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