Amundsen Roald

Roald Amundsen, born in Borge, Norway in 1872, was the first explorer to navigate a North West Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the first to reach the South Pole, and the first to lay an undisputed claim to reaching the North Pole. Amundsen also sailed the North East Passage, reached a farthest point north by air, and realized the first crossing of the Arctic Ocean.

An astute and respectful ethnographer of the Netsilik Inuit, Amundsen provided valuable records and pictures of his two-year stay in northern Canada. Yet Amundsen was regarded with suspicion by many competitors as the person who "stole" the South Pole from Robert F. Scott. He never received the adulation that his fellow Norwegian and sometime mentor Fridtjof Nansen enjoyed.

Amundsen grew up in Oslo, and at a young age was fascinated with the outdoors and tales of Arctic exploration. He trained himself for exploration by taking extended hiking and ski trips in Norway's mountains and learning seamanship and navigation. At the age of 25, Amundsen signed on as first mate for the Belgian Antarctic expedition aboard Belgica, which became the first ship to winter in the south polar region. Amundsen would form a lifelong respect for Belgica's physician Frederick Cook, who combated onboard scurvy and freed the ship from ice.

Portrait of Roald Amundsen.

Licensed with permission of the Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge, UK

Portrait of Roald Amundsen.

Licensed with permission of the Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge, UK

In 1903, Amundsen set sail on the Gjoa on his first expedition to navigate the North West Passage. Amundsen inferred that previous expeditions had suffered from divisive objectives and commands of the expedition leader, ship captain, and scientific leader. He resolved to avoid this problem on his expedition by assuming all three roles. To fit himself for these tasks, Amundsen obtained his ship captain's license and studied the theory and measurement of the earth's magnetism. He pitched his expedition, in part, as an investigation of whether the earth's north magnetic pole was stationary. Although he obtained the backing of Fridtjof Nansen, he still had difficulty obtaining sufficient funds.

Unlike previous explorers who attempted to navigate the North West Passage, Amundsen used a small ship that helped him maneuver the shallow passages through the Canadian archipelago just north of the Canadian mainland. His small crew consisted of six men.

The passage to the Pacific was ice-free that year, but Amundsen stopped near the south shore of King William Island on September 12, 1903 to perform the magnetic observations he had promised his scientific sponsors. This is noteworthy because it belies a claim commonly made about Amundsen that his exploratory successes came at the expense of his scientific work.

The Gjoa and its crew spent two years anchored at this spot, during which time they befriended the local Netsilik Inuit. In contrast to many other Arctic explorers, Amundsen's writing about the Inuit displays an appreciation and respect for that culture that appeals to modern sensitivities. On King William Island he learned the art of dog sledding, a skill that would aid the explorer's success in the race to the South Pole.

Amundsen completed the navigation of the North West Passage in 1905 and cabled news of his accomplishment to supporters in Oslo. He had intended to sell exclusive rights to his story to help offset his debts. However, a telegraph operator along the way leaked the story to the American press before it got to Norway, spoiling Amundsen's hopes for a financial return on his story.

Amundsen's next goal was to reach the North Pole. News that Robert E. Peary claimed to reach the Pole in 1909, however, prompted Amundsen to turn south instead, putting him in direct competition with Robert Falcon Scott, who by then had embarked on his second expedition to Antarctica. Fearing that a public admission of his objective would undermine support from Nansen and others, Amundsen kept his plans to travel to the South Pole a secret until his ship left Norway.

Amundsen established a base camp on the Ross Antarctic Ice Shelf 60 miles closer to the South Pole than Scott's camp. Although he started closer to the Pole than Scott did, Amundsen had to pioneer a new route over uncharted territory, whereas Scott had the benefit of following a route previously established by Ernest Shackleton. Nevertheless, Amundsen's superior planning and knowledge of dog sledding, skiing, cold-weather clothing, and snow shelters enabled him to beat Scott easily to the Pole. Scott and four companions suffered miserably and died upon their return from the Pole, whereas Amundsen and his team executed the trip with a large margin of safety, suffering as little as a toothache.

Amundsen's third expedition sought to utilize an idea first developed by Nansen, that is, to intentionally get a ship stuck in the Arctic ice and float his way to the North Pole. Amundsen left Norway in 1918 aboard the Maud. In the ensuing year, however, he suffered three accidents, including an attack from a polar bear and carbon monoxide poisoning aboard the ship. The Maud completed the North East Passage in 1920, but never succeeded in entering the Arctic icepack. It reached the highest latitude of only 76° N.

Thereafter, Amundsen set his sights on air travel. A fortuitous meeting in 1924 with Lincoln Ellsworth, the scion of a wealthy US industrialist, provided Amundsen's funding. Amundsen and Ellsworth, along with four crewmates, planned to fly two Dornier-Wahl 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. They took off successfully on May 21, 1925, but crash-landed 136 miles south of the Pole. With one plane damaged beyond repair, the crew worked for almost three weeks to repair the other damaged plane and create a runway that was barely sufficient to allow them to take off and return safely to Spitsbergen.

Amundsen teamed with Ellsworth again in 1926 and contracted with Italian airship pioneer Umberto Nobile to build a 348-foot dirigible. Christened the Norge, the airship left Spitsbergen on May 10, 1926 with a crew of 16, and successfully reached the North Pole on May 12, 1926 before landing in Alaska 70 hours after takeoff. Richard E. Byrd and Floyd Bennett had flown north from Spitsbergen in a Fokker monoplane only the day before the Norge took off. Recent research, however, casts doubt on Byrd's claim to have reached the North Pole. Combined with growing skepticism over Robert Peary's claim to have reached the Pole in 1909, a plausible argument can be made that Amundsen's Norge was the first crew to reach the North Pole.

Unfortunately, a disagreement emerged between Amundsen and Nobile over credit for the Norge's success. Nobile asserted that he was, in effect, the expedition leader. Amundsen regarded Nobile essentially as a hired pilot, and not a particularly good one at that. The conflict dogged Amundsen throughout his career; his creditors hounded him over unpaid bills. Although an effective leader in the field who inspired intense loyalty from his crews, Amundsen was taciturn in public life and occasionally displayed a churlish streak over the lack of recognition for his accomplishments.

Amundsen died in 1928. His plane disappeared while on his way to try to rescue Nobile, his former foe whose dirigible had crash-landed on the Arctic Ocean ice.


Roald Engelbregt Gravning Amundsen was born on July 16, 1872 in Borge, Norway, the youngest of four brothers. He studied medicine until, after his mother's death, he sold his medical books to devote his life to exploration. Amundsen served as first mate on the Belgica expedition from 1898 to 1899, and afterwards obtained his skipper's license. He embarked on five major expeditions: first, aboard the Gjoa, in which he sailed the North West Passage from 1903 to 1906; second, aboard the Fram to Antarctica from 1911 to 1912, during which time Amundsen discovered the South Pole; third, aboard the Maud from 1918 to 1922, during which he sailed the North East Passage but failed to approach the North Pole; fourth, a failed attempt to fly to the North Pole in 1925; and finally the successful trip in 1926 from Spitsbergen to Alaska via the

North Pole, aboard the dirigible Norge. Amundsen never married and had no children. He died c. June 8, 1928 after taking off in a plane from Troms0, Norway, bound for Spitsbergen, in an attempt to rescue the crew of the Italia airship.

Jonathan Karpoff

See also Nansen, Fridtjof; North East Passage; North East Passage, Exploration of; North West Passage; North West Passage, Exploration of; Race to the North Pole

Further Reading

Amundsen, Roald, The Amundsen Photographs, edited by Roland Huntford, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1987

-, My Life as an Explorer, Garden City: Doubleday, Page

Berton, Pierre, The Arctic Grail: The Quest for the Northwest Passage and the North Pole, 1818-1909, New York: Penguin Books, 1988 Fisher, David E., Across the Top of the World, New York:

Random House, 1992 Huntford, Roland, The Last Place on Earth, New York: The Modern Library, 1999

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