Roald Amundsen was born on July 16, 1872 in Borge, Norway into a family of merchant sea captains and ship owners. He was the first explorer to reach the South Pole. He was the first to take a ship voyage along the northern cost of Canada. He was also one of the first to cross the Arctic by air.
He was the fourth son in the family. His mother chose to keep him out of the maritime industry of the family and pressured him to become a doctor, a promise that Amundsen kept until his mother died when he was 21 years old, and then he quit university for a life at sea.
Amundsen was a powerfully built man of over 180 cm in height. As a youth he insisted on sleeping with the windows open even during the freezing Norwegian winters to help condition himself for a life of polar exploration. Amundsen developed a fascination with Antarctica from the time he first saw it in 1897. At that time Antarctica, a continent the size of Europe and Australia combined, had not yet been traversed by humans. Amundsen aimed to be the first.
In 1897 Roald sailed on the Belgica, which was the first to be in the Antarctic during the winter.
In a three-year journey between 1903 and 1906, Amundsen explored the passage with a crew of no more than six. Amundsen completed the voyage in the herring boat Gjøa. It was much smaller than vessels used by other Arctic expeditions, but Amundsen intended to survive by the limited resources of the land and sea, so he didn’t need much space on the ship. The journey must have taken three years to complete as Amundsen and his crew had to wait while the frozen sea around them thawed enough to allow further sailing.
After completing the Northwest Passage trip, Amundsen skied 800 kilometers to the city of Eagle, Alaska, and sent a telegram announcing his success. Then he skied 800 kilometers back to rejoin his companions. What a sacrifice was it!
Amundsen wanted to be the first man to go to the North Pole. However, American Robert Peary got there first in 1909. When Amundsen found out that he could not be first, he decided to be the first man to reach the South Pole. Amundsen studied all he could of previous unsuccessful attempts and began the long process of preparing for his own. Amundsen took special measures to be sure that members of his crew possessed personalities suitable to long polar voyages. Crew members onboard his ships knew he was firm but fair, and referred to him as “the chief”.
He left Norway in June, 1910. The whole world thought he was headed in the complete opposite direction, but it wasn’t true. Amundsen even kept his plans a secret from officials in the Norwegian government. He was afraid that government officials would be hesitant to challenge Great Britain in a race to the Pole, as there was another explorer, the British, who decided to
reach the South Pole. It was not until Amundsen’s ship, “Fram”, was off the coast of Morocco (Africa) that he announced to his crew that they were headed for the South, not the North.
He set up his base 100 kilometers closer to the Pole than the British explorer Robert Falcon Scott. Amundsen, with 4 companions, 52 dogs, and 4 sledges, set out on October 19, 1911. At approximately 3 pm on December 14, 1911, he raised the flag of Norway at the South Pole, and named the spot Polheim – “Pole Home”. He and his crew returned to their base camp on January 25, 1912, which was 99 days and almost 3000 km after their departure. They reached the Pole before Scott and his team. (Scott led a team of five which reached the South Pole on 17 January 1912. On their return journey, Scott and his four comrades all died from a combination of exhaustion, starvation and extreme cold.)
The month-long voyage back to Tasmania (the island south of Australia) 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 continued his Arctic explorations. He managed to complete the Northwest Passage around Russia – he was only the second person to do so. In 1921 he decided to take on another challenge: flying, but was soon facing extreme financial problems before gaining support from Lincoln Ellsworth. Together with Ellsworth, history was made in 1926 when they flew from Spitsbergen (north from Norway) to Alaska via the North Pole on the airship called the Norge. 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. He was described as the most unhappy of all the polar explorers.
On June 18, 1928, he lost his life flying to rescue an engineer named Umberto Nobile. Nobile had built the plane that Amundsen flew over the North Pole. Amundsen’s rescue plane crashed into the Arctic Ocean. That same year, speaking to a journalist about his love of the icy Arctic, Amundsen said, “If only you knew how splendid it is up there, that’s where I want to die”.
Roald Amundsen is often referred to as “the last of the Vikings”.