Roald Amundsen was a Norwegian explorer who was a preeminent figure during the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, which lasted from the end of the 19th century to the end of World War I. He dedicated his life to searching for the planet's best kept secrets, uncovering unknown territory throughout his life while managing to find time to partake in pipe smoking. He became the first to successfully navigate the Northwest Passage, led the first expedition to the South Pole, and was among the first to reach the North Pole by airship. His accomplishments were staggering, having achieved remarkable feats that claimed the lives of other explorers and displayed a fervent desire to travel to the farthest, most uninhabitable reaches of the Earth.
Amundsen was born July 16, 1872 on a small farm in the parish of Borge and was one of four sons born to Jens Amundsen, an experienced captain, and Hanna Sahlqvist, the daughter of a bailiff. Just a few months after his birth, the family moved to Norway's capital, Christiania (now Oslo), with the goal of providing their sons with greater opportunities. For five generations Roald's ancestors had been farmers and sailors, and it may have seemed natural for him to follow in those footsteps but that wasn't always the anticipated plan.
During the summer of 1886, Amundsen's father, a rugged sailing man himself, fell ill during a voyage and passed away on his way home from England, profoundly impacting the 14 year old. "Sad times are here," the young boy wrote in a letter to his cousin. "I have never known sorrow; but now I do." Following his father's death, Amundsen's mother dissuaded her sons from pursuing their father's career and hoped for them to pursue careers in academia. Her sons certainly possessed the intelligence and the family was in a financial position that allowed the children to attend excellent private schools. But the children weren't interested in academic careers as they all expressed eagerness to travel, yearning for the sea and adventure. Gradually, each of the children abandoned their academic studies to embrace other vocations, leaving Roald as the only one left to fulfill his widowed mother's wish.
Amundsen hated to disappoint his mother and had promised her that he would honor her wish that he become a doctor. However, being in the medical field wasn't his dream job as he later would admit, "In all secrecy — because I have never dared to mention this mother, who I knew would not agree — I have decided to become a polar explorer." Amundsen knew as a teenager that exploration was what he wanted to pursue and even pinpointed the exact moment he came to this realization, recorded in his 1927 autobiography My Life as an Explorer. "When I was fifteen I happened upon the books of the English explorer Sir John Franklin," Amundsen recalled. "I devoured his books and they became the decisive decision for the direction I chose to take through life."
He continued to attend his university classes, if only for the sole purpose of obtaining money from his mother to pursue his passion for polar exploration. He dedicated much of his time to physical training and fitness and reading any book about exploration that he could find. When Admundsen's mother passed away in 1893, he sold his medical books and joined the crew of the Magdalena, a small sailing vessel that was headed north toward Iceland. He spent the next few years advancing through the grades, passing his mate's exam in 1895 and earning his master's license a few years later.
Amundsen's first true polar exploration occurred during the Belgian Antarctic Expedition when he took part as a mate aboard the Belgica, which was originally a steamship that was converted for research and exploration. Belgian Royal Navy officer Adrien de Gerlache led the expedition, which lasted from 1897 to 1899 and is largely considered the first scientific and research expedition to winter in the Antarctic region.
This Belgian Antarctic Expedition was grueling and plagued by tragedies, poor preparation, sickness, and a lack of essential equipment. A few months after departing from Antwerp during a severe storm, a young sailor named Wiencke was washed overboard and drowned despite the crew's efforts to save him. A month later, the vessel became trapped in the ice in the Bellingshausen Sea and the crew had to face unknown dangers as no previous ship had ever wintered in Antarctica.
It was during this time that Amundsen befriended the ship's doctor, an American named Frederick Albert Cook who Amundsen later credited with saving the crew from scurvy thanks to his medical knowledge and previous experiences on past polar expeditions. Dr. Cook hunted and fed the crew fresh meat, knowing that some animals make their own vitamin C and the meat contained enough of the vitamin to prevent scurvy, and even partially treat it. The crew spent 68 days in complete darkness and Cook urged them to spend an hour each day in front of the ship's bright burning stove to fight depression. He was among the first to recognize how mood and lack of sunlight were connected.
That revolutionary expedition was instrumental in helping inform Amundsen's later expeditions and taught him many invaluable lessons. He would later write about his success as an explorer: "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. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time, this is called bad luck."
Returning from the Belgian Antarctic Expedition, Amundsen began preparations for a goal he had set as a young teenager and felt that his experience aboard the Belgica had adequately prepared him to accomplish his dream. Roald would later write, "My plans matured during this voyage: I wished to unite my childhood dreams about the Northwest Passage with the, in itself, far more important objective: To determine the magnetic North Pole's position." In 1900 Amundsen enrolled in a maritime university in Hamburg to study magnetism and presented his plan to Dr. Georg von Neumayer, who at the time was the foremost expert in the field of terrestrial magnetism and advised Amundsen on the scientific instruments and methods of observation that would be needed.
Amundsen searched for a suitable ship, looking for a vessel that was small, sturdy, and fairly inexpensive since he planned to finance the expedition himself with money from his inheritance. He purchased the Gjøa, a 47-ton herring boat that was built in 1872, the same year he was born. While the purchase was primarily informed by Amundsen's limited finances, the ship's shallow draught would greatly help in traversing the shoals of the Arctic straits. The next two years were dedicated to obtaining and testing the equipment and provisions that would be essential for the expedition. Amundsen has recognized that a small crew was preferable for this voyage as larger crews are harder to sustain, having learned through his teenage readings that it was a catastrophic reason why his idol John Franklin's Northwest Passage attempt ended tragically.
He dedicated his life to searching for the planet's best kept secrets, uncovering unknown territory throughout his life while managing to find time to partake in pipe smoking.
Amundsen's Northwest Passage expedition consisted of a crew of six men and lasted from 1903 to 1906. Two years were spent stationed in Gjoa Haven with the crew members continuously recording their scientific findings and measurements, ultimately finding that the Magnetic Pole was surprisingly close to where British Royal Navy officer Sir James Clark Ross first recorded its position in 1831. Through interactions with the Netsilik Inuit people, Amundsen would learn invaluable Arctic survival skills that would inform his future expeditions, skills such as utilizing sled dogs to transport supplies and the learning the advantages of wearing animal skins over heavy, woolen parkas that would become inefficient when wet. The crew waited until the summer and completed the trip in August 1906, clearing the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.
Upon his return, Amundsen was celebrated for his remarkable achievement in having led the first expedition to successfully traverse the Northwest Passage and embarked on a lecture tour of Norway and Great Britain. While the tour allowed him to straighten out his finances, he loathed the experience and wanted nothing more than to plot a new expedition.
In 1908 Amundsen presented his new expedition to the Norwegian Geographic Society. "The next riddle I set for myself is to conquer the North Pole," Amundesen would write in his memoirs. Though he would present the expedition as a scientific exploration of the Arctic Basin, Amundsen's goal was the North Pole and he intended to replicate fellow Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen's attempt at drifting across the Arctic Ocean on the polar currents, which involved intentionally getting a ship stuck in the ice and floating toward the North Pole. Amundsen's plans suffered a setback in 1909 when he heard the news that Robert Peary and his trusted friend and shipmate aboard the Belgica, Frederick Cooke, had both claimed to have reached the North Pole during two separate expeditions (though both claims are still contested among experts). While Amundsen's interest in the North Pole declined, so did the financial contributions he was set to receive for his expedition.
After quickly overcoming the disheartening news, Amundsen shifted his focus toward Antarctica and set a new goal — being the first to lead an expedition to the South Pole. He was thoroughly prepared for the expedition but didn't inform anyone of his true intentions as English captain Robert Scott also announced plans to reach the South Pole. For this expedition Amundsen captained the Fram, Fridtjof Nansen's old vessel that was specifically designed to navigate through icy waters and Arctic conditions. Amundsen waited until the small crew was securing provisions in Portugal before revealing the actual destination of their expedition. The crew consisted of four men: Olav Bjaaland, Helmer Hanssen, Sverre Hassel, and Oscar Wisting, all of whom had experience in Arctic conditions and had specific skills that would be invaluable.
Equipped with multiple sleds and dozens of dogs, the crew utilized an unknown route along the previously undiscovered Axel Heiberg Glacier and embarked on a four day climb to reach their destination. Amundsen and his team made it successfully to the South Pole a month before Robert Scott's expedition. Unlike Amundsen, Scott's team didn't survive their return journey as all of the party members passed away due to a lack of supplies, injuries, and the extreme weather conditions. Amundsen's journey succeeded thanks to careful preparation, reliable equipment, proper clothing, and employing practical lessons learned from the Inuit people during his Northwest Passage journey.
Another key element for Amundsen's team would be his focus on dogs. Amundsen had correctly assessed that dogs would be capable of traversing any terrain required of them, and his planning purposefully included using the weakest of the pack as food both for the surviving dogs and for his men, saving precious weight in supplies that would otherwise require hauling.
Pipe smoking would be mentioned in Amundsen's memoirs about the South Pole expedition, fondly recounting Oscar Wisting's generosity when they reached the Pole:
"I had brought with me an old briar pipe, which bore the inscriptions from many places in the Arctic regions, and now I wanted it marked "South Pole." When I produced my pipe and was about to mark it I received an unexpected gift: Wisting offered me tobacco for the rest of the journey. He had some cakes of plug in his kit-bag, which he would prefer to see me smoke. Can anyone grasp what such an offer meant at such a spot, made to a man who, to tell the truth, is very fond of a smoke after meals? There are not many who can understand it fully. I accepted the offer, jumping with joy, and on the way home I had a pipe of fresh, fine-cut plug every evening. Ah! That Wisting, he spoiled me entirely. Not only did he give me tobacco, but every evening – and I must confess I yielded to the temptation after a while, and had a morning smoke as well – he undertook the disagreeable work of cutting the plug and filling my pipe in all kinds of weather."
Amundsen's future plans for exploration were temporarily halted during World War I and because the hull of the Fram was damaged beyond repair due to dry rot sustained during a voyage in the tropics. During this hiatus, Amundsen invested his accumulated funds in shipping stock, successfully earning a profit on his capital, and in 1916 used the money to commission the building of a new ship and finance his previously planned drift across the Arctic Ocean. The new ship would be built in a manner similar to the Fram, but featured extra reinforcement around its sides and hull to withstand the intended expedition. While it would be an ideal vessel if stuck in ice or subjected to intense pressure, its semi-circular hull caused it to roll strongly in the open sea.
Amundsen shifted his focus toward Antarctica and set a new goal — being the first to lead an expedition to the South Pole
The completed ship was named the Maud, after the Queen of Norway, and was ceremonially christened by Amundsen, who crushed a chunk of ice against the bow. At the christening of the new vessel Amundsen said, "It is not my intention to dishonor the glorious grape, but already now you shall get the taste of your real environment. For the ice you have been built, and in the ice you shall stay most of your life, and in the ice you shall solve your tasks. With the permission of our Queen, I christen you Maud." Amundsen equipped the vessel with five years' worth of provisions and eventually embarked on his journey toward the Northeast Passage in 1918, marking the beginning of an expedition focused on exploring the Arctic Ocean's unknown areas.
A full year was spent near Cape Chelyuskin, the northernmost point of Russia's mainland, recording scientific observations and charting the region. The following years were marked by hardships and disasters, including Amundsen breaking his arm, suffering carbon monoxide poisoning, and being attacked by a polar bear. The small crew gradually became disillusioned with the goal of the expedition and grew tired after the ship was stuck in ice for multiple winters, eventually disbanding in the early 1920s. The Northeast Passage and drifting in the Arctic Ice had eluded Amundsen again and more hardships soon followed.
The ensuing years were a low point for the intrepid explorer; his expedition aboard the Maud was deemed a failure and his crippling debt forced him to declare bankruptcy. Creditors seized the Maud as collateral and Amundsen likened his bankruptcy to admitting that he was guilty of criminal conduct. However, a chance meeting with Lincoln Ellsworth, an aspiring polar explorer and the son of a wealthy industrialist, began a fortunate turn of events for Amundsen, who had been developing an interest in air travel. Ellsworth's father provided $100,00 to fund the expedition his son and Amundsen planned: being the first to arrive at the North Pole via aircraft.
Amundsen, Ellsworth, and four crewmates planned to fly two Dornier Do J Wal flying boats north from Spitsbergen, land at the North Pole to make scientific measurements, abandon one plane at the Pole, and fly the remaining one to Alaska. Engine trouble in Amundsen's plane forced an emergency landing. Ellsworth's plane landed a few miles away but was badly damaged and had to be abandoned. Without radio contact and with harsh weather conditions bearing down, it took days for the teams to reunite and work on repairing the aircraft and weeks to fix the plane and find a suitable strip for them to successfully take off, which was no easy feat considering the unstable, icy surface they were dealing with. With inadequate tools and dwindling supplies, the team managed to take off in the plane. Amundsen eventually returned to Norway, greeted by cheering crowds which was a welcomed sight for Amundsen after suffering multiple, devastating setbacks years prior. While his other expeditions yielded valuable scientific results, none had captured the public's attention like this aerial adventure.
Amundsen and Ellsworth joined together again in 1926 with Italian airship pioneer Umberto Nobile to build a large airship named the Norge that could transport them to the North Pole. After departing from Spitsbergen, the airship reached the Pole in two days before finally landing in Alaska, and completed its historic journey, marking the first successful expedition to the North Pole. Other claims by previous explorers have been disputed over the years, some for their questionable accuracy and others for being fraudulent, but the crew aboard the Norge are widely credited and accepted as being the first to reach the Pole. Nobile and Amundsen would later disagree over who should receive the majority of the credit for the Norge's success. Nobile asserted that he was, in effect, the expedition leader, while Amundsen simply viewed Nobile as a hired pilot, and not a particularly good one, as Amundsen would later mention.
Amundsen spent the next few years working on his autobiography My Life as an Explorer, detailing what inspired him to embark on legendary expeditions and the circumstances that surrounded some of his life's most important events. However, after hearing news in 1928 that Umberto Nobile's newest airship, the Italia, had crashed in the Arctic, Amundsen volunteered to assist in the rescue efforts. Amundsen boarded a Latham 47 sea plane on what would ultimately be his final journey.
Roald Amundsen demonstrated how seemingly impossible achievements are attainable with preparation, careful consideration, and resourcefulness.
It's believed the plane crashed due to heavy fog after a period of radio silence but only parts of the wreckage were discovered. Despite extensive search operations, Amundsen and the plane's crew were never found. Nobile and his surviving crew members were eventually rescued by a Soviet icebreaker, though the Italia suffered multiple casualties. While his fate remains a mystery, Amundsen's final journey was a noble attempt to rescue a fellow explorer who also was at one point a bitter rival.
Roald Amundsen demonstrated how seemingly impossible achievements are attainable with preparation, careful consideration, and resourcefulness. His persistence allowed him to achieve legendary feats and provide the world with valuable scientific knowledge regarding the Polar regions. Amundsen shed light on unknown areas, utilized what he learned from each expedition to make subsequent ones more successful, and even his failures were assets in deciding what to accomplish next. His tireless spirit and intense drive continue to inspire well over a century later.