In Search of Amundsen’s Tent

Forestalled. Scott’s party were the last to see Amundsen’s tent. This famous gelatin silver photo by Henry “Birdie” Bowers sold at Christie’s for $13,729 in September 2010.

For an amateur archeologist and history buff, one of the great things about being in Antarctica and living at the South Pole is the opportunity to visit important historic sites seen by few others.  I find being in physical proximity to historical places or objects tends to transport me back to an earlier time, enabling a better understanding and appreciation of events occurring decades, centuries, or even millennia earlier.  Such was the case when I stood in the 110 year old Discovery hut near McMurdo Sound surrounded by objects of the 1910 British Antarctic Expedition; it was almost as though the “ghosts” of Scott and Shackleton were in the room. 

 At my current address, the most important historical site aside from the South Pole itself is the location of Amundsen’s tent. Upon arriving here in mid-December 1911, Roald Amundsen and his four fellow Norwegians literally pitched a tent.  Erected as “as near to the pole as humanly possible with the instruments at our disposal”, it became the first structure at the geographic South Pole and was christened with the Norwegian name “Polheim” or “Home at the Pole.”  Fabricated aboard Amundsen’s ship, the Fram, as an emergency spare in case the polar party had to split up, it contained two congratulatory notes from the tent makers stitched to the inside wishing them “Bon Voyage” and “Welcome to 90 Degrees.”  The tent designer was a longtime friend of Amundsen, Dr. Frederick Cook, an American polar explorer and the first physician to winter over (1898) in Antarctica. As some may recall, Dr. Cook also had a competing claim with Robert Peary about being the first to reach the North Pole…but more about him in a future blog.

Given the controversy surrounding the North Pole claim, Amundsen wanted to make absolutely sure he had really attained the South Pole.  Since this was exactly 80 years before the advent of the present day Global Positioning System (GPS), this remained a challenge.  Since meridians of longitude converge at the Pole, determining latitude was the key to pinpointing the position of the South Pole.  His primary navigation instrument, a theodolite, was broken.  Therefore he was forced to rely upon a sextant, an instrument made for navigation upon the sea.  Since a true horizon, required for accurate sextant readings, is available only at sea, Amundsen had to create an artificial one using a tray filled with mercury.  By aligning the true image of the sun with the reflection in the mercury, Amundsen could obtain reasonably accurate measurements.  He remained concerned about his location in relation to the Pole and decided to send members of his party out 20 kilometers (12 miles) in each direction to ensure they had “boxed” the South Pole and there could be no future dispute of his claim. 

Upon sighting Amundsen’s tent 33 days later, Scott and his party confirmed the dreadful truth they had hoped would not be the case when they first spotted a black flag the previous day; their decade long struggle to claim the South Pole for the British Empire had been forestalled.  Scientific observation, a record of unspeakable hardship, and the human struggle of man-hauling sledges to the South Pole and back would now be their only legacy.

Scott wrote in his diary, “Great God!  This is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority.  All the day dreams must go; it will be a wearisome return.”

Scotts then observes, “We have just arrived at this tent, 2 miles from our camp, therefore about 1 1/2 miles from the Pole. In the tent we find a record of five Norwegians having been here, as follows:

                    Roald Amundsen
                    Olav Olavson Bjaaland
                    Hilmer Hanssen
                    Sverre H. Hassel
                    Oscar Wisting.

16 Dec. 1911.

The tent is fine—a small compact affair supported by a single bamboo. A note from Amundsen, which I keep, asks me to forward a letter to King Haakon!

The following articles have been left in the tent: 3 half bags of reindeer containing a miscellaneous assortment of mits and sleeping socks, very various in description, a sextant, a Norwegian artificial horizon and a hypsometer without boiling-point thermometers, a sextant and hypsometer of English make.

Left a note to say I had visited the tent with companions. Bowers photographing and Wilson sketching.” 

 

The short letter Amundsen left for Scott, which was found on Scott’s corpse many months later, reads 

“Dear Captain Scott, 

As you probably are the first to reach this area after us, I will ask you kindly to forward this letter to King Haakon VII.  If you can use any of the articles left in the tent please do not hesitate to do so.  With kind regards I wish you a safe return. 

Yours truly,

Roald Amundsen”

 Scott and the members of his team were that last to see Amundsen’s tent.  Although we would not actually have the privilege of seeing the tent and its contents, a number of like minded Polar enthusiasts in the winter-over crew very much wanted to visit its historic location.  Since the ice moves about 10 meters (33 feet) per year the direction of the Weddell Sea, we used the calculations in a paper by Olav Orheim of the Fram Museum in Oslo, Norway who determined the most accurate location for the tent and its contents is 89° 58’ 51” S, 46° 14’ E, and now buried under 17 meters (56 feet) of snow and ice.  

Polheim in March 2012. Amundsen’s tent lies some 17 meters (56 feet) below.

 Donning our extreme cold weather clothing and using handheld GPS, we made our 2 kilometer pilgrimage from the elevated station to Polheim.  In the fading light of March, separate by only meters of frozen water from Amundsen’s tent, we contemplated the momentous events of a century earlier.  For the people of that era, this was the equivalent of a moon landing; the attainment of the most remote and isolated spot on the face of the Earth. 

Despite any Tomb Raider tendencies I might have to rescue and preserve for future generations these relics from the heroic age of polar exploration, the tent and its contents are designated a Historic Site and Monument and protected from removal or damage under international treaty.  I hope someday the decision will be made to perform an archeological excavation to retrieve these important objects before they are lost forever.

Polheim with Amundsen-Scott Station in the distant background – March 2012
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7 thoughts on “In Search of Amundsen’s Tent

    1. Rachel,

      Great observation and question! Yes, it is in the clean air zone. We made the trek to the tent site when the prevailing winds wouldn’t blow our exhaled carbon dioxide towards the Atmospheric Research Observatory. We also obtained permission to enter the clean air zone for this limited excursion and avoided the area within a kilometer of what is usually the upwind side of the observatory.

      Warm regards,
      Dale

  1. I was involved in the somewhat infamous 1991/2 Aurora Expedition which attempted to recover the tent for display at the 1994 Lilliehammer winter olympics. The team attempting to find it used sledge-born radar, and I believe data from Olav Orheim, but failed to locate it. Either because it had in fact blown away, or there are no radar-reflecting objects in it, or they got the wrong area. My impression is that there is (still) no actual evidence that it is there – is that correct?

    1. David,

      Thanks for the e-mail! You are correct…there is no physical evidence the tent and its contents remain where Amundsen & Scott left it. My best guess is that it is still buried under the ice & snow in the vacinity of the geographic South Pole. The current treaty prohibits any attempts to recover it, which I think is a shame. Perhaps sometime in the future things will change, but for now it remains entombed in its icy time-capsule.

      Best wishes,
      Dale

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