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Recalling the Race to the South Pole: Amundsen at Carnegie Hall

We recall 100 years ago today—January 14, 1913—when polar explorer Roald Amundsen lectured at Carnegie Hall about his "Discovery of the South Pole."

Victory awaits him who has everything in order—luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck.—From The South Pole by Roald Amundsen

Howard Carter Carnegie Hall Lecture April 23, 1924 Autograph
Advertisement in The New York Sun for Amundsen's lecture at Carnegie Hall on January 14, 1913. Courtesy of the Library of Congress's Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers (

"Great God! This is an awful place," wrote British explorer Robert Falcon Scott on January 17, 1912. Scott and his five-man party had just arrived at the South Pole—temperature -22° F, altitude 9,300 feet—following a ridiculously arduous two-and-a-half–month journey of some 850 miles, more than half of which was spent man-hauling nearly 750 pounds of supplies on sleds, only to find that the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had beaten him by nearly five weeks.

Amundsen and Hansen, South Pole
Roald Amundsen and Helmer Hanssen make observations at the South Pole, 1911. Courtesy of the National Library of Norway.

Scott's team at Amundsen's tent, South Pole
Scott and his team at Amundsen's camp. They arrived five weeks after the Norwegian. Courtesy of the National Library of Norway.

One hundred years ago this month, on January 14, 1913, Roald Amundsen lectured at Carnegie Hall about his "Discovery of the South Pole." It is impossible to talk of Amundsen's triumph and his subsequent Carnegie Hall visit without acknowledging the human tragedy associated with his competitor, Robert Falcon Scott, in what literally became the race to the South Pole. Scott's defeat—caused by a combination of poor preparation and bad decisions—proved more than mere disappointment. After discovering Amundsen's tent, Scott recognized the perilousness of his position, writing in his diary, "Now for the run home and a desperate struggle. I wonder if we can do it."

Roald Amundsen Carnegie Hall Autograph
Roald Amundsen signed the autograph book of Louis Salter, who was Carnegie Hall's house manager at the time of Amundsen's 1913 lecture. Courtesy of the Louis Salter Collection, Carnegie Hall Archives.

They could not. Scott perished on March 29, 1912, along with the remaining two men of his team (two others had already succumbed in the preceding weeks), a mere 11 miles from the cache of supplies that might have saved their lives.

The contrast with Amundsen's meticulously planned and expertly executed trek couldn't be more absolute. Amundsen had essentially spent his entire life training for his polar journey. Like many Norwegians, he was practically "born with skis on his feet," as an old saying goes, and as a 17-year-old he became enraptured with polar exploration when his elder countryman Fridtjof Nansen—also a Carnegie Hall lecturer—triumphantly returned to Norway after the first-ever crossing of the Greenland icecap in 1889.

During Amundsen's own groundbreaking traversal of Canada's Northwest Passage (1903–1906), he learned crucial Arctic survival techniques, such as the use of sled dogs and the wearing of animal skins in lieu of heavy woolen clothing, from the local Netsilik people—methods disdained by the proud British explorers steeped in Edwardian-era ideals that glamorized bravado and "manly" struggle against the forces of nature. All of Amundsen's careful preparation paid off. Departing their base on the Ross Sea on October 19, 1911, his team arrived at the Pole 57 days later, on December 14. By virtue of a slightly different route, the Norwegians traveled about 60 fewer miles than Scott, yet this alone does not account for their reaching of the Pole fully three weeks more quickly than the British team. While Scott's diaries are peppered with tales of hardship, deprivation, and woe, Amundsen's smooth journey seems almost routine by comparison.

Roald Amundsen Carnegie Hall Program
Program page from Roald Amundsen's Carnegie Hall lecture. Courtesy of the Carnegie Hall Archives.

At the time of Amundsen's Carnegie Hall appearance in January 1913, the true nature of Scott's fate remained a mystery; confirmation of his party's demise came a month later, when members of the British expedition reached New Zealand with the news. In a fascinating historical confluence, Amundsen, the first man to stand at the South Pole, was joined on the Carnegie Hall stage that night by Rear Admiral Robert E. Peary, the first to reach the North Pole (although controversy and doubt continue to swirl around Peary's 1909 North Pole claim more than a century later). The next day, The New York Times recounted—with a hint of humor—that the discoverer of the North Pole stood almost unnoticed on the stage until the discoverer of the South Pole noticed him and beckoned him to the seat next to him. The American Geographic Society, one of the joint sponsors of the lecture, presented Amundsen with a gold medal in honor of his accomplishments. In his remarks before Amundsen's lecture, Peary stated, "There is no man today who has achieved the same distinction in polar work, south and north, that Roald Amundsen has achieved."

Intriguingly, The New York Times reported that at a dinner in his honor following the lecture, "a polar bear slowly threaded his way through the excited guests and crowned the discoverer of the South Pole with a wreath of white roses."

Related: Hall History  

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