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Per Savio - The Accidental Antarctic Pioneer

Updated: Jun 4



Imagine being one of the first humans to sleep on Antarctica ,even though unintentional. 

 

This was the fate of Per Savio, a Sami explorer and reindeer herder from Norway, whose remarkable journey led him to become a crucial member of an Antarctic Expedition. 

 

This article, accessible via a QR code next to his ice sculpture at Snowhotel Kirkenes, celebrates the life and legacy of a man whose contributions to polar exploration are as enduring as the frozen landscapes he traversed.

 

Selected for Antarctic Expedition

When Carsten Borchgrevink was assembling participants for his British Antarctic Expedition, he sought individuals accustomed to ice and snow who could handle the likely conditions in Antarctica. 

 

Naturally, he looked to the Sami people of Northern Norway, as Fridtjof Nansen had done for his Greenland expedition in 1888.

 

 Per Olsen Savio, then 21, and Ole Johnsen Must, aged 20, were chosen. Borchgrevink described Savio as an "excellent skier, brave and intelligent" and noted that both Sami men were immensely useful to the expedition, especially during preparations due to their familiarity with the cold and practical advice.

Borchgrevink brought them to England to care for the 90 Siberian dogs that had arrived in London, attracting significant attention in their Sami attire. He affectionately referred to them as his "two children of nature" who were frightened and screamed the first time they traveled by train. 

 

Borchgrevink acknowledged Savio's indispensable role, noting that, although unruly, Savio saved his and others' lives on multiple occasions by risking his own.

 

Wintering in Antarctica

The expedition, aboard the Southern Cross, arrived at Cape Adare in Antarctica on February 17, 1899, where they set up two prefabricated huts as their base. According to Borchgrevink's account, Savio, alongside Borchgrevink and Australian physicist Louis Bernacchi, were the first to land. Another source claims it was Anton Fougner, not Savio, who was with Borchgrevink.

On April 22, a group set out on their first sledging trip from the base, including Borchgrevink, Fougner, Bernacchi, and Savio, with 20 dogs, three sledges, and provisions for 20 days. They faced severe weather, forcing Savio and Fougner to return to the base but were overtaken by ice and had to save themselves. They eventually managed to climb back along the ice wall, with Savio leading and ensuring their survival through daring maneuvers.

 

During the expedition, Savio and Must played the Sami game sáhkku, and Savio sewed 50 pairs of "finnsko" (Sami shoes) for the group, which became highly valued. Savio also made mittens from old underwear and reindeer skin and amused the scientists with pranks, such as showing a fly he had found in a jam jar from London, pretending it was a rare Antarctic find.

 

Perilous Sledge Journeys

Savio often led sledging trips, with the dogs responding better to him than being driven from behind. On one trip, after being left at a camp, Savio constructed a lavvu (traditional Sami tent) from skis and poles, making the camp more comfortable. He also recounted stories of Sami life, including their trading at Russian markets and their swift travels with reindeer.

 

Exploring from Cape Adare was challenging due to its natural barriers. On one sledge trip, Savio and Must saved a dog from a crevasse using their coats tied together as a rope. Savio nearly died after falling 19 meters into a crevasse, managing to climb out by making footholds with his knife.

 

In January 1900, Savio and Must killed 100 young penguins and prepared their skins for future use. When the Southern Cross returned on February 28, Borchgrevink and Savio paddled out to the ship. 

 

They then sailed southward, reaching the Ross Ice Shelf and achieving a new "furthest south" record

 

Contributions and Legacy

Per Savio's knowledge and determination were pivotal during the expedition. 

 

He ensured the well-being of the sled dogs, essential for moving supplies and maintaining the crew's mobility. 

 

His survival techniques, earned in the Arctic wilderness, not far from where you are standing now, helped the team withstand the brutal Antarctic conditions.

 

The expedition's eventual success underscored the importance of indigenous knowledge in extreme environments. Savio's contributions provided a foundation for future Antarctic explorations, showcasing how traditional skills could be harnessed for modern scientific endeavors.

 

Later Life and Fate

After his Antarctic adventure, Savio returned to Norway, resuming his life as a reindeer herder. Tragically, Per Savio's life was cut short when he drowned in 1905 while retrieving his wife’s coffin. 

 

Despite his early death, his legacy lived on through his family and his contributions to exploration.

 

John Savio: The Artistic Legacy

Per Savio's son, John Savio, carried forward the family legacy in a different yet impactful way. Born in 1902, John Savio became a renowned Sami artist, known for his woodcuts and prints that vividly depicted Sami culture and life. His work gained significant recognition posthumously, and he is celebrated as one of the most important Sami artists in Norwegian history.


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