Famous Pipe Smokers: Roald Amundsen (Part I)
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01 March 2011

Famous Pipe Smokers: Roald Amundsen (Part I)

In Wes Anderson's film The Royal Tenenbaums, the title character, estranged patriarch Royal Tenenbaum is visiting his mother's grave with his two sons when he spots an epitaph reading: "Veteran of two wars; Father of nine children; Drowned in the Caspian Sea". Royal, as played by Gene Hackman, remarks, "Hell of a damn grave. Wish it were mine." One might only wonder what Hackman's character might have said to, "Sailor and Adventurer; First man to conquer South Pole; First to cross over the Arctic and North Pole by air; First to navigate the Northwest Passage; Vanished racing to rescue stranded survivors of airship Italia disaster upon the Arctic ice."

"I may say that this is the greatest factor — the way in which the expedition is equipped — the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it. Victory awaits him who has everything in order — luck, people call it," famed Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen is often quoted from his memoirs. He also summed it up rather more directly, if quite ironically, as, "Adventure is just bad planning." One of Norway's most widely-celebrated sons, Amundsen was born in the parish of Borge in July of the year 1872, to a family of shipowners and captains... yet life at sea was not to be for him. Or, at least, that was his mother's intention, as she pressed her youngest boy to pursue an education in medicine rather than seamanship and navigation. Roald did what any good son would, and followed his mother's wishes right up until the day she died... and then, at the age of 21, promptly abandoned his medical studies to pursue a life of exploring the farthest and most uninhabitable reaches of the earth.

By 1910 Amundsen had served as first mate to Adrien de Gerlache on the Belgica as part of the first expedition to winter in Antarctica, and furthermore gone on to lead the first ship, following centuries of repeated attempts, to successfully traverse the Northwest Passage - a small, aging, shallow-draft seal-hunting sloop, the Gjoa, which Amundsen had outfitted with a small 13hp paraffin engine. Crewed by a mere seven men, himself included, the little vessel set sail from Oslofjord on June 16, 1903 and arrived to a hero's welcome at earthquake-ravaged San Francisco on October 19, 1906 - succeeding where larger ships, and larger crews had failed. Amundsen had in fact planned for this, calculating that only so small a group could survive off the land at such northern climes. 1910 was to be the year Amundsen would lead an expedition intended to be the first to reach the North Pole. There was only one problem. Namely, that as Amundsen had engaged in long preparation, word arrived that first Frederick Cook, then Robert Peary had both made their own claims to having achieved the North Pole.

Amundsen, in response, did what any proper explorer would, and turned his attention to the South Pole instead. Of course, Amundsen's decision is rather more notable in that he decided not to let the world know what he was really up to - including his expedition's backers. He was going to conquer the South Pole, and he wasn't going to let out a peep about it until it suited him. In a bit of almost boyish mischief, he sold the idea of shifting the planned expedition south to his financial backers on the high-minded merit of scientific inquiry unblemished by any record-seeking heroics... while he was in truth pursuing a more glorious game: that of seeking out the very heart of the Antarctic's desolation. Only his brother Leon, who had assisted him greatly and his ship's captain were let in on the truth.

On August 9, 1910, with two years’ worth of provisions, tents, sledges, a portable hut, and 97 sled dogs, the Fram (a purpose-built, exceptional polar exploration vessel, with eighteen years’ of fame already to her name) sailed out of Christiania with Amundsen at command. On September 9, only a few hours before they were to leave Madeira and continue directly to Antarctica, Amundsen's crew was interrupted as they took advantage of this final bit of leisure-time, many writing their last letters home. They were gathered before the mainmast, where Amundsen stood beside a map of the Antarctic. Only then did he reveal his plans to the crew at large, asking each man personally if he would join in the historic expedition to achieve the South Pole. The last man to leave the Fram before she set out was to be Leon, who carried with him the men's letters, and a message his younger brother had asked him to send by telegraph - but not until early October, when the ship and her crew would be beyond the point of recall by any authority.

It was this same message which the English Royal Naval officer and explorer Captain Robert Falcon Scott would find waiting for him when his own much-publicized, under-way (and ultimately ill-fated) Terra Nova Antarctic expedition reached Melbourne on October 12, 1910. It read, quite simply: "Beg leave inform you proceeding Antarctic. Amundsen.”

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