Learn About The Antarctic Exploration and the Heroic Age

The exploration of Antarctica really started with James Cook, who circumnavigated the continent (known as Terra Australis at the time) during his second voyage of discovery (1772-1775). He never actually discovered Antarctica, but was convinced it existed. He also stated that no one would probably ever go farther south than he had been, but if so he would not envy him the fame of any discovery, believing the world would never derive any benefit from a continent that far south. 

Antarctica was officially discovered in 1820, although there is some controversy as to who sighted it first…Thaddeus von Bellingshausen (on a Russian discovery expedition), Edward Bransfield (of the British Royal Navy), or Nathaniel Palmer (an American sealing captain). For the rest of the 19th century, many expeditions explored the surrounding waters, coastlines, and islands of the White Continent, but it wasn’t until the beginning of the 20th century when privately funded scientific investigations began in earnest. This period, up until World War I, is often referred to as the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. Several of these famous expeditions and their leaders are characterized by great triumphs and tragedies and stand out as exciting examples of heroic endurance against incredible hardships.  

In 1901, Robert Falcon Scott (British Royal Navy) built a hut in McMurdo Sound, and spent the winter doing scientific research and testing different methods of exploration. During the second summer season, Scott, with two comrades, Edward "Bill" Wilson and Ernest Shackleton, trekked for three months in an attempt to reach the South Pole, using dogs to help pull their sledges. They reached 82° S, but had problems with their dogs, as well as scurvy and snow blindness, and were forced to turn back…only to suffer greater hardships on their return to base.

Scott returned to Antarctica in early 1911, and constructed a base at Cape Evens on Ross Island. The next nine months were used to conduct scientific research and prepare for the upcoming trek to the pole. In the middle of winter, Bill Wilson and two companions made a trek to Cape Crozier on the other side of the island in an attempt to collect emperor penguin eggs for scientific research. They managed to collect six eggs, but broke three of them on their return to camp.  This mission later became famous as The Worst Journey in the World, as told by Apsley Cherry-Garrard. For his second attempt to reach the South Pole, Scott planned to use dogs, ponies, and motorized vehicles to transport supplies and set up depots as far as the Beardsmore Glacier, and then man-haul the remaining supplies to the polar plateau and continue setting up depots. Unfortunately, the ponies and vehicles gave out long before they reached the glacier. They experienced dismal weather along the way, and the entire group was stopped for four days. The last support party was sent back to base 240 km (150 mi) from the pole, and Scott and his four companions reached the South Pole January 17, 1912. Disappointed to find that Roald Amundsen had already been there several weeks ahead of them, they spent the next two months struggling from one depot to the next, and again were plagued by bad weather. Edgar Evens died one month into their journey back, and Lawrence "Titus" Oates died a month later (he walked off into a blizzard so as not to hold up his companions). The remaining three, Scott, Wilson, and Henry "Birdie" Bowers became trapped by a blizzard on March 21, only 18 km (11 mi) from a supply depot, and eventually froze to death. A search party found their bodies eight months later and buried them, tent and all, where they lay on the Ross Ice Shelf.

Otto Nordenskjold (Swedish) led the Swedish Antarctic Expedition of 1901-1904, and explored the Weddell Sea and eastern region of the Antarctic Peninsula. Nordenskjold’s expedition was composed of 26 men and was conducted with the vessel Antarctic, captained by the Norwegian whaling captain and polar explorer Carl Anton Larsen. Nordenskjold set up a prefabricated hut at Snow Hill Island where he and five companions spent the winter of 1902 mapping the Antarctic Peninsula, conducting meteorological experiments, and studying the geology…much of it done by dog sledge. Unfortunately, the Antarctic didn’t return and Nordenskjold had to spend another winter (1903) at Snow Hill.

Meanwhile, the Antarctic encountered very heavy ice conditions which prevented her entering the Weddell Sea. Three men were landed at Hope Bay on the peninsula and planned to hike over to Snow Hill and bring Nordenskjold's party back to Hope Bay if the Antarctic could not reach Snow Hill on her second attempt. Unfortunately, the Antarctic was beset near Paulet Island and drifted with the pack ice for several weeks before being crushed. The three men left at Hope Bay became trapped by bad weather, and could not reach Snow Hill. After the Antarctic was lost, Larsen and his crew lived on the ice for a couple weeks until the ice broke apart enough for them to launch their salvaged lifeboat and supplies. The Antarctic crewmen eventually made it 25 miles to Paulet Island, where they built a stone hut measuring 34 feet by 22 feet (for 17 men), and managed to kill 1,100 penguins and several seals in preparation to spend the coming Winter of 1903 there. Eventually, the three men at Hope Bay realized that they must make preparations to spend the winter of 1903, and built a stone hut and killed 500 penguins as a food stockpile. Amazingly, none of the three separated groups knew what had become of the other two. When the Antarctic failed to return to its base as expected, three rescue attempts were made in late 1903. The third attempt, made by Captain Irizar, an Argentine aboard the Uruguay, was successful in reaching Snow Hill Island on November 3, 1903. A few days before the ship arrived, Nordenskjold was out on a mapping trip and had come across the three men of Hope Bay who succeeded in their second attempt to reach Snow Hill. At first, Nordenskjold believed he had found aboriginal people, but when one of these bearded, soot-covered men greeted him by his proper name, he realized they were from his own expedition. By mid-October, the ice around Paulet Island finally began to open up and Capt. Larsen’s group made an epic 60-mile rowboat journey around to Snow Hill and in an incredible coincidence arrived there the very same day as the Uruguay. The expedition was all back together, apart from one man who had perished at Paulet Island. The scientific results from this whole ordeal proved to be very important and useful to later explorers, despite the problems which had plagued the expedition.

Jean‑Baptiste Charcot (French) was a successful doctor, but decided to make a career of polar explorations, and was referred to as the "polar gentleman" by Scott. Charcot organized a national expedition to Antarctica in 1903, but had spent his fortune on the construction of the ship. He planned to find and rescue Nordenskjold, but upon arrival in Buenos Aires, learned of Nordenskjold’s rescue by Captain Irizar. He went on to explore the west coast of Graham Land to chart the coastline, and gather biological, hydrographic, and meteorological data, but the engine gave him problems, pipes ruptured, and they put into the north end of Booth Island, where they purposely over-Wintered. They spent their time doing important scientific work and struggled around the area making maps and charts. They broke the ship out of its iced-in winter site in December, 1904, and headed farther south, but struck a rock near Adelaide Island in January, 1905, and then sailed to Argentina and sold the ship. On this, the first voyage to Antarctica, he carefully charted the Antarctic Peninsula and his work was of great importance to sailors for the next 40 years. 

Charcot built another ship in 1908, the Pourquoi-Pas, but this one was even stronger and heavier (800 tons) than the François (which was 245 tons). The Pourquoi-Pas was 130 feet long (39 m), had a protective iron sheathing (coated with zinc) on the hull, and was outfitted with a custom-built 550 hp engine. It contained three laboratories, an extensive crew’s quarters, a hospital room, and a powerful generator to provide electric lights for the crew (an Antarctic first!). Charcot returned to Antarctica late in 1908, stopping first in Deception Island to visit the Norwegian whaling station. The Pourquoi-Pas returned to Booth Island, but he decided to find an ice free harbor in which to spend the Winter. He brought the ship to nearby Petermann Island on January 1st, 1909, and named the chosen harbor Port Circumcision. Unfortunately, the Pourquoi-Pas hit a rock and sustained damage, but they repaired the ship as best they could and continued doing chart work along the coast even farther south than Adelaide Island. The ship then returned to Port Circumcision to spend the winter. They built four huts (connected together with electric wires), set out their meteorological, seismographic, magnetic equipment, and worked through the winter. Everyone survived the Winter, and in November (1909) they left Port Circumcision and sailed up to Deception Island, where a diver inspected the ship’s hull and found it quite severe. Nonetheless, Charcot decided to continue with his charting work and sailed far south beyond Adelaide Island to Alexander Island, discovered more of the mainland, including Charcot Land (named for his father). By the end of January, the ship had reached its limits and they had to return to South America. Charcot had surveyed more than 1,200 miles (2,000 km) of coastline and newly discovered territory. His accurate charts were indispensable to those explorers and whalers following in his wake. His research filled a 28 book treatise and included 3,000 photographs. He had tested a lot of new equipment such as electric lamps, anti‑snowblinding goggles, a De Dion‑Pouton motor boat, and different types of clothing. He was known as a very humane man, and he was one of the first to point out the dangers of over harvesting the whales. “No one has surpassed him and few have equaled him as a leader and as a scientific observer.”…historian Edwin Swift Balch. He was a gentleman, explorer, scientist, doctor, and philosopher. During WWI, he was the commander of a Q boat in the British Royal Navy, and for his courageous conduct was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. On September 15th, 1936, the Pour quoi‑Pas sank off the coast of Iceland during a storm with a loss of 43 men, including Charcot. Only one man was rescued. 

Ernest Shackleton (British) had been part of Scott’s first expedition and returned to Antarctica in 1907, this time in command of his own expedition. Base camp was set up in McMurdo Sound, and acting upon Scott's earlier polar experiments, he had decided to use Siberian ponies, instead of dogs, to haul sledges across the Ross Ice Shelf and up to the polar plateau. Unfortunately, the ponies were not nearly as hardy as Shackleton had hoped. All but four ponies had died before the actual trek to the pole had even started in October 1908, and the survivors only lived another one and a half months (one fell in a crevasse with a large portion of their supplies). Shackleton's polar party was reduced to man-hauling the sledges, and endured very difficult conditions, including extremely low temperatures, blizzards, frostbite, low rations, and painful snowblindness. On January 9th, at 88° 23' S., Shackleton was forced to turn back in order to avoid running out of supplies. They had come within 133 km (83 mi) of the pole. Shackleton's second-in-command, Edgeworth David (British), in the meantime had led a successful trek to locate the South Magnetic Pole.

Shackleton had failed in his second attempt to reach the South Pole, and since this had now been accomplished by both Amundsen and Scott, he decided to tackle a different goal – to be the first man to lead an expedition clear across Antarctica. The plan was to take two parties in two ships and land them on opposite sides of Antarctica. Shackleton would land in the Weddell Sea and lead six men on a walk 2,900 km (1,800 mi) across the continent, via the South Pole. The other group would land in the Ross Sea and link up with Shackleton's group at the top of the Beardsmore Glacier in order to resupply them and escort them to the Ross Sea base. Just before their departure date in August 1914, however, there was an order for general mobilization to prepare for war. Shackleton offered up his ships, crews, and stores to the British Admiralty, but was wired by Winston Churchill to proceed with the expedition. Shackleton, onboard the Endurance, entered the Weddell Sea in early December 1914 and found ice conditions especially bad. For more than a month the ship slowly worked its way through the pack ice, making little headway, and by January 19, 1915, it was hopelessly trapped. The ship drifted towards the interior of the ice pack, and began to leak in late October as she was being slowly crushed by the shifting ice. They abandoned the ship on October 27 and set up a camp on nearby ice floes. The ship sank a month later. The pack ice was so thick that they were unable to drag the three lifeboats and supplies either to water or land. By early April, 1916, they had drifted far enough north for the ice to start separating and they were finally able to launch their boats. They sailed for six days in stormy waters to Elephant Island 250 km (155 mi) north of the Antarctic Peninsula. Although there were no good campsites there, they found lots of seals and penguins on the beach which provided them with plenty of food. A deck was added onto the largest lifeboat, the James Caird, so that Shackleton and five companions could sail to South Georgia to get help at a Norwegian whaling station. They set sail on April 24 and crossed 1,280 km (794 mi) of rough seas in 16 days to reach South Georgia. Unfortunately, they landed on the wrong side of the island and were forced to cross over an unknown mountain range with very little equipment in order to reach the station on the other side. Finally, on August 30, 1916, after four months and three unsuccessful rescue attempts, Shackleton returned onboard the Chilean vessel Yelcho to rescue the men left behind at Elephant Island. All of Shackleton's party had survived their ordeal, and had been living under their overturned lifeboats. 

Roald Amundsen (Norwegian) had long planned to be the first man to the North Pole. He had already led three expeditions to the Arctic and had organized another which was to begin in early 1910, but four months before it started the world was informed that both Robert Peary and Frederick Cook claimed to have already reached the North Pole. Amundsen changed his plans and decided to be the first person to the South Pole instead. Robert Scott had already announced he was leading another expedition to Antarctica and would attempt to reach the South Pole, so the race was on. Amundsen set his Antarctic camp at the Bay of Whales, which put his starting point 97 km (60 mi) nearer the pole than Scott's base at McMurdo Sound. He believed strongly in dogs because they had proved themselves time and again on his journeys in the Arctic, and he was an accomplished dog handler. His trip to the pole was carefully and methodically planned to the last detail. To avoid having to take too many supplies, efficiency was heightened by killing some of the dogs at prearranged times to provide food for the others. This process assured him his success in the project, but brought him almost universal condemnation afterwards. He reached the pole on December 14, 1911, and to his relief, there was no sign of Scott. Amundsen had become the first man to reach the South Pole. He and his four companions set up a small tent at the pole, and left a letter for Scott to retrieve and send to King Haakon of Norway, just in case they did not make it back to their base camp. The entire round-trip to the South Pole went like clockwork, and took just 99 days.

Douglas Mawson (Australian) had accompanied Edgeworth David to the South Magnetic Pole as part of Shackleton's 1907 expedition, and in 1911 lead his own expedition to George V Land. Mawson landed his party at Cape Denison in Commonwealth Bay about the same time Scott reached the South Pole (January, 1912). The expedition was divided into two groups – Mawson and the Eastern Party remained in King George V Land, and the Western Party was landed at Queen Mary Land 2,410 km (1,500 mi) down the coast. Cape Denison lies in the most violent wind corridor on Earth and the nearly constant gale force winds caused considerable problems with almost every project attempted. In November, however, the weather relented enough to allow the Eastern Party to break into five groups and go off in different directions to accomplish some very important geographical and scientific work. Mawson led the Far Eastern trek which was to become one of the great survival stories of Antarctica. He and two companions, Dr. Xavier Mertz and B.E.S. "Cherub" Ninnis, crossed the treacherous Mertz and Ninnis Glaciers with their dog sledges and after a month's time had gone about 500 km (310 mi). On December 13, 1912, Mertz was in the front of their line and Ninnis brought up the rear with the heaviest and most important sledge. Suddenly, Ninnis disappeared down a crevasse with his sledge, team of dogs, most of their food, all the dog food, the tent, and their spare clothing. The two survivors now had to race back to Cape Denison before they starved or froze to death. Unfortunately, they had set no depots for their return trip because they had planned to return by a different route. They threw out all the nonessential items to reduce weight, and killed the weakest of the six remaining dogs for food. This procedure was repeated over the next 10 days until the last dog collapsed. Two weeks later Mertz died. Mawson continued on, but was suffering terribly--his toes had turned black and began festering, his toe nails fell out, the soles of his feet separated from his feet and he had to bandage the thick skin back on, his fingers were festering, his hair was falling out, and his body was covered with raw sores. We know now that he was suffering from hyper-vitamin A poisoning, caused by eating the livers of the dogs. Mawson cut the sledge in half and hauled it the last 170 km (105 mi) back to camp. During this time he fell into a crevasse, but the sledge stuck and left him dangling on a rope. He barely managed to pull himself out. As he neared the camp he found a cairn of food set out by search parties, but just a short distance from the camp he was trapped in an ice cave for a week by a blizzard. He finally reached the base camp, just in time to see his ship, the AURORA, disappearing on the horizon. Six men had volunteered to stay behind in hopes Mawson's party would return, and they managed to contact the ship with news of his arrival. The ship tried to return to shore, but the ice conditions prevented it. Mawson and his six companions had to spend another Winter at Cape Denison, and the AURORA returned to pick them up on Christmas Eve, 1913. He arrived back home to Australia more than two years after the expedition had begun.

Get our newsletter

Join us for updates, insider reports & special offers.