Roald Amundsen

Roald Amundsen.

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Date of birth:
July 16, 1872
Borge, Norway

Birth name:
Roald Engelbregt Gravning Amundsen

Date of death:
June 1928
Barents Sea (plane crash)



Amundsen is perhaps the greatest Polar explorer of today

Isn't it weird? Out of the three great Antarctic explorers of the early 1900s, Amundsen is the one who actually got to the South Pole first yet today is the least fondly remembered. Scott was brave but his preperations were about as thorough as those of Johnny Vegas for a marathon; Shackleton's amazing Endurance expedition failed to even get to its destination, but both are held more in awe than Amundsen, at least in the UK. Why? Because both Scott and Shackleton told their accounts far better than Amundesen. That's it. Bottom line. Better storytellers. And, of course, he wasn't British which to those in polite British society of the day was his most unforgiveable sin.

Roald Amundsen was born to a family of Norwegian shipowners and captains in Borge near Sarpsborg. His father was Jens Amundsen. Inspired by Fridtjof Nansen's crossing of Greenland in 1888, he decided on a life of exploration.

He joined the Belgian Antarctic Expedition (18971899) as second mate. Led by Adrien de Gerlache, their ship the Belgica became the first to winter in Antarctica. Also on board was an American doctor, Frederick Cook. Cook probably saved the crew from scurvy, an important lesson for Amundsen's future expeditions.

In 1903 Amundsen led the first expedition to traverse the Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, with six others in the ship Gja. They travelled via Baffin Bay, Lancaster and Peel Sounds, and James Ross and Rae Straits to spend two winters exploring over land and ice from the place today called Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, Canada.

During this time Amundsen studied the local Netsilik people in order to learn Arctic survival skills and soon adopted their dress. From them he learned to use sled dogs. Continuing to the south of Victoria Island, the ship cleared the Arctic Archipelago on August 17, 1905, but had to stop for the winter before going on to Nome on the Alaska Territory's Pacific coast. 500 miles (800 km) away, Eagle City, Alaska, had a telegraph station; Amundsen travelled there (and back) overland to wire a success message (collect) on December 5, 1905. Nome was reached in 1906. Due to water as shallow as 3 feet (1 m), a larger ship could never have used the route.

After the Northwest Passage Amundsen made plans to go to the North Pole and explore the North Polar Basin. On hearing in 1909 that first Frederick Cook and then Robert Peary claimed the Pole, he changed his plans. Using Fridtjof Nansen's ship Fram ("Forward") he instead set out for Antarctica in 1910.

Amundsen told no one of his change of plans except his brother Leon and Thorvald Nilsen, commander of the Fram. He was afraid that Nansen would rescind use of Fram, if he learned of the change. And he probably didn't want to alert Robert Falcon Scott that he would have a competitor for the pole. Since the original plan called for going around the Horn to the Bering Strait he waited until Fram reached Madeira to let his crew know of the change. Every member agreed to continue. Leon made the news public on October 2. While in Madeira, Amundsen sent a nine-word telegram to Scott, notifying him of the change in destination: "BEG LEAVE TO INFORM YOU FRAM PROCEEDING ANTARCTIC, AMUNDSEN"

On 14 January 1911 they arrived at the eastern edge of Ross Ice Shelf at the location known as the Bay of Whales. Amundsen located his base camp there and named it Framheim, literally, "Home of the Fram." It was 60 statute miles (96 km) closer to the Pole than McMurdo Sound, where the rival British expedition led by Scott stayed. Scott would follow the route, discovered by Ernest Shackleton, up the Beardmore Glacier to the Antarctic Plateau. Amundsen would have to find his own entirely new path south to the Pole and, as he found, ascend the Trans-Antarctic Mountains to reach the Polar Plateau.

During February, March and early April, Amundsen and his men laid supply depots at 80, 81 and 82 South, along a line direct to the Pole. This gave him some experience of conditions on the Ross Ice Shelf and provided crucial testing of their equipment. During the winter at Framheim they kept busy improving their equipment, particularly the sledges. These sledges, the same kind and manufacturer that Scott used, weighed 165 pounds. During the winter, Olav Bjaaland was able to reduce their weight to 48 pounds. On February 4, 1911, members of the Scott's team on Terra Nova paid a friendly visit to the Amundsen camp at Framheim.

Amundsen made a false start to the Pole on 8 September 1911. The temperatures had risen, giving the impression of an austral-Spring warming. This Pole team consisted of eight people, Olav Bjaaland, Helmer Hanssen, Sverre Hassel, Oscar Wisting, Jorgen Stubberud, Hjalmar Johansen, Kristian Prestrud and Amundsen. Soon after departure, temperatures fell below -60F. On 12 September, it was decided to reach the Depot at 80, deposit their supplies and turn back to Framheim and await warmer conditions. The Depot was reached on 15 September from which they hurriedly retreated back to Framheim. Prestrud and Hanssen sustained frost-bitten heels on the return. The last day of the return, by Amundsen's own description, was not organized. Whether this was the result of poor leadership or necessity is unclear. At Framheim, Johansen openly suggested that Amundsen had not acted properly. Amundsen then reorganized the Pole party. Prestrud, with Johansen and Stubberud, was tasked with the exploration of Edward VII Land. This separated Johansen from the Pole team.

The new Pole team, Bjaaland, Hanssen, Hassel, Wisting and Amundsen, departed on 19 October 1911. They took four sledges and 52 dogs. On October 23, they reached the 80S Depot, and on November 3, the 82 Depot. On November 15, they reached latitude 85S, they had arrived at the base of the Trans-Antarctic Mountains. The ascent along the Axel Heiberg Glacier was easier than they expected. They arrived at the edge of the Polar Plateau on November 21. Here they camped at the place they named "Butcher Shop", where 24 of the remaining dogs were killed. Some of the carcasses were fed to the remaining dogs, the balance were cached for the return journey. Blizzards and poor weather made progress slow as they crossed the "Devil's Ballroom", a heavily crevassed area. They crossed 87S on December 4, and on December 7, they reached the latitude of Shackleton's furthest south, 8823'S, 180 km (97 nautical miles) from the South Pole.

On 14 December 1911, the team of five, with 16 dogs, arrived at the Pole. They arrived 35 days before Scott's group. Amundsen named his camp at the South Pole Polheim, "Home of the Pole". Amundsen renamed the Antarctic Plateau as King Haakon VII's Plateau. They left a small tent and letter stating their accomplishment, in the event they did not return safely to Framheim.

Amundsen's extensive experience, careful preparation and use of the best sled dogs available (Greenland huskies) paid off in the end. In contrast to the misfortunes of Scott's team, the Amundsen's trek proved rather smooth and uneventful. Amundsen tended to make light of difficulties. They returned to Framheim on January 25, 1912 with eleven dogs. Henrik Lindstrom, the cook, said to Amundsen: "And what about the Pole? Have you been there?" The trip had taken 99 days, the distance about 1,860 miles.

Amundsen's success was not publicly announced until 7 March 1912, when he arrived at Hobart, Australia. Amundsen recounted his journey in the book The South Pole: An Account of the Norwegian Antarctic Expedition in the "Fram", 19101912.

In 1918 Amundsen began an expedition with a new ship Maud, which was to last until 1925. Maud sailed West to East through the Northeast Passage, now called the Northern Route (1918-1920). Amundsen planned to freeze the Maud into the polar ice cap and drift towards the North Pole (as Nansen had done with the Fram), but in this he was not successful. However, the scientific results of the expedition, mainly the work of H. Sverdrup, were of considerable value.

In 1925 with Lincoln Ellsworth and four others he flew to 87 44' north in two aircraft. It was the northernmost latitude reached by plane up to that time. The planes landed a few miles apart without radio contact, yet the crews managed to reunite. One of the aircraft was damaged. Amundsen and his crew worked for over three weeks to clean up an airstrip to take off from ice. They shovelled 600 tons of ice on 1 lb (400 g) of daily food rations. In the end six crew members were packed into the remaining aircraft. In a remarkable feat, the pilot H. Riiser-Larsen took off and barely became airborne over the cracking ice. They returned triumphant when everyone thought they had been lost for ever.

The following year Amundsen, Ellsworth and Italian aeronautical engineer Umberto Nobile made the first crossing of the Arctic in the airship Norge designed by Nobile. They left Spitzbergen on May 11, 1926 and landed in Alaska two days later. The three previous claims to have arrived at the North Pole by Frederick Cook in 1908, Robert Peary in 1909, and Richard E. Byrd in 1926 (just a few days before the Norge) are all disputed, as being either of dubious accuracy or outright fraud. Some of those disputing these earlier claims therefore consider the crew of the Norge to be the first verified explorers to have reached the North Pole.

Amundsen disappeared on June 18, 1928 while flying on a rescue mission with the famous Norwegian pilot Leif Dietrichson, the French pilot Rene Guilbaud, and three more Frenchmen, looking for missing members of Nobile's crew, whose new airship the Italia had crashed while returning from the North Pole. Afterwards, a pontoon from the French Latham 47 flying-boat he was in, improvised into a life raft, was found near the Troms coast. It is believed that the plane crashed in fog in the Barents Sea, and that Amundsen was killed in the crash, or died shortly afterwards. His body was never found. The search for Amundsen was called off in September by the Norwegian Government. A recent discovery (2003) suggests the plane went down northwest of Bear Island.

Further Reading

  • Scott and Amundsen: Last Place on Earth

  • The South Pole: An Account of the Norwegian Antartctic Expedition in the "Fram", 1910-12

    Roald Amundsen Dvds

    Roald Amundsen Dvds @ (direct link)

    Roald Amundsen Biography Books @ (direct link)

    Roald Amundsen.

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