Imagine steaming across thousands of miles of frigid, poorly charted waters, many of them made all the more dangerous by icebergs and sea ice. Imagine finally reaching land and then dealing with one of the driest, windiest and coldest places on earth. One completely void of indigenous peoples, man-made infrastructure or vegetation.
Welcome to the continent of Antarctica.
Not to worry. If you want to go to the Antarctic today, you’ll most likely be traveling on a very comfortable ship. During the voyage and while you're there, you will be under the safe guidance of a captain, crew and expedition team who have been there many times before. The continent's extreme weather conditions are tempered by the fact that Antarctic expedition cruises only travel during the warmest season – the austral summer – so temperatures are comparable to an average winter in New York.
But there was a time, beginning in the early 20th century and extending another six decades, when it took a rare kind of explorer with a rare kind of fortitude to face the brutal Antarctic environment. While there were many others with comparable tales, here’s a list of four of the most notable souls to brave the journey to Antarctica's shores and beyond.
Robert Falcon Scott
Robert Falcon Scott’s first expedition to the Antarctic was in 1901, but his team's lack of experience and improper equipment and supplies resulted in the Discovery Expedition's forced rescue by relief ships. While this expedition was considered a success in its scientific attainments, many were surprised at Scott’s statement at the time that he would be the first man to reach the South Pole, after barely surviving his first ordeal.
On his later Terra Nova Expedition of 1910-12, Scott chose five men for his final trek to the pole. When he and his team finally arrived at the South Pole on January 17, 1912, he found that Roald Amundsen – who by telegram had warned Scott the HE would be the first to make the journey – had beat him by five weeks. On the return trip, while crossing the Ross Ice Shelf, a torrential blizzard trapped Scott’s team, where a combination of dehydration and hypothermia ended their lives.
Compared to others who actually reached the South Pole, Shackleton never achieved this goal (although he came within 530 miles as a team member of Scott's 1901 expedition). The original mission of his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-17 – to cross the continent from one side to the other – was never accomplished. But it set up what some historians say was one of the greatest rescue missions of all time.
The cross-continent expedition was brought to a standstill when Shackleton’s ship, HMS Endurance, became trapped in sea ice in January 1915 and was eventually crushed. Shackleton and his crew were stranded on the ship or in camps on nearby sea ice for almost a year, surviving on seal and whale meat.
Realizing they could not live like this forever, they decided to use the surviving longboats to head for the nearest land, Elephant Island. From here, Shackleton and five other men pushed off ten days later in one of the boats to make the dangerous voyage to a whaling station on remote South Georgia Island, 800 miles to the north. After several weeks, they reached their destination, starving and extremely dehydrated. Unfortunately, they’d landed on the uninhabited southern coast, so Shackleton and two others braved a dangerous route across a mountain range that no one had ever attempted. They arrived 36 hours later at the whaling station of Stromness, where Shackleton immediately began his plans to rescue the 22 men still on Elephant Island. This happened on August 30, 1916, at which point the men had been stranded there for four and a half months.
Ultimately, although the original venture was a failure, the expedition was an overall victory for the resolve of the human spirit.
Richard Evelyn Byrd
In 1929, the US naval officer and pilot Richard Evelyn Byrd took off aboard a Ford Trimotor with three crew from their base camp on the Ross Ice Shelf. Approximately nine hours later, the successfully overflew the South Pole, the first ever to do so. Due to the extremely high altitude of the continent and the Antarctic mountain ranges in their way, the crew had to dump much of their supplies to lighten the airplane’s load.
Since Byrd’s team had to dump their equipment and supplies, there would be no way for them to negotiate the continent on foot, if they were forced to land. Admiral Byrd went on to lead four more expeditions to Antarctica. On his second trip in 1934, he over-wintered, spending five months alone in a meteorological station and nearly succumbing to carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty stove. Antarctic winters are not for the weak of heart, where continuous darkness and an average temperature of -70 degrees Fahrenheit make the environment almost insurmountable.
Sir Edmund Hillary
In the 1950s, Sir Edmund Hillary was probably the best-known explorer of his time. Most recognize him as the first man to conquer the summit of Mt. Everest. However, he also led several expeditions to Antarctica. As part of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1958, Hilary’s New Zealand team was the third ever to reach the South Pole (after Amundsen and Scott) and the first to do so using motorized vehicles. A year earlier, he established the Marble Point runway on the coast of Victoria Land, Antarctica. Later, he acted as commentator on many sightseeing flights over the continent during the 1970’s. His achievements were so great that he is honored by having his image on the New Zealand five dollar bill.
There are many other such Antarctic explorers and adventurers, too many to list in this short post. These brave men lived during a time when polar exploration was at its zenith, providing a wealth of information for science to examine for many years to come, while at the same time fulfilling their own personal aspirations and inspiration for millions of others.
If you have anything to add, feel free to do so in the comments!