On the evening of Dec. 13, 1911, Robert Falcon Scott's journal entry revealed the despair he felt at what was becoming an increasingly fraught and seemingly interminable attempt to reach the South Pole. "A most damnably dismal day," it began, before cataloging the trials and ordeals he and his companions had endured over the previous 24 hours in their attempt to push south. "We were soaked with perspiration and thoroughly breathless with our efforts … I suppose we have advanced a bare 4 miles today … We can but toil on, but it is woefully disheartening."
A couple hundred miles to the south, the observations of Roald Amundsen were a study in contrast. "Lovely weather," he wrote on the 12th; "we have done our usual 17 nautical miles." The following day: "Our best day up here." By the evening of the 13th, Amundsen and his companions camped 15 miles from the Pole, and that night, he wrote later, "I was awake several times … and had the same feeling that I can remember as a little boy on the night before Christmas."
The next morning, he continued, "I believe we despatched our breakfast rather more quickly than usual and were out of the tent sooner." They marched onward in silence, their dogs straining at their harnesses. The men feared to the last that Scott had beaten them and they peered keenly ahead for signs of the Englishman's presence, Amundsen observing that "Hanssen's neck grew twice as long as before in his endeavour to see a few inches farther."
Suddenly, at 3 P.M., a simultaneous cry of "Halt!" rang out from the sled drivers. Amundsen and his companions had become the first people to reach the South Pole – indeed, given doubts about the claims by Robert Peary and Frederick Cook to have reached the North Pole, they may well have been the first to stand at either extremity. Yet, it had initially been the North Pole to which Amundsen had been drawn, and it was only following the assertions by both Americans that they had achieved that goal that the Norwegian turned his sights southward. As a result, even as he stood victorious at one end of the Earth, his mind returned wistfully to the other end:
The defiantly unemotional Amundsen did allow himself and his comrades some concessions to their achievement. They granted themselves a celebratory slice of seal meat for dinner, and together they planted the Norwegian flag:
The five men spent several days in the area, taking measurements, recording distances, and making every effort they could to ensure that they had indeed reached the South Pole and could also demonstrate as much to those who demanded proof. That task completed, they pitched a small tent alongside the flag, in which they left several items including a letter for King Haakon (which they hoped Scott could deliver in case they did not return home safely), as well as a few words for Scott, who, "I must assume will be the first to visit the place after us."
With that, the Norwegian team headed north, with Amundsen recording a note of goodbye in his journal: "And so farewell dear Pole – we won't meet again."
Amundsen Expedition: Proving themselves at the South Pole by use of sextant and artificial horizon. Captain Roald Amundsen arrived at the South Pole on Dec. 14, 1911. (Corbis)