Helmer Julius Hanssen (1870-1956)
Helmer Hanssen participated in three of Roald Amundsen’s polar expeditions and was part of the five-man group who were first to reach the South Pole on December 14, 1911.
Early Years and Arctic Expeditions
Hanssen was born in northern Norway, where he grew up farming and fishing with his father. As a young man, he hunted seals in the Arctic and gained skill as an ice pilot.
Hanssen got his mate’s certificate and joined a British expedition to Novaya Zemlya (Russian Lapland) in 1897. Just prior to setting off, he met Roald Amundsen who was preparing to join de Gerlache’s expedition with the Belgica to Antarctica.
Several years later, Amundsen engaged Hanssen as mate on his expedition through the Northwest Passage with Gjøa (1903–06). This was the beginning of an 18-year long association between Hanssen and Amundsen. On the expedition Hanssen learned from the Inuit how to drive sled dogs. After Gjøa’s return home, Hanssen worked for the Customs in Tromsø, a job which he held for many years…in between expeditions.
The South Pole with Amundsen
Hanssen was given leave to participate as ice pilot on Amundsen’s next expedition in 1910–12. The expedition was officially to go north, but at the last minute, went to the Antarctic instead. Hanssen’s skill with sled dogs was invaluable and he was chosen to accompany Amundsen to the South Pole. He was also in charge of navigation, carrying the master compass on his sledge. On December 14, 1911, Hanssen, along with Roald Amundsen, Olav Bjaaland, Oscar Wisting, and Sverre Hassel became the first five people to reach the South Pole.
Back to the Arctic
Hanssen made a final journey with Amundsen, as captain on the Maud expedition through the Northeast Passage in 1918–20. When the Maud became stuck in the ice near to Ajon Island, Hanssen sledged to Anadyr by the Bering Strait, in order to send telegrams for Amundsen. The return journey of around 2500 miles (4000 km) took 6½ months. This was probably a record for sledging journeys at that time; the South Pole trip was 1864 miles (3000 km) and took 99 days.
Later expeditions to the Arctic included an Oxford University Spitsbergen Expedition 1924, and a 1926 German film expedition to Svarlbad and Northeast Greenland. On the latter trip he met the American polar hero Richard Byrd, but rejected his offer to join his upcoming Antarctic expedition.
Helmer Hanssen was awarded the Knight of the Order St. Olav in 1906, for his participation on the Gjøa expedition. In 1912 he received the South Pole Medal (Sydpolsmedaljen), instituted by King Haakon VII to reward participants in Roald Amundsen’s South Pole expedition. In 1936 Hanssen published his autobiography The Voyages of a Modern Viking, London: Rutledge, 1936.