crevassed areas where Amundsen almost fell in and died,” Winther says.

His team moved slowly over the harsh terrain, averaging four kilometers an hour, where Amundsen had traveled nearly twice as fast. In order to keep up with the historic itinerary, Winther's team spent more time on the ice each day.

“It is the first 700 kilometers over the Ross Ice Shelf, which is a floating body of ice," he says. "Then you enter the mountains. And when we went through the mountains over 100 kilometers, we climbed up 3,000 meters and then again you get on to the plateau and it is flat all the way to the South Pole.”

The trek required not only physical strength, but mental focus. “Your thoughts were flying like the wind is flying over the ice.”

Winther saw no traces of Amundsen's century-old journey. Although he says there is a fuel can, Winther didn’t make a detour to see it.

The great explorer had also left his tent with a note inside for Scott, who reached the pole 33 days later. That tent is now buried under a century of snow.

Century of climate-changing emissions

Along the route, the scenery looked pretty much as Amundsen had described it.

“Mountains are there," Winther says. "Glaciers are there, but also we were taken by surprise that the snow conditions when Amundsen described soft snow and smooth surface we had the same. When he said it was harder snow pack, we had the same.”

But the similarities end there. A century of emissions from power plants, cars and buildings have pumped increasing concentrations of global-warming gases into the atmosphere. The average temperature in Antarctica has increased 3 degrees Celsius in the last 50 years, or 10 times faster than the average for the rest of the world, accelerating the thinning and melting of Antarctica’s ice shelves and contributing to sea level rise.

This is the story Winther and his crew told each night when they retired to their tents. They wrote web blogs, answered email and connected via satellite with school groups.

“My idea was to inspire young people, the decision makers of the future to take action on climate change.”

Winther hopes that walking in Amundsen’s footsteps will help raise awareness about the looming threats to this forbidding, but beautiful continent, and promote action to save the planet.