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Roald Amundsen
1872 - 1928

Roald Amundsen, born in 1872 near Oslo, Norway, left his mark on the Heroic Era as one of the most successful polar explorers ever born. His career of adventure began at the age of 15, originally studying medicine, but dropping out to go to sea where he soon moved his way up to the rank of mate. His first experience in the Antarctic was with Adrien de Gerlache's 1899 BELGICA EXPEDITION. He became the first to travel the Northwest Passage, in his ship Gjoa in 1903-06. After this expedition, plans were assembled to drift across the North Pole in Nansen's famous FRAM, but news arrived of Peary's successful attainment of the pole which caused Amundsen to make new plans--covert plans--for an expedition to the Antarctic and the subsequent capture of the South Pole. On December 14, 1911, Amundsen and four others stood at the South Pole, a month before Robert Scott. This expedition was an incredible masterpiece of organization.

"The North Pole is reached!" was the news that flashed all over the was September 1909 when the news reached Amundsen. The original plan of the FRAM'S third voyage--the exploration of the North Polar basin--was quickly called off. In order to save the expedition, Amundsen immediately turned his attention to the South simultaneously emphasizing to his financial contributors that the FRAM'S Arctic voyage would be, in every way, a scientific expedition and would have nothing to do with record-breaking. Therefore, as far as the supporters were aware, Amundsen's Arctic voyage would not be influenced one way or another by Peary's accomplishment. Since he was so heavily in debt, Amundsen felt his change in plans to head south and capture the South Pole should be kept a secret. In his own words, Amundsen wrote, "I know that I have been reproached for not having at once made the extended plan public, so that not only my supporters, but the explorers who were preparing to visit the same regions might have knowledge of it. I was well aware that these reproaches would come, and had therefore carefully weighed this side of the matter". As hinted at, he also felt it important to keep his intentions secret from his peers. "Nor did I feel any great scruples with regard to the other Antarctic expeditions that were being planned at the time. I knew I should be able to inform Captain Scott of the extension of my plans before he left civilization, and therefore a few months sooner or later could be of no great importance. Scott's plan and equipment were so widely different from my own that I regarded the telegram that I sent him later, with the information that we were bound for the Antarctic regions, rather as a mark of courtesy than as a communication which might cause him to alter his programme in the slightest degree. The British expedition was designed entirely for scientific research. The Pole was only a side-issue, whereas in my extended plan it was the main object". Amundsen must have been in a dream world as this simply was not true. Scott's intention to try for the Pole had been widely publicized and was certainly not a side only need turn to Scott's Antarctic Expedition announcement in the September 13, 1909, issue of The Times of London.

Amundsen admitted that he was heavily in debt and knew that his best chance of raising money was to bring off a spectacular triumph. Amundsen wrote, "If at that juncture I had made my intention public, it would only have given occasion for a lot of newspaper discussion, and possibly have ended in the project being stifled at its birth. Everything had to be got ready quietly and calmly. My brother, upon whose absolute silence I could blindly rely, was the only person I let into the secret of my change of plan, and he did me many important services during the time when we alone shared the knowledge". The only other man to know of the change in plans was the ship's commander, Lieutenant Thorvald Nilsen. Amundsen kept his plans so secret that only these two men, along with Lieutenants Prestrud and Gjertsen (told on the eve of the FRAM'S departure), knew of them before the FRAM reached Madeira, ostensibly on the way to Buenos Aires and then northwards to the Arctic; the Madeira trip was supposed to be mainly for the purpose of oceanographical research.

The Norwegians left Christiania on August 9, 1910, eight weeks after Scott's TERRA NOVA EXPEDITION had departed Cardiff. On board were 97 Greenland dogs, the key to Amundsen's success, along with a hut and provisions for two years in the Antarctic. A month later, on September 6, the FRAM arrived at Madeira where fresh water and other provisions were taken on board. A few minor repairs were made to the ship as the crew enjoyed some free time ashore. On the evening of the 9th, some three hours before departing for Antarctica, Amundsen called the crew to his attention. Many of the men were quite puzzled and unhappy to be interrupted as they were quickly writing final letters for home. As they came on deck, Amundsen was standing next to a map of Antarctica pinned to the mainmast. Amundsen spoke, " is my intention to sail Southwards, land a party on the Southern continent and try to reach the South Pole". Gjertsen wrote, "Most stood there with mouths agape staring at the Chief like so many question marks". Amundsen personally asked each man if he would like to join him on this historic journey. The last man to go ashore was Amundsen's brother, Leon. His charge would be to mail the men's letters and cable Scott...but not until the beginning of October when Amundsen knew he would be beyond the point of recall. Once Amundsen left Madeira, he vanished, bound for an unknown destination...Scott never dreamt it would be the Ross Sea. Scott, on board the TERRA NOVA, arrived in Melbourne on the evening of October 12, 1910. Among the mail waiting for him was Amundsen's telegram, sent from Madeira, which came as a complete surprise: "Beg leave inform you proceeding Antarctic. Amundsen." Although there is no record of Scott's reaction, Evans later recalled, "we considered that he [Amundsen] would go to the Pole from the Weddell Sea side". In London, Sir Clements Markham eagerly put forth his opinion: "She [the FRAM] has no more sailing qualities than a haystack. In any case, Scott will be on the ground and settled long before Amundsen turns up, if he ever does". Markham gleaned information from his sources in Norway and reported to the Royal Geographic Society's secretary, on October 15, that Amundsen had "quietly got a wintering hut made on board and 100 dogs and a supply of tents and sledges. His secret design must have been nearly a year old. They believe his mention of Punta Aranas and Buenos Aires is merely a blind, and that he is going to McMurdo Sound to try to cut out Scott...If I were Scott I would not let them land, but he is always too good-natured". Whatever the rights and wrongs of the matter, the general view among those involved in Scott's expedition was that Amundsen's behavior was underhanded.

It took the FRAM four months to reach the Ross Ice Shelf, on January 14, 1911. Amundsen chose the Bay of Whales as winter headquarters for a number of reasons. First, they could sail a whole degree farther south than Scott could hope to get in McMurdo Sound, putting them 60 miles closer to the Pole; secondly, they could set up their headquarters right on top of their field of work; thirdly, animal life in the Bay of Whales was extraordinarily rich and offered all the fresh meat the men required in the form of seals, penguins, etc. Besides, it offered a favorable site for an investigation of the meteorological conditions in all directions and was very easy to reach by ship. Unloading started on January 15 with camp established two miles inland. The first sledge was loaded with supplies, hitched to eight dogs and led away by Amundsen.

For the next three weeks, five sledges, 46 dogs and five men transferred some 10 tons of supplies daily to base camp. Meanwhile, the carpenter, Jorgen Stubberud, supervised the assembly of the prefabricated hut. After a visit from Scott's TERRA NOVA, the base camp was christened Framheim--"The home of Fram"--and the depot-laying journeys began. Within a three-week period, depots were established at 80S, 81S and 82S...more than a ton and a half of supplies had been stored within 480 miles of the Pole. On April 21 the sun finally sank and the long winter night began.

A great deal of work had to be done over the next four months. Amundsen was well aware of potential problems brought by nine men cramped into close quarters over the long winter nights so a strict routine was quickly introduced. Six days a week the men would rise at 7:30 am, have breakfast, start work at 9:00 and have lunch at noon. They would return to their work at 2:00 pm and end at 5:15, with the balance of the day to be used as they pleased. Each man took his turn as the week's housekeeper emptying ashtrays, sweeping up and generally keeping the hut clean. Each man had two hooks on which to hang clothes, while the rest of their small stuff was kept out of sight in a clothes sack nearby. In addition to the hut in which they lived, fifteen 16-man tents were erected to store fuel and supplies. Bjaaland and Hassel built a Scandanavian staple...a sauna. A bottomless box, on a platform raised two feet off the ice floor, was built large enough to slip over the man, allowing only his head to protrude. A tin box, fitted between the platform and the ice floor, was heated by two paraffin stoves. As the water boiled, the compartment would fill with steam. When the man was finished, a rope-and-pulley system would lift the box clear, exposing a naked man, who then had to make a dash back to the hut. Exposure to the elements would quickly seal the pores...the event became a Saturday night ritual.

Over the winter, every man had specific chores. Kristian Prestrud, assisted by Hjalmar Johansen, made scientific observations; Sverre Hassel, assisted by Helmer Hanssen, was nicknamed the "Managing Director of Framheim's Coal, Oil and Coke Company Limited", the position responsible for supplying lamps and heaters with fuel. Johansen packed the sledges with pemmican, chocolate, milk powder and biscuits. Remodelling and overhauling of the expedition's sledging equipment was left to the skilled carpenter, Olav Bjaaland, assisted by Jorgen Stubberud. Bjaaland was an expert at reducing unnecessary weight on the sledges. As well as preparing two sets of skis for each man, Bjaaland lightened the weight of the sledges by nearly one third. Stubberud achieved similar results with the sledging cases. When Bjaaland was finished, Hanssen and Oscar Wisting would assemble the sledge using rawhide lashings. In a tiny snow cave off the main storage room, Wisting spent most of the winter at a sewing machine where new tents were made, complete with floors, from weight-saving windcloth. The new tents weighed nearly nine pounds less than the tents brought on the expedition. The camp's cook was an overweight and jolly man named Adolf Lindstrom. Lindstrom would rise each morning at 6:00 am to prepare a breakfast of hot buckwheat cakes spread with whortleberry preserve, plus wholemeal bread enriched with wheatgerm, butter and cheese. Amundsen said Lindstroms' cakes "slipped down with fabulous rapidity". As for lunch, various meals were prepared from fresh or frozen seal meat, supplemented with tinned meats by the end of winter. For dessert, tinned California fruits, tarts, pudding, pies and pastries, all made by Lindstrom, were served. Supper was seal steak, bread with butter, whortleberry jam and cheese. Coffee was the staple beverage although brandy was served on Saturday evenings, birthdays and holidays. Amundsen made certain the food at Framheim was very nutritious since he'd learned first-hand the effects of scurvy while on the BELGICA EXPEDITION in 1897.

The men actually enjoyed getting together each evening over supper. Since they had worked in different parts of the camp during the day, rarely was there a lack of conversation come evening time. Card games, dart matches, reading and needlework took place often around the main table. Occasionally the gramophone was brought out and a few records played. But, despite the relative easy passing of winter nights, Amundsen remained worried about Johansen's quick temper. Forced abstinence from alcohol made Johansen quite difficult to deal with at times. To make matters worse, Johansen had as much experience in polar exploration as Amundsen; he had been to the Arctic with Nansen. Johansen felt this put him, at worst, on level par with Amundsen. And then there was the matter of Robert far had the English advanced? Amundsen was aware that Scott was using motorized sledges although he doubted their efficiency. Little did he know of what was going on at McMurdo Sound.

By August 24 the sun had reappeared and the packed sledges were ready to be taken out from their underground storage. But two long, frustrating months would pass before the weather was warm enough for them to start the journey to the Pole. Tensions increased as each day passed. Amundsen would have the men and dogs prepared for departure only to cancel at the last moment due to inclement weather. The weather had to be clear for their first run to the 80S depot, or there was a real risk of missing it. Finally, on Friday, September 8, 1911, they sped off across the snow...eight men with sledges pulled by 86 dogs; only Lindstrom was left behind as custodian of Framheim. Amundsen wrote that "the going was splendid" and they covered 31 miles over the next three days. However, on the morning of the 11th they awoke to frigid temperatures nearing -70F. By the next day, conditions were even worse as the fluid in their compasses froze solid. Amundsen determined that it was simply too risky to continue on towards the Pole. That evening a decision was made to make a run for the depot, weather permitting, unload their sledges and race back to Framheim. The weather co-operated and they arrived at the depot on Thursday. The next evening Hanssen and Stubberud discovered their heels were frostbitten. As well, a number of the dogs were suffering from the cold; two of the dogs froze to death in their sleep. At 7:00 the next morning they set off for Framheim.

They would normally keep in sight of each other but the first two sledges moved so rapidly that the others were soon left behind. The sledge teams continued to break up, with Bjaaland and Stubberud reaching Framheim first at 6 pm, followed two hours later by Amundsen's group. A half an hour after that Hassel arrived and six hours later, at 12:30 am, Johansen and Prestrud finally stumbled into camp. Johansen and Prestrud were totally exhausted, having found Framheim in the dark and fog only by following the barking of the dogs. At breakfast the next morning, Amundsen finally succeeded in knocking the chip off Johansen's shoulder when Amundsen asked why it had taken them so long to make it back to Framheim. Johansen exploded, angrily accusing Amundsen of panicking and displaying poor leadership qualities when the group had been allowed to split up. In the dead silence that followed, Amundsen remained speechless. It was what Amundsen had always feared--a confrontation with the one man in the expedition with experience to equal his own. This brought to an end the harmony amongst all the men as Amundsen never forgave Johansen or spoke to him unless absolutely necessary. Amundsen's excuse to the others was that Hanssen was suffering too severely from frostbite to linger behind...the men were not totally convinced.

At noon, Amundsen announced to his men a change in plans. Amundsen would lead one party to the Pole while Prestrud--with Johansen--would lead a second party to explore King Edward VII Land. Amundsen's decision was not a revengeful one as he felt that if the Pole party were not successful, at least there might still be a "first" gained for Norway. Amundsen then spoke to each man individually (ignoring Johansen), asking for his pledge of loyalty...all gave it. And so, on October 20, 1911, Amundsen, Bjaaland, Wisting, Hassel and Hanssen departed on their historic journey to the Pole. Four sledges were used, each pulled with 13 dogs. They made good progress, other than a little trouble with crevasses, and arrived at 80S depot on the 24th. They uncovered the provisions and gave the dogs a feast of seal meat and blubber. The next day the party left with all five men on skis. On the way south, they spotted a cairn still standing as they had built it the prior April. Thus proving reliability, another 150 similar cairns were built on the journey south, each left with a written record inside stating the distance and bearing to the next cairn. Each day, as they built their cairn, lunch was eaten..."nothing very luxurious", wrote Amundsen, "three or four dry oatmeal biscuits, that was all. If one wanted a drink, one could mix snow with the biscuit". They arrived at 82S depot on November 4. Two days later they left...they were accomplishing 20 miles each day, in only five hours, after which they would build their cairn, in an hour and a half, and then rest for the remainder of the day. On November 11 the peaks of mountains were seen in the distance, which Amundsen later named Queen Maud's Range, after the Queen of Norway. At the foot of the range they camped and discussed strategy for the final push to the Pole, some 340 miles distant. The final plan was to take supplies and provisions for 30 days, along with the remaining 42 dogs, and make the climb. After reaching the top, 24 of the dogs would be shot, since they would no longer be needed, using the remaining 18 in the final dash for the Pole. Once reached, six more would be slaughtered to provide food for the remaining twelve on the trip back to Framheim. On November 17 they started the climb up the Axel Heiberg Glacier. The weather was warm and the climb even better as they covered 11.5 miles before making camp at 2000 feet. Four days later, on November 21, they found themselves at the summit. They'd managed to carry a ton of supplies to an altitude of 10,000 feet. Twenty-four dogs were shot and the party stayed at "The Butcher's Shop", as it was now called, for four more days before heading off into a raging blizzard. They had already waited two days longer than planned so they had no choice but to push on. For the next ten days they struggled, five men and 18 dogs, against driving snow in 35 mph winds and thick fog. At last they reached the plateau, only to be confronted by "The Devil's Ballroom", a glacier with a thin crust of snow covering a number of dangerous, deep crevasses. This proved to be the last major obstacle.

On December 8, with the sun shining brightly, they passed Shackleton's farthest south, 8823'S. They were only 95 miles from the South Pole. The dogs were hungry and exhausted, the men had many sores and frostbitten faces, yet still the party pushed on. The closer they came to the Pole, the more Amundsen worried that Scott had already beaten them. The temptation to race on, at full speed, was shared by everyone. At 3:00 pm, on Friday, December 14, 1911, there was a simultaneous cry of "Halt!" as the sledge meters registered their arrival at the South Pole. They had achieved their goal. Symbolic of their struggle in unity, each of the men, with their weathered and frostbitten hands, grasped the Norwegian flag and planted it firmly at the geographical South Pole. Amundsen named the plain King Haakon VII's Plateau. There were festivities in the tent that evening with each man sharing a little seal meat. At midnight observations were taken that put them at 89 56'S. Arrangements were now made to encircle the camp with a radius of approximately twelve and a half miles.

At noon, on December 17, the observations had been completed and it was certain the men had done all that could be done. In order to come a few inches closer to the actual Pole, Hanssen and Bjaaland went out four geographical miles and promptly returned. Bjaaland surprised Amundsen when he pulled out a cigar-case full of cigars at dinner. A cigar at the Pole! Following the festival dinner, preparations for departure began. A tent was erected, naming it Poleheim, with Amundsen leaving a message inside for Scott, along with a letter for King Haakon. Thirty-nine days later the party returned to Framheim, as planned, with all five men and 11 dogs "hale and hearty". The month-long voyage back to Tasmania was a frustrating time for Amundsen, who was now quite anxious to be the first to announce the news of their achievement. On March 7, 1912, Amundsen finally cabled his brother Leon with the historic news.

During World War I Amundsen made a significant amount of money from supplying "neutral" shipping. He went on to build the MAUD in order to continue his Arctic drift. He managed to complete the Northwest Passage around Siberia--only the second to do so--but failed in his attempt to proceed farther north. Subsequently, he left the ship in 1921. Amundsen now became consumed with flying, but was soon facing extreme financial hardship before gaining support from Lincoln Ellsworth. Together with Ellsworth, history was made when they flew the airship NORGE from Spitsbergen to Alaska via the North Pole. This was the first trans-Arctic flight right across the Pole. Amundsen, fulfilled by his reputation, now retired. Unfortunately, he never could come to terms with the British reaction to his secret change of plans in 1910. Mill, of the Royal Geographic Society, described him as the most unhappy of all the polar explorers he had ever met. In 1928, while searching for survivors of an airship disaster, Amundsen's plane crashed and he disappeared without a trace.










This web page was last updated on: 08 December, 2008