Who is Roald Amundsen? | "The Last of the Vikings" and Polar Explorer

who is roald amundsen

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Roald Amundsen, whose real name was Roald Engelbregt Gravning Amundsen and who was nicknamed "the last of the Vikings", was a Norwegian explorer, born in Borge, Østfold, Norway in 1872. He is still one of the world's best-known explorers today, not least because he participated in the "heroic age of Antarctic exploration". He was the first explorer to reach the South Pole on 14 December 1991 with five companions, after having left Norway 17 months earlier, but also for having been the first navigator to cross the perilous North-West Passage in a 47-ton boat, the Gjøa, a few years earlier. He used the experience he had gained on his first expedition as first mate in a Belgian expedition led by Adrien de Gerlache, the first to winter in Antarctica in 1897, to make the crossing.

After this incredible expedition, he did not stop, the desire to explore the polar regions being stronger than the dangers they encountered. He tried to reach the North Pole in 1918 in another ship, the Maud, this time through the North-East Passage, but without success. Undaunted, and unable to go by sea, he took to the air and flew over the North Pole on 12 May 1926 in the airship Norge, accompanied by 15 other men.

Two years later, while leading a rescue mission to help another airship damaged by Arctic conditions, the Italia, he disappeared without a trace, the search for his remains being called off after more than two months of intensive searching.

The full life of this extraordinary man is a testament to his importance even today, both in terms of his historical discoveries and his unique character, combining perseverance, hope and a thirst for discovery. He went where no one had imagined he would, under extremely difficult conditions.

Discover today the story of one of the greatest figures in polar exploration!

portrait of the norvegian explorer roald amundsen

Roald Amundsen in fur, Circa 1923, public domain

A Youth Shaped by the Call of the Sea and Adventure

Amundsen, son of Jens Amundsen and Hanna Sahlqvist, was born in Borge into a family of ship captains and ship owners. During his youth, he mom urged him to study medicine, which he did, enrolling in 1890 at the Royal Norwegian Frederick University in Christiania. He continued his academic career until the death of his mother in 1893 when he was only 21.

As an orphan, his father having died when he was 14, and with no one to curb his desires, he left the faculty to join the sea and the adventure that had fascinated him since his childhood, the stories of Sir John Franklin's expeditions to the Arctic having lulled his youth. As proof of this and to prepare his body for the polar cold, he used to sleep with his bedroom windows open during the winter and started skiing in his early days. To perfect this resistance and acquire more experience, particularly in navigation, he signed up in the summer of 1894 on a whaler that hunted mainly in the Arctic.

He did a series of small jobs before taking part in the first major expedition of his young career, this time as second on the Belgica ship, a polar expedition in which he proved to be a competent explorer.

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Amundsen's First Expedition: A Long Winter in Antarctica

In 1897, Amundsen joined the crew of the mainly Belgian RV Belgica, led by Adrien de Gerlache, to travel to Antarctica for the first time in his life. Stuck in the ice off Alexander Island and east of the Antarctic Peninsula, it became the first Antarctic expedition to winter in these icy spaces.

During this expedition, he learned many lessons, especially from the expedition's physician, Frederick Cook. They noticed that hunting animals, especially seals, in order to feed the team with fresh meat cured certain epidemics such as scurvy relatively well. Indeed, vitamin C, which is effective against this epidemic, is naturally produced by these animals.

Feeding on their meat therefore provides the organism with this need for vitamin C, allowing better protection and healing. He also noticed during the cold winter that some materials insulated better than others. For example, he noted that animal skins were more insulating than wool coats.

Belgica boat

Die Belgica bei der Antarktisexpedition 1897-1899, 1898, source: http://www.tierradelfuego.org.ar/belgica/barco.htm, Frederick Cook, public domain

The Northwest Passage: A Child's Dream Come True

Following this challenging but instructive expedition, Amundsen prepared to lead his first expedition. It took place in 1903, in northern Canada, more precisely along the Northwest Passage, which Amundsen wanted to cross to reach the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

📷 Credit: Canadian Geographic's Youtube Channel

In order to succeed where no one had succeeded before, Roald assembled six men in a fishing boat of almost 45 tons, the Gjøa, which he had bought himself. This type of boat seemed unsuitable for the harsh conditions of the passage, but Amundsen wanted a small vessel with a shallow draught so that he could sail along the coast. To make the journey easier on calm days, he installed a small 13 horsepower engine.

gjøa boat during amundsen expedition

Picture of the Gjøa ship (of Roald Amundsen's 1913 expedition), public domain

Few people know this, but Amundsen's primary objective was not to cross the Northwest Passage, but to determine whether the North Magnetic Pole had moved or not since its discovery in 1831.

Their journey was long, very long. After crossing Baffin Bay, the Perry Channel and four straits: Peel, James Ross, Simpson and Rae, they arrived on King William Island (now Gjoa Haven) where they stayed for two years. The purpose of this extended stay was to confront the harsh polar winters while learning as much as possible from the local Inuit people (of the Netsilik tribe - "Netsilingmiut") and to devote themselves to scientific observations (meteorological and magnetic). Together with them, they learned how to use sled dogs, the basics of survival and the best clothing to wear for the conditions.

Christmas celebration in Gjoa Haven, 1903

Christmas celebration in Gjoa Haven, 1903, National Library of Norway, Published on p. 95 in Amundsen's "Nordvestpassagen", Godfred Hansen (1876-1937), public domain

During his lifetime, Amundsen never reached the North Magnetic Pole, which had moved some 50 km north of his last measures. However, by showing that it was moving, he made a major scientific discovery.

After their departure, they passed numerous icebergs and their first objective: Cambridge Bay, the furthest point yet visited by man, and more precisely by Richard Collinson half a century earlier, in 1852. After another winter in the ice and they knew they had succeeded when they came across a whaler from San Francisco.

They arrived soon after in Nome, on the Pacific coast of Canada in 1806. Roald walked the nearly 800 km from his ship to the first telegraph station at Eagle to deliver his message of success to the new King of Norway, Haakon VII, telling him that the crossing "was a great achievement for Norway". For this feat, he was elected a Fellow of the American Antiquarian Society that same year.

Crew at wireless telegraph station, Eagle, Alaska

Crew at wireless telegraph station, Eagle, Alaska, Subjects (LCTGM): Telegraph offices--Alaska--Eagle, Eagle, Alaska, 1914, Asahel Curtis (1874 - 1941), University of Washington: Special Collections. Source:  Asahel Curtis Photo Company Photographs, public domain

The crew returned to Norway in 1906, more than three years after their successful departure. However, the ship was not returned to the Norwegian crown until much later, in 1972, to be placed in front of the Fram Museum in Oslo. After this first successful expedition (as captain) and still driven by an unquenchable sense of exploration, Roald made the decision to head for the North Pole. Unfortunately for him, he soon learned that two Americans, Robert Peary and Frederick Cook,  claimed that they just achieved this feat.

Disappointed but far from defeatist, his eyes turned south to Antarctica, where he was to become a legend a few years later.

Reaching the South Pole: Roald Amundsen's Crowning Achievement

After the setback of the North Pole expedition, he naturally turned to the other icy pole of our planet, Antarctica. The reasons for this expedition were not clear at first, as he was preparing it in great secrecy, knowing that an English captain, Robert Falcon Scott, had decided to plan his own expedition the same year.

Amundsen Fram boat south pole

Ukjent , Archival Photograph by Mr. Steve Nicklas, NOS, NGS – photolib.noaa.gov From Amundsen, Roald: The South Pole, Vol. I, first published by John Murray, London 1912. Photo facing page 170

Amundsen left Oslo on 3 June 1910 on board the Fram, a ship previously used by Fridtjof Nansen. He did not bother to inform his crew of their final destination until they arrived on the island of Madeira. It took the team almost 6 months to reach the "Great Ice Barrier", today better known as the Ross Ice Shelf, and Whale Bay where they landed on 11 January 1911 and set up their base camp, named "Framheim". This camp was 60 miles further south than Scott's, giving him a considerable advantage in terms of time and resource conservation (both human and food).

roald amundsen with his dog on the boat near the Antarctica

Roald Amundsen watches Martin Rønne sewing on machine. Above them was a sun canopy that made sure that all the dogs were in the shade on the trip to Antarctica. 1910, Photographer unknown, National Library of Norway (CC BY 2.0)

Methodical, he decided not to rush headlong towards his goal but to create supply depots along his route to the South Pole. So he and his men set out once with their skis and skins to create supply points at 80°, 81° and 82° South.

Amundsen in ice fur south pole

Norwegian Bokmål: Roald Amundsen by Svartskog, Bunnefjorden, 7 March 1909, Anders Beer Wilse (1865–1949).Frontispiece portrait of Roald Amundsen, 1872-1928. In: "The South Pole", Volume II, Library Call Number M82.1/99 A529s., libr0351, Treasures of the NOAA Library Collection, by Mr. Steve Nicklas, NOS, NGS, Public domain

A first small group of three adventurers, Hjalmar Johansen, Kristian Prestrud and Jørgen Stubberud, set off on 8 September, but gave up because of the extreme temperatures. Their return provoked a quarrel and Amundsen preferred to dismiss the three men, sending them on a side mission away from the main expedition.

The second attempt was made more than a month later, on 19 October, and this time in greater numbers. Five adventurers went on this expedition: Olav Bjaaland, Helmer Hanssen, Sverre Hassel, Oscar Wisting and Amundsen. But that was not all. With them, the explorers took no less than four sledges and 52 dogs (Amundsen intended to eat some of them to ensure a supply of fresh meat during the journey). These sleds had been reworked by the group's carpenter, Bjaaland, to reduce the weight from 90kg to just 20kg in order to save as much energy as possible during their long and gruelling journey.

amundsen and his expedition colleagues

Sverre Hassel, Oscar Wisting, Roald Amundsen, Olav Bjaaland and Helmer Hanssen are on "Fram"'s deck. 7. mars 1912, Australia, Tasmania, Hobart. Photographer:  unknown, digital copy of original, National Library of Norway, Public domain

They took a previously unknown route, following and climbing the Axel Heiberg glacier for four days, arriving on the polar plateau on 21 November. They then walked for three weeks in the cold and blizzards before finally arriving at the South Pole on 14 December with only 16 dogs.

Amundsen and his men set up a tent and named the camp "Polheim". They made sure to leave a note of their achievement in the tent in case they didn't make it back alive. Before leaving, they raised the Norwegian flag, each member of the team, having been a key part of this adventure, was able to hold the flagpole. They even shared a bottle of champagne that one of the cooks had kept in his sleeping bag the night before to thaw.

Amundsen expedition at the South Pole

Aan de Zuidpool, December 1911, Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation: De Aarde en haar Volken, Jaargang 1913. HAARLEM, H. D. TJEENK WILLINK & ZOON. Olav Bjaaland (1873–1961), Project Gutenberg Public Domain

Their opponent Scott's expedition did not have the same allure and did not arrive on the scene until a month later on 18 January 1912, not having benefited from the knowledge of the environment, the understanding of dogs and the use of skis that Amundsen had been able to acquire from the Inuit in the Arctic a few years earlier. Indeed, Scott had used motorised sledges, which quickly broke down, ponies that had to be shot and inefficient Siberian dog teams, with the remaining men having to complete the route on foot.

"Victory awaits those who have everything in order - people call it luck. Defeat is certain for those who forgot to take the necessary precautions in time - people call that bad luck." - Roald Amundsen.

south pole scott and amundsen routes

Map of The Ross Sector with details of Terra Nova and Amundsen's expeditions to the South Pole, 2008, self-made (adapted from map in Scott's Journals ISBN 019929752-5), Yomangani

The return journey was equally long and they reached Framheim on 25 January 1912 with only 11 dogs. The return for Scott was not so easy and the fickle weather caused their downfall, first killing two members and then trapping the survivors in a storm, only a few miles from their base camp. Scott's frozen body was found in his tent later that year.

For their part, exhausted by an expedition of 99 days and nearly 1800 miles, determined not to remain on the continent indefinitely, and driven by hunger and cold, they quickly left their camp and anchorage for Australia, where Amundsen told the world of his achievement on 7 March 1912.

Amundsen's organisational and planning skills and diverse knowledge clearly enabled him to succeed in this quest. Unlike Scott, who relied on Western knowledge of the time, Roald's immersion in Aboriginal communities gave him a vital advantage over his opponent (using furs, handling sheds, building igloos, navigating difficult areas).

📷 Credit: Traveling Dunia's Youtube Channel

The North-East Passage: A Hard Fight Against Mother Nature

The ship on which Amundsen sailed to the South Pole gave him new ideas for new explorations. Indeed, before sailing the southern seas, the Fram had been in the hands of Nansen, another Arctic explorer who inspired Roald and made him want to take the same dangerous routes, along the arctic circle especially the North-East Passage.

In 1918, he decided to set off again, this time on board another ship, the Maud, in an adventure that would last almost 7 years, ending in 1925. Accompanied by former teammates, some of whom had even accompanied him to the South Pole, they set sail along the Siberian coast with the aim of going further than Nansen had previously been able to do on board the Fram.

 Roald Amundsen's ship Maud built in 1917

Roald Amundsen's ship Maud, built in 1917, 7 March 1918, Galleri NOR Tilvekstnummer: NF.W 19772 Internnr: NBR9404:14440, Anders Beer Wilse (1865 - 1949)

He intended to sail as far as possible along the coast before freezing the ship in the ice cap and taking advantage of the ice cap's drift to get closer to the north, a technique already used by Nansen before him. Unfortunately, the ice was too thick and prevented the ship from freeing itself, despite its special design. The operation required a lot of energy from the crew, who, despite temporary success, found themselves stuck again ten days later near the New Siberian islands.

Amundsen suffered terribly during this period and was weakened by a broken arm and a polar bear attack. In order to find a solution to this problem, he and two companions, Hanssen and Wisting, embarked on an expedition of almost 1,000 km to Nome in Alaska, but soon noticed that the ice in the Bering Strait was too thin for them to cross. After this failure, they remained frozen in the ice for two winters without ever reaching their goal, prompting Roald to take the ship back to Nome to resupply. Several members took the opportunity to abandon the expedition, including Hanssen (who never returned to the ship in time).

The crew spent a third winter in the Bering Strait and then slowly made their way down the coast to Seattle in 1921. After a return trip to Norway for financial reasons, he reunited with his crew in Nome in 1922 with a completely new plan: to go by air instead of by sea by chartering a plane for the expedition. He then divided his crew in two: one part was to fly over the Pole with him in 1923, and the other was to continue with the initial plan, by sea (after three winters stuck in the ice, it was a failure and the ship was seized following Amundsen's bankruptcy).

Although the first goal of the mission, to reach the North Pole, was never achieved, Amundsen and his crew contributed to the progress of science. Indeed, he had on board a scientist, Sverdrup, who contributed greatly to the better understanding of the Arctic environment, even if the return of these results to the world was chaotic. One part disappeared with an expedition commissioned by Roald and the other was abandoned, then discovered by a Russian scientist, on the shores of the Kara Sea.

The Last Expeditions to the North Pole: The Call of the Air

Ready for a new challenge, Roald Amundsen and Oskar Omdal attempt to fly from Wainwright in Alaska to Spitsbergen via the North Pole in 1923. Their plane was damaged and they had to abandon the journey.

📷 Credit: Norsk filminstitutt's Youtube Channel

Amundsen had to raise money to finance his expeditions, and in 1924 he undertook a conference tour in the United States. This tour enabled him to finance two Dornier Do J seaplanes, the N-24 and N-25, which he took, with five crew members, to 87° North, the northernmost latitude for an aircraft at that time, only 150 miles from the North Pole.

Roald Amundsen in Svalbard near his plane

Roald Amundsen, Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard, 1925. Preus Museum, Paul Berge (presumed author) (CC BY 2.0)

The N-24 was too badly damaged to fly again and the crew worked for months, clearing nearly 600 tons of ice to prepare a rough runway while rationing their meals to a mere 400 grams a day, a feat that was not easy to achieve. They all crammed into the remaining N-25 and pilot Riiser-Larsen, in a more than perilous manoeuvre on the brittle ice, managed to save them from certain death.

Roald amundsen and N-25 near the North Pole

Roald Amundsen's N-25 Dornier Do J at 87° 43' North between 21 May and 15 June 1925, 1925, Galleri NOR Tilvekstnummer: NF.WA 03026 Internnr: NBR9407:02054, Anders Beer Wilse (1865–1949)

Amundsen was determined to fulfil his dream of reaching the North Pole. In 1926, he gathered about 15 men, his loyal friends and members of his previous expeditions (Oscar Wisting and Lincoln Ellswhorh) and a crew led by an Italian aeronautical engineer, Umberto Nobile, to cross the Arctic in the airship Norge, a 100-metre-long hydrogen monster designed by Nobile.

The mission was a great success. They took off from Spitsbergen on 11 May 1926, flew over the North Pole the next day and landed in Alaska on 13 May 1926. To mark the occasion, Amundsen, Nobile and Lincoln Ellsworth all dropped their country's flag on the North Pole during their flight.

Norge airship in flight 1926

The airship Norge in flight after leaving its hangar in 1926, This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID ggbain.39238. Bain News Service, No known restrictions on publication

This was a short-lived success as he learned that the American aviator Richard E. Byrd had just achieved this feat in an aircraft a few days earlier. However, this flight was disproved by the aviator himself in one of his notebooks found in 1966, indicating that he had turned back 150 miles from the goal because of an oil leak, thus establishing Amundsen's flight as the first trans-Arctic flight across the North Pole.

Happy, fulfilled but also tired from his years of exploration, he seemed to want to retire to his home near Akershus to enjoy his well-earned days, but adventure was to call him once again, one last time.

roald amundsen house

Norwegian Bokmål: The picture is taken from the National Library's picture collection. Remarks on the photo were: Title taken from Galleri NOR (Wilse's protocol) Svartskog, Oppegård, Akershus, 7 March 1909. Source: "9985. Roald Amundsen - Villa fra haven", National Library of Norway

A Legend Born in Antarctica, Disappeared in the Arctic

Seeking to hog the limelight, Amundsen's Italian adventure companion Nobile tried to discredit Amundsen in order to be credited with leading the expedition, and thus the glory that came with it. To prove his worth, the Italian decided to undertake another voyage around the North Pole, this time alone, to prove his skills.

On 18 June 1928, his airship Italia crashed in the icy Arctic. Amundsen decided to take part in a final adventure, a rescue mission with a group of daring men including the French and Norwegian pilots Guilbaud and Dietrichson. They boarded a French-made seaplane, a Latham 47, which never returned.

Latham 47 Roald Amundsen

Latham 47.02, in Tromsø shortly before polar explorer Roald Amundsen took off searching for Umberto Nobile, never to be seen again. 18 June 1928, Galleri Nor Tilvekstnummer: NF.WB 48692 Internnr: NBR9203:04593, Anders Beer Wilse  (1865–1949) 

Very little is known about this accident, except that the radio signal was cut off after penetrating a thick fog bank. Some pieces of the wreckage were found on the Norwegian coast, near Tromsø, but we know nothing more about the death of Amundsen and the crew. Did they die in the crash or shortly afterwards? After two months of searching, the Norwegian government stopped the search and their bodies were never found. Nobile and seven members of the Italian crew were rescued weeks later after losing eight of their companions.

Several missions in 2004 and 2009 were launched by the Royal Norwegian Navy to find out more, including the use of submarines. After covering an area of more than 100 km2, no trace of Amundsen's flight was found, adding to the legend of this adventurer, swallowed by the ice.

Wrapping Up

Because of his bravery and his many achievements, Amundsen's name is known to many of us today. Many places are now named after him, such as the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Science Station. He is now considered one of, if not the greatest polar explorer of all time, with his contributions to polar discoveries being the most important. He was, however, the first man to reach the South Pole, the first man to use the Northwest Passage and the first man to fly over the North Pole.

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