On December 14, 1911, Norwegian Roald Amundsen became the first person to reach the South Pole. He was a veteran explorer who had, among his many credits, pioneered the Northwest Passage. As of 1909 the North Pole—yes, the North—was in his sights. He gathered a crew and secured a sailing ship, only to hear news at the last moment that Robert Peary already had reached ninety degrees North.
Amundsen would not be stopped; just redirected. In August 1910, within a year of the news of Peary’s triumph, Amundsen sailed for the virgin terrain of the South Pole—with the same crew and ship he had planned to take north. A gentleman explorer in the best tradition of The Explorers Club, he notified by wire his chief rival for the South Pole, Robert Falcon Scott, though only when already in hot pursuit. Scott’s own Antarctic expedition had sailed not long before. He had expected to face the challenge of the elements, but not the challenge of the well-tested Amundsen. Scott’s confidence was shaken and ultimately he would not beat Amundsen’s challenge, nor survive Nature’s.
The Scott expedition's polar party, consisting of Scott and four other men, reached the Pole January 16, 1912, only to find Amundsen's tent and the Norwegian flag flying. Tragically, Scott and his party perished in the cold as they attempted to make their way back home. Scott was elected posthumously to an honorary membership in The Explorers Club.
Despite the fact that the South Pole had not been Amundsen's original target, his team made preparations as thorough as any they would have applied up north, calculating direction and distance to be covered each day, predicting changes in the weight of supplies and in the strength and number of sled dogs, going and coming. The rest of the team having been assigned duties on the ship and at camp, on October 20, 1911, Amundsen, four of his men, and fifty-two sledge dogs plunged southward.
On December 14, the direction and distance of the final day's march to the Pole already worked out beforehand, at 3pm the men all called to each other simultaneously, "Halt!" As Amundsen wrote in The South Pole (1912, vol.2): "Of course, every one of us knew that we were not standing on the absolute spot... but we were so near it that the few miles which possibly separated us from it could not be of the slightest importance."
The five men together raised the Norwegian flag. Then for good measure, one man trekked forward another twelve and a half miles along the trajectory of the march, one at a 90 degree angle to the left, and one to the right. Additional readings taken in ensuing days assured them that those extra miles had indeed covered the Pole.