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The Life of Roald Amundsen

by Linn Ryne

    It is 85 years since Roald Amundsen, on December 14th 1911, stood victorious at the South Pole. He had reached a goal that was the dream of many men. For the first time, human voices broke the awesome silence of the world's southernmost point.

    The achievement was to bring fame to Amundsen and his men. But in a letter, describing his reactions at that time, Amundsen openly confessed that "no man has ever stood at the spot so diametrically opposed to the object of his real desires", which for the ambitious Norwegian was the North Pole. For Amundsen a new goal always beckoned. He himself described his life as a "constant journey towards the final destination".

By Linn Ryne

    Amundsen was born in 1872 at Borge, near the town of Sarpsborg, in southeast Norway. From boyhood days his life was singularly purposeful. No nagging doubts troubled his firm resolution. He wished to be a polar explorer. He devoured all the literature he could acquire on polar exploration, particularly the ill-fated journey of the British explorer, Sir John Franklin, who with the "Erebus" and the "Terror" set out to find the Northwest Passage in 1845, and never returned. Like Nansen he devoted a great deal of time to training and strengthening his physique to make his body a perfect instrument for the hazardous adventures he was determined to undertake. However, he was a dutiful son, and bowed to his mother's wish that he study medicine. But at the age of 21, when both his parents had died, Roald Amundsen sold his medical textbooks, packed away the cranium he had studied and announced his intention of becoming a polar explorer.

Antarctic experience

    From his painstaking study of polar exploration literature, Amundsen had learned that a common failing among polar explorers was their inability to captain a vessel. With his usual systematic approach Amundsen decided to study for his master's ticket, and in 1894 he went to sea aboard a sealing vessel.

    Three years later he was appointed first mate on board the "Belgica", on a Belgian-financed Antarctic expedition led by polar explorer Adrien de Gerlache de Gomery. The purpose of the voyage was to investigate the coast of Antarctica, but the expedition almost ended in disaster when the ship froze into the ice near Peter I's Island, as a result of the leader's inexperience in the polar regions. Thirteen months of anxious isolation followed before the "Belgica" finally shook off the last of the ice and entered open water. The preceding months had been arduous in the extreme. Virtually all the expedition members contracted scurvy and when the captain fell ill, Amundsen took over command. He quickly rose to the situation and put the crew to work catching seals and penguins and making warm clothes out of woollen blankets. The "Belgica" was under Amundsen's command when it finally broke out of the ice in March 1899, making the expedition the first -- albeit highly involuntary -- ever to stay the winter in the Antarctic.

    His captain's ticket now obtained Amundsen set about planning his own Arctic expedition, in search of the Northwest Passage, the believed sea route north of the North American continent, which many had attempted to find. He realized that to gain financial backing, the expedition must have a scientific goal. In Amundsens opinion the magnetic north pole would be a suitable subject. He therefore left for Hamburg, where he studied earth magnetism, and at the same time laid meticulous plans for his expedition.

The Northwest passage

    The vessel Amundsen selected for the voyage was the "Gjøa" a 47 ton, 70 foot sloop which -- loaded to the gunwales -- set out from Christiania (now Oslo) in June 1903. The "Gjøa" crossed the North Atlantic, then hugged the west coast of Greenland before crossing to the northern end of Baffin Island. The voyage continued into Lancaster Sound where the "Gjøa" started to nose its way through the labyrinth of islands off Canada's northwest coast. Ice floes, violent winds, fog and shallow waters were constant hazards, but towards the end of the summer the expedition found a natural harbour on King William Island, northwest of Hudson Bay. Another advantage of the location was that it was so close to the magnetic north pole that precise scientific measurements could be made there. For two years the expedition remained at the port that the men named Gjøahavn. There they built observatories, equipping them with high precision instruments. The studies they undertook not only established the position of the magnetic north pole,but also included observations of such precision that they provided experts on polar magnetism with sufficient work to last them for 20 years. Amundsen also learned from the Eskimos how to drive dog teams. He carefully observed the clothes the Eskimos wore, the food they ate and their customs, storing it all in his retentive memory for later use in polar regions.

    In August 1905 the scientific work was completed and the "Gjøa" resumed its westerly course through fog and drift ice. So shallow was the channel that at one point the vessel had only one inch of water beneath its keel. As the "Gjøa" moved slowly along its perilous course, Amundsen and his crew realized that they would soon be in waters that were known and charted by navigators moving eastwards from Alaska. Should no further problems arise they would have completed the final stage of their journey through the Northwest Passage. After three weeks of mounting tension and excitement the expedition sighted a whaling ship out of San Francisco. The "Gjøa" had successfully navigated the Northwest Passage, the first vessel to do so. But shortly after this it froze into the ice, where it remained all winter.

    Anxious to tell the world of the expedition's achievement, Amundsen and an American companion set off in October with dog teams, travelling almost 500 miles across the ice to Eagle City in Alaska, where there was a telegraph connection with the outside world. This, his first long trip with dogs took him across 2,700 m high mountains, but on 5 December he reached Eagle City, and the news of his feat was transmitted to the world.

A change of plans

    Now a world-renowned explorer Amundsen held a series of lectures throughout the world to pay for the Northwest Passage expedition and to gather funds for the most daring project remaining in the Arctic -- the conquest of the North Pole. His new-found fame rapidly brought him the necessary capital and he was soon laying plans to drift across the pole in a ship which was frozen into the ice. The ship had even been procured. Amundsen approached Fridtjof Nansen and asked to borrow the "Fram" in which Nansen and his crew had spent three years - 1893 - 96 - drifting with the ice from Siberia towards the North Pole. Nansen had himself had plans for the "Fram" but such was his generosity that he agreed to Amundsen's request.

    But Amundsen's plans were shattered when, in April 1909, came the news that American Robert Peary had reached the North Pole. In a lightning-fast reaction Amundsen simply reversed his plans, changing the destination of his expedition "just as swiftly as the news (of Peary's achievement) had sped through the cables", as he himself said. Preparations continued, but with the destination changed -- to the South Pole. It was widely known that the Englishman Robert Falcon Scott was working on his second attempt to reach the South Pole, and Amundsen -- with his driving ambition to be first -- resolved to get there before him. Not until the "Fram" reached Madeira, in the summer of1910, did Amundsen make known to the world that he too was to make a bid for the Pole. A telegram relating the news reached Scott just as his expedition was leaving New Zealand.

    In January 1911 the "Fram" dropped anchor in the Bay of Whales. This Antarctic base had been carefully selected by Amundsen for its location, 60 miles closer to the Pole then Scott's base at Cape Evans. During February and March the men placed seven depots along the initial stretches of the route that was to be followed. Eminently practical , Amundsen had decided to mark the route with stockfish, which could subsequently serve as provisions.

    October 19 marked the start of the polar assault itself, when Amundsen set off with four companions, and four light sledges, each pulled by 13 dogs. The first stages of the journey were surprisingly easy. At times it was even possible to just let the dogs pull the sledges while the men held on to the traces and were drawn along in comfort. All this changed when the bottomless crevasses and endless ice ridges of the Axel Heiberg Glacier posed a formidable barrier, which taxed all the strength and courage of the well-trained men. But with this obstacle behind them, the five men made relatively easy progress across the final vast plateau to the South Pole itself. Excitement mounting, they approached the Pole point. Their natural fears that Scott might, after all, have beaten them to the goal were assuaged by confidence that their rapid progress would ensure them victory. And on December 14 the Pole point was reached.

    Amundsen's victory in the race for the South Pole had by no means satisfied his desire to reach new goals. On his return from Antarctica, he immediately put preparations in hand for a new expedition. The Arctic was still Amundsen's first love, and he aimed to explore its remaining unknown areas and to repeat Nansen's attempt to drift over the Pole. WWI delayed the execution of the plan, but in June 1918 the expedition left Norway. The "Fram" was no longer in a condition to use, so Amundsen designed his own ship, the "Maud", christening it -- characteristically enough -- , not with champagne, but with a block of ice.

Disappointment on the "Maud"

    The "Maud" expedition, loaded with apparatus for oceanographic meteorological and earth magnetism measurements, was the biggest and best equipped geophysical expedition ever to have embarked on polar exploration. But the project was to bring one disappointment after another. Sailing into the Arctic it froze into the coastal ice and lay helpless for the two first winters. It soon needed extensive repairs. These were carried out in Seattle where the "Maud" was equipped for more years in the ice. But in June of 1922 the ship again moved north, only to freeze fast by Wrangel Island, on the far northeast of the USSR. The ship moved with the ice onto the continental shelf off northeastern Siberia, where it remained for three years. The ambitious expedition had failed to attain its geographical goals, but the geophysical data which was compiled, largely by meteorologist/oceanographer Harald Ulrik Sverdrup, earned the ""Maud" expedition the reputation of being one of the most important research projects ever carried out in the Arctic. Something had been salvaged from the wreckage of disappointment.

Wings over the pole?

    Amundsen had shown an early interest in aviation as an aid to polar research. On its last venture northwards the "Maud" had on board two small planes. One of these was intended for observation purposes, the other, a larger craft, for flying due north from Alaska. Both aircraft crashlanded fairly soon, though the pilots survived the accidents.

    The "Maud's" failure to achieve its primary goal had not inspired confidence in any air conquest of the North Pole. Amundsen met little interest in his attempts to gather funds for his latest endeavour -- to bet he first man to fly over the North Pole.

    Arriving in New York after an unsuccessful lecture tour, his spirits at a low ebb, Amundsen was contacted by an American hitherto unknown to him, Lincoln Ellsworth. To Amundsen's delight he proposed to finance the purchase of two flying boats and to cover some of the other expenses in return for taking part in the expedition. Amundsen procured pilots and mechanics for the two aircraft and on May 21 1925 the two planes took off from Spitsbergen headed for Alaska. But as early as the next morning one of the aircraft's petrol tanks sprang a leak, and the other had engine trouble. Both aircraft landed on the ice some 150 km from the Pole. Only one of them could be used after this. After the six men -- using only hand tools -- had hewn out a primitive runway, the pilot, Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen, in a masterly exhibition of the art of flying, managed to take off with all six men on board. The aircraft was overloaded, but with its last drops of fuel managed to reach Nordaustlandet, an island in the Svalbard group, where the six men were plucked from the sea and brought back to Norway.

    Contrary to expectations, this most unsuccessful of all Amundsen's polar exploits caught the popular imagination of the whole world. Amundsen was again a hero and was accorded a rapturous welcome when he returned to Oslo. Amundsen described the reception as the happiest memory of his life.

Triumph -- on the "Norge"

    Now convinced that aircraft were not yet suited to transpolar flights, Amundsen thought that it might be possible to fly from continent to continent in an airship. In a surprisingly short space of time he procured funds for a new venture. On May 11 1926 the tireless explorer left Spitsbergen aboard the airship "Norge" (Norway). With him were Lincoln Ellsworth, Italian Umberto Nobile -- who had constructed the vessel and flew it -- and the brilliant pilot Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen, who served as navigator. In addition there was a crew of 12.

    After a flight of only 16 hours, the jubilant men were able to drop the Norwegian, American and Italian flags over the North Pole. On 14 May the "Norge" landed at Teller in Alaska. The crew had covered 5,456 kilometres in 72 hours, and were the first men to have flown from Europe to America. The route of the "Norge" had been plotted right across unknown polar territory, and Amundsen was able to state that there were no land areas there. The last remaining blank on the world map had been filled in.

    The acclaim of the world reached new heights. In the USA and Japan in particular, his name was especially revered. But the period was saddened by an unfortunate enmity that had arisen between Amundsen and Umberto Nobile, who tried to detract from Amundsen's part in the "Norge" flight, while Amundsen criticized the airship.

    Nevertheless, he showed his magnanimity to the full when the news came in May, 1928 that Nobile's new airship, the "Italia" had crashed in the Arctic.

    Without hesitation Amundsen volunteered to take part in a rescue attempt, and in June he was one of six men who took off from the town of Tromsø in a French aircraft, the Latham. Nobile and his crew were rescued on 22 June. But three hours after Amundsen's plane took off it transmitted what were to be its final signals. The aircraft never returned.

But who was the first?

    Though there can be no shadow of doubt as to which expedition was the first to reach the South Pole, subsequent research has cast doubts on the claims of both Peary and, later, the American Richard Byrd to have reached the North Pole.

    Scientists throughout the world have never completely accepted Peary's assertions that he had driven a dogsled team to the North Pole in 1909. He would scarcely have time to reach the pole point in the time at his disposal, critics point out. In addition, there are several weak points in Peary's documentation of his alleged achievement. The decision to acclaim his "victory" was a political one, it was said.

    If Peary's claims are discredited, then Richard Byrd, who claimed to have flown over the pole in his Fokker monoplane in May 1926, must be next in line for the title of first at the pole. But modern research has cast serious doubts on the validity of his claims. The American researcher and expert in polar navigation, Dennis Rawlins, after meticulous study of Byrd's diary, says he is sure that Byrd's Fokker monoplane never reached the pole and that Byrd must have been aware of this fact.

    Roald Amundsen left Spitsbergen on board the airship Norge only days after Byrd's plane had winged northwards. On 12 May 1926, the Norge reached the pole point.

    If the claims of both Peary and Byrd are discredited, or at least not sufficiently proven, then Amundsen must be the only contender for the title of first man at both poles. Posterity will hopefully clarify this point.

Produced for the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs by Nytt fra Norge, and reproduced by ExploreNorth with permission.