Roald Amundsen was born 142 years ago today. Amundsen was a Norwegian polar explorer, best known for leading the first expedition to reach the South Pole.
Amundsen was born into a family of shipowners and captains in Borge, south-eastern Norway. The fourth son in the family, and inspired by Fridtjof Nansen's crossing of Greenland and Franklin's lost expedition, he craved a life of exploration in the arctic wilderness, but his mother wanted him to avoid the maritime trade and made him promise to become a doctor instead. He kept his promise until she died, when he was 21 years of age. At that point, he promptly left university and set out for life at sea.
Amundsen's first polar trek was as first mate aboard the Belgica in the Belgian Polar Expedition of 1897-1899. The expedition was the first to winter in the Antarctic, after ship became frozen in on the sea ice, off Alexander Island west of the Antarctic Peninsula. The crew were ill prepared for the harsh conditions, but the doctor, the American Fredrick Cook, who would a decade later claim to have been the first man to reach the North Pole, saved them from scurvy by hunting animals and supplying a diet of fresh meat. Amundsen learnt that in the absence of citrus fruit, fresh meat will supply vitamin C.
In 1903 Amundsen led his first expedition, aiming to traverse the Northwest Passage. This had been attempted several times previously without success. Amundsen tackled the problem by hugging Canada's northern coastline and using a small fishing boat, the Gjøa, weighin 45 tons. This proved key to a successful crossing, for in places the water was shallow as 3ft deep. In the course of his expedition, Amundsen learnt vital survival skills from local Nesilik people, including the value of using dogs for transportation and animal skins for clothing, as opposed heavy woolen parkas, which are not effective against the cold when wet.
Next, Amundsen set his sights on the North Pole. However, while preparing the expedition, news reached him that Fredrick Cook and Robert Peary, each leading a separate expedition, had reached 90º N, so he switched his goal to the South Pole. At this time, Robert Falcon Scott, who had already made an attempt on the South Pole a decade earlier, was preparing a second one, and Amundsen was aware of this. Amundsen kept quiet about his intentions until he reached Madeira.
Amundsen's South Polar expedition was thoroughly professional, and he reached his objective a month ahead of Scott, experiencing far less trouble and with his men intact. In fact, they returned to base slightly heavier than they set out, while Scott's men starved on the ice and died on the Ross Ice Shelf during their return journey, having encountered unusually cold temperatures. Aware of the controversies surounding Cook and Peary's claims to the North Pole, around which there was already an air of fraud, Amundsen took pains to ensure he was in the correct spot. Amundsen gives his own account of the expedition in The South Pole (1912) which I have reviewed here. The account of Scott's expedition was given by Apsley Cherry-Garrard in The Worst Journey in the World (1922) which I have reviewed here and is probably the best travel book ever written. Though his expedition was successful, Amundsen was criticised, firstly for being underhanded about his aim, and secondly for designing his expedition as a race (which was not strictly true, as his book includes a great deal of scientific observations). By contrast, Scott, who had organised a chiefly scientific expedition, became a tragic hero. Yet, there is no denying that Amundsen's was a masterly execution. He wrote:
I may say that this is the greatest factor—the way in which the expedition is equipped—the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it. Victory awaits him who has everything in order — luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck.
Not satisfied, in 1918, at 46 years of age, Amundsen launched a third expedition, projected to last no less than seven years, and involving a crossing of the Northeast Passage and drifting in the ice over the North Pole. Inspired by Nansen's earlier expedition in the Fram, he sought to go further east and further north than his predecessor. His efforts proved a failure and led to his bankruptcy in 1923; his boat, the Maud, ended up being seized as collateral by his creditors. Nevertheless, this expedition yielded a much scientific data.
Not one to be defeated, Amundsen then made two attempts to reach the North Pole, using aircraft. The first attempt, made in 1925, failed, but Amundsen organised a miraculous escape. One of his two aircraft was damaged, so the only way out was to pack the whole crew into the surviving one. Using up only 400g (less than a pound) of food, the men shoved 600 tons of snow and ice to clear a runway, and just managed to become airborne over the cracking ice. A successful attempt was made the following year, a few days after that of the American Richard E. Byrd. Though Byrd was later awarded a Medal of Honour, his claim to having reached the pole became controversial, and some think he travelled 80% of the distance to the Pole before turning around due to an oil leak. Moreover, claims were later made that both Byrd and his pilot both confessed privately not to have reached the Pole. If so, Amundsen would have been the first, though only by air, and his claim has never been controverted.
Amundsen met his end while on an Artic rescue mission. Members of Italian explorer Umberto Nobile's crew, flying on airship Italia, had crashed on the ice while returning from the North Pole. It is thought that Amudsen's flying boat crashed in fog in the Barents Sea; he may have died in the crash or shortly afterward, but none of the bodies were ever found.
Today, the American-run South Pole station is jointly named after Amundsen and Scott. There are also various geographical features named after Amundsen, including Amundsen Sea, Amundsen Glacier, Amundsen Bay, Amundsen Basin, Amundsen Golf, Mount Amundsen, and even a crater in the Moon's south pole.
Nordvestpassagen, 2-vols, 1907. Translated as The North-West Passage: Being the Record of a Voyage of Exploration of the ship "Gjøa" 1903–1907, 1908.
Sydpolen, 2-vols, 1912. Translated as The South Pole: An Account of the Norwegian Antarctic Expedition in the "Fram," 1910–1912, translated by A. G. Chater, 1912.
Nordostpassagen. Maudfærden langs Asiens kyst 1918–1920. H. U. Sverdrups ophold blandt tsjuktsjerne. Godfred Hansens depotekspedition 1919–1920. Gyldendal, Kristiania 1921.
Gjennem luften til 88° Nord (by Roald Amundsen, Lincoln Ellsworth and other members of the expedition, 1925). Translated as Our Polar Flight: The Amundsen-Ellsworth Polar Flight, 1925; also as My Polar Flight, 1925.
Den første flukt over polhavet, with Lincoln Ellsworth and others, 1926. Translated as The First Flight Across the Polar Sea, 1927; also as The First Crossing of the Polar Sea, 1927.
Mitt liv som polarforsker, 1927. Translated as My Life as an Explorer, 1927.
Hugo Decleir, Roald Amundsen's Belgica Diary. The first Scientific Expedition to the Antarctic (Bluntisham Books, 1999).
Roland Huntford, The Last Place on Earth: Scott and Amundsen's Race to the South Pole (Hodder and Stoughton, 1979)
Tor Bomann-Larsen, Roald Amundsen (The History Press, 2006)
Rainer-K. Langner, Scott and Amundsen – Duel in the Ice (London: Haus Publishing, 2007)
Bruce Henderson, True North: Peary, Cook, and the Race to the Pole (W. W. Norton and Company, 2005)