The day we should have set off

Today we were supposed to have put on our skis, but we are still 4,500 kilometres from Bay of Whales.
Helmer Hanssen seal hunting with a dog team, Hvalbukta (Bay of Whales), Antarctica, 1911–1912Helmer Hanssen seal hunting with a dog team, Bay of Whales, Antarctica, 1911–1912. Photo: Norwegian National Library

Framheim 19 October 1911. The weather had been capricious over the past few days, with strong winds. The fog lay low and thick that morning, but at half-past nine an easterly breeze picked up and cleared the air. Amundsen asked his men: “What do you think? Shall we get underway?”

This was their second attempt to go south. Amundsen was under pressure, thinking that the Englishmen might set off earlier and be able to move faster over the ice with the modern vehicles they had shipped to Antarctica. But skiing towards the South Pole in September at temperatures below 50 degrees had not been a good idea. The attempt had nearly cost Kristian Prestrud his life, and Hjalmar Johansen’s criticism of “the boss” had deprived him of a place on the team that went south. A conflict we will have reason to say more about later on.

But now it was almost spring in Antarctica, a mere 17.5 degrees, and the five men who wanted to win the race to the Pole were as ready as they would ever be. “I hope it will not be the same fiasco now as last time,” wrote Bjaaland, the skier from Morgedal – and he made himself a little promise: “If I come through this journey alive, I must keep myself away from polar exploration – it seems an empty endeavour.”

One hundred years ago today, five men – Roald Amundsen, Olav Bjaaland, Sverre Hassel, Helmer Hansen and Oscar Wisting – stood ready with four sleds and 52 dogs. Prestrud had rigged up the “cinematograph” and immortalised the start of one of the most famous races in history.

For nearly three years we have been planning to stand at the exact spot where Framheim lay on this exact date. But Antarctic weather is beyond the control of any human being. The spring season has only just begun and we have always known that the first passenger flight into the continent might be delayed.

Spring seems remote in Punta Arenas as well. The weather is miserable. Sleet and strong winds.