Roald Amundsen

Roald Amundsen books and biography


Roald Amundsen


Roald Engelbregt Gravning Amundsen (1872-1928)
Roald Engelbregt Gravning Amundsen (1872-1928)

Roald Engelbregt Gravning Amundsen (July 16, 1872–June 18, 1928?) was a Norwegian explorer of polar regions. He led the first successful Antarctic expedition to the South Pole between 1910 and 1912.

Amundsen was born to a family of Norwegian shipowners and captains in Borge near Fredrikstad. His father was Jens Amundsen. 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 age 21. Amundsen had hidden a lifelong desire inspired by Fridtjof Nansen's crossing of Greenland in 1888 and the doomed Franklin Expedition. He decided on a life of exploration.


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Amundsen's Polar Treks'

Belgian Antarctic Expedition 1897–1899

Amundsen was a member of the Belgian Antarctic Expedition (1897–1899) as second mate. This expedition was 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 Land, west of the Antarctic Peninsula. The crew then endured a winter for which the expedition was poorly prepared. The doctor for the expedition was an American, Frederick Cook. Cook, by Amundsen's own estimation, probably saved the crew from scurvy by hunting for animals and feeding the crew fresh meat, an important lesson for Amundsen's future expeditions.

Northwest Passage

In 1903 Amundsen led the first expedition to traverse the Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, with six others in the ship Gjøa. They travelled via Baffin Bay, Lancaster and Peel Sounds, and James Ross and Rae Straits to spend two winters exploring over land and ice from the place today called Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, Canada.

During this time Amundsen learned from the local Netsilik people in order to learn Arctic survival skills and soon adopted their dress. From them he learned to use sled dogs. Continuing to the south of Victoria Island, the ship cleared the Arctic Archipelago on August 17, 1905, but had to stop for the winter before going on to Nome on the Alaska Territory'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 December 5, 1905. Nome was reached in 1906. Due to water as shallow as 3 feet (1 m), a larger ship could never have used the route.

South Pole

After crossing the Northwest Passage, Amundsen made plans to go to the North Pole and explore the North Polar Basin. On hearing in 1909 that first Frederick Cook and then Robert Peary claimed the Pole, he changed his plans. Using the ship Fram ("Forward"), earlier used by Fridtjof Nansen, he instead set out for Antarctica in 1910. He states in his book The South Pole that he needed to attain the South Pole to guarantee funding for his proposed North Polar journey.

Amundsen told no one of his change of plans except his brother Leon and Thorvald Nilsen, commander of the Fram. He was afraid that Nansen would rescind use of Fram, if he learned of the change. Nansen, when he was informed of the change, supported Amundsen fully. And he probably didn't want to alert Robert Falcon Scott that he would have a competitor for the pole, though Scott later said that Amundsen's presence had no effect on his own plans for the Pole. Since the original plan called for going around the Horn to the Bering Strait he waited until Fram reached Madeira to let his crew know of the change. Every member agreed to continue. Leon made the news public on October 2. While in Madeira, Amundsen sent a telegram to Scott, notifying him of the change in destination: "BEG TO INFORM YOU FRAM PROCEEDING ANTARCTIC -- AMUNDSEN".

On 14 January 1911 they arrived at the eastern edge of Ross Ice Shelf at the location known as the Bay of Whales. Amundsen located his base camp there and named it Framheim, literally, "Home of the Fram." It was 60 statute miles (96 km) closer to the Pole than McMurdo Sound, where the rival British expedition led by Scott stayed. Scott would follow the route, discovered by Ernest Shackleton, up the Beardmore Glacier to the Antarctic Plateau. Amundsen would have to find his own entirely new path south to the Pole and, as he found, ascend the Trans-Antarctic Mountains to reach the Polar Plateau.

During February, March and early April, Amundsen and his men laid supply depots at 80°, 81° and 82° South, along a line direct to the Pole. This gave him some experience of conditions on the Ross Ice Shelf and provided crucial testing of their equipment. During the winter at Framheim, they kept busy improving their equipment, particularly the sledges. This was facilitated by the digging of a network of tunnels and work rooms in the massive snow drifts that covered their wooden winter's quarters. The sledges, the same kind and manufacturer that Scott used, weighed 165 pounds. During the winter, Olav Bjaaland was able to reduce their weight to 48 pounds. On February 4, 1911, members of the Scott's team on Terra Nova paid a friendly visit to the Amundsen camp at Framheim.

Amundsen made a false start to the Pole on 8 September 1911. The temperatures had risen, giving the impression of an austral-Spring warming. This Pole team consisted of eight people, Olav Bjaaland, Helmer Hanssen, Sverre Hassel, Oscar Wisting, Jorgen Stubberud, Hjalmar Johansen, Kristian Prestrud and Amundsen. Soon after departure, temperatures fell below -60°F (-51°C). On 12 September, it was decided to reach the Depot at 80°, deposit their supplies and turn back to Framheim to await warmer conditions. The Depot was reached on 15 September from which they hurriedly retreated back to Framheim. Prestrud and Hanssen sustained frost-bitten heels on the return. The last day of the return, by Amundsen's own description, was not organized. Whether this was the result of poor leadership or necessity is unclear. At Framheim, Johansen openly suggested that Amundsen had not acted properly. Amundsen then reorganized the Pole party by reducing its number. Prestrud, with Johansen and Stubberud, was tasked with the exploration of Edward VII Land. This separated Johansen from the Pole team.

The new Pole team, Bjaaland, Hanssen, Hassel, Wisting and Amundsen, departed on 19 October 1911. They took four sledges and 52 dogs. Their daily rations were:


  • Biscuits (40 biscuits): 380 g (13.4 ounces)
  • Men's pemmican: 350 g (12.34 ounces)
  • Chocolate: 40 g (1.4 ounces)
  • Milk powder: 60 g (2.1 ounces)


  • Dogs' pemmican: 500 g (1.1 pounds)

Their track to the South Pole was as follows, on October 23, they reached the 80°S Depot and on November 3, the 82° Depot. On November 15, they reached latitude 85°S. They had arrived at the base of the Trans-Antarctic Mountains. The ascent to the Antarctic Plateau, along the Axel Heiberg Glacier, was easier than they had expected. They arrived at the edge of the Polar Plateau on November 21. Here they camped at the place they named "Butcher Shop", where 24 of the remaining dogs were killed. Some of the carcasses were fed to the dogs, the balance was cached for the return journey. Blizzards and poor weather made progress slow as they crossed the "Devil's Ballroom", a heavily crevassed area. They crossed 87°S on December 4, and on December 7, they reached the latitude of Shackleton's furthest south, 88°23'S, 180 km (97 nautical miles) from the South Pole.

On 14 December 1911, the team of five, with 16 dogs, arrived at the Pole. They had arrived 35 days before Scott's group. Amundsen named their South Pole camp Polheim, "Home of the Pole". Amundsen renamed the Antarctic Plateau as King Haakon VII's Plateau. They left a small tent and letter stating their accomplishment, in the event they did not return safely to Framheim.

Amundsen's extensive experience, careful preparation and use of high-quality sled dogs (Greenland huskies) paid off in the end. In contrast to the misfortunes of Scott's team, the Amundsen's trek proved rather smooth and uneventful, although Amundsen tended to make light of difficulties. They returned to Framheim on January 25, 1912 with eleven dogs. Henrik Lindstrom, the cook, said to Amundsen: "And what about the Pole? Have you been there?" The trip had taken 99 days, the distance about 1,860 miles.

Amundsen's success was not publicly announced until 7 March 1912, when he arrived at Hobart, Australia. Amundsen recounted his journey in the book The South Pole: An Account of the Norwegian Antarctic Expedition in the "Fram", 1910–1912.

Comparison of the Amundsen and Scott expeditions

The reasons for Amundsen's success and for Scott's failure in returning from the South Pole have always been the subject of discussion and controversy. Whereas Amundsen returned, Scott's party of five lost their lives on the Ross Ice Shelf on the return journey from the pole.

There are many reasons why Amundsen was successful, among these are unity of purpose, adequate knowledge of Inuit technology, careful planning, attention to detail and the use of ski. A major factor was undoubtedly the use of dogs. Amundsen used Greenland Huskies to pull his sledges to the Pole and back. After reaching the Polar Plateau, over half of the dogs were killed and fed to the remaining dogs, reducing the weight of dog food required for the entire trip. Although Scott also used dogs, tractors (which broke down about 50 miles from base camp), and Mongolian Horses (which eventually died) on the initial stages of his journey, his party relied primarily on their own power to pull their sledges. After they arrived at the Plateau, Scott added a fifth member to his Pole Party, originally planned as — and with supply depots laid in for — a four member party. This alteration disrupted the plan for the supplies for the return journey. Scott's group did experience prolonged blizzards that might only be expected once in a century, one causing the most critical delay at the end of the failed return. They also placed their One-Ton Depot at 79° 29', a more critical 36 statute miles short of its planned location at 80°. Scott perished 11 statute miles from One-Ton Depot.

The fact remains that Amundsen's party had better equipment, better clothing, had a clearer recognition of the primary task, understood dogs and their handling, used ski effectively, pioneered an entirely new route to the Pole and they returned. 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.

Later life

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). Amundsen planned to freeze the Maud into the polar ice cap and drift towards the North Pole (as Nansen had done with the Fram), but in this he was not successful. However, the scientific results of the expedition, mainly the work of Harald Sverdrup, were of considerable value.

In 1925, accompanied by Lincoln Ellsworth, pilot Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen and three other team members, Amundsen took two aircraft, 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 shovelled 600 tons of ice on 1 lb (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 barely became airborne over the cracking ice. They returned triumphant when everyone thought they had been lost for ever.

In 1926, Amundsen, Ellsworth, Riiser-Larsen and Italian aeronautical engineer Umberto Nobile made the first crossing of the Arctic in the airship Norge designed by Nobile. They left Spitzbergen on May 11, 1926 and 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 E. Byrd in 1926 (just a few days before the Norge) – are all disputed, as being either of dubious accuracy or outright fraud. Some of those disputing these earlier claims therefore consider the crew of the Norge to be the first verified explorers to have reached the North Pole.

Amundsen monument in Ny-Ã…lesund, Svalbard, Norway
Amundsen monument in Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard, Norway


Amundsen disappeared on June 18, 1928 while flying on a rescue mission with the famous Norwegian pilot Leif Dietrichson, the French pilot Rene Guilbaud, and three more Frenchmen, looking for missing members of Nobile's crew, whose new airship the Italia had crashed while returning from the North Pole. Afterwards, a pontoon from the French Latham 47 flying-boat he was in, improvised into a life raft, 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 Bjørnøya (Bear Island).


  • The Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is named jointly after him and his rival.
  • Amundsen Sea, off the coast of Antarctica, is named for him.
  • Amundsen Glacier in Antarctica is named after him.
  • Amundsen Gulf, in the Arctic Ocean, off the coast of the Northwest Territories in Canada (separating Banks Island and the western parts of Victoria Island from the mainland), is named for him.
  • A large crater covering the Moon's south pole is named Amundsen Crater after him.
  • The Norwegian Navy is building a class of Aegis frigates, one of which, the HNoMS Roald Amundsen, will be named after him.
  • Among the tall ships, the German brig Roald Amundsen is named after him.
  • Writer Roald Dahl is named after Amundsen.


See also

  • Explorers
  • List of Antarctica expeditions
  • List of people who have disappeared


External links

  • Arctic Passage at PBS' Nova site has photographs, maps, excerpts from Amundsen's autobiography and an interview with Roland Huntford.
  • Roald Amundsen article at
  • 70South - information on Roald Amundsen
  • Short biography from Norwegian Foreign Ministry
  • The Last Place On Earth 1985 miniseries depicting the race between Amundsen and Scott.
  • Roald Amundsen At Find A Grave

Works by Amundsen:

  • Works by Roald Amundsen at Project Gutenberg
  • Arthur G. Chater's 1912 translation of Amundsen's The South Pole



  • Roald Amundsen's Belgica Diary. The first Scientific Expedition to the Antarctic by Hugo Decleir Bluntisham Books, Erskine Press.
  • The Last Place on Earth: Scott and Amundsen's Race to the South Pole by Roland Huntford Modern Library (September 7, 1999)
  • The South Pole:An Account of the Norwegian Antartic Expedition in the Fram, 1910 - 1912, by Roald Amundsen, John Murray, 1912. Online edition at eBooks @ Adelaide



This article might use material from a Wikipedia article, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.

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