People & Events
Roald Engebreth Gravning Amundsen of Norway took pride in being referred to as "the last of the Vikings." A powerfully built man of over six feet in height, Amundsen was born into a family of merchant sea captains and prosperous ship owners in 1872. As a youth he insisted on sleeping with the windows open even during the frigid Norwegian winters to help condition himself for a life of polar exploration. Amundsen developed a fascination with Antarctica from the time he first glimpsed its frozen terrain in 1897. Antarctica, a continent the size of Europe and Australia combined, had not yet been traversed by humans. Amundsen aimed to be the first.
In 1903 he established himself as a sailor and explorer of the first order when he successfully led a 70-foot fishing boat through the entire length of the Northwest Passage, a treacherous ice-bound route that wound between the northern Canadian mainland and Canada's Arctic islands. The arduous journey took three years to complete as Amundsen and his crew had to wait while the frozen sea around them thawed enough to allow for navigation. Soon after his return to Norway, he learned that Englishman Ernest Shackleton was setting out of an attempt to reach the South Pole. Shackleton would be forced to abandon his quest a mere 97 miles short of the Pole. Amundsen studied all he could of Shackleton's attempt and began the long process of preparing for his own. He was as highly regarded for his skills in organization and planning as he was for his expertise as an explorer. Amundsen, who was thought to be "taciturn under the best of circumstances," took special measures to be sure members of his crew possessed personalities suitable to long polar voyages. Crew members onboard his ships knew he was firm but fair, and affectionately referred to him as "the chief."
By August of 1910, Amundsen was ready to make his own attempt to reach the South Pole, although all the world thought he was headed in the complete opposite direction. He had secretly ruled out attempting to reach the North Pole, because Americans Robert Peary and Frederick Cook had already laid claim to that feat. Amundsen even kept his plans for a South Pole expedition a secret from officials within the Norwegian government. He feared that government officials would be hesitant to challenge Great Britain, upon whom they were highly dependent, in a race to the Pole. It was not until Amundsen's ship, "Fram", was well off the coast of Morocco that he announced to his crew that they were headed for the South, not the North, Pole.
Crucial to Amundsen's success in reaching the South Pole was his use of carefully selected sled dogs. Amundsen's canine crew members had been superbly equipped by centuries of natural selection for survival in the Arctic. He referred to them as "our children," and revealed, "The dogs are the most important thing for us. The whole outcome of the expedition depends on them." On October 18, 1911 Amundsen's entourage set out from the Bay of Whales, on Antarctica's Ross Ice Shelf, for their final drive toward the pole. His British counterpart, Robert Scott, dependent on Siberian ponies rather than on dogs, began his trip three weeks later. Aided by exceptionally cooperative weather conditions, Amundsen's party, passed the point where Shackleton was forced to turn back on December 7. At approximately 3pm on December 14, 1911, Roald Amundsen raised the flag of Norway at the South Pole, and naming the spot Polheim -- "Pole Home." He and his crew returned to their base camp on January 25, 1912, 99 days and 1,860 miles after their departure.
Robert Scott's journey, on the other hand, was marred by tragedy. Scott wrote, "Our luck in weather is preposterous." From December 4 to December 8, 1911, Scott and his party were confined to their tents, forced to wait out a series of howling blizzards. As they ate away their precious rations, time slipped through their hands. By the time Scott's party reached the Pole on January 17, 1912, the Norwegians had come and gone. Scott's log records: "This is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have labored to it without reward of priority." Scott and his men had lost crucial time in reaching the pole and now faced the grim prospect of heading back to their base camp during the increasingly frigid Antarctic autumn. It was a journey they would never complete. On March 29, 1912, having endured blizzards and temperatures that fell to 40 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, Scott crawled into a tent with his two surviving party members and put down his final words: "For God's sake look after our people." Eight months later a search party found the frozen corpses of Scott and his men. They were only 11 miles away from a food and fuel depot they had left on their trek out.
Roald Amundsen lived to experience other polar adventures, including flying over the North Pole in a dirigible in 1926. But the Arctic would eventually claim his life, too. While flying on a rescue mission in 1928, Amundsen was killed when his plane crashed into the Arctic Ocean. That same year, speaking to a journalist about his love of the icy Arctic, Amundsen said, "If only you knew how splendid it is up there, that's where I want to die."