Roald Amundsen: The unbeatable explorer who reached the South Pole and North Pole first

Roald Amundsen

The rivalries among explorers from different countries to first reach the North Pole and the South Pole were astonishingly grueling, and the races led to suffering and death. For some, however, the win was worth it.

Few more intimidating figures exist in the modern history of exploration than the Norwegian Roald Amundsen. He is recognized as the first person to reach both poles of the Earth. He was the first man to go to the South Pole. What’s more, he was the first person to lead an expedition to traverse the Northwest Passage in the Arctic. Like many other explorers, Amundsen said he was inspired by Fridtjof Nansen, who led the first team to reach the interior of Greenland.  His drive must have come from other sources as well.

Explorer Roald Engelbregt Gravning Amundsen was the fourth child in a family of shipowners, and his mother encouraged him to become a doctor instead of pursuing a career in the family business as the rest of the family members had done. Amundsen dutifully studied medicine until the death of his mother when he was 21 years old. He then dedicated his life to intense exploration of the wilderness in a way that nobody else before him had done.

Roald Amundsen in fur skins.

In 1903, Amundsen planned a small expedition that successfully traversed the Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific. He wanted to have flexibility during the voyage on the 45-ton fishing vessel, Gjøa, so there was a crew of only six men. The ship was equipped with a small gasoline engine. The idea was to keep the ship near the shore, traveling through Baffin Bay, south through Peel Soundto Rae Strait. The crew spent two whole winters living on King William Island, where they learned the skills of survival in the Arctic from the local Netsilik Inuit people, skills which proved priceless during Amundsen’s later expedition to the South Pole.

The crew of “Gjøa” in the port of Nome after completing the Northwest Passage. In the first row from left to right: Amundsen, Peder Ristvedt, Adolf Lindström, Helmer Hanssen. In the top row Godfryd Hansen and Anton Lund. Gustav Vik had already died.

The expedition sailed west, passing Cambridge Bay, which had been reached before in 1852 by the English naval officer and explorer Richard Collison. Passing south of Victoria Island, the expedition successfully cleared the Canadian Arctic Archipelago in August 1905.

Before continuing to Nome on the Alaska District’s Pacific Coast, the crew had to stop for the winter 500 miles away from Eagle City in Alaska. In December 1905, Amundsen traveled overland to the city to send a message about his success and then traveled back to the ship. Gjøa reached Nome in 1906. Luckily for the team, Amundsen’s decision to travel with a small vessel saved their mission, because a larger ship wouldn’t have been able to pass through the shallow water, which was only three feet deep at some points.

Amundsen in clothing used by the Netsilik Inuits.

Before sailing home, Amundsen learned about Norway’s formal independence from Sweden and that it had a new monarch, King Haakon VII. So, the explorer sent word to the new King that his traversing of the Northwest Passage “was a great achievement for Norway.” The crew returned to Oslo in November 1906, after the three-year voyage. (However, their vessel didn’t get to Norway until 1972, when it was transported on a bulk carrier from San Francisco. After a trip of 45 days, Gjøa was placed on land, outside the Fram Museum in Oslo where it can be seen today.)

Amundsen’s next intention was to lead an expedition to the North Pole so that he could explore the Arctic Basin. However, after the news that the Americans Robert Peary and Frederick Cook both claimed to have reached the North Pole during two separate expeditions in 1909, it was hard for Amundsen to find someone who would finance his voyage.

Amundsen in his office, March 7, 1910.

Instead, he started thinking of traveling to the South Pole just as the Englishman Robert F. Scott was already preparing to sail there. In June 1910, Amundsen sailed from Oslo to the south on the ship Fram (“Forward”), which had been previously used by his idol, Fridtjof Nansen. He notified Scott in a telegram: “BEG TO INFORM YOU FRAM PROCEEDING ANTARCTIC–AMUNDSEN.”

The Fram under sail.

Almost six months later, in mid-January 1911, the crew arrived at the eastern edge of “the Great Ice Barrier,” which is today the Ross Ice Shelf, at a large inlet called the Bay of Whales. There, the explorer founded his base camp, which he named “Framheim.”

Tents in the Framheim designed to accommodate dogs and the storing of supplies. In the foreground: storage of fresh meat, enclosed snow fence.

Instead of wearing the heavy wool clothing that was donned by other explorers who attempted the Antarctic, Amundsen wore Inuit-style furred skins. He also used skis and dog sleds for transportation, which he had learned from his Inuit friends, and had a plan to kill some of the dogs so that the men could have some fresh meat.

Amundsen and his team engaged in fitting clothes at Framheim, polar winter 1911.

In September 1911, a small group including Jørgen Stubberud, Kristian Prestrud, and Hjalmar Johansen made the first attempt at the Pole but had to give up because of the extremely low temperatures. This caused an argument within the group, after which Amundsen sent the three men to explore King Edward VII Land. After one month, on Oct. 19th, Amundsen—along with Oscar Wisting, Sverre Hassel, Helmer Hanssen, and Olav Bjaaland—made a second attempt with 52 dogs and four sleds. This time the group took a route along the Axel Heiberg Glacier, which was previously unknown. On Nov. 21st, they reached the edge of the Polar Plateau after a four-day hike.

Roald Amundsen and his crew looking at the Norwegian flag at the South Pole, 1911.

On Dec. 14, the five men, with only 16 dogs left, arrived at 90° 0′ S. Amundsen gave the name “Polheim” to their camp at the South Pole, which means “Home on the Pole,” while he renamed the Antarctic Plateau as King Haakon VII’s Plateau. Before leaving, the men set a tent and left a letter in which they stated their accomplishment in case they were prevented from returning safely to Framheim. Thirty-three or so days later, Scott’s group, after a long and exhausting voyage, was devastated to find the proof of Amundsen’s accomplishment in reaching the Pole first. Scott wrote in his diary: “Great God! This is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without reward of priority.” Scott and several others in his expedition died of the cold and starvation on the attempted return journey.

On Jan. 25, 1912, the Norwegians reached Framheim. When they managed to set sail from the continent, Amundsen and his men went to Hobart, Australia, where on March 7 he publicly announced his success.

Helmer Hanssen and Amundsen determining their position at the South Pole.

In 1925, Amundsen made the first flight to the North Pole, accompanied by the American polar explorer Lincoln Ellsworth, the Norwegian aviation pioneer Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen, and three other crew members. They flew with two Dornier Do J flying boats, the N-24 and N-25, to 87° 44′ north. Nobody before them had reached farther north by plane. Even though the crews of the two flying boats were without radio contact and landed a few miles apart, they managed to reunite.

One of the planes, the N-24, was damaged, and Amundsen spent more than three weeks with his crew cleaning up an airstrip to take off from the ice. They shoveled around 600 tons of ice while eating only a pound of daily food rations. Since they realized that they couldn’t save the plane, all six men got into the N-25, and Riiser-Larsen managed to beat the cracking ice to fly off. Their return home was triumphant, especially because everyone thought that they had been lost forever.

Amundsen’s Dornier N-25 Do J before the departure to the North Pole.

In 1926, the Italian Arctic explorer and aeronautical engineer Umberto Nobile designed Norge, an airship that took the restless Norwegian explorer, along with 15 other men, including Ellsworth and Riiser-Larsen, to make the first crossing of the Arctic. The crew left Spitsbergen (Svalbard) on May 11, 1926, and after two days landed in Alaska.

Roald Amundsen in Svalbard.

The three previous claims for expeditions having reached the North Pole—the Frederick Cook expedition in 1908, Robert Peary’s in 1909, and the expedition of Richard E. Byrd just a few days before the “Norge” landed — were disputed as being outright fraud or of dubious accuracy. As those three expeditions can’t be said to have been successful with any certainty, the “Norge” expedition might be the first one that actually reached the North Pole. That would make Amundsen and Wisting the first men to reach the Pole. It is, at least, the first undisputed expedition.

Airship N-1 “Norge.”


The three Polar Stars: Roald Amundsen, Ernest H. Shackleton, and Robert E. Peary in 1913. Photo credit

On June 18, 1928, Amundsen disappeared with his crew of five while flying in the Arctic on a rescue mission for Nobile’s crew. The team included the French pilot René Guilbaud, Norwegian pilot Leif Dietrichson, and three other Frenchmen. “Italia,” the new airship created by Nobile, crashed on its return from the North Pole.

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After a few months searching for Amundsen and his crew, only a wing float and the bottom of a gasoline tank from the French Latham 47 flying boat were found near the Tromsø coast. However, the Norwegian Government called off the search for the explorer in September 1928, and the bodies were never found. It is believed that Amundsen’s plane crashed in fog in the Barents Sea, killing all aboard.