Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen was a key figure of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. Not only did he lead the first successful expedition to reach the South Pole, he was also at the head of the first expedition to traverse the Northwest Passage by sea, and he led the first journey to cross the Arctic by air when he took a dirigible to the North Pole in 1926.
Born into a family of captains and shipowners, Amundsen promised his mother that he would eschew the sea life for a career as a doctor—a promise that he kept until her death, when he was 21 years old. Amundsen then dropped out of university. Within four years, he had embarked on his first trip to Antarctica as first mate aboard a Belgian ship, the first ever to endure a winter on that frozen continent.
In 1903, Amundsen departed on what would become a three-year journey to navigate the Northwest Passage by sea. His longing for adventure had been whetted by reading accounts of Sir John Franklin’s Arctic expeditions in his youth. “I read them with a fervid fascination which has shaped the whole course of my life,” Amundsen later wrote.
The success of his journey along the Northwest Passage only increased Amundsen’s desire for polar exploration, and he intended his next trip to be an expedition to the North Pole. While he was still raising funds for the journey, however, news broke that American explorers Frederick Cook and Robert Peary had reached the North Pole in 1908.
Not one to be dissuaded, Amundsen continued raising funds but covertly changed his plans. Since the American explorers claimed to have been the first to reach the North Pole, he would instead become the first to reach the South.
He acquired the ship Fram, which Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen had used to reach what was then a record-setting northern latitude during an expedition that ran from 1893 to 1896.
Not wanting unnecessary competition and concerned that he might lose some of the funding he had already acquired, Amundsen kept his change of plans close to the vest. In fact, not even the other members of his expedition were let in on the secret until the ship was about to leave its last port of call in the archipelago of Madeira off the coast of Portugal.
Amundsen was racing against time. There was another expedition headed for the South Pole, this one led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott of the British Royal Navy. If Amundsen wanted to be the first explorer to reach the icy land mass, he would have to beat Scott and his crew.
Before Fram left Madeira, Amundsen revealed his change of plans to the crew and the other members of his party, asking each if they were still willing to come along. Everyone was in agreement: they would proceed together to the South Pole. It was around this time that Amundsen also sent a telegram to Scott, reported by different sources as either simply reading “Am going south” or “Beg leave to inform you Fram proceeding Antarctica.” Either way, this was the first time Scott or the public had heard of Amundsen’s changed plans, and the news didn’t go over well, setting off a firestorm of condemnation and recrimination in Norway and Britain. “If I was Scott, I would not let them land,” wrote former Royal Geographical Society president Sir Clements Markham.
Of course, Amundsen wasn’t asking permission. While Scott’s expedition was due to arrive in Australia in October of 1910, Fram had already left Madeira by early September, and would remain at sea for the next four months, arriving in the Bay of Whales in Antarctica in January of 1911.
Amundsen had chosen to make his base camp near the Bay of Whales because it was 60 nautical miles closer to the South Pole than Scott’s proposed starting point in McMurdo Sound. Previous expeditions had deemed the Bay of Whales an unsafe region in which to land, suggesting that the ice was unstable, but Amundsen’s studies of those expedition logs suggested otherwise—and he was willing to stake his life on it.
Naming his base camp Framheim, Amundsen and his team began the long preparations for the journey over land that would begin the following summer.
While the British team was relying primarily on ponies and motorized sleds, Amundsen had brought along 100 North Greenland sled dogs to make the overland journey. Amundsen himself had specially designed the team’s ski boots, and he ensured that they packed plenty of polar clothing, tents with built-in floors, and much more. In addition to the necessary supplies and provisions, the expedition brought along a library of approximately 3,000 books, as well as a gramophone and several musical instruments.
The party totaled 19, including a champion skier, a naval gunner, an expert on dogs, and a cook. Also among their number was Hjalmar Johansen, an experienced explorer who had previously traveled with Fridtjof Nansen. With no new expeditions to accompany, Johansen had spiraled into drinking heavily, and Nansen thought it would be best to send him on another mission to the Arctic. Amundsen wasn’t happy with the new addition to the team, but given that he was borrowing Nansen’s ship, he didn’t think he could refuse the man’s request.
Beginning in February of 1911, the actual expedition across Antarctica to the South Pole was preceded by several depot journeys to drop off supplies at regular intervals along the first leg of the planned route. The missions continued through the beginning of April, delivering more than 7,000 pounds of supplies and 40 gallons of paraffin oil at three depots along the journey.
When the sun set over Framheim on the 21st of April, it was the last time anyone in the camp would see daylight for the next four months. Concerned about the British expedition, Amundsen spent that long, dark winter attempting to improve supplies and equipment, hoping to leave as soon as the sun rose in August. Johansen openly argued that such an early start could prove disastrous, since the temperatures on the Great Ice Barrier would still be dangerously low. It wasn’t the first or last time that Johansen had engaged in a heated argument with Amundsen, and the latter wrote that he felt his authority was being undermined.
On September 8th, 1911, the party’s first attempt to reach the South Pole began. So early in the season, the high temperatures were still in the negative digits, with lows over 70 degrees below zero. The crew suffered and could barely sleep at night in the cold, while the paws of the dogs became frostbitten. By September 14th, they were forced to turn back.
As the team made the return journey, they left supplies behind at one of the depots to lighten the load and make greater speed on the way back. Amundsen and the sled team he accompanied arrived back at Framheim on September 16th. The other sleds came in staggered hours behind, with the sled carrying Johansen and another member of the party not arriving until after midnight, suffering from frostbite.
Amundsen would later describe Johansen, who felt that he and his companion had been abandoned, as “violently insubordinate.” As a result, Johansen was excluded from the final team to make the polar journey, which would be made up only of Amundsen and four other men.
While Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition would be following the Beardmore Glacier route that had been pioneered by previous explorers, Amundsen’s expedition—which left Framheim on October 19th, after recovering from the nearly disastrous false start—had to find its own way through the Transantarctic Mountains. Scouting such a path took many days of exploring the foothills of the peaks. When they did finally find a way up what Amundsen named the Axel Heiberg Glacier, after one of his financial backers, the ascent was much more difficult than they had anticipated.
By the time they reached the summit of the glacier, Amundsen’s party had ascended some 10,600 feet. Here, they stopped for one of the most unpleasant parts of the expedition. Of the 45 sled dogs who made the ascent—seven had perished already during the course of the journey—only 18 were to go on. The rest were slaughtered for food, which was shared between the men and the dogs. “We called the place the Butcher’s Shop,” Amundsen later recalled. “There was depression and sadness in the air; we had grown so fond of our dogs."
On December 8th, Amundsen’s party passed what was previously the record for the farthest trip south, set by Sir Ernest Shackleton only a few years before. By December 14th, they had reached what they believed to be the South Pole. After several days spent trying to fix the exact position, they left a tent at the spot they had determined to be as near to the exact pole as possible. Within it was equipment for Scott’s polar expedition, as well as a letter addressed to King Haakon VII of Norway that Amundsen requested Scott to deliver.
Then, it was finally time to go home. The return journey was faster than the initial expedition, as the team was able to follow the cairns of snow they had built on the way to mark their trail. They arrived back in Framheim on January 25th, having covered more than 1,800 miles in 99 days. Of the 52 dogs who had departed on the journey to the South Pole, only 11 survived.
Scott’s polar expedition was not so fortunate. Not only did they arrive at the South Pole to discover that Amundsen’s team had beaten them by some five weeks, but Scott and the four men who accompanied him never made it back. “Great God!” Scott wrote in his journal, “This is an awful place.”
Amundsen, for his part, parlayed the success of his 1911 Arctic exploration into many more journeys, though his historic expedition to the South Pole remained at the forefront of his accomplishments. In 1956, the U.S. built a scientific research station at the South Pole, named the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station in honor of Amundsen and his ill-fated rival.
Despite his considerable experience in the Arctic, Amundsen met his own unfortunate end after many years of exploring. In 1928, Amundsen and five others departed on a rescue mission to try to save the crew of the airship Italia, which had crashed on the way back from its own journey to the North Pole. Amundsen’s plane and its entire crew disappeared during the attempt, and they were never heard from again.
Featured photo of Roald Amundsen, Helmer Hanssen, Sverre Hassel, and Oscar Wisting at the South Pole on December 16, 1911: Wikipedia