Dogs and ponies who led race to poles get their due

Dogs and ponies who led race to poles get their due

  • 0
Support local journalism for 99¢

Late by nearly a century, cartographic immortality is being accorded to the dogs and ponies who bore much of the burden in the 1911-12 race between the Norwegian Roald Amundsen and the Englishman Robert Falcon Scott to be the first to reach the South Pole.

The frozen poles, south and north, were the outer space of that day, a mystery and a challenge, and getting there first had fired up personal and national rivalries not unlike those in the race to the Moon in the 1960s. Amundsen's team got to the South Pole first by five weeks while Scott and his men starved and froze to death on their return trek. In death, Scott was hailed the hero.

Today's map of Antarctica is sprinkled with the names of the two of them and other explorers and scientists, affixed to plateaus and valleys, seas and ice shelves. Even their benefactors and other notables, including now obscure European royalty, are acknowledged. But nowhere is there a tip of the hat to the canine and equine contributions, which historians and polar experts agree were, in the case of the dogs at least, indispensable in early Antarctic discovery.

That is changing, in a modest way, as the result of a U.S. Air Force colonel's inspired campaign and in anticipation of next year's centennial celebration of the Amundsen-Scott achievements.

Beginning this week, as aircraft resume supply runs in what passes for springtime after the bitter austral winter, aeronautical maps of the primary route used by all air traffic between New Zealand and McMurdo Station in Antarctica will bear names of 11 of Amundsen's sledge dogs and Scott's ponies.

Navigation waypoints on this highway in the sky will honor, among others, Helge, Mylius and Uroa (Greenland dogs of Amundsen's) and Jimmy Pigg, Bones and Nobby (Scott's Manchurian and Siberian ponies). Several of the animals' names have been modified to conform to the standard five-letter format for the waypoints, where at intervals of a few hundred miles pilots must report by radio to air traffic controllers their time of arrival, position and weather conditions.

On the new map, for example, Helge's name appears in full, but Uroa's becomes Urroa, and Jimmy Pigg is conflated to Jipig. Previously, waypoint names were just a set of letters generated by computers, meaning nothing. An exception, the next to last waypoint near the Antarctic coast, will continue to be designated Byrrd, for Adm. Richard E. Byrd, one of the most famous American explorers of the continent.

The map changes hardly put Helge in the boldface class with such landmarks as Marie Byrd Land, after the admiral's wife. And only navigators and air traffic controllers are expected to cast eyes on the fine print along route A338 curving south from Christchurch.

For Col. Ronald J. Smith, an Air Force navigator and former commander of Operation Deep Freeze, the military arm supporting Antarctic research, the Amundsen-Scott Centennial Aeronautical Chart is the culmination of a two-year personal campaign to make amends for the lack of public recognition of the animals' role in the race to the pole.

Since the names of individual animals were not allowed on the map of the continent itself, Smith, 54, set his sights on the charts he knew so well from flying the Christchurch-McMurdo route over the years.

''Everybody I went to said, 'Sounds great, go for it,'" he said in one of several interviews last week.

The Civil Aviation Authority of New Zealand, responsible for that sector of air space, endorsed the concept and secured approval from the International Civil Aviation Organization. The National Science Foundation, which manages science research in that part of Antarctica, also approved. "And there was no pushback from the military," Smith added.

Then Lynne Cox, an American author who is writing a book on Amundsen, helped the colonel compile the names of the 52 dogs that Amundsen started out with on Oct. 19, 1911, identifying the ones that reached the pole and the 11 that survived to the end. While in Norway, Cox worked with archivists to determine the fate of those that did not make it and to screen the abbreviated versions of the names to catch any that might be off-color, silly or too similar to other waypoint names on international maps.

''Ron was so careful about the names, being sure that in any language they were OK," said Cox, a hardy cold-water swimmer who has completed laps off Antarctica and across the Bering Strait.

Two of the names used, Uroa and Mylius, are for dogs that completed the round trip, on Jan. 25, 1912. Three - Per, Frithjof and Lasse (no kin to the collie of cinematic fame) - were killed on the return trek. Helge, weak and dying after reaching the pole, was killed. Explorers sometimes sacrificed some of the dogs for their meat, feeding them to the remaining dogs and sometimes eating the cutlets themselves.

In one of the many poems he has written about his own Antarctic experience, Smith addressed the unfortunate Helge. Part of the poem reads:

''Though you faltered

before the fame,

the untamable terrain;

breed of exalted wild-ones,

we did succeed

amidst your slaughter..."

Smith consulted archivists in London for the five pony names for the new map. Besides Jimmy Pigg as Jipig, Snippets becomes Snipt, Bones Boenz, Jehu Jehoo and Nobby Nobey.

Scott's strategy on the trip was to rely not just on dogs but also on motorized sledges, 10 little horses and manpower - the men themselves pulling sledges. As Scott wrote, "In my mind no journey ever made with dogs can approach the height of that fine conception which is realized when a party of men go forth to face hardships, dangers, and difficulties with their own unaided efforts."

But the motor vehicles failed early in the trek, and the ponies proved unequal to the tasks. They were sacrificed on the way to the pole. For the most part, the five men took up the full burden.

Scott's team left later for the pole, on Nov. 1, 1911, and from a starting point that gave Amundsen a 60-mile advantage on the 1,500-mile traverse. The Englishmen did not arrive at the pole until Jan. 17, 1912. In his diary, Scott wrote: "Great God! This is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority."

In the last half of the last century, biographers have reassessed Amundsen's success against Scott's failure.

Roland Huntford, the British author of the 1999 book "The Last Place on Earth: Scott and Amundsen's Race to the South Pole," contends that the Norwegian's steady temperament and expert preparations were decisive in winning the race. According to this thesis, Amundsen approached the hardships realistically, applying practical lessons he had learned from his experience with Eskimos in the north and relying on well-trained dogs to pull sledges. Scott, by contrast, took a more romantic view of exploration, in which hardships simply were to be endured as a test of heroism.

To one degree or another, this assessment has gained a wide following. While Amundsen may have earned success, though, Scott may not have been entirely responsible for his fate. Several recent books have attempted to restore Scott's heroic standing. In a 2001 book, "The Coldest March," Susan Solomon, a meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, assigns much of the blame for Scott's fate to an exceptional blizzard that struck before his party could reach the home base.

With the centennial near, plans are being made for ceremonies at the bottom of the world, at the American-operated outpost known as the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. Cruise ships are laying on special tourist trips into Antarctic waters, and individuals from several nations are petitioning authorities for permission to re-enact the polar treks. Norway has proposed a new race to the pole, by snowmobiles.

But no dogs are likely to be invited for the occasion. In the 1980s, it was found that they were spreading distemper that proved fatal to indigenous seals. So by international agreement in 1993, dogs have been banned from the ice-bound continent where they once helped make history.


Related to this story

Most Popular

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


News Alerts

Blues News

Breaking News

Cardinals News

Daily 6

National Breaking News