There was a period in history between 1898 and 1922 dubbed the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. It marked a time when daring adventurers set their sights on one of the few lands that still escaped humanity’s reach – the Antarctic. And this land was harsh, cold, and unforgiving, and all the people who dared face this unknown knew there was a good chance they might not come back. Generally, 17 expeditions are considered part of this era which made legends of men such as Ernest Shackleton, Douglas Mawson, and Robert Falcon Scott.
And, of course, there was Roald Amundsen, the man we will be talking about today. As the leader of the very first expedition to reach the South Pole, Amundsen secured his spot as one of the greatest explorers in history. But that was just one of his polar adventures, as Amundsen was the type of man destined to explore the frozen wilds forever.
Roald Engelbregt Gravning Amundsen was born on July 16, 1872, in the Norwegian parish of Borge, near the capital of Oslo which, back then, was called Christiania. He was the youngest of four sons of Jens Engeberth Amundsen and Hanna Gustava Sahlqvist, part of a well-off maritime family who ran a shipping business which, at its height, operated 22 vessels. Soon after Roald’s birth, the family relocated to Oslo where the four boys grew up.
Both parents wanted Roald to get a good education. His mother, in particular, wanted him to avoid life on the sea altogether and become a doctor. But young Roald grew up with stories of famous adventurers and explorers and wanted to emulate them.
In school, he heard the tale of Franklin’s lost expedition – how British explorer John Franklin set off to find a way to traverse the Northwest Passage and was never heard from again. The Northwest Passage is a sea route that connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans by passing through the Arctic Archipelago. For centuries, charting this passage was a holy grail for European sailors as it represented a new, faster route to Asia, but many failed in their attempts to safely navigate it. Franklin set off with two ships, the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, and vanished. Search attempts were all in vain and it wasn’t until only a few years ago that both wrecks were finally located.
Amundsen dreamt of succeeding where Franklin failed. Then, in 1889, the 17-year-old Roald was in the crowd to witness the glorious return of another great Norwegian explorer, Fridtjof Nansen, after he became the first to traverse the interior of Greenland. Amundsen now knew that one day he wanted to be a polar explorer just like his heroes. Speaking of which, you can probably expect to see Fridtjof Nansen featured in his own Biographics video sometime in the future.
But getting back to Amundsen, he was torn between two decisions. On one hand, his life’s ambition was to become an explorer. On the other, he promised his mother that he would study medicine. In the end, he felt it was his duty to obey his mother’s wishes so, in 1890, he enrolled in the Royal Norwegian Frederick University of Christiania to become a doctor. However, when his mother died in 1893, Roald ended his studies and set off on his true passion. It was probably for the best, though. Not only did Amundsen end up becoming one of the world’s greatest explorers, but it was unlikely he would have ever graduated from med school as he always had terrible grades and showed little aptitude for book-learning.
The First Adventure
That same year, Amundsen set off on his first adventure – a ski tour over the Hardanger mountain plateau with two other men, Laurentius Urdahl and Wilhelm Holst. The inexperience of the skiers became evident and the trio had to abandon their journey. It wasn’t until five years later that Amundsen attempted the ski tour again, this time successfully, accompanied by his older brother, Leon. Of course, in order to become a proper explorer, life on land would not suffice. Roald also had to master sailing. Therefore, in 1894, he obtained his first berth as an ordinary seaman aboard a seal-hunting ship called the Magdalena. This vessel was later renamed the Danmark and was used by Danish explorer Ludvig Mylius-Erichsen in 1906 in his ill-fated expedition to charter the unknown northeast coastline of Greenland, a mission which cost him his life and the lives of his two senior officers.
As a sailor, Amundsen performed his work admirably and quickly rose through the ranks. Two years later, he got his first opportunity at a true polar adventure when he was taken on as a mate aboard the RV Belgica for the Belgian Antarctic Expedition. Captained by Belgian navy officer Adrien de Gerlache, this voyage was a scientific mission to the Antarctic. Incidentally, it is also considered to be the first expedition of the aforementioned Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.
Roald Amundsen was not the only future explorer aboard the vessel. The ship’s physician was an American named Frederick Cook. He and Amundsen struck a lifelong friendship and Cook would later achieve his own fame (or, should we say, notoriety) when he claimed to be the first person to reach the North Pole. His claim was challenged by his main rival, Robert Peary, and the question of who actually reached the geographic North Pole first is still unsettled and highly controversial. But more on that later…
As far as the Belgian expedition was concerned, things were far from smooth sailing. The crew of the Belgica became the first people to spend the winter in the Antarctic. This wasn’t by choice, mind you, but rather because the ship became trapped in pack ice in the Bellingshausen Sea. The Belgica and its crew were stuck in these icy conditions for 13 months, including two months of perpetual darkness. Some of the men, including de Gerlache, fell gravely ill with scurvy while others began losing their sanity. It wasn’t until the start of 1899 that they finally drifted near a stretch of open water. It was still hundreds of yards out of reach, so the men had to saw and dynamite through their icy prison for a month in order to create a channel for the ship to be able to move. The expedition finally reached the Belgian capital of Antwerp on November 5, 1899, where the men received a hero’s welcome.
The Northwest Passage
Despite the many hardships, the Belgian Antarctic Expedition was actually considered a success as the crew collected a lot of scientific data and discovered many new islands. Moreover, it left Amundsen confident enough that he was ready to lead his own expedition and he even obtained the endorsement of his hero, Fridtjof Nansen, who often gave the young explorer advice and even, on occasion, helped him secure financing.
As far as his objective was concerned, Amundsen was not one for half measures. Even though it was his first time as captain, he wanted to fulfill his greatest ambition – navigating through the Northwest Passage. It was something that had been attempted many times, but never succeeded all the way. Moreover, it was something very dangerous, which had claimed the lives of explorers far more experienced than Amundsen.
That being said, the Norwegian adventurer didn’t simply plunge into this mission headfirst and hope for the best. He did his homework. In 1900, he visited German scientist and polar explorer Georg von Neumayer who taught him what he knew about the planet’s magnetic field and how it affected instruments at the poles. While the geographic North Pole is the northernmost point on Earth, from which all directions point south, the magnetic North Pole moves around all the time thanks to changes in the planet’s core. In fact, according to modern estimates, ever since its formal discovery by British explorer James Clark Ross in 1831, the magnetic North Pole has traveled around 1,400 miles. Amundsen didn’t need that kind of uncertainty when heading in the right direction could make the difference between life and death.
Next up, Amundsen needed a ship. He wanted something small and sturdy, but it also had to be cheap because he did not have a lot of funds at his discretion. In the end, he opted for a 45-ton sloop called Gjøa. It was much smaller than any ship that had been used in the Northwest Passage before, but Amundsen felt that its flexibility and increased maneuverability suited his purposes. Moreover, he also intended to use a very small crew of only six people. By comparison, Franklin’s lost expedition had two ships and 129 crewmen, but Amundsen concluded this was one of the missions’ fatal flaws as it severely stretched their limited resources. Moreover, it was his belief that every party should only ever have the smallest number of people possible needed to achieve its goals. This way, everybody always had a clear assignment and they felt that their efforts were vital to the success of the mission.
In 1901, Amundsen had a ship, but still felt unprepared to tackle the challenge he set in front of him. He spent the next two years making a trip to the waters of Greenland to get acquainted with his new vessel, plus to test out equipment, provisions, and the crewmen he intended to take on his expedition. This sapped Amundsen’s funds and, against his wishes, he had to reach out to creditors. This was a problem that will haunt him for most of his life. According to one version of the story, Amundsen and his crew had to sneak out of Oslo when they started their mission as one of his creditors intended to place the Gjøa under lien until they were repaid. Another version says that Fridtjof Nansen had promised to take care of the debt while Amundsen was at sea. Whatever the truth might be, the Gjøa set sail on June 16, 1903, headed for the Northwest Passage.
The journey did not start off very auspiciously. In the early parts of the expedition, there was a fire in the ship’s engine room and the vessel almost shipwrecked on an underwater rock. After these initial problems were dealt with, however, things went a lot smoother as the Gjøa crossed Baffin Bay and then managed to navigate the multiple tight straits of the Arctic Archipelago. Some speculate that Amundsen could have made the crossing in just one season, but the navigating of the Northwest Passage was just one of the expedition’s goals. Other missions included collecting a ton of scientific data and locating the new position of the magnetic North Pole. For this, the crew needed more time, so they anchored in the natural harbor of King William Island and let the ship get iced in.
Fortunately for them, the island had one human settlement called Uqsuqtuuq which meant “lots of fat” in the Inuktitut language, thus named due to the abundance of seals in the area. The local Inuit people were happy to host the Norwegian crew and showed them many useful tips and techniques to survive the freezing cold, tips which Amundsen took to heart and would later employ during his conquest of the South Pole. The explorers spent almost two years there before concluding their objectives and also finding weather conditions suitable enough to allow them to leave. Internationally, the settlement is now better known as Gjoa Haven for the role it played in making polar history.
There were still more obstacles to overcome. Near the Yukon, the ship got iced in again. Worst of all, while Amundsen took a sled ride to Eagle, Alaska, to send some telegrams, one of his men, Gustav Wiik, fell ill and died on March 31, 1906. Amundsen later described him as the happiest one in the group, always “full of humor and stories”, who proved invaluable to maintaining morale on the voyage.
On the stranger side of things, Amundsen also found out on this occasion that the nation and king that he served when he left on the trip weren’t the same as the ones waiting for him when he returned. We’ve referred to Roald Amundsen as being from Norway, although, technically, up until this point, he was actually a citizen of the United Kingdoms of Sweden and Norway. Ever since 1814, the two countries had been in a personal union where they kept separate constitutions and administrations, but were ruled by the same king. In Amundsen’s time, that was King Oscar II of Sweden. However, the nations underwent a peaceful dissolution in 1905 so, when Amundsen returned home, he returned to a fully independent Norway ruled by King Haakon VII.
Obstacles, tragedies, and political movements aside, the Gjøa reached Nome, Alaska on August 31, 1906, officially completing its navigation of the Northwest Passage.
Headed for the North Pole
Daring feats like crossing the Northwest Passage might make you famous and celebrated, but they won’t make you rich. For the next couple of years, Amundsen engaged in writing and giving lectures to improve his financial situation, but he disliked these activities intensely. What he wanted was to leave on another adventure, not to sit behind a desk, but he had debts to pay. Even given his newfound fame, Amundsen was having trouble finding creditors willing to finance him. What he needed was a new plan that will stir up public interest.
In 1908, he approached the Norwegian Geographic Society with a proposition – he wanted to take the Fram (the ship that Fridtjof Nansen used in his voyages) and recreate the latter’s expedition to the Arctic Ocean, this time with better preparation and more modern equipment. This plan was received with enthusiasm by the society, by the public, and by the king who became one of the first donors to Amundsen’s fundraising campaign. This was at a time when there were multiple expeditions undertaken to reach the North and South Poles. American explorer Robert Peary set a new Farthest North record in 1906 while British adventurer Ernest Shackleton was just 97 nautical miles from reaching the South Pole in 1909. Although it wasn’t explicitly stated during the fundraising, it was widely believed that Roald Amundsen would also make an attempt for the North Pole, perhaps becoming the first man to succeed in reaching one of the most remote points on the planet.
The plan went down the drain in late 1909 when a new story reached the headlines – Frederick Cook, Amundsen’s former shipmate aboard the Belgica, had reached the North Pole. His claim was attacked by Robert Peary who also claimed to have reached the North Pole, although he did it slightly later. This launched a whole mess of arguments and controversies that hasn’t been completely sorted even today. Cook’s claim was dismissed by many not necessarily as false, but as being unproven, while Peary’s was accepted, but with a lot of hesitation, and many experts have retroactively dismissed his claim, as well.
None of this mattered in the moment, though. Either one, or both, or neither of them reached the North Pole, but the headlines said they did so, all of a sudden, it wasn’t seen as the “holy grail” of polar exploration anymore. It had been done which meant that interest in Amundsen’s planned expedition started to dwindle and the fundraising dried up. This was around the same time that Shackleton tried and failed to reach the South Pole so Amundsen thought that maybe he could still salvage his expedition by changing his destination from the North to the South Pole.
He had strong competition. Another British explorer, Robert Falcon Scott, or Scott of the Antarctic, as he later came to be known, had already made preparations and announced his intentions to sail for the South Pole should Shackleton not succeed. His party, the Terra Nova Expedition, left Cardiff in June, 1910.
On his end, Amundsen had decided to make the switch, but did not tell anyone apart from a few close confidants. He was heavily in debt and had to mortgage his own house to fund the expedition after newspapers cancelled their sponsorships. He knew that only a sensational feat will help him raise funds and that wasn’t to be found at the North Pole anymore. If he went public with his new intentions, he risked having his expedition delayed or cancelled altogether, thus giving Scott the best chance at succeeding. Amundsen knew he would be criticized for his underhanded tactic and, indeed, he was. Mainly, he was accused of entering a race against Scott which was not only unscientific, but also endangered the men of both expeditions.
A Change of Plans
The Fram left Norway on August 9, eight weeks after the Terra Nova Expedition. At this point, most of the 19 crewmen aboard the ship still thought they were headed for the North Pole. It wasn’t until they stopped at Madeira for new provisions that Amundsen informed them of his new plan and also wrote a telegram to tell Scott, as well.
The South Pole Expedition reached Antarctica in January, 1911, and set up a base camp on a natural ice harbor called the Bay of Whales on the Ross Ice Shelf. They named this camp Framheim Station. At one point, they even met a small party from the Terra Nova Expedition who was exploring the area. On the surface, relations between the two groups were cordial, although Amundsen later confessed that he was relieved when he discovered that the British crew had no wireless radio as he feared they might have been able to send word of their success first even if he reached the South Pole before them.
Here was where Amundsen’s previous experiences in polar situations, as well as the techniques he learned from the Inuit people, came into play. He and his men wore furred skins like the Inuits instead of the traditional heavy wool clothing. They subsided on a meat-rich diet as Amundsen observed during his stint aboard the Belgica that it helped ward off scurvy. Most importantly, the Norwegian relied completely on dog sleds and skis for transportation. He brought almost 100 Greenland dogs with him on his trip as they could also be used for meat along the way.
Scott, on the other hand, had a certain aversion to using dogs as he considered them unreliable. He employed a mixed transportation method consisting of dogs, Siberian ponies, and motorized sledges. The sledges were supposed to be the ace up his sleeve, except they were the exact opposite. First of all, one of them they lost while unloading the ship. Furthermore, they increased the cargo load since the party had to carry fuel for them. But most importantly, they weren’t capable of handling the extreme weather and the others broke down early into the trip.
By comparison, Amundsen’s journey went a lot smoother, although he, too, flirted with disaster once. After months of setting up the Framheim Station, a party of eight set off for the South Pole in September, 1911. This was done only to get a headstart on the British. Amundsen soon realized that they set off too early and should have waited for the polar spring for better weather conditions. They returned to Framheim, but lost a lot of good dogs on the way and several of the men were sidelined with severe frostbite. It also led to an argument between Amundsen and one of his officers, Hjalmar Johansen, who accused him of acting foolishly to beat Scott. Unsurprisingly, Johansen was left out of the next South Pole party that departed a month later.
This revised party only included five men, as well as 52 dogs and four sledges. The men were Roald Amundsen, Helmer Hanssen who had also been part of his Northwest Passage crew, Olav Bjaaland, Oscar Wisting, and Sverre Hassel. These were the first men to reach the South Pole, thanks partly to finding a good, clear route on top of a previously-undiscovered glacier which Amundsen named Axel Heiberg Glacier.
On December 14, 1911, the party arrived at their destination. They raised a little tent they named Polheim, planted the Norwegian flag, and left behind a letter for Scott or whomever else may find it should they fail to return. They were very diligent in their calculations, wanting to make sure they had the right spot and avoid a situation like that between Peary and Cook up in the North Pole. Scott’s party arrived a month later on January 18, 1912.
Amundsen’s team made it back to Framheim in late January and quickly began packing everything up on the ship to leave for Australia and send word of their success. Of course, Amundsen didn’t know it at the time, but there was no reason to hurry as Scott’s entire party tragically died on the way back.
North Pole by Air
When he was back home, Amundsen once again began planning a drift expedition on the Arctic Ocean like Fridtjof Nansen had done before him. He bought and fitted a new ship named Maud, but his plans were put on hold by World War I. He eventually set off in 1918, but this turned out to be his worst venture ever. Problems kept cropping up that caused delay after delay. Six years had passed and the expedition had not fulfilled its mission. Amundsen was, once again, heavily in debt and all his creditors had lost their patience with him and demanded repayment, including his own brother. The explorer had no other choice – in September, 1924, he declared bankruptcy and lost his ship.
For a while, it seemed like Amundsen’s adventuring days had come to an end, as he began giving lectures in the United States to make money. However, the opportunity for one last hurrah presented itself in the form of Lincoln Ellsworth, a rich American with an interest in polar exploration. Ellsworth was willing to fund more expeditions to the North Pole, as long as he was part of the group.
In the previous years, Amundsen had tried and failed to fly over the Pole but now, with Ellsworth’s backing, he was ready to try again. First, in 1925, Amundsen, Ellsworth, and four other men took two Dornier Do J flying boats and almost reached 88° north which, at the time, was the northernmost latitude ever achieved by plane. They had to stop short because one of the aircrafts was damaged and had to land. However, just a year later, Amundsen and a crew of 16 went aboard an Italian airship called the Norge and successfully flew over the geographic North Pole.
Assuming that both Peary and Cook’s controversial claims of reaching the North Pole were incorrect, as well as that of an American pilot named Richard Byrd who also made a disputed claim of flying over the Pole, this would be the first verified successful attempt of reaching the geographic North Pole. Even if it wasn’t, the flight still made Amundsen (and one of his trusted companions, Oscar Wisting), the first men to travel to both the North and South Poles.
In the end, Roald Amundsen considered that that was about as good as it got and he finally retired, although not for long. Just two years later, the 55-year-old Amundsen and a team of five boarded a Latham 47 flying boat to assist in the search & rescue of a crashed airship. Amundsen’s aircraft disappeared on June 18, 1928. It is presumed that it crashed in the Barents Sea, although the bodies of Roald Amundsen and his crew were never found.