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    Roald Amundsen

    Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies

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    EA -Biography

    ( [ ?] )

    (Harald U/ Sverdrup)


            Roald Engebregt ch Gravning Amundsen (1872-1928), was the first navigator

    of the Northwest Passage, first to reach the South Pole, navigator of the

    Northeast Passage, made the first flight to Latitude 88° N., and the first

    flight across the Polar Sea.


    Early Life

            Amundsen was born on July 16, 1872, on a small farm near the town of Sarps–

    borg in southeastern Norway. For five generations his ancestors had been farm–

    ers and sailors. Roald Amundsen's father, Jens Amundsen, sought the sea and

    worked his way ahead until he captained his own ship. With his two brothers

    and a brother-in-law he developed a flourishing shipping business that operated

    up to 22 sailing vessels.

            When Roald was only a few months old, his father moved to Oslo (at that

    time Christiania) where he bought a property on the outskirts of the city. Here

    Roald and his three older brothers grew up, taking full advantage of the winter

    possibilities for skiing and skating, and spending their summers sailing and

    fishing. Their father was a powerful man of the stern old school who claimed

    full authority in his home and gave his boys some sound advice: "I had never a

    chance to get an education and have often felt my handicap. It is not enough to

    have the will to work, one must also have knowledge. I want you boys to learn

    more than I did." Or: "I don't want you to get into any fights. But if you have

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    EA-Biography. Sverdrup: Roald Amundsen

    to fight, deal the first blow and see to it that one blow is enough."

            Roald may have followed the latter advice, but not eh former. He did manage

    to get admitted to the University when he was eighteen, but was at the bottom

    of his class. He was a quiet boy who evidently considered the school as a nec–

    essary evil and who from the age of fifteen had made up his mind about his own

    future. He wanted to explore the polar regions, and his first goal would be to

    navigate the Northwest Passage. He had come across the accounts of the Franklin

    expedition and had read every book he could find about the search parties which

    for 20 years tried to learn the fate of Sir John Franklin and his men. The

    search had led to the discovery of the Northwest Passage, but no navigator had

    succeeded in sailing a ship through the ice-filked and treacherous waters. Here

    was a task that appealed to Roal's imagination, a task surpassing Nansen's cross–

    ing of Greenland which had set him afire. Neglecting his homework he read and

    re-read the great travel books from the Arctic.

            He wanted to prepare himself thoroughly for his career and would have pre–

    ferred to go to sea in order to obtain his master's papers, because he wanted

    to be captain on board his own ship. However, his older brothers were already

    sailors, and his mother, now a widow, wanted her youngest son to stay away from

    the sea and study medicine.

            Amundsen felt it his duty to follow his mother's wish, but he spent little

    time studying and much more time in hardening himself and developing a magnifi–

    cent physique. When his mother died in 1893, Amundsen sold his few medical books

    and got a berth as ordinary seaman on board the sealer Magdalena , the ship which

    later, renamed Danmark , was used by Mylius-Erichsen on his East Greenland expedi–

    tion of 1906-08. During the next following years Amundsen advanced through the

    grades, and in 1895 he obtained his papers as mate, and in 1900 he got his master's

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    license. In later years the only title he liked to have applied to him was that

    of "Captain."

            He gained his first extensive experience in the polar regions in 1897 to

    1899 when he took part as mate in de Gerlache's Antarctic expedition with the

    Belgica and spent a year drifting with the ice off the Antarctic Continent, be–

    tween Longitudes 70° and 100° W. The western part of that region is now called

    Amundsen Sea. Dr. Frederick A. Cook was physician on board the Belgica . Amund–

    sen admired Cook's ability and initiative, and the friendship which grew up be–

    tween the two men lasted through life in spite of the differ e nt fates of the two.


    The Northwest Passage

            Upon his return from the Belgica expedition, Amundsen considered himself

    experienced enough to start preparations for realizing his boyhood dream, but

    first he had to get the approval of his hero, Fridtjof Nansen. Nansen not only

    approved the plans, but in years to come he gave advice freely whenever Amundsen

    asked for it and repeatedly helped to straighten out Amundsen's tangled finances.

            Nansen's eminent scientific ability and his enthusiasm for expanding out

    scientific knowledge of Arctic must have exercised a considerable influence

    on Amundsen's thinking and must have strengthened his wish to get acquainted with

    different methods of observation so that he, though no scientist himself, could

    collect accurate data for others to analyze.

            One important problem presented itself: relocation of the North Magnetic

    Pole which first had been visited in 1830 by James Clark Ross. In order to make

    himself familiar with magnetic measurements, Amundsen went to Hamburg where he

    presented his plans to Dr. G. von Neymayer, at that time the greatest expert in

    the field of terrestrial magnetism, and asked advice regarding instruments and

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    methods of observation. Neymayer received Amundsen most cordially, encouraged

    him, and, during several months, instructed him in all details as to precise


            The next step was to search for a suitable ship. It had to be small, sturdy,

    and inexpensive because he hoped to finance his expedition himself and had only

    a small inheritance at his disposal. After thorough examination, Amundsen bought

    the small sloop Gjøa , only 46 tons, which had been built in 1872, the year Amund–

    sen himself was born, and still as sound as he. The next summer, the summer of

    1901, he took the Gjøa for a cruise to the East Greenland waters, partly to get

    acquainted with the handling of the ship, partly to undertake oceanographic ob–

    servations in which Nansen was particularly interested.

            The next two years were spent in careful selecting and testing of equipment

    and provisions and in the selection of the small party that could be accommodated

    on board the ship. It soon turned out that Amundsen's own funds were quite insuf–

    ficient to cover all expenses, and much against his wishes he had to ask for sup–

    port from various sources. He did s o reluctantly because he hated to talk about

    plans and preferred to keep away from any publicity until he had reached his goal.

    He retained this characteristic through life, but in later years he became too

    much of a public figure to stay out of the limelight. There is, however, no

    doubt that his reluctance to discuss plans, which was often considered a special

    form of conceit, had deep roots and that by inclination he was a lonely man who

    preferred action to words.

            The financial support which Amundsen was able to obtain for his first ex–

    pedition was, however, inadequate, and in June 1903, when ready to sail, he found

    himself considerably in debt. He himself tells that when one of his creditors

    threatened to place Gjøa under lien until payment was made, he decided to sneak

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    away after having informed his crew of his plans. According to another source,

    Nansen took upon himself the responsibility for the departure by promising Amund–

    sen that he would see to it that the creditors were satisfied. Be that as it may,

    the Gjøa left Oslo about midnight on June 16, 1903 — and the creditors were paid

    when the Northwest Passage had been conquered.

            After having studied all available accounts of earlier expeditions, Amundsen

    had decided to try the straits between the American mainland and the southern

    islands of the Canadian Archipelago. With this in mind he had selected a ship of

    very shallow draft, because these waters are full of shoals, The Gjoøa first call–

    ed at Godhavn, Greenland, to take 20 dogs on board, and next at Dalrymple Rock

    to obtain supplementary provisions and fuel oil from Scottish whalers. From Dal–

    rymple Rock, Amundsen continued past Beechey Island and turned south into Peel

    Strait, reaching waters where no ships had ever sailed.

            Storm, fire in the engine room, and near shipwreck on a submerged rock

    threatened to bring an early end to the journey, but by superb seamanship and

    quick action a disaster was avoided on each occasion.

            It seems possible that the Gjoøa could have sailed through the Northwest

    Passage in one season, because Simpson Strait was free from ice when the eastern

    entrance was reached on September 9. However, the navigation of the Northwest

    Passage was only part of the program; the relocation of the North Magnetic Pole,

    and continuous recordings of the magnetic elements during at least one full year

    were equally important. Since the recordings preferably should be made at a

    distance of about 100 miles from the Magnetic Pole, Amundsen was, on approaching

    King William Island, on the lookout for a suitable wintering place and was delighted

    at the discovery of the nearly closed and completely sheltered little bay which

    now on all charts carries the name Gjoøa Harbor. After a careful survey of the

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    bay, the Gjøa sailed into it, anchored, and stayed there for two years.

            Besides Amundsen the party consisted of the following six men: Godfred

    Hansen, lieutenant in the Danish Navy, second in command, navigator, geologist

    and astronomer; Anton Lund, first mate, with much experience in navigating

    through ice; Peter Ristvedt, meteorologist and engineer; Helmer Hansen, second

    mate and also an experienced sealer; Gustav Juel Wiik, magnetician who, with

    Amundsen, would be responsible for the magnetic observations; and Adolf Henrik

    Lindstrøm, "the polar cook," who had been the cook on the second Fram expedition

    from 1898 to 1902 and now served on the Gjøa in the same capacity.

            It was not economy alone which was responsible for Amundsen's selection

    of his small ship which could not accommodate a large party. The choice of

    vessel was also based on the one principal thesis to which Amundsen subscribed on

    this and every one of his subsequent expeditions: A party should be the smallest

    possible needed to accomplish the purpose of the enterprise. Only by adhering

    to this rule would it be possible to keep each man fully occupied and to make

    him feel that his personal effort was all-important to the success of the expedi–

    tion. Amundsen considered it his duty as the leader to see to it that each man

    always was so fully employed that no one ever had an opportunity toloaf or be–

    come demoralized because he felt that he wasted his time on useless assignments.

    On the Gjøa expedition Amundsen had little difficulty in discharging the duties

    of the leader because the party was so very small and was composed in such a

    manner that each man had to be given one or more tasks for which he must be re–


            Wiik and Ristvedt built their magnetic observatory ashore and added a shack

    where they lived for nearly two years, collecting a wealth of data which later

    the Norwegian Government took over and distributed to specialists for discussion

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    and publication. The continuous meteorological observations at Gjøa Harbor

    added much to the knowledge of the climatology of that part of the Arctic. After

    two shorter trips in March 1904 for the purpose of establishing caches, Amundsen

    and Ristvedt started on April 6 on a sled journey to Boothia Felix Peninsula in

    order to take observations close to the Magnetic Pole. A series of stations was

    occupied, showing that the Pole in 1904 was located near the place at which James

    Clark Ross first found it 74 years earlier.

            In the spring of 1905, from April 2 to June 25, Lieutenant Godfred Hansen,

    also accompanied by Ristvedt, explored the east coast of Victoria Island between

    Latitudes 70° and 72° N. and mapped the previously unknown coast line.

            There were no Eskimos at Gjøa Harbor when the winter quarters were established,

    but in November the first visitors arrived, and from then on the contact was per–

    manent and evidently mutually beneficial. Amundsen and his party obtained pre–

    pared reindeer skins as well as complete outfits of clothing and learned how to

    build snowhouses. On subsequent expeditions Amundsen used the Eskimo-type cloth–

    ing and footgear, with some minor modifications, but neither he nor any of his

    companions became such experts in building snowhouses that they discarded their

    tents. The Eskimos, on the other hand, received needles, knives, empty tin cans,

    and many other useful articles from the visitors. The different groups which

    visited the Gjøa had all had very little contact with western civilization; they

    were practically lacking iron and steel and had little knowledge of firearms.

    Amundsen made extensive notes of their customs and brought back a large collec–

    tion of their various implements. Amundsen's views on cold weather clothing are

    stated or implied in a number of places. The essence is found in the chapter

    "Towards the Magnetic Pole," which is the fifth chapter of Volume I in the English–

    language translation of The Northwest Passage .

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            "We were ready to leave on the first of March. The thermometer showed

    −53° C (−63° F.) But through the month of February we had become so accustomed

    to the cold that it did not bother us much. We were also very well dressed.

    Some of us wore complete Eskimo costume, others partly civilized clothing. My

    experience is that in these parts in winter the Eskimo dress is far superior to

    our European clothes. But one must either use it alone or not at all. Any

    combination is bad. Wool underwear gathers all perspiration and will soon make

    the outside clothing wet. Dressed entirely in reindeer skin, like the Eskimos,

    and with the clothing loose enough on the body to let the air circulate between

    the leayers, one will, as a rule, keep the clothing dry. And, if one is working

    so hard that the clothing becomes damp in spite of everything, skin dries much

    easier than wool. Also wool clothing becomes dirty easily and looses its warmth.

    Skin clothing keeps nearly as well without washing. A further great advantage

    of skin is that you feel warm and comfortable the moment you put it on. In woolen

    things you have to jump and dance like crazy before you get warm. Finally, skins

    are absolutely wind-proof, which, of course, is a very important point."

            In the summer of 1905 the Gjøa was made ready for continuing her journey

    and, if possible, completing the Northwest Passage. On the 13th of August she

    left the now ice-free Gjøa Harbor and set her course toward the unknown west.

    Ice, fog, and shoals endangered the progress, the sounding lead had to be used

    continually, and again and again there was hardly a foot of water under the keel.

    However, the Gjøa advanced, and on August 17 she dropped anchor at Cape Colborne,

    the easternmost point that had been reached in those waters by any ship that had

    entered from Bering Strait. The Northwest Passage was completed. A few days

    later, on August 26, the first ship was sighted, the Charles Hansson of San Fran–

    cisco, commanded by Captain J. McKenna, who was the first to congratulate Amundsen

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    on his success.

            Amundsen, of course, hoped to reach Bering Strait and civilization that year,

    but the ice conditions were bad. As early as on September 2 progress was stopped

    at King Point, near Herschel Island, and within a week it was evident that an–

    other winter had to be spent in the Arctic. During this winter the Gjøa had

    company in the neighborhood because no less than 12 ships had been caught at

    Herschel Island.

            The magnetic recordings were continued at King Point and during the winter

    Amundsen traveled to Eagle City, in the Yukon Valley, in order to send telegrams

    from the expedition to the outside world. He made the trip in company with the

    skipper of the shipwrecked Bonanza , Captain Mogg, about whose accomplishments

    as a traveler by dogteam Amundsen had a very low opinion. On his return to King

    Point, Amundsen was met with the sad news that Wiik had taken ill and died.

            By the middle of August 1906 the Gjøa could resume her journey. She reached

    Nome on August 31, where she was given a reception worthy of the adventurous

    and boisterous gold seekers who at that time were making Nome's name famous. From

    Nome on, the rest of the trip back to Norway was a triumphant journey that brought

    Amundsen full compensation for his worries and difficulties during the trying

    years of preparation. The Gjøa was, however, not returned to Norway. She was

    presented to the city of San Francisco and was in 1909 placed in Golden Gate Park.

    She deteriorated badly, but was restored in 1948.


    Plans for Crossing the Polar Sea

            During two years following the return of the Gjøa , Amundsen was engaged in

    writing and lecturing in order to bring his shaky finances into shape. But he

    hated the lecture trips on which he had to place himself in the hands of a manager

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    and sell his freedom of action to a person whose publicity schemes he disliked

    but could not suppress. Little wonder that he soon played with a new plan,

    which he presented to the Norwegian Geographic Society in the fall of 1908. He

    proposed to use Fridtjof Nansen's ship, the Fram , in order to repeat Nansen's

    famous drift across the Polar Sea. The main purpose should be the repetition of

    the oceanographic work of Nansen, using better equipment and new and greatly im–

    proved instruments. Nansen had not been prepared to find the great depths which

    he discovered and was, therefore, not equipped with adequate sounding lines. Make–

    shift lines were spliced together during the expedition, but these were so awkward

    in use that the deep-sea oceanographic work was greatly handicapped. Furthermore,

    the available deep-sea thermometers and other instruments were inaccurate. By

    his ingenious interpretation of the imperfect observations, Nansen had been able

    to recognize the main features of the oceanography of the Polar Basin, but in

    spite of his brilliant analysis several points remained in doubt because of the

    deficiencies of the data. In the years after the return of the first Fram expedi–

    tion Nansen had himself contributed much to the improvement of instruments and

    methods, and by using the new technique Amundsen hoped to expand and confirm

    Nansen's results. Nansen was much interested in Amundsen's new plans and gave

    them his wholehearted support. Private and public funds were obtained and the

    outlook for the expedition was bright. A great deal of the public interest in

    the expedition was based on the assumption that Amundsen would make a dash for the

    North Pole, and on the confident expectation that he would succeed, thus becoming

    the first man to reach that coveted spot. There is no doubt that Amundsen wanted

    to have a try at reaching the Pole, although he never said so directly.

            The fact that the public was more interested in the spectacular aspects of

    the expedition than in its laborious scientific work became evident in the early

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    summer of 1909 when the news spread, first that Frederick A. Cook and then that

    Robert E. Peary had reached the North Pole. It is well known that the controversy

    that arose lasted for many years in spite of the fact that Cook's fraud soon was

    exposed. Let us digress a moment. Amundsen and Cook were, as already mentioned,

    shipmates on de Gerlache's Antarctic expedition with the Belgica in 1897-1899,

    and during this expedition Amundsen had formed a very high opinion of Cook's

    ability and energy. Amundsen, therefore, believed in Cook when he announced that

    he had reached the North Pole, and it was difficult for Amundsen to admit that

    his old friend had committed a flagrant fraud. Even after this had been proved,

    Amundsen stuck to his personal friendship, and as late as in the early spring of

    1926 he visited Cook at Fort Leavenworth, where Cook served time for his manipula–

    tions with oil stock. The visit caused a great deal of criticism and was inter–

    preted as proof that Amundsen still recognized Cook as the first to reach the

    North Pole. Amundsen was so aggrieved by the reporters' interpretation that he

    refused to make any statement, but shortly afterward, when he and Byrd both were

    preparing to start from Kings Bay, Spitsbergen, Byrd by plane and Amundsen by

    dirigible, Amundsen declared that he did not care to start first in order to

    reach the Pole before Byrd, because "Peary was there first."


    The South Pole

            Peary's attainment of the North Pole on April 6, 1909, led to a complete

    change in Amundsen's plans for his contemplated drift across the Polar Sea. The

    interest in his expedition dropped off, the contributions ceased, and it appeared

    hopeless to equip the Fram for five years. Also, he felt that to maintain his

    name as explorer he had to accomplish a sensational feat. Without informing more

    than three of his closest [ ?] associates, he decided to try to reach the

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    South Pole. When the Fram left Norway in June 1910 the official plan was that

    s he should sail around Cape Horn, continue north through the Pacific and enter

    the Polar Sea through Bering Strait in the summer of 1911, but from Funchal,

    Madeira, Amundsen announced that he was instead heading for the Bay of Whales

    in the Ross Sea in order to try for the South Pole.

            Amundsen's message reached Captain Robert Scott as he was ready to leave

    New Zealand in order to establish a base in McMurdo Sound, about 350 miles to

    the west of the Bay of Whales and to attempt the attainment of the South Pole

    from there. Severe criticism was directed against Amundsen on the basis that

    he entered a race against Scott, but it has gradually been admitted that Amund–

    sen could not be blamed for attempting to reach the South Pole by a different

    route than that selected by Scott and using a different technique. Amundsen, with

    four companions, reached the South Pole on December 14, 1911, Scott on January

    18, 1912, but Scott and his brave comrades succumbed on the return journey.


    The Northeast Passage

            As soon as Amundsen was back in civilization, he resumed his plans for

    the drift expedition across the Polar Sea. The Fram which took him and his

    party on board again in 1912, went first to Hobart, Tasmania, from where

    Amundsen sent his first brief report. From Hobart the ship continued to

    Buenos Ai r es for overhaul and for supplementing her equipment in order to

    return to the Pacific and sail north to Bering Strait. In 1913, when Amundsen

    was lecturing in the United States, it was suggested to him that the Fram

    might be permitted to go as the first ship through the Panama Canal, and

    Amundsen, who was anxious to take advantage of this opportunity, ordered

    the Fram to Colon. She arrived there on October 4, 1913, but after having

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    waited in vain for two and a half months, she had to be directed back to

    Buenos Aires in order to go around Cape Horn and proceed to San Francisco.

    The bottom of the ship had, however, become so badly fouled by marine growth

    that the trip to Buenos Aires took far too long a time to make it possible for

    the Fram to reach San Francisco early enough in 1914 in order to continue to

    Bering Strait that summer. Instead Amundsen decided to let the Fram return

    to Norway and start from there in 1915, following the north coast of Siberia

    to the east, as Nansen had done in 1893. The Fram arrived at Horten, Norway,

    on July 16, 1914, only two weeks before the outbreak of World War I, which

    temporarily upset Amundsen's plans. These plans were still more upset by the

    fact that during the stay in the tropics the hull of the Fram had become so

    infected with dry rot that it was damaged beyond repair.

            At this point it is worth while observing that Amundsen had long contem–

    plated the use of airplanes in arctic exploration, thus pioneering a develop–

    ment which later on revolutionized arctic work. Already in 1909, when he was

    making his first preparations for the drift expedition, he had negotiated with

    one of the early aviators about participation in the enterprise, and in 1914 he had

    brought a Farman plane in the United States and shipped it to Norway where he

    himself obtained a certificate as pilot and where at the outbreak of the war he

    gave it to the Norwegian Government.

            The world war and the hopeless condition of the Fram led to a new post–

    ponement of Amundsen's plans, but not to abandonment. Amundsen invested his

    accumulated funds in shipping stock, doubled his capital, and had, in 1916,

    enough money to contract for the building of a new ship and to finance the

    long-postponed drift expedition. His new ship was launched on June 7, 1917,

    and was named the Maud after the Queen of Norway. The Maud was designed by

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    the yachet-builder Chr. Jensen and was built along lines similar to those

    of the Fram , but was even more bowl-shaped. She had an over-all length of

    120 feet and a beam of 40 feet, and in any vertical section, lengthwise or

    athwart ship, the shape of the hull was part of a circle. From the outer

    side of the ironwood ice-sheating to the inner side of the inner sheating

    the sides were nearly three feet thick. Inside the hull was strengthened

    with vertical and inclined staunchions, tied together and tied to the deck

    beams with naturally grown knees of oak. Her shape made her an excellent

    ship when jammed by the ice and subjected to heavy pressure, but in the open

    sea she rolled like a wash basin.

            During the winter 1917 to 1918, Amundsen equipped the Maud for a five

    years' journey, obtaining provisions from the United States by special license.

    On July 18, 1918, the Maud sailed from Vardö, Norway, carrying a party of nine.

    The number was increased to ten when a Russian-Norwegian engineer was added

    during the Maud's stay at Khabarovo. The party included Helmer Hansen (captain)

    who had been with Amundsen through the Northwest Passage, Oscar Wisting (first

    mate) who also had been to the South Pole, and among the three tenderfeet was

    Dr. H. U. Sverdrup, in charge of scientific work.

            The Maud expedition met with many difficulties. In September 1918 pro–

    gress was stopped some 10 miles to the east of Cape Chelyuskin, where the Maud

    stayed one full year. The year was used for carrying out scientific observa–

    tions and for charting the most northern peninsula of the continent.

            In the summer of 1919 the ice did not break up around the Maud , and only

    on September 12, after blasting and advancing foot by foot, did the ship suc–

    ceed in reaching open water, in which she could continue to the east. Two men

    were left behind, Tessem and Knudsen. These two had volunteered to return to

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    Port Dickson with the records of the winter's work. They retained a number

    of dogs and provisions for a year and could themselves decide whether they

    wanted to start their travel in the fall or wait until next spring. They

    decided to leave in the fall, but failed to reach their destination.

            The Maud proceeded to the east, but the season was too late to penetrate

    to the north and start the drift. An attempt at turning away from the coast

    to the east of the Now Siberian Islands failed, and, on September 21, 1919, all

    progress along the coast was again stopped. A second winter quarters had to

    be established on the open coast of Ayon Island, about 600 miles to the west

    of Bering Strait. During the winter Sverdrup left the ship and stayed for

    eight months among the reindeer Chukchi.

            In July 1920 the Maud continued toward the east and reached Nome on July

    28. Thus, Amundsen completed the Northeast Passage, which for the first time

    had been navigated by A. E. Nordenskiöld on the Vega in 1878 to 1879 and for

    the second time, in 1914-15, by the two Russian icebreakers, Taimyr and Vaigatch ,

    the latter sailing from east to west.

            In Nome Amundsen announced that all his companions could consider them–

    selves free to leave the expedition, which already had been two years in the

    Arctic without having started its actual task, the drift. Four of the remain–

    ing eight in the party decided to return to Norway, and, since no new men could

    be found in Nome, the Maud left Nome withonly four men on board, including Amund–

    sen. His plan now was to return to the Siberian coast, take some natives on

    board and, if possible, start the drift; but the ice conditions were worse than

    ever, and after a hopeless struggle in which the propeller shaft of the Maud was

    damaged, it became necessary again to establish winter quarters, this time only

    25 miles from the place where the Vega stayed in 1878-79.

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            During the winter Amundsen decided that next year he would leave it to

    Wisting and Sverdrup to have another try at the drift if they were willing,

    and that he himself would return to his old plans for the use of airplanes

    in the Arctic. Consequently, in the summer of 1921, the Maud was sailed to

    Seattle for repairs and left again for the Arctic in June 1922 with a crew of

    eight, including a native boy from Siberia. This time the Maud finally suc–

    ceeded in getting away from the coast. The ice closed around her to the east

    of Wrangel Island, but she was not carried across the Polar Sea as had been

    hoped. After two years she got out of the ice to the north of the New Siberian

    Islands and, according to Amundsen's directions, she tried to return to Bering

    Strait, but had to spend one more winter on the coast near the Bear Islands

    off the mouth of the Kolyma River. She and her crew finally returned to Seattle

    in October 1925, with a wealth of observations which made the expedition a

    scientific success.



            During the years 1922-25, Amundsen had carried on and had experienced

    the bitterest disappointments, but also the most spectacular triumph of his

    varied life. In 1922 he had bought a Junker plane which the Maud took to Point

    Hope, Alaska, where it was transferred to the Holmes which unloaded it at Wain–

    wright. Amundsen,with Oscar Omdal as his aviator, hoped to fly from Wainwright

    to Spitsbergen in the spring of 1923; but, when spring came, it was impossible

    to get the plane off the ground with the necessary supply of gas, and the plan

    had to be given up.

            Returning to Norway in 1923, Amundsen found himself at the lowest possible

    ebb in his career. He had hoped to raise funds for an airplane expedition to

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    EA-Biography. Sverdrup: Roald Amundsen

    start out from Spitsbergen, but found himself blocked in every direction.

    From the public point of view the Maud expedition was a failure, and, further–

    more, it was considered that Amundsen should have stayed with the ship instead

    of trying ventures which were called stunts that were unworthy of being taken

    seriously. All sorts of rumors were circulated reflecting not only upon Amund–

    sen'[?] intentions as a serious-minded explorer, but also upon his morals. On

    top of all that Amundsen found his finances in a hopeless tangle. On previous

    occasions he had often been close to bankruptcy, perhaps because he was so

    engrossed in his undertakings that he always was convinced that somehow the

    funds would be forthcoming. He had gotten away with his optimistic calcula–

    tions because help had come when ot was most needed, but in 1923 there was no

    help in sight. His debt had increased steadily, partly because some of his

    trusted friends had been far too optimistic in their dispositions. His only

    asset, the Maud , was drifting with the ice to the north of Siberia, and no one

    knew if she would ever return. The most disgraceful blow was directed by his

    own brother who had lent him money and who now feared that everything would be

    lost. When the brother demanded payment, Amundsen had to let himself be de–

    clared bankrupt. Amundsen might have been careless in financial matters but

    to acknowledge bankruptcy was to him equivalent to admitting that he had been

    guilty of criminal conduct. The bankruptcy was a blemish on his name which had

    to be removed, and he would not rest until he had paid the last penny of his



    The Flight to 88° North

            In 1924, Amundsen again went lecturing to the United States, but there

    the interest in his activity had also faded. Discouraged to the point of despair,

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    EA-Biography. Sverdrup: Roald Amundsen

    he figured out that at the rate he was going he would need 60 more years to

    accumulate enough money to pay his debts and finance his new expedition. But

    a miracle happened. Lincoln Ellsworth called him on the phone at his hotel,

    introduced himself as a person Amundsen had met in France in 1917, told that

    he was interested in arctic exploration, and offered to assist in financing a

    flight from Spitsbergen. Amundsen accepted the offer with enthusiasm, and thus

    an intimate cooperation and a warm friendship started.

            Two Dornier-Wal flying boats, N-24 and N-25, were purchased and taken to

    Spitsbergen, where they started from the fast ice in King's Bay in Latitude 79° N.

    on May 21, 1925, each carrying three men. The plan was to fly to the vicinity

    of the North Pole and return by a slightly different route in order to explore

    geographically the region to the north of Spitsbergen. The chances were that one

    would see nothing but ice, but ascertaining that no land existed would in itself

    be a valuable contribution.

            Before the planes reached the northern islands off Spitsbergen, the fog

    shrouded the land, and for two hours the planes continued their course above the

    fog banks. When the fog was left behind, nothing but the monotonous sea ice

    could be seen. The first lanes were observed in the very early morning of the

    22nd and shortly afterwards, as Amundsen's plane, N-25, was circling to look

    for a place to go down for checking of position, one of the motors failed and

    it became necessary to land. Both places were brought down, but N-24 was damaged

    and had to be abandoned. The N-24, commanded by Ellsworth, went down less than

    a quarter mile from the N-25, but the ice was so broken up and treacherous that

    only on the fifth day did Ellsworth and his two companions, Dietrichson and Omdal,

    reach the Amundsen party. When struggling over the ice with heavy loads both

    Dietrichson and Omdal fell through, but were saved by Ellsworth's heroic effort.

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    EA-Biography. Sverdrup: Roald Amundsen

            The N-25 was still in great danger because the temperature was so low

    that ice formed rapidly on the lanes and because the ice was in constant motion

    and might at any time crush the frail craft. Combining their efforts, all six

    men succeeded in hauling the N-25 to comparative safety on a thick ice floe.

    Now they had the choice between trying to get the one plane in the air or aban–

    doning it and attempting to work their way across the ice to the coast of Green–

    land, 400 miles distant. Their chances of reaching Greenland were slim indeed,

    for which reason Amundsen decided to make every possible effort to prepare a

    runway on the ice and take off from that. For three weeks the men toiled on

    short rations and with inadequate tools. Lanes opened and floes parted. Again

    and again they had to save the plane from almost certain disaster and to see

    their work ruined. Finally, on June 6, Riiser-Larsen and Omdal found a floe

    large enough for the take-off and on the next day the weary men went to work

    with new zeal. Clearing a runway by shoveling the soft snow away was a back–

    breaking task, but Omdal had a bright idea: "Let us stamp the snow down." And

    so the six men stamped up and down for four days. A frost on the 14th of June

    helped to harden the surface, and on the next day the weather cleared and the

    desparate attempt had to be made. All unnecessary gear was left behind, and

    with the six men on board and fuel for an eight hours' flight Riiser-Larsen

    gave the motors all they could take. The N-25 gained speed, rose, and some

    eight hours later the pilot brought her safely down on the water off the north

    coast of Spitsbergen. The men were soon picked up by a sealer, which took them

    to King's Bay, where, to their amazement, they found a flotilla of small ships

    and a couple of planes ready to start a large-scale search for them.

            During the journey along the coast of Norway, Amundsen and his companions

    were everywhere greeted by flying flags and cheering crowds, and the enthusiastic

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    EA-Biography. Sverdrup: Roald Amundsen

    receptions reached their climax when the men arrived in Oslo on July 5. The

    city went wild. Amundsen had previously returned from expeditions which had

    rendered far greater results, but never from one which had appealed to the

    public in a greater measure. What a contrast to the sneers which met him only

    a year earlier!


    The First Flight Across the Polar Sea

            Even now Amundsen did not intend to rest on his laurels. He had one more

    task to accomplish: the crossing of the Polar Sea. The possibility of using a

    dirigible had been discussed during the stay at King's Bay before the departure

    on the flight of 1925, and on that occasion Riiser-Larsen had drawn Amundsen's

    attention to the Italian airship N-1 which appeared particularly well suited.

    In August 1925 the designer, Colonel Umberto Nobile, arrived in Oslo for a con–

    ference with Amundsen and Riiser-Larsen, at which general agreement was reached

    as to the purchase of the dirigible. Ellsworth helped in financing the enter–

    prise, contracts were signed, and Nobile was engaged as captain of the airship.

    Extensive preparations were made, including the building of mooring masts at

    Oslo and Vardö and the construction of a large shed at King's Bay. All was

    accomplished on schedule, and on May 7 the N-1, now named Norge , reached King's


            Byrd had already arrived in King's Bay in order to attempt a flight to the

    North Pole in the Josephine Ford . Many persons wondered if there might develop

    a race between the dirigible and the airplane and if Byrd and Amundsen would

    both j ealously hasten their last preparations in order to get off first. Ac–

    tually there was no rivalry, and Amundsen was happy because Byrd successfully

    carried out the flight to the Pole on May 9, two days before the start of the

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    EA-Biography. Sverdrup: Roald Amundsen

    Norge . This attitude of Amundsen is in part to be explained by the stand

    he had taken on the old Peary-Cook controversy. As previously stated, Cook

    had been the physician on board the Belgica in 1897-99, and on this expedi–

    tion a warm friendship had developed between Amundsen and Cook. When Cook

    in 1910 claimed that he had reached the North Pole, Amundsen immediately ac–

    cepted Cook'r report and subsequently, when Peary had submitted his records

    showing that he had reached the North Pole on April 9, 1909, and when Cook's

    story had been shown to be false, Amundsen repeatedly avoided any expression

    of opinion. In Seattle, in 1921, he was, for instance, asked at the Faculty

    Club of the University of Washington if he thought that Peary or Cook had

    reached the Pole. His reply wasL "That is a question I shall leave for his

    countrymen to decide." In February 1926, Amundsen visited Cook at Fort Leaven–

    worth when Cook was serving a term for mail fraud, and after the visit report–

    ers again asked the old question, but got an evasive reply, which might be

    interpreted as implying that Amundsen did not believe that either of them had

    been at the Pole. In March 1926 the writer met Amundsen in New York. At that

    time Byrd had announced his plan for a flight from Spitsbergen and had seen

    Amundsen to ask his advice. In conversation with Amundsen the writer got the

    definite impression that he would be happy if Byrd's flight could take place

    before his own, because then the Peary-Cook controversy would be finally settled.

    If Byrd reached the Pole first, no step would be taken to raise new doubts as

    to the validity of the claim by his countrymen Peary, but should Amundsen pass

    the Pole first, the question might again come up and Amundsen would have to

    take a stand in the matter. Amundsen did not at all wish this to happen, and

    there can be no doubt that he was sincere when on May 9 he congratulated Byrd

    on his success.

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    EA-Biography. Sverdrup: Roald Amundsen

            On May 11 the Norge lifted her great bulk from the snow-covered slope at

    King's Bay and set her course for Point Barrow, Alaska, by way of the North

    Pole. The party on board number 16 men, and included Wisting, Amundsen's com–

    panion from the journey to the South Pole and the Maud . In the early hours of

    May 12 the Pole was reached, where flags of three nations were dropped, those

    of Norway, the United States, and Italy.

            Between the North Pole and Point Barrow the route cut the largest unexplored

    region of the Arctic, passing over what Stefansson had called the "Pole of in–

    accessibility," which Amundsen preferred to refer to as the "Ice Pole." In 1911

    the expert on tides, Rollin A. Harris, of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey,

    had advanced the hypothesis that large land masses should lie in that very region.

    His conclusions based on an examination of the available tideal observations,

    but during the Maud expedition, on which comprehensive records of tides and tidal

    currents were obtained, it was found that Harris had reasoned from incomplete

    data and that, contrary to his opinion, the character of the tide on the coasts

    of Siberia and Alaska indicated waters of great depth within the unknown region.

            During the flight of the Norge the latter conclusion was confirmed, al–

    though the airship flew partly through fog and clouds and, therefore, did not

    observe the ground continuously. The fog and clouds caused for some time so

    much icing that the situation appeared critical, partly because of the added

    weight and partly because of the danger of the hull of the airship being torn

    to pieces by chunks of ice thrown off the propellers. Some holes were knocked

    in the cover, but could be repaired, and the Norge got out of the fog without

    having suffered serious damage.

            In the morning of May 13, 46 hours after the start, land was sighted, which

    turned out to lie just west of Point Barrow. The next 24 hours were the most

    trying on the trip. The main purpose had been accomplished, and the exhaustion

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    EA-Biography. Sverdrup: Roald Amundsen

    and lack of sleep made itself fully felt. Still, it was necessary to reach

    farther south, preferably to Nome, but navigation was difficult owing to poor

    radio communications, reduced visibility, and, when the clouds broke, lack of

    landmarks in the monotonous northern landscape. Repeatedly the course had to

    be changed, but on May 14, 72 hours after the departure, the Norge landed safe–

    ly at Teller, Alaska, about 60 miles from Nome.

            On the return trip to Norway through the United States, Amundsen and his

    companions were again hailed by thousands, and arriving in Oslo they were given

    a cheering reception, equalling that in 1925. Amundsen had brought with him

    the Norwegian glag that the Norge had flown across the Polar Sea. When he had

    to speak to the thousands who were gathered to greet him, he said: "Many have

    asked me what has spurred me to start out again and again." Unfolding the flag

    he went on: "Here it is. This flag has always spurred me on." Everyone know–

    ing Amundsen also knows that he did not use an idle phrase, and that love for

    and pride of his country was part of his being.

            After the flight with the Norge , Amundsen declared that he would no longer

    take active part in exploration, but would always be at disposal to anyone who

    might wish to benefit from his experiences. He wanted to live in private peace

    at his beloved home outside of Oslo, the home which one of his friends and ad–

    mirers had bought from his bankrupt estate and had placed at Amundsen's dis–

    posal for life. However, he did not immediately find the peace he was looking

    for. There arose an unfortunate conflict between him and Nobile, who consider–

    ed himself co-leader of the Norge expedition, whereas according to contracts

    he had been the paid captain of the airship. In his autobiography Amundsen de–

    nounced Nobile's attitude and took opportunity to give vent to some of his

    bitterness against other persons who had hurt him or whose opinions he was

    violently opposed to.

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    The Last Flight

            Amundsen's autobiography whirled up some dust, and before this had set–

    tled, Nobile had started an expedition of his own with a sister ship of the

    Norge , the Italia . After a successful flight from Spitsbergen toward Northern

    Land and back, the Italia started for a flight to the North Pole. The Pole

    was reached on May 23, 1928, but on the return trip the Italia was forced down

    and wrecked. No accurate information was available as to where the disaster

    had happened, but rescus operations had to be started right away. Amundsen

    placed himself at disposal, hoping to be given charge of the rescue operations

    to be undertaken by the Norwegian Government, but airplanes had to be used, and

    the only suitable planes in Norway belonged to the Norwegian Navy. It was con–

    sidered that these could not be commanded by a civilian, and to Amundsen's great

    disappointment Lieutenant Riiser-Larsen, his companion in 1925 and 1926, was

    put in charge instead of himself. Amundsen was still eager to take part in the

    search, and when asked he gladly agreed to go to Spitsbergen with a French plane

    of the Latham type, flown by Gilbaud.

            But Amundsen had one great worry left: as yet his debt from the unfortunate

    years 1923-23 had not been paid in full. He had proposed to sell his many gold

    medals in order to cover the last remaining amount, and before he left Oslo to

    join the Latham, his last world to his attorney was: "Make me a free man." Be–

    fore leaving Tromsö he got word that the Historical Museum of Oslo had been un

    able to buy his collection for an amount which would barely cover the last sum

    needed to give his creditors the remainder of their money. Amundsen was again

    a free man.

            Experts agreed that the Latham was not ideal for the purpose, but time was

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    EA-Biography. Sverdrup: Roald Amundsen

    short. Wisting and Dietrichson should both have gone with Amundsen, but there

    was space for only one of them and the choice fell on the aviator, Dietrichson.

    On June 18, the Latham left Tromsö. For a few hours the plane remained in radio

    contact with Tronsö, but then silence followed. When the plane failed to reach

    Spitsbergen at the calculated hour, it was feared that it had been forced down

    at sea and that Amundsen and his companions were lost. Extensive search opera–

    tions were undertaken, but only some wreckage of the plane was found. No one

    knows exactly how Amundsen met death, but all that needs to be known is that he

    closed his career in an attempt to rescue a fellow explorer.



            Amundsen said of himself that he never became an arctic explorer, because

    since he was fifteen years old all his thoughts and his energy had been directed

    toward one goal - the expansion of our knowledge of the polar regions. Circum–

    stances made it necessary for him to change plans and make detours, but after

    he had sailed through the Northwest Passage, his one all-absorbing idea, from

    1908 to 1926, was to cross the Polar Sea and reach the North Pole. The attain–

    ment of the South Pole was incidental.

            Amundsen was not a scientist and he never claimed to be one. He was in–

    terested in securing accurate information wherever he traveled and in giving

    specialists opportunities to carry out observations on his expeditions, but he

    cared little for their conclusions and even less for their theories. When he

    talked about men of science he had met, he would stress their personal character–

    istics and not their scientific attainments.

            Thoroughness in planning, meticulous attention to details, and nearly fussy

    orderliness combined with bold initiative laid the foundations for Amundsen's

    success. To this should be added his ability to select suitable companions and

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    EA-Biography. Sverdrup: Roald Amundsen

    to gain their unqualified confidence in his leadership. In selecting his men,

    he apparently looked for one particular characteristic: resourcefulness. When

    the preparations were still in progress, he might ask a question about a diffi–

    cult task or give a man an impossible assignment. If he got the answer "It

    can't be done," he was through with the man then and there, but if the man later

    on returned to the matter and explained how he had tried to tackle the problem,

    A undsen was satisfied even if the result was absolutely negative.

            On his expeditions Amundsen required of his men a punctuality and order–

    liness corresponding to his own. During the Maud expedition, he himself worked as

    cook for two years with the members of the party alternating as mess boys. Never

    was the galley more shining with a designated spot for every pot and spoon and

    with every utensil in its proper place. He established a strict daily routine

    broken by festive occasions during which he more than anyone else knew how to

    create a congenial atmosphere. His men loved him.

            Amundsen's trouble with his finances stood in sharp contrast to his meticu–

    lous orderliness in all details, probably because to him money was a necessary

    evil of no independent value. To this must be added that, like many other great

    explorers, he believed in his own mission, and when funds were not forthcoming

    from expected sources he was likely to ascribe this to lack of appreciation or

    even to take it as a personal affront. His belief in himself was his greatest

    strength without which he could not have attained his goals, but this belief com–

    bined with his great sensitivity was also a weakness which in course of the years

    made him a bitter and lonely man. Occasionally he was misused by publicity seek–

    ers and such instances made him suspicious toward anyone who approached him. He

    had to pay a high price for his success: his faith in human nature. Still, among

    his few personal friends he was the most warm-hearted, hospitable, generous, and

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    EA-Biography. Sverdrup: Roald Amundsen

    charming person.

            Few men have during life followed a single line with greater perseverance

    and greater success. The glory of his death together with the brilliancy of his

    many achievements have forever placed Amundsen in the foremost rank of the great



    Amundsen, Roald My Life as an Explorer . New York, 1927.

    ----. The Northwest Passage : Being the Record of a voyage of

    exploration in the ship "Gjøa." New York, 1908.

    ----. The South Pole : An Account of the Norwegian Antarctic

    Expedition in the "Fram" 1910-12. London, 1913.

    Amundsen, Roald & First Crossing of the Polar Sea , London & New York, 1927.


    ----. Air Pioneering in the Arctic. The Two Polar Flights of

    Roald Amundsen and Lincoln Ellsworth
    . New York, National

    Americana Society, 1929.

    ----. Our Polar Flight . New York, 1925.

    Arnesen, Odd Roald Amundsen som han var . Gyldendal Norsk Forlag. Oslo,

    1929, pp. 1-213.

    Amundsen, Roald Nordostpassagen . Byldendalske Bokhandel. Kristiania, 1921,

    pp. 1-467.

    Sverdrup, H. U. "Minnetale over Roald Amundsen." Videnskaps-Akademiets Arbok

    1928. Oslo, 1929, pp. 125-129.

    Turley, Charles Roald Amundsen Explorer . Methuen & Co., London, 1935, pp. 1-214.

    Wisting, Oscar Seksten ar med Roald Amundsen . Byldendal Norsk Forlag, 1930.

    pp. 1-206.

    Zappfe, Fritz G. Roald Amundsen. H. Aschehoug & Co., Oslo, 1935. pp. 1-198.


    Harald U. Sverdrup

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