ROALD ENGELBREGT GRAVNING AMUNDSEN (1872–1928)
Roald Amundsen left his mark on the Heroic Era as one of the most successful polar explorers ever born. He led the 1910–12 Antarctic expedition which was the first to reach the South Pole, on 14 December 1911. He was the first to traverse the Northwest Passage (1903–06) in the Arctic and he is recognized as the first person, without dispute, to have reached the North Pole.
Belgian Antarctic Expedition (1897–99)
Amundsen’s career of adventure began when he dropped out of medical school to go to sea. He was inspired by Fridtjof Nansen’s crossing of Greenland in 1888 and Franklin’s lost expedition and determined to spend his life exploring wild places. His first experience in the Antarctic was aboard the Belgica, with Adrien de Gerlache’s 1897-99 Belgian Antarctic Expedition. This was the first expedition to winter in Antarctica and the crew were poorly-prepared. They were saved from scurvy by the expedition doctor, Frederick Cook, who hunted for animals and fed the crew fresh meat, an important lesson for Amundsen’s future expeditions.
Northwest Passage (1903–1906)
In 1903, Amundsen led the first expedition to successfully traverse Canada’s Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, aboard the Gjoa. They spent two winters (1903–04 and 1904–05) in the harbor of what is today Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, Canada and learned Arctic survival skills from the local Netsilik Inuit people, including how to drive sled dogs and the use of animal skins instead of wool for clothing.
South Pole Expedition (1910–12)
Amundsen planned next to take an expedition to the North Pole and explore the Arctic Basin, however, when he heard in 1909 that the Americans Frederick Cook and Robert Peary had each claimed to reach the North Pole (on separate expeditions), he made new, covert plans to reroute to Antarctica. Using the ship Fram (“Forward”), earlier used by Fridtjof Nansen, Amundsen headed out on August 9, 1910. When they reached Madeira Amundsen alerted his men that they would be heading not north but south and sent a telegram to Robert Scott, notifying him simply: “BEG TO INFORM YOU FRAM PROCEEDING ANTARCTIC–AMUNDSEN”. Four months later the ship arrived at the Bay of Whales, on the eastern edge of the Ross Ice Shelf, and Amundsen established his base camp Framheim. He and his men then laid supply depots at 80°, 81° and 82° South on the Barrier, in preparation for their trek to the Pole the following spring.
The South Pole team of Olav Bjaaland, Helmer Hanssen, Sverre Hassel, Oscar Wisting, and Amundsen, departed Framheim on 19 October 1911 with four sledges and 52 dogs. They headed up the previously unknown Axel Heiberg Glacier, arriving at the edge of the Polar Plateau on 21 November and at the South Pole on 14 December 1911 – a full month before Robert Scott. The team spent several days in the vicinity of the pole, taking sightings to ensure that they got as close to 90S as possible. They left a small tent and letter stating their accomplishment, in case they did not return safely. The team arrived back at Framheim on 25 January 1912, with 11 surviving dogs.
Northeast Passage (1918–20)
In 1918, Amundsen set off on an expedition through the Northeast Passage, aiming to sail along the coast of Siberia and explore unknown areas of the Arctic Ocean. In contrast to Amundsen’s earlier expeditions, this was expected to yield more material for academic research, and he carried the geophysicist Harald Sverdrup on board. 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 despite spending three winters frozen in the ice, he was unsuccessful in his goal. In 1922 he shifted his plans and divided the expedition team in two. One team, led by Amundsen, made an attempt to fly over the pole. The second team under the command of Wisting, resumed the original plan to drift over the North Pole. Both attempts to reach the Pole failed and Amundsen set off on a lecture tour of the USA to raise additional funds.
The North Pole
In 1925, accompanied by Lincoln Ellsworth, pilot Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen, and three other team members, Amundsen took two Dornier Do J flying boats, the N-24 and N-25, to 87° 44′ north, the northernmost latitude reached by plane up to that time. The N-24 was damaged, leaving only one aircraft to transport all six men back to civilization. Amundsen and his crew worked for more than three weeks to level an airstrip and in a remarkable feat, Riiser-Larsen managed to take off from the sea ice. They returned triumphant when everyone thought they had been lost forever.
In 1926, Amundsen and 15 other men (including Ellsworth, Riiser-Larsen, Oscar Wisting, and the Italian air crew led by aeronautical engineer Umberto Nobile) made the first crossing of the Arctic in the airship Norge, designed by Nobile. They left Spitsbergen on 11 May 1926, and they landed in Alaska two days later. The three previous claims to have arrived at the North Pole: 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. If the Norge expedition was the first to the North Pole, Amundsen and Oscar Wisting were the first men to reach each geographical pole, by ground or by air.
Amundsen disappeared with five crew on 18 June 1928 while flying on a rescue mission in the Arctic. They were seeking missing members of Nobile’s crew, whose new airship Italia had crashed while returning from the North Pole.