Heroic Age

The Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration

The Heroic Age was a feeding frenzy of adventure that was kicked off by the 1895 Sixth International Geographical Congress meeting in London. 

This meeting resulted in a resolution: “That this congress record its opinion that the exploration of the Antarctic Regions is the greatest piece of geographical exploration still to be undertaken.” They recommended that scientific societies worldwide should conduct this exploration and related research before the end of the century. 

That “before the close of the century” part was a little optimistic. The official Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration was from 1901-1917. Anybody with relevant experience who was bit with the explorer bug could run an expedition – but only if he could sell the idea to sponsors with deep pockets. 

The cool thing about the Heroic Age is that it was much better documented than the previous explorations. Photographs, diaries, ship logs, and other records make it easier to verify our historic presence in Antarctica.

The Heroes and Their Heroics

The four big celebrities of the era were Captain Robert Falcon Scott of England, Roald Amundsen from Norway,Douglas Mawson of Australia, and Ernest Shackleton of England. 

Robert Falcon Scott
British National Antarctic Expedition / Discovery 1901-04
South Pole Expedition / Terra Nova 1910-12

Scott sailed the Discovery to McMurdo Sound and wintered there with his crew, including Sub-Lieutenant Ernest Shackleton. They conducted scientific experiments and land expeditions, with the primary objective of reaching the South Pole first. Inexperienced in the use of sled teams, Scott dismissed the expedition’s dogs as basically useless. Scott didn’t make it to the Pole, but his team got closer than others before them. 

Scott’s ultimate claim to fame was his second and fatal attempt at the South Pole. This time he tried ponies as well as dogs, an experiment that ended in disaster for the animals. Scott and four of his crew finally made it to the Pole, but only after Amundsen got there first. This second place finish was a huge disappointment. They died on the way back to base camp at Camp Evans. 

Roald Amundsen

Norwegian South Pole Expedition / Fram 1909-11

Amundsen won the race to the South Pole by reaching it about a month before Scott’s party. Though Amundsen and Scott set out around the same time, Amundsen left from the Bay of Whales at 1 degree closer to the Pole than Scott at McMurdo. His team effectively used dogs and knew how to ski. Another advantage was nutrition. The Norwegians ate whole meal bread, berry preserves and undercooked seal meat that kept them healthier before leaving camp for the Pole attempt. 

Amundsen’s journey was far from perfect, but he is known as more organized and professional than his counterparts. He also had a reputation for being secretive. After discovering that Cook and Peary beat him to the North Pole, Amundsen secretly aborted his northern trip and did an about-face for the South Pole. 

Douglas Mawson
Australasian Antarctic Expedition / Aurora 1911-14

Mawson cut his polar teeth as a geologist on Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition. After turning down spots on both Shackleton’s and Scott’s second trips, Mawson led his own expedition supported by the Australian Association for the Advancement of Science. The goal was wide-ranging scientific research in an unexplored area directly below Australia, with no interest in reaching the South Pole. 

After landing in Commonwealth Bay, the group erected a hut at Cape Denison, which turned out to be the base of a wind funnel coming off the polar ice cap. The men used crampons to navigate in wind gusts of 100 to 200 mph. Mawson’s team built a wireless radio station and successfully sent signals to the Aurora and to Macquarie Island. Disaster struck during one of several exploratory sledge journeys, when Mawson returned as the only survivor in his party of three.

Ernest Shackleton
British Antarctic Expedition / Nimrod 1907-09
Imperial Transantarctic Expedition-
Endurance (Weddell Sea) / Aurora (Ross Sea) 1914-17

After Shackleton was terminated from Scott’s Discovery expedition for “medical” problems, he won sponsorship for his own expedition on the Nimrod. His crew erected a prefabricated hut at Cape Royds. Despite common knowledge that skis and dogs worked, Shackleton planned to walk and use ponies. He also carted the first car to Antarctic. The Nimrod crew, including Mawson, completed the first ascent of Mt. Erebus and nearly made it to the South Magnetic Pole. 

Shackleton is best known for his ill-fated journey on the Endurance. His goal was a transcontinental trip, from sea to sea. He set out with the Endurance to the Weddell Sea and sent another ship – the Aurora, purchased from Mawson – to the Ross Sea to lay supply depots on the Ross Ice Shelf. The Endurance got stuck in ice and drifted north with the pack, where it was crushed and sank – a Kodak moment that made photographer Frank Hurley famous. 

The men lived on the ice for several months. Their epic journey continued when they sailed their small boats around the Antarctic Peninsula to Elephant Island. Shackleton and five men left the others on Elephant Island and took the James Caird – the biggest boat – to South Georgia in an amazing feat of navigation. After landing, they crossed treacherous mountains to Stromness whaling station on the other side of the island. Five months later, Shackleton set out for Elephant Island and retrieved the rest of his crew. The final leg of the adventure involved rescuing the Ross Sea Party. 

Despite Shackleton’s many misadventures, he was known as the most charismatic of the explorers. His crew and others considered him a great leader of men. Some consider his death the real end to the Heroic Age. 

[TRIP TRIVIA: Most Antarctic Peninsula cruises to South Georgia and the Falklands stop at Grytviken whaler’s cemetery, to toast Shackleton at his gravesite.]

Heroes Or Heroic Failures?

Mistakes were certainly made when exploring Antarctica. Some of the biggest errors resulted in Straits, Seas, and other localities being named after the individuals who engineered the mishaps. 

Even so, one thing is certain: These early explorers were hearty and determined folks who contributed to a growing body of knowledge about Antarctica. Each explorer demonstrated his personal strengths and weaknesses, but together they created a legacy of best and worst practices in how to approach such an unapproachable place. 

In our modern age of ice-breakers and helicopters, gortex and polar fleece, global positioning devices and satellites, we can’t begin to comprehend what they suffered to take this first cold plunge for mankind.