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De Gerlach, Nansen, ?, Arctowski(?), Amundsen, and 3 unidentified
Inspecting the Belgica before departure.
De Gerlach, Nansen, ?, Arctowski(?), Amundsen,
and 3 unidentified people.
In 1895 the Sixth International Geographical Congress passed a resolution that "the exploration of the Antarctic regions is the greatest piece of geographical exploration still to be undertaken...this work should be undertaken before the close of the century". Indeed, it was in that year that the first human footprints were made on the mysterious southern continent, by Carsten Borchgrevink, a Norwegian and, by coincidence, a childhood playmate of Roald Amundsen. When the resolution was made, the Antarctic continent was a blank on the map. In response to that resolution, Belgium announced an Antarctic expedition under the command of Adrien de Gerlach. With a reference from a Norwegian ship owner, and because he was a compatriot of Nansen, Amundsen was accepted as an officer, without salary. The ship's doctor for the expedition was Dr. Fredrick A. Cook, who had been with Peary on his 1892 expedition across Greenland. As Cook was an expert polar explorer, he immediately became the focus of Amundsen's attention.

Route of the Belgica, 1898-99
During the first season, the expedition explored the west coast of the Graham Land in Antarctica. Geologists on board were the first to study Antarctica from a scientific standpoint, as all previous visits had been either Naval ships or Whalers. The expedition racked up a number of firsts: 1) Amundsen was the first to ski on Antarctic terra firma, on the island Two Hummocks (see map); 2) The first Antarctic sledging journey, on Brabent Island; 3) the first overnight camp on Antarctica; 4) the first ship to winter in the Antarctic; and 5) the first complete year of meteorological records, to name a few. Amundsen was busy learning from Cook and his own experience, and writing down notes about tents and other equipment in his diary.
Belgica frozen into the Bellingshausen Sea, 1898-99
Belgica frozen into the Bellingshausen Sea, 1898-99

Over the antarctic winter, scurvy descended on the ship, resulting in swollen limbs, bleeding gums and depression. Recognizing the danger of the 24 hour darkness, in conjunction with the health issues, Cook devised a way to keep the crew healthy. He insisted on having everyone eat under-cooked, fresh seal meat, of which there was an abundance just outside the ship. In the Antarctic summer (January 1899), once health was restored, Cook, with Amundsen's help, initiated a make work project of sawing a channel through the ice and eventually setting the ship free. Cook also managed to make a mattresses out of the penguin skin, that were used to protect the ship from the grinding ice floes. The expedition came to an end at Punta Arenas, Chile from where Amundsen returned quietly to Norway by Mail boat. Amundsen's friendship with Cook would last a lifetime, as Amundsen was fiercly loyal to those who helped him, not to mention that Cook was probably one of the more likeable men in polar history.

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