Punta Arenas

The expedition team has arrived in Punta Arenas in Chile and final preparations are being made. Soon the first flight of the season will take off bound for the landing strip on Union Glacier in Antarctica.
Stein P. Aasheim packing food for the expeditionStein is making sure we have an adequate supply of Chilean mountain butter in the dinner rations. Photo: Jan-Gunnar Winther / Norwegian Polar Institute

Roald Amundsen has been here before. On 10 December 1897 the vessel Belgica anchored outside this city on the Strait of Magellan at the southernmost tip of South America. Amundsen was first mate on a Belgian expedition led by Baron Adrian de Gerlache. Belgica, originally a Norwegian sealer named Patria, was heading for Antarctica.

It was aboard the Belgica first mate Amundsen would be initiated – rather brutally – into polar travel. We will no doubt return to this topic later, but a few details will suffice for now: of the eighteen people on board, three would perish of disease or accidents. Several developed scurvy and everything might have gone terribly wrong if expedition physician Frederick Cook (who later became famous) had not forced the crew to eat fresh penguin meat. But before they reached Antarctica, and before they embarked on what would be the first overwintering by humans on that continent, Belgica made a stop in the city where we are now.

Punta Arenas is the world’s southernmost city with a population exceeding 100 000. Situated at 53°10′S, it is about as far south of the equator as Hamburg is north. But the crucial point for us is that this city is the gateway to Antarctica. And it was to this city Amundsen came in December 1897. The multinational crew hailed from Belgium, Poland, Romania, and the United States – and there were also six Norwegians among them.

It was not a harmonious ship. Two crew members signed off before they had even left Europe, and during journey south along the Americas the cook was driven ashore, apparently because of total incompetence. The engineer was so difficult to get along with that he suffered the same fate shortly after. Camaraderie on board can scarcely have improved after one night in Punta Arenas. Amundsen wrote in his diary: “The three aforementioned individuals refuse to return to ship. They are more or less intoxicated. It took me all morning to get Johansen and Van Damm aboard. The third was so drunk we could do nothing with him.”

The Belgica expedition will always be remembered for its lack of preparation. Our expedition will most certainly not. After an entire day spent double-checking equipment and packing food, we feel we have nearly everything well in hand now. Soon we can just sit down and wait until the landing strip at Union Glacier is cleared of snow and ready to receive the season’s first flight from Punta Arenas to Antarctica.