Roald Engelbregt Gravning Amundsen (Norwegian pronunciation; 16 July 1872 – c. 18 June 1928) was a Norwegian
explorer of polar regions. He led the first Antarctic expedition to reach the South Pole between 1910 and
1912. He was the first person to (undisputedly) reach both the North and South Poles. He is also known as
the first to traverse the Northwest Passage. He disappeared in June 1928 while taking part in a rescue
mission. Amundsen, along with Douglas Mawson, Robert Falcon Scott, and Ernest Shackleton, was a key
expedition leader during the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.
Amundsen was born to a family of Norwegian shipowners and captains in Borge, between the towns Fredrikstad
and Sarpsborg. His father was Jens Amundsen. 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 aged 21, whereupon he quit university for a life at sea. Amundsen had
hidden a lifelong desire inspired by Fridtjof Nansen's crossing of Greenland in 1888 and the doomed Franklin
expedition. As a result, he decided on a life of intense exploration.
Belgian Antarctic Expedition (1897–99)
He was a member of the Belgian Antarctic Expedition (1897–99) as first mate. This expedition, led by Adrien
de Gerlache using the ship the Belgica, became the first expedition to winter in Antarctica. The Belgica,
whether by mistake or design, became locked in the sea ice at 70°30'S off Alexander Island, west of the
Antarctic Peninsula. The crew then endured a winter for which the expedition was poorly prepared. By
Amundsen's own estimation, the doctor for the expedition, American Frederick Cook, probably saved the crew
from scurvy by hunting for animals and feeding the crew fresh meat, an important lesson for Amundsen's
Northwest Passage (1903–1906)
In 1903, Amundsen led the first expedition to successfully traverse Canada's Northwest Passage between the
Atlantic and Pacific Oceans (something explorers had been attempting since the days of Christopher Columbus,
John Cabot, Jacques Cartier, and Henry Hudson), with six others in a 47-ton steel seal-hunting vessel, Gjoa.
Amundsen had the ship outfitted with a small gasoline engine. They travelled via Baffin Bay, Lancaster and
Peel Sounds, and James Ross, Simpson and Rae Straits and spent two winters near King William Island in what
is today Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, Canada.
During this time Amundsen learned from the local Netsilik people about Arctic survival skills that would
later prove useful. For example, he learned to use sled dogs and to wear animal skins in lieu of heavy,
woolen parkas. After a third winter trapped in the ice, Amundsen was able to navigate a passage into the
Beaufort Sea after which he cleared into the Bering Strait, thus having successfully navigated the Northwest
Passage. Continuing to the south of Victoria Island, the ship cleared the Canadian Arctic Archipelago on 17
August 1905, but had to stop for the winter before going on to Nome on the Alaska District's Pacific coast.
Five hundred miles (800 km) away, Eagle City, Alaska, had a telegraph station; Amundsen travelled there (and
back) overland to wire a success message (collect) on 5 December 1905. Nome was reached in 1906. Because the
water along the route was as shallow as 3 ft (0.91 m), a larger ship could not have made the voyage.
It was at this time that Amundsen received news that Norway had formally become independent of Sweden and
had a new king. Amundsen sent the new King Haakon VII news that it "was a great achievement for Norway". He
said he hoped to do more and signed it "Your loyal subject, Roald Amundsen."
South Pole expedition (1910–12)
After crossing the Northwest Passage, Amundsen made plans to go to the North Pole and explore the North
Polar Basin. Amundsen had problems and hesitation raising funds for the departure and upon hearing in 1909
that first Frederick Cook and then Robert Peary claimed the Pole, he decided to reroute to Antarctica.
However, he did not make these plans known and misled both the Englishman, Robert F. Scott and the
Norwegians. Using the ship Fram ("Forward"), earlier used by Fridtjof Nansen, he left Norway for the south,
leaving Oslo on June 3, 1910. At Madeira, Amundsen alerted his men that they would be heading to Antarctica
in addition to sending a telegram to Scott notifying him simply: "BEG TO INFORM YOU FRAM PROCEEDING
ANTARCTIC--AMUNDSEN." The expedition arrived at the eastern edge of the Ross Ice Shelf (then known as "the
Great Ice Barrier") at a large inlet called the Bay of Whales on January 14, 1911 where Amundsen located his
base camp and named it Framheim. Further, Amundsen eschewed the heavy wool clothing worn on earlier
Antarctic attempts in favour of Eskimo-style skins.
Using skis and dog sleds for transportation Amundsen and his men created supply depots at 80°, 81° and 82°
South on the Barrier, along a line directly south to the Pole. Amundsen also planned to kill some of his
dogs on the way and use them as a source for fresh meat. A premature attempt, which included Hjalmar
Johansen, Kristian Prestrud and Jorgen Stubberud, set out on September 8, 1911, but had to be abandoned due
to extreme temperatures. The painful retreat caused a tempering quarrel within the group, with the result
that Johansen and others were sent to explore King Edward VII Land.
A second attempt with a team, consisting of Olav Bjaaland, Helmer Hanssen, Sverre Hassel, Oscar Wisting, and
Amundsen himself, departed on October 19, 1911. They took four sledges and 52 dogs. Using a route along the
previously unknown Axel Heiberg Glacier they arrived at the edge of the Polar Plateau on November 21 after a
four-day climb. On December 14, 1911, the team of five, with 16 dogs, arrived at the Pole (90°00' S). They
arrived 35 days before Scott’s group. Amundsen named their South Pole camp Polheim, “Home on the Pole.”
Amundsen renamed the Antarctic Plateau as King Haakon VII’s Plateau. They left a small tent and letter
stating their accomplishment, in case they did not return safely to Framheim. The team returned to Framheim
on January 25, 1912, with 11 dogs. Amundsen’s success was publicly announced on March 7, 1912, when he
arrived at Hobart, Australia.
Amundsen’s expedition benefited from careful preparation, good equipment, appropriate clothing, a simple
primary task (Amundsen did no surveying on his route south and is known to have taken only two photographs),
an understanding of dogs and their handling, and the effective use of skis. In contrast to the misfortunes
of Scott’s team, Amundsen’s trek proved rather smooth and uneventful.
In Amundsen’s own words:
"I may say that this is the greatest factor – the way in which the expedition is equipped – the way in
which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it. Victory awaits him who
has everything in order – luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the
necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck." —from The South Pole, by Roald Amundsen.
Amundsen wrote about the expedition in The South Pole: an account of the Norwegian Antarctic Expedition in
the "Fram", 1910–12, published in 1912.
Northeast Passage (1918–1920)
In 1918, Amundsen began an expedition with a new ship Maud, which was to last until 1925. Maud sailed West
to East through the Northeast Passage, now called the Northern Route (1918–1920).
With him on this expedition were Oscar Wisting and Helmer Hanssen, both of whom had accompanied Amundsen to
the South Pole. In addition, Henrik Lindstrøm was included as a cook, but he suffered a stroke and was so
physically reduced that he could not participate.
The aim of the expedition was to explore the unknown areas of the Arctic Ocean, strongly inspired by
Fridtjof Nansen's expedition earlier with Fram. The plan was that to sail along the coast of Siberia and go
into the ice farther to the north and east than Nansen did. In contrast to Amundsen's earlier expeditions,
this expedition had a clear academic profile, with geophysicist Harald Sverdrup on board.
The voyage was to the northeasterly direction over the Kara Sea. Amundsen planned to freeze the Maud into
the polar ice cap and drift towards the North Pole (as Nansen had done with the Fram), and he did so off
Cape Chelyuskin. Unfortunately, the ice became so thick that the ship was unable to break free, even though
the ship was designed specifically for such a journey. In September 1919, the ship came loose from the ice,
but froze again after a mere eleven days in the vicinity of the New Siberian Islands.
During this time, Amundsen participated little in the work outdoors, such as sleigh rides and hunting,
because he had been subjected to numerous accidents. He had a broken arm and had been attacked by polar
bears. Hanssen and Wisting, along with two others, embarked on an expedition by dog sled to Nome, Alaska,
despite it being over one thousand kilometers away. But the ice was not frozen solid in the Bering Strait
and it could not be crossed. They were, at the very least, able to send a telegram from Anadyr.
After two winters frozen in the ice without having achieved the goal of drifting over the North Pole,
Amundsen decided to go to Nome himself to repair the ship and buy provisions. There were several of the crew
ashore there, including Hanssen, who had not returned to the ship. Amundsen considered him to be in breach
of contract, and as such, dismissed him from the crew.
The third winter saw Maud frozen in the western Bering Strait, before finally reaching Seattle for repairs
in 1921. Amundsen now returned to Norway, spurred by a need to put his finances in order. He brought with
him two indigenous girls, the adopted four-year-old Kakonita and her companion Camilla. When he went
bankrupt two years later, however, they were dispatched to Camilla's father in Russia.
Amundsen returned to Maud, which now lay in Nome, in June 1922. He moved the focus from naval expeditions to
aerial expeditions, and therefore arranged to get a plane. The expedition was divided into two: one part was
to survive the winter to get ready for an attempt to fly over the pole. This part was led by Amundsen. Maud,
under the command of Wisting, was to resume the original plan to drift over the North Pole in the ice. The
ship drifted in the ice for three years east of the New Siberian Islands, before it was finally seized by
Amundsen's creditors as collateral for the debt he had incurred.
The attempt to fly over the Pole failed, too. Amundsen and Oskar Omdal, of the Royal Norwegian Navy,
attempted to fly from Wainwright, Alaska to Spitsbergen across the North Pole. Their aircraft was damaged,
and they abandoned the journey. To raise additional funds, Amundsen traveled around the United States in
1924 on a lecture tour. Although he was unable to reach the North Pole, the scientific results of the
expedition, mainly the work of Sverdrup, were of considerable value. Many of these carefully collected
scientific data had been lost during the ill-fated journey of Peter Tessem and Paul Knutsen, two crew
members sent on a mission by Amundsen, but they were later retrieved by Russian scientist Nikolay Urvantsev
as they lay abandoned on the Kara Sea shores.
Reaching the pole
In 1925, accompanied by Lincoln Ellsworth, pilot Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen, and three other team members,
Amundsen took two Dornier Do J flying boats, the N-24 and N-25 to 87° 44' north. It was the northernmost
latitude reached by plane up to that time. The planes landed a few miles apart without radio contact, yet
the crews managed to reunite. One of the aircraft, the N-24 was damaged. Amundsen and his crew worked for
over three weeks to clean up an airstrip to take off from ice. They shoveled 600 tons of ice while consuming
only one pound (400 g) of daily food rations. In the end, six crew members were packed into the N-25. In a
remarkable feat, Riiser-Larsen took off, and they barely became airborne over the cracking ice. They
returned triumphant when everyone thought they had been lost forever.
In 1926, Amundsen and fifteen other men (including Ellsworth, Riiser-Larsen, Oscar Wisting, and the Italian
air crew led by aeronautical engineer Umberto Nobile) made the first crossing of the Arctic in the airship
Norge designed by Nobile. They left Spitsbergen on 11 May 1926, and they landed in Alaska two days later.
The three previous claims to have arrived at the North Pole—by Frederick Cook in 1908; Robert Peary in 1909;
and Richard Evelyn Byrd in 1926 (just a few days before the Norge)—are all disputed, as being either of
dubious accuracy or outright fraud. If their claims are false, the crew of the Norge would be the first
verified explorers to have reached the North Pole. If the Norge expedition was actually the first to the
North Pole, Amundsen and Oscar Wisting would therefore be the first persons to reach each geographical pole,
by ground or by air, as the case may be.
Disappearance and death
Amundsen disappeared on 18 June 1928 while flying on a rescue mission with Norwegian pilot Leif Dietrichson,
French pilot Rene Guilbaud, and three more Frenchmen, looking for missing members of Nobile's crew, whose
new airship Italia had crashed while returning from the North Pole. Afterwards, a wing-float and bottom
gasoline tank from the French Latham 47 flying boat he was in, improvised into a replacement wing-float, was
found near the Tromsø coast. It is believed that the plane crashed in fog in the Barents Sea, and that
Amundsen was killed in the crash, or died shortly afterwards. His body was never found. The search for
Amundsen was called off in September by the Norwegian Government. In 2003 it was suggested that the plane
went down northwest of Bear Island.
Both in 2004 and in late August 2009 an unsuccessful search was made by the Royal Norwegian Navy for the
wreckage of Amundsen's plane, using the unmanned submarine Hugin 1000. The search focused on a 40-square-
mile (100 km2) area of the sea floor, and was documented by the German production company ContextTV.
Photograph taken in 1922 shows L to R, Roald Amundsen, Brig. Gen. William Mitchell, Major X.H. Wash and John M. Larsen & was Hand Oil Tinted by artist Margaret A. Rogers.