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My Life As an Explorer
by Roald Amundsen

Arctic Passage homepage

How did I happen to become an explorer? It did not just happen, for my career has been a steady progress toward a definite goal since I was 15 years of age. Whatever I have accomplished in exploration has been the result of lifelong planning, painstaking preparation, and the hardest of conscientious work.

So begins Roald Amundsen's autobiography, My Life As an Explorer. The book makes clear that, during his legendary exploits in the Arctic and Antarctic, Amundsen thrived on his novel encounters with exotic cultures and places as well as on testing his own physical limits. Yet he describes exploration as a "serious business," not a whimsical pursuit of adventure. In the following excerpts, he recounts how he was seized at a young age by the dream of becoming a polar explorer, and how 18 years later he accomplished the feat at the heart of this dream—the first navigation of the entire Northwest Passage.

When I was 15 years old, the works of Sir John Franklin, the great British explorer, fell into my hands. I read them with a fervid fascination which has shaped the whole course of my life. Of all the brave Britishers who for 400 years had given freely of their treasure, courage, and enterprise to dauntless but unsuccessful attempts to negotiate the Northwest Passage, none was braver than Sir John Franklin. His description of the return from one of his expeditions thrilled me as nothing I had ever read before. He told of how for three weeks he and his little band had battled with the ice and storms, with no food to eat except a few bones found at a deserted Indian camp, and how before they finally returned to the outpost of civilization they were reduced to eating their own boot leather to keep themselves alive.

Strangely enough the thing in Sir John's narrative that appealed to me most strongly was the sufferings he and his men endured. A strange ambition burned within me to endure those same sufferings. ... Secretly ... I irretrievably decided to be an Arctic explorer.

More than that, I began at once to fit myself for this career. ... At every opportunity of freedom from school, from November to April, I went out in the open, exploring the hills and mountains which rise in every direction around Oslo, increasing my skill in traversing ice and snow and hardening my muscles for the coming great adventure. ...

At 18 I graduated from the college, and, in pursuance of my mother's ambition for me, entered the university, taking up the medical course. Like all fond mothers, mine believed that I was a paragon of industry, but the truth is that I was a worse than indifferent student. Her death two years later, in my 21st year, saved her from the sad discovery which she otherwise would have made, that my ambitions lay in another direction and that I had made but poor progress in realizing hers. With enormous relief, I soon left the university, to throw myself wholeheartedly into the dream of my life. ...

As soon as my army training was over, I undertook the next step in my preparation for Arctic exploration. By this time I had read all the books on the subject I could lay my hands on, and I had been struck by one fatal weakness common to many of the preceding Arctic expeditions. This was that the commanders of these expeditions had not always been ships' captains. They had almost invariably relied for the navigation of their vessels upon the services of experienced skippers. ... Always two factions developed—one comprising the commander and the scientific staff, the other comprising the captain and the crew. I was resolved, therefore, that I should never lead an expedition until I was prepared to remedy this defect. ...

Over the next few years, Amundsen honed his seafaring skills and worked up to the position of mate aboard a sailing ship that took him to his beloved Arctic. He then spent two years as an officer on an ill-fated voyage to Antarctica, where he witnessed firsthand how a crew besieged by scurvy and accompanying insanity could revolt against its commander. Upon his return to Norway, he got his skipper's license and began making definite plans for his first Arctic expedition.

In 1900, I bought the ship for this my first expedition. She was a small fishing smack from the northern part of Norway. She was 47 tons and of the same age as myself. [Amundsen and the ship, which he christened the Gjøa, were both 28 years old.] ...

The winter and spring of 1902-1903 I spent in feverish preparation for my great adventure of the Northwest Passage. I besieged every possible source of funds—the learned societies and the private patrons of science. The rest of my time was spent in selecting and ordering supplies.

Despair almost overcame me at times, because, in spite of everything, sufficient funds were not forthcoming. Some of the more impatient men from whom I had got supplies began pressing me for payment. Finally, on the morning of June 16, 1903, I was confronted with a supreme crisis. The most important of my creditors angrily demanded payment within 24 hours, with the threat that he would libel my vessel and cause my arrest for fraud. The ruin of my years of work seemed imminent. I grew desperate and I resolved upon a desperate expedient. I summoned my six carefully chosen companions, explained my predicament, and asked if they would cooperate with me in my strategy. They enthusiastically agreed. Therefore, at midnight on June 16th, in the midst of a perfect deluge of rain, we seven conspirators made our way to the wharf where the Gjøa was tied, went aboard, cast off the hawsers, and turned southward toward the Skagger Rack and the North Sea. When dawn arose on our truculent creditor, we were safely out on the open main, seven as light-hearted pirates as ever flew the black flag, disappearing upon a quest that should take us three years and on which we were destined to succeed in an enterprise that had baffled our predecessors for four centuries.

At last! The great adventure for which my whole life had been a preparation was under way! The Northwest Passage—that baffling mystery to all the navigators of the past—was at last to be ours! ...

After picking up 20 sled dogs and supplies on the west coast of Greenland, Amundsen and his crew proceeded westward.

Surely the Arctic seas have seldom seen such a spectacle as we presented. The Gjøa was 72 feet long, 11 feet wide, and of shallow draught. Naturally, we had only one mast, which gave us one mainsail and a couple of jibs. We had a good auxiliary motor, though in those days gasoline engines were still so uncertain that we had been gravely criticized for risking the dangers of explosion and fire when I had the motor installed.

So far there was no great novelty in our appearance. But such a cargo! First of all, every square inch of space in the hold had been carefully calculated and our packing cases made to fit so that when we got them all stowed there was not a wasted square foot of space left. This cargo weighed the Gjøa nearly to the water's edge. But the hold would not contain all the supplies we must carry. Consequently, almost the entire deck was likewise piled high with boxes, so that when we steamed into the Arctic Ocean we looked like a moving-van afloat! ...

The expedition's first stop after entering the Canadian archipelago was at Beechey Island, where they took a series of magnetic observations. As they then made their way through Peel Strait, they had a series of harrowing close calls—a collision with a hidden rock that almost left them rudderless, a fire in their engine room, and a violent gale that lasted four days. Come September, Amundsen knew they had to find winter quarters, and they moored the Gjøa in "the most beautiful little landlocked bay that the heart of a sailor could desire" on the southeast coast of King William Island. There they would stay for two years, conducting scientific investigations and, more importantly for their future passage, learning from the Inuit.

After we got our observatories built and our instruments installed, we built kennels for our dogs. When all was done, we could not have been more snugly housed anywhere in civilization. Our house was warm and weatherproof, and we had every convenience we needed.

Our next concern was to lay in a supply of fresh meat. We went out in parties of two, hunting caribou, and soon had piled up 100 carcasses.

One day, two of the boys and I were standing on the deck when one of them exclaimed: "There is a caribou!" He pointed to a small black object just on the skyline of one of the encircling hills. The other man, who had the best vision of the three, looked steadfastly at the black object for a moment and then turned to his companion and said: "That caribou walks on two legs." Sure enough, close scrutiny confirmed his quick perception that this was not a caribou but an Eskimo. Some other "two-legged caribous" joined the first, until five figures were outlined against the sky. Then they advanced toward us in a body. I sent the two boys for their rifles, and then the three of us advanced to meet them. I was in the lead and behind me came my little army of two. As the Eskimos neared us, we could see they were all armed with bows and arrows.

This began to look like a ticklish situation. We had no way of knowing whether their intentions were friendly or hostile. Certainly, they were equipped for war. However, there was nothing to do but meet them face-to-face. The two parties proceeded to within about 15 paces and then halted. I then turned to my "army" and instructed them ostentatiously to throw their rifles on the ground. I then turned to the Eskimos. Their leader, seeing this pacific move, imitated it by turning to his followers and uttering a command. They obeyed by throwing their bows and arrows on the ground. I was unarmed and advanced toward them. The Eskimo leader also came out alone.

It is remarkable how accurately two men can communicate who do not speak a word of a common language and whose whole experience of life seems utterly separated from each other's. Expressions of the fact, nods and shakes of the head, gestures and tones of the voice convey meaning with astonishing accuracy. By these means, I quickly convinced the Eskimo leader that I wished to be his friend, and he reciprocated my wish. Soon we were all friendly and I invited them down to our ship.

This was a truly thrilling moment in the lives of these poor savages. No one of them had ever seen a white man before, yet white men were a part of the legendary tradition of their tribe. Seventy-two years earlier, their grandfathers had met Sir James Clark Ross on almost this very ground. They had been amazed at the appearance of the English and hugely impressed with their marvelous equipment. To Eskimos, who had never before had in their possession a metal tool or weapon or a stick of wood the size of a man's hand (no driftwood floats in this region), the white man's knives, axes, guns, and sleds seemed miraculous. ...

We made them welcome to our ship, showed them the marvels of our equipment, and treated them with the greatest consideration. They asked if they might not come and bring their tribe and settle near us. To this we agreed, and it was not long before 50 Eskimo huts sprang up about our camp, housing about 200 men, women, and children.

This was an opportunity to delight the soul of an anthropologist and ethnographer. We had hoped for just such good fortune as this when we planned the expedition, and in consequence had brought many things for the purpose of barter. I set about to acquire a complete set of museum exhibits to illustrate every phase of the life of the Eskimo. Before I finished, I had several such complete sets, which now repose in the Norwegian museums. I got samples of literally everything these Eskimos possessed, from suits of clothing worn by both sexes, young and old, to samples of every kind of implement they had for cooking, sledding, and the chase. Some marvelous bargains were included in this collection. For example, for the price of an empty tin I got two complete sets of women's clothing. To me it was wonderful to see the artistic sense and fabricating skill evidenced in these garments. The women are very adept at cutting out the black parts and the white parts of the caribou skins and fashioning them into beautiful shapes and then working these parts of the skins into elaborate patterns. Their beadwork, too, made from the teeth and bits of dried bone of the caribou, showed taste and skill.

Imagine, too, the interest I took in the implements used by these people. Their skill in taking the bones of freshly killed game and stretching and twisting them while still green into proper lengths and shapes from which to fashion spear heads and shaft needles for sewing, and other useful articles, was to me a fascinating example of human ingenuity.

Another bargain was the exchange I made of one heavy steel needle for four of the most beautiful white fox skins I have ever seen in all my Arctic experience. Some of these trades may sound like hard bargains on our part, but this was not the case. The Eskimos traded us only of their surplus for things of our stock that to them were of equal value. A hunting knife of fine Swedish steel could easily be worth to an Eskimo hunter far more than a dozen beautiful furs for which he had no present need and which he could easily duplicate.

By this process, during the two years that we remained in the camp, the Eskimos got from us everything we had that was of use to them, and we, in turn, got our complete collection of their products. It was a perfect example of a good bargain, in which both sides profited.

As soon as the Eskimos began settling down around us, I was confronted with a situation that the commander of every expedition has to meet on any exploration that brings white men and savages into contact in the wilds. To all savages, the civilized white man has some of the attributes of the gods. His deadly and mysterious weapons, his devices for producing instant fire and light, his wealth of equipment and variety of food seem to these untutored minds to stamp him with divine origin. This superstitious fear is the strongest safeguard of the explorer. So long as it persists, one man like myself with six followers would be safe among 200 Eskimos, for example.

But one thing, more surely than anything else, can dissipate this godly elevation. The white man may even be brutal with the savage and still retain his respect, for ruthless power is also in their minds an attribute of divinity. But the moment the white man yields to his baser passions and takes liberties with the savages' women, he falls in their eyes to the level of mere man and puts himself at their mercy. I therefore took the first opportunity to have a most serious talk with my companions and urge them not to yield to this kind of temptation.

When we left, we gave the Eskimos many articles that we no longer needed. In their eyes, the priceless gift we made them was the wood of which our house and observatories were built. They did not possess a stick of their own; and this gift meant to them an abundant supply of materials for the manufacture of sleds, spear handles, and other invaluable articles. ...

Meanwhile, the rest of the Northwest Passage was still before us. We left our camp on August 13, 1905, and set sail through Simpson Strait. Much of this coast had been mapped by earlier explorers who had traveled to it by land from Hudson Bay, but no vessel had ever heretofore troubled these waters or charted their shallows—they do not deserve the title of "depths." If they had, we should have had an easier time of it. But time and again it seemed certain we should be defeated by the shallowness of these tortuous channels. Day after day, for three weeks—the longest three weeks of my life—we crept along, sounding our depth with the lead, trying here, there, and everywhere to nose into a channel that would carry us clear through to the known waters to the west. Once, in Simpson Strait, we had just an inch of water to spare beneath our keel!

While this final effort for our goal was on, I could not eat or sleep. Food stuck in my throat when I tried to swallow. Every nerve was strained to the limit in the resolve to foresee every danger and to avoid every pitfall. We must succeed!

"A sail! A sail!"

We had succeeded! What a glorious sight that was—the distant outlines of a whaling vessel in the west! It meant the end of years of hope and toil, for that vessel had come from San Francisco through the Bering Strait and along the north coast of Alaska, and where its deep belly had floated, we could float, so that all doubts of our success in making the Northwest Passage were at an end. Victory was ours!

Instantly, my nerve-racking strain of the last three weeks was over. And with its passing, my appetite returned. I felt ravenous. Hanging from the shrouds were carcasses of caribou. I rushed up the rigging, knife in hand. Furiously I slashed off slice after slice of the raw meat, thrusting it down my throat in chunks and ribbons, like a famished animal, until I could contain no more. Appetite demanded, but my stomach rejected, this barbarous feast. I had to "feed the fishes." But my appetite would not be denied, and again I ate my fill of raw, half-frozen meat. This time it stayed by me, and soon I was restored to a sense of calm well-being such as I had not known in the three terrible weeks just passed. Those weeks had left their mark upon me in such a way that my age was guessed to be between 59 and 75 years, although I was only 33!

The whaler was the Charles Hansson, of San Francisco, and the date we sighted her was August 26, 1905.

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From a young age, Amundsen trained his body to endure hardship, even sleeping with his windows wide open through Norwegian winters, to prepare for his life as a polar explorer.

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Amundsen as youth

Amundsen was born into a relatively affluent family, but its fortunes changed when his father died. Roald was 14 at the time.


"What has not been accomplished with large vessels and brute force I will attempt with a small vessel and patience," wrote Amundsen. He had faith that a small herring boat like his Gjøa (above) could endure the treacherous Arctic Ocean.

Amundsen in Nome

Another advantage of a small vessel was that it required only a bare-bones crew. Amundsen (left) carefully chose six hardy and resourceful sailors (one is missing in this photo).

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The Gjøa decades after the voyage, on display at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco

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Amundsen with Inuit

Despite his reference to them as "poor savages," Amundsen clearly admired the people we now know as the Netsilik Inuit. He considered them mentors in his Arctic training.

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Amundsen, here with Gjøa's second mate Helmer Hanssen, took to wearing a reindeer fur anorak. "Am always warm, without sweating," he noted in his diary.

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Amundsen with dogs

Amundsen's famous conquest of the South Pole in 1911 (shown here) might not have been possible without his Northwest Passage expedition, during which he learned from the Inuit how to build windproof ice shelters and master sled dogs.

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By his early 30s Amundsen had achieved a goal that had eluded many great explorers before him. But he was not one to rest on his laurels.

Arctic Passage

Back to the Arctic Passage homepage for more features on the Franklin and Amundsen expeditions.

Editorial segues written by Susan K. Lewis, editor of NOVA online

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