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Articles Blog

Journey to the Poles

Karyn Planett

Beyond the Beyond

“Lands doomed by nature to everlasting frigidness and never once to feel the warmth of the suns rays, whose horrible and savage aspect I have no words to describe; such are the lands we have discovered, what may we expect those to be which lie more to the South, for we may reasonably suppose we have seen the best as lying more to the North, whoever has resolution and perseverance to clear up this point by proceeding farther than we have done, I shall not envy him the honour of the discovery but I will be bold to say that the world will not be benefited by it.”

Damning words of frustration these were. Written by Captain James Cook in his Journal February 1775, his exasperation is palpable. This seasoned veteran of the seas had been sailing on his second voyage of discovery, this time aboard H.M.S. Resolution. This time to the land beyond the beyond. This time in search of Antarctica.

Early Polar Explorers

Historians believe that the very earliest voyages of discovery to the poles were undertaken for several reasons. Some scholars subscribe to the theory that men were driven to the extreme reaches of the earth in search of commercial shipping routes; for theirs or their government’s glory; or in the name of science. As these explorers were all from the northern hemisphere it was predictable that the early explorations would be in the Artic. The far north had long been known to the Norsemen who had sailed to Iceland, then Greenland, and finally North America sometime between 800 and 1100 A.D.

A new trade route to India and China would bring great riches to Northern Europe, especially for the Dutch and the English. Perhaps there was some safe passage through the Arctic. Captains with names like Frobisher, Davis, and Barents all attempted the discovery of this route via the north. All failed. So, too, Henry Hudson.

Ultimately, Roald Amundsen crossed the Northwest Passage. It took this Norwegian explorer three years, from 1903 to 1906, to complete his torturous mission. The American, Robert Peary, was the first to make it successfully to the North Pole, aided by four-dozen Inuit and sleds with teams of dogs totaling two hundred. The year was 1909.

Terra Australis Incognita

The Unknown Land. In the days of ancient Greece, the area on the maps where we now know Antarctica to be found was identified as “Terra Australis Incognita.” Many cartographers and scientists believed that this land, should it exist at all, would certainly be an extension from the African continent. The idea was dashed when the legendary navigator Vasco da Gama rounded the southern tip of Africa, the Cape of Good Hope to be exact, putting an end to this theory. The year was 1498. Some eight decades later, Sir Francis Drake rounded the tip of South America as far south as 57 degrees south latitude. He ascertained that the Pacific and the Atlantic did meet up there so no landmass existed in this location that would block his path.

Enter what many claim to be the greatest navigator of all, Captain James Cook. While on his second voyage of discovery (1771-1775), he and his chilled-to-the-bone crew circumnavigated Antarctica in search of this landmass. That was in 1773. In January of that year, Cook noted in his ship’s log “I am so fully of opinion that there is none that I shall not go in search of it, being now determined to make the best of my way to the East in the Latitude of 60 degrees or upwards, and am only sorry that in searching after those imaginary Lands, I have spent so much time….”
On January 17th, 1773 Cook and his men crossed the Antarctic Circle at 70 degrees south. He went on to report that “At about a 1/4 past 11 o’Clock we crossed the Antarctic Circle for at Noon we were by observation four Miles and a half South of it and are undoubtedly the first and only Ship that ever cross’d that line.”

One year later, Cook again sailed to the edge of known exploration. The captain reported that “I should not have hesitated one moment in declaring it is my opinion that the Ice we now see extended in a solid body quite to the Pole.” He was again at 70 degrees south latitude. He further noted in his log on January 30, 1774 the tremendous dangers he and his crew faced while sailing among the floating ice “islands.” At that point they were sailing at south latitude 71 degrees 10 minutes. Cook wrote, “I whose ambition leads me not only farther than any other man has been before me, but as far as I think it possible for man to go, was not sorry at meeting with this interruption, as it in some measure relieved us from the dangers and hardships, inseparable with the Navigation of the Southern Polar regions.

Captain James Cook had come to the conclusion that a continent did not exist anywhere among the high southern latitudes he had already explored, especially not west of the South American tip of Cape Horn.

Even so, following a respite in the warmer climes of Easter Island and Vanuatu (New Hebrides), Cook again rounded Cape Horn while continuing his search for the Southern Continent. Charting a course to the east, he headed toward the Cape of Good Hope and ultimately back to his homeland.