The Fascinating Story of the Latest Viking: Roald Amundsen

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Winner of the Hubbard medal and the first to reach the South Pole

Roald Engelbregt Gravning Amundsen was a Norwegian explorer in the polar regions. He was the first human to reach the South Pole. Amundsen was born in Borge, just outside Sarpsborg in southeastern Norway, into a family of Norwegian shipowners and captains. After being impressed by Fridtjof Nansen’s crossing of Greenland in 1888, he decided to become an explorer.

His First Expeditions

He joined his first expedition in 1897, led by Adrien de Gerlache as the second mate. The Belgica ship became the first vessel to winter in Antarctica after freezing in the then uncharted Bellingshausen Sea’s pack ice.

The Belgica Ship

Also on board was the American doctor and polar explorer, Frederick Cook. Cook likely saved the crew from scurvy by forcing them to eat fresh seal meat instead of the canned food onboard — an important lesson for Amundsen’s future expeditions.

Still onboard the landlocked Belgica Amundsen formally resigned as a member of the expedition because he learned that according to a secret agreement between de Gerlache and his clients, the ship always had to sail under a Belgian captain.

That meant that third mate Melaerts would pass him. Amundsen, who had waived any wages for the expedition, took this as an attack on his honor and said in a letter to de Gerlache that he saw his role henceforth limited to a sailor aboard a frozen ship who to help his fellow sufferers as a person.

The Northwestern Passage

In 1903, Amundsen left as expedition leader aboard the Gjøa to be the first to make the full northwestern passage. They traveled via the Baffin Bay to Alaska’s northern coast, where the ship endured two winter hibernations. During this period, he studied the northern peoples.

Northwest Passage routes

He soon adopted their clothing style and learned from them how to ride dogs. The ship left the Arctic Archipelago on August 17, 1905, and on August 26, there was a meeting with Charles Hanson from San Francisco.

The Gjøahowever became frozen again, and to spread the news of the successful passage, Amundsen traveled skiing and dog sledding to the nearest telegraph station, some 500 miles away. A year later, his ship finally reached the Bering Strait.

The South Pole Expedition

Map showing the polar journeys of the Scott’s Terra Nova expedition (green) and Amundsen’s expedition (red) to reach the South Pole

Subsequently, Amundsen decided to go to the North Pole. After it became known in early September 1909 that Frederick Cook, and a few days later Robert Peary, claimed to have reached the North Pole, Amundsen realized that the expedition to the North Pole he was preparing had lost its main reason for being. That same month, he radically changed his plans and decided to go to Antarctica and make an attempt to reach the South Pole.

However, he kept this change of course secret, except for a few insiders. Only after his departure with the Fram in August 1910 did he make a stopover in Funchaluse to notify his expedition members.

Although totally surprised by the announcement, all expedition members agreed to his plan, even though Amundsen offered them the option to cancel their contract. His brother Leon made the news public at a press conference in Oslo on October 1, and Robert Falcon Scott was also notified by telegram.

The British South Pole Expedition leader received the news when he docked in Melbourne on October 12, bound for Antarctica, in an attempt to reach the pole by himself. At first, he found it difficult to grasp exactly what Amundsen meant by his short message, “Beg to leave to inform you Fram proceeding Antarctic Amundsen.” It would be some time before it became clear to him that the Arctic trip would be a competition.

Arrival and preparation

The Fram sailed into the pack ice on January 3, 1911, and re-entered the Ross Sea’s open waters three days later. The Ross Ice Shelf came into view on January 11 and the ship docked in the Bay of Whales on January 14. Amundsen decided to build his base at Framheim because he was convinced that the ice was on the ground floor here and, therefore, there was no risk of drifting.

The base was at 78 ° 28 ‘S, some 90 km closer to the pole than Scott’s base at Cape Evans in McMurdo Sound, but it could build on Ernest Shackleton‘s famous route that had been established in 1909 to within 150 km of the pole. Amundsen would have to find his own way through the Transantarctic Mountains.

At the end of January, the base was completely ready, and preparations started for the polar trip planned after the winter. In the morning of February 4, an unexpected visitor arrived: the Terra Nova, Scott’s expedition ship, meanwhile operating at its base, entered the bay in the hope of landing there under the leadership of Victor Campbell to yet unknown King Edward VII Land.

The Terra Nova

The view of the Fram and the Norwegian expedition struck the British in amazement: they had hitherto had no idea of ​​Amundsen’s precise plans. They now saw how their direct competitor had secured an excellent starting position. After mutual visits onboard and a visit to Framheim, the Terra Nova sailed back to McMurdo Sound to inform Scott.

During the remaining two summer months, three food depots were constructed from the base at latitude 80, 81, and 82 ° South. Both the route up to 82 ° and the depots themselves were signposted according to a precise system so that they could easily be found even in poor visibility.

The hibernation in the cabin was used to systematically adjust the equipment according to the depot trips’ experiences.

Oscar Wisting made new, lighter tents with a sewn-in groundsheet and a single central tent pole to pitch in strong winds. The originally white fabric was colored black to increase visibility, give the eyes a rest, and better retain the sun’s heat. The standard slides’ weight was reduced from 50 kg to 35 kg, and three extra light sleds weighing 24 kg were made on-site by Olav Bjaaland.

From fifty sled boxes, 3 kg was shaved off from each and provided with an opening at the top. The provisions and materials were immediately accessible, and the time and energy needed to unload the boxes and load on the way. The ski bindings were made detachable so that the dogs would not eat the heel straps.

The Rest of Amundsen’s Life

In 1918, Amundsen began an expedition with a new ship, the Maud (co-financed by the Norwegian Parliament), to navigate the Northeast Passage. The ship left Tromsø on June 16. Almost immediately, however, the ship was confronted with surprisingly powerful drifting ice. Amundsen then decided on September 18 to spend the winter on Siberia’s north coast at Cape Chelyuskin.

The Maud at Vollen on 18 August 2018

However, the problems piled up: at the end of September, Amundsen suffered a splintered fracture on his left shoulder in a heavy fall. The wounds had only just healed when a polar bear attacked him on November 8, who inflicted four deep wounds on the back. On December 10, he suffered carbon monoxide poisoning during his scientific work. According to him, he was back to normal after a few hours, but ship’s doctor Oscar Wister saw this differently: “That was an evil story, and his heart has not recovered from it.”

There was then no longer any question of a planned expedition. Only on January 18, 1919, the ship could break out of the ice again. But even in the months that followed, the ship made slow progress. On September 23 of that year, Amundsen was forced to hibernate again on Siberia’s coast, near Ajon Island. Plans to reach the North Pole by sled were abandoned. During the second winter, Amundsen decided to only sail to Alaska with his ship and not let himself be carried away by the ice.

Several crew members visited and surveyed the North Siberian coast’s local population and Amundsen allowed two men to go to Diksonto travel, but they died on the way. It was not until early March 1920 that the Maud managed to escape the ice again.

By then, motivation had fallen to an all-time low for all team members. On July 20, 1920, the ship finally reached Nome, Alaska, after two years. Amundsen flew from there to Seattle, and the rest of Maud‘s voyage went on without him.

In 1925 he flew Lincoln Ellsworth and four others to 87 ° 44 ‘north in two aircraft. It was the northernmost latitude ever reached by airplanes. The following year, Amundsen, Ellsworth, and Italian aeronautical engineer Umberto Nobile were the first to cross the North Pole in Norge’s airship. They left Spitsbergen on May 11, 1926, and landed in Alaska two days later.

Amundsen disappeared in a plane crash in the Arctic Ocean in 1928 while on a rescue mission for Nobile, who was stranded on his second polar journey with the Italia. His plane was never recovered. In February 2009, the Norwegian Royal Navy started a new search for Amundsen’s body. On September 5, 2009, it was announced that the Navy had failed in its mission. Amundsen’s body has thus not been found to date.

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