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Roald Amundsen

[rO' ahl ah' mend sen] leader of the first party to reach the South Pole

Roald Amundsen

Roald Engelbregt Gravning Amundsen was born in Borge, near Oslo, Norway, on July 16, 1872. At an early age he became fascinated by the adventures of John Franklin and hoped to emulate him, but his mother insisted that he study medicine instead. He dropped those studies in favor of the sea following his mother's death.

First Voyage to the Antarctic

Amundsen had his first adventure as first mate on Adriend de Gerlache's Belgian Antarctic Expedition (1897-1899), which became the first to winter in the Antarctic after its ship, the Belgica, became trapped in the ice. The crewmen were saved from the effects of scurvy thanks to Dr. Frederick Cook, the expedition doctor, feeding them seal meat, which is rich in vitamin C. Amundsen would remember this "lesson" during his own expeditions.

the Belgica stuck in the Arctic ice

Northwest Passage

Following his Antatctic adventure, Amundsen set his sights on becoming the first to sail through the Northwest Passage. For the journey he purchased a 47-ton fishing boat called the Gjöa, which, with a crew of six, sailed from Oslo on June 16, 1903. The expedition traveled around the southern tip of Greenland, through Baffin Bay, and on to King William Island, where the men spent two winters (1903-1904 and 1904-1905) building two ships, an astronomical observatory, and a couple of huts. They also learned valuable Arctic survival techniques from the Netsilik Inuit, including the use of sled dogs for transportation of goods and the wearing of animal skins instead of woolen parkas for maximum protection against the cold (as wool is useless against cold when wet).

In 1904, Amundsen and his crew journeyed to the North Magnetic Pole, which they discovered had moved 30 miles since being located byJames Clark Ross in 1831. In 1905, they sailed through (and named) Queen Maud Gulf, and cleared the Canadin archipelago on August 17. Stopped by ice at Herschel Island in the Yukon the following month, Amundsen traveled overland to Eagle, Alaska (500 miles away), where he telegraphed word of his achievement to the world (on December 5). The ship and crew reached Nome, Alaska, in September 1906. Only one crew member was lost during the historic journey, as the result of a ruptured appendix.

South Pole

Amundsen next set his sights on becoming the first to reach the geographic North Pole, but his hopes were dashed when Robert Peary claimed that honor in 1909. He then decided to conduct a scientific exploration of the Arctic seas, and for that purpose was able to secure the Fram and funding for the voyage. The Fram sailed from Oslo on June 3, 1910.

When the Fram set sail, everyone except for Amundsen, his brother, and the ship's captain believed it was destined for the Arctic. It wasn't until they reached Madeira that the crew learned that Amundsen intended to beat Robert Scott to the South Pole. The ship reached the Bay of Whales on January 14, 1911, and the trek toward the pole began on October 19. Despite having planned the expedition in great secrecy, Amundsen arrived at Antarctica well prepared for the arduous trek, using what he had learned during his previous excursions. That planning, combined with good weather, allowed Amundsen and 4 companions to reach the South Pole on December 14. After recording scientific data, planting a Norwegian flag, and leaving a note inside a tent, the party started its return joutney on December 17, and safely reached its base at the Bay of Whales on January 25, 1912. Scott's party found Amundsen's note when it reached the Pole on January 17, 1912, and then perished on its return journey.

Amundsen takes readings at the South Pole, marked by a Norwegian flag
Amundsen at the South Pole

the Amundsen Party looks at the flag and tent they placed at the South Pole
Amundsen at the South Pole

Later Adventures

With funds resulting from his Antarctic adventure, Amundsen established a successful shipping business. In 1918 he acquired the Maud, in which he attempted to complete his old plan of drifting across the North Pole. After getting frozen in ice several times, Amundsen was finally forced to abandon the attempt in 1924.

the Maud
the Maud

In 1925, Amundsen, Lincoln Ellsworth, Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen, and three other men, flew two Dornier Do J flying boats to within 150 miles of the North Pole, the farthest north any aircraft had ever flown.

On May 11, 1926, Amundsen, Ellsworth, and a crew of 15 led by aeronautical engineer Umberto Nobile left Spitsbergen aboard a dirigible. The dirigible and crew landed in Alaska two days later, after crossing over the North Pole. Although Frederick Cook, Robert Peary, and Richard Byrd all claimed to flown over the North Pole before Amundsen, subsequent research has determined that Amundsen's flight was indeed first, making him the first person ever to reach both geographic poles (by either land or air).

Amundsen and a French flight crew disappeared while attempting to rescue Nobile from a dirigible crash near Spitsbergen on June 18, 1928. Amundsen’s books include The South Pole (1912), My Life as an Explorer (1927), and, with Ellsworth, First Crossing of the Polar Sea (1927).


Antarctic Explorers
Encyclopædia Britannica

See Also

Oslo, Norway
John Franklin
Northwest Passage
Robert Peary
Robert Scott
Richard Byrd

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This page was last updated on 09/15/2018.