The Golden Age of Antarctic Exploration

The Golden Age of Antarctic exploration was the age before the machines that made exploration an easier business. This was the age of Shackleton, Scott, Amundson and Mawson. A very romantic era, and yet a stunning testament to the hardships that these explorers went through. In some cases they survived, even with a glorious failure, and in others they perished. A brief summary as to these explorers is warranted to get a taste of what they experienced in the great, white continent down at the bottom of the world.

Antarctica is the coldest, loneliest, windiest, and one of the most difficult places to survive on Earth. Before the south pole was conquered, there were many explorers that were chomping at the bit to get down to Antarctica and not only add some undiscovered land to the world atlas, but to get their name in the record books. Many of these explorers came from England, as at the turn of the twentieth century, Britain had the largest empire in the world, even though they were beginning their decline. Captain Robert Falcon Scott and Lieutenant Ernest Shackleton were the two top guns of the British Empire. One would go on to die with his crewmates, and one would survive the most dangerous open boat journey ever made.

Both Captain Scott and Lieutenant Shackleton actually were on the same expedition together, which was the Discovery expedition. The first journey by the British since the time of Ross to Antarctica, the Discovery expedition was sent down not only to see how far south they could go, but to add some land and perhaps some treasure to the empire. This was really the start of the “Golden Age” of Antarctic exploration, though there were a few visits to the continent by whalers and sealers earlier in the 1800’s. But the Discovery expedition was a serious attempt at trying to reach the South Pole; and Scott and Shackleton, along with their mate Dr. Edward Wilson man hauled their way the furthest south to the pole, about a quarter of the way there.

After Shackleton and Scott quarreled, Scott sent Shackleton back to England on a relief ship, much to Shackleton’s dismay; and “sickness” was Scott’s excuse for the ejection. So Shackleton formed his own expedition a few years later called the British Antarctic Expedition or the Nimrod Expedition named after the ship, and reached within 97 miles of the south pole. Shackleton and his crew nearly perished on the return trip back to their ship, but when Shackleton got back to England, he was an instant hero. But it took a Norwegian to be the first at the south pole, and that man was Roald Amundson. With the use of dogs and ski’s, it was a cake-walk compared to the man-hauling that the British employed. Dragging sledges through the snow by hauling them wasn’t the answer!

The Golden Age was awe inspiring in the amount of suffering the explorers had to put up with. Obstacles such as extreme cold, lack of food, proper clothing, and ships that at different points had a very hard time with the ice were just some of the hardships these men had to deal with. Australian Mawson lost both his partners traveling in the Antarctic; one fell down a crevasse and disappeared, while the other was poisoned by eating dog livers.  It is amazing that these men did what they did, and it is a testament to the human drive and will that these men survived at all. Captain Scott didn’t, however, as he and his crew perished on the return journey from the South Pole.

Antarctic exploration is a different business today, with all the new technology that exists. But for the romantic in all of us, learning about the “Golden Age” of Antarctic exploration is the true definition of what it means for man to battle the elements!