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Roald Amundsen: 11 fascinating facts about the Norwegian polar explorer

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An introduction to Roald Amundsen, one of the most famous Norwegians to ever live. Discover fascinating facts about the polar explorer.

Not all nations can boast of having such a well-known personality as Roald Amundsen, leader of the first successful expedition to the South Pole. By the age of fifteen he was already captivated by Sir John Franklin’s tales of his overland expeditions to the Arctic.

A statue of Roald Amundsen

This fascination would literally lead him to the end of the world. His success in finding his expeditions, obtaining the necessary funding (often astronomical) and carrying them out is an example of determination.

One of the secrets of his success is that he was eager to learn, both from his own mistakes and from others. For example, he learned local survival skills from the Inuit he met on one of his travels.

Join us as we explore his work through these 11 fascinating facts about the life of Roald Amundsen, one of the world’s most famous polar explorers.

1. He studied medicine

Roald Amundsen was originally intended for a career in medicine. He began his studies in the field in 1890, but after the death of both his parents, he decided to give up medicine and devote himself entirely to polar research.

2. His first polar trip was on a Belgian expedition

Amundsen’s first voyage was to Antarctica as helmsman on a Belgian expedition under Adrien de Gerlache de Gomery from 1897 to 1899.

The expedition ship Belgica became trapped in the ice near Peter I Island and drifted in the Bellingshausen Sea all winter.

Peter I Island in Antarctica.
Peter I Island in Antarctica.

This encounter with the harsh realities of polar exploration was a good lesson for Amundsen. He emerges from the expedition even more determined to pursue a career as a polar explorer.

3. He searched for the legendary Northwest Passage

In the summer of 1903, Amundsen left Oslo (called Kristiania at the time) with a small ice-strengthened 45-ton ship fitted with a 13 horsepower engine. The ship was called Gjøa and the crew consisted of six men in addition to Amundsen himself.

One of the expedition’s objectives was to navigate the Northwest Passage: the shortcut between the Atlantic and the Pacific, via the Arctic Ocean. What made the Northwest Passage so difficult to reach was that its waters were covered in ice for most of the year.

Roald Amundsen’s ship was the first to navigate the passage in its entirety. It took him three years.

4. He proved that the magnetic north pole moves

Another objective of the Gjøa expedition was to establish the precise location of the magnetic north pole. This had already been done by James Clark Ross in 1831.

Expedition ship Gjøa at the Fram Museum, Oslo.  Photo: David Nikel.
Expedition ship Gjøa at the Fram Museum, Oslo. Photo: David Nikel.

By finding the magnetic north pole and proving that it was no longer at its 1831 location, Roald Amundsen proved that the pole was in fact moving. Since then, things have really moved very quickly.

5. He spent two years with the Inuit

Because the measurements needed to precisely locate the magnetic north pole would take time to perform, Roald Amundsen searched for a suitable place to anchor his ship. He was delighted when he found the small cove now known in English as Gjoa Haven.

There was no one when he arrived, but eventually the Netsilik, a local Inuit group, arrived. The two groups established a relationship that proved mutually beneficial – especially for the Europeans.

Explorers received prepared reindeer hides as well as full outfits of clothing and the valuable know-how of building igloos. The Netsiliks, meanwhile, received needles, knives, empty cans and other items.

Stone cairn at Gjoa Haven.
Stone cairn at Gjoa Haven.

At the time, the Netsilik had had very little contact with the Western world. Amundsen’s extensive notes of their customs, as well as the large collection of Netsilik clothing and equipment he collected, proved to be one of the greatest tangible results of his expedition.

6. He was the first to reach the South Pole

After the travels with Gjøa, Amundsen began planning and raising funds for an expedition to the North Pole. But when Frederick Cook and Robert Edwin Peary announced in 1909 that they had achieved it, Amundsen chose to change his plans.

His next trip would rather go to Antarctica. Amundsen had received approval from Fridtjof Nansen to borrow the polar ship Fram.

Before the expedition left Madeira, Amundsen informed the participants of his modified plans and sent letters and telegrams to Captain Robert Falcon Scott, who was in New Zealand en route to Antarctica.

Read more: Admundsen v Scott: The Deadly Race to the South Pole

After lengthy preliminary studies, Amundsen chose a different starting point for the advance to the South Pole than previous British expeditions, namely Whale Bay, in the middle of the Ross Barrier.

Roald Amundsen's Framheim base camp for his South Pole expedition.
Roald Amundsen’s Framheim base camp for his South Pole expedition. Photo: National Library of Norway.

This starting point was closer to the South Pole, but the terrain to the south was completely unknown, so the decision was not without risk.

Amundsen set out with 4 teammates, 52 dogs and 4 sleds on October 19, 1911. He arrived at his destination not two months later, on December 14.

He recorded scientific data there before undertaking the return trip on 17 December. The return trip was even faster: the crew reached Baie des Baleines on January 25, 1912.

Meanwhile, Scott had reached the South Pole on January 17, but he and all his men perished on the return trip. The skills Amundsen had learned from the people of Netsilik on his previous trip proved invaluable to his success.

7. He flew to the North Pole on a plane…

A Northeast Passage expedition that resulted in the ship freezing in place every winter for three consecutive years only heightened Amundsen’s interest in polar exploration by air. The first two attempts ended in failure and the breakdown of the planes.

Amundsen’s dream would be made possible by wealthy American heir Lincoln Ellsworth. With two Dornier-Wal seaplanes, N 24 and N 25, Amundsen and Ellsworth flew north from Ny-Ålesund on Svalbard on May 21, 1925.

They were accompanied by a crew of four: two pilots and two mechanics. After more than 8 hours of flight, the planes landed at a latitude of 87°, approximately 330 km (200 miles) from the pole.

Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen in fur skins
Roald Amundsen.

There they discovered that one of the aircraft had been damaged during takeoff and could no longer fly. Nearly three weeks passed, during which the world refused to see the participants of the expedition again.

Meanwhile, the six men on the ice fought to get up with the only plane. Using hand tools, they managed to level a primitive runway and the six men took off on the remaining aircraft.

With the last drops of fuel, the plane reached the northern coast of Nordaustlandet (an island in the Svalbard archipelago), where they were spotted by a passing ship, which carried them back to civilization.

8. …and in an airship

A year after their first flight, Amundsen and Ellsworth undertook a new one, this time in an airship. The Norge airship was built in Italy by engineer Umberto Nobile, a colonel in the Italian Air Force.

The expedition was organized by the Norwegian Aviation Association, which was also responsible for the expedition with the two seaplanes. Nobile would pilot the airship, along with 15 other men on the crew, including Amundsen and Ellsworth.

On the evening of May 11, 1926, the Norge began its transpolar flight from Svalbard. It reached the North Pole after just 16 hours and landed in Teller, Alaska on May 14, after a 72-hour flight.

Sculpture by Roald Amundsen in Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard.
Sculpture by Roald Amundsen in Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard.

The journey crossed the unexplored part of the Arctic. Although visibility was poor on the North American side of the pole south of 85° latitude, Amundsen was able to determine that there was no large land area there.

The last big white spot on the maps had been removed. Amundsen had achieved his last great goal.

9. He went on a lecture tour in Japan

In 1927, Roald Amundsen embarked on a lecture tour of Japan, at the invitation of the Hōchi Shinbun newspaper. He traveled the country for six months, was welcomed as a hero in many places and told his adventures.

Memorabilia from this trip are displayed in his home, Uranienborg, which is now a museum, south of Oslo.

10. He died doing what he loved

After their airship journey together, Roald Amundsen and Umberto Nobile engaged in a very public feud over who should have been credited with leading the expedition.

Despite this bitter disagreement, Amundsen felt compelled to organize a rescue expedition to rescue Nobile when an airship he was leading crashed north of Svalbard in May 1928.

Noble monument in Tromsø
Nobile monument in Tromsø, North Norway.

Amundsen boarded a prototype French Latham 47 seaplane in Tromsø to search for Nobile. But tragedy struck and Amundsen and his crew disappeared during the rescue mission.

To date, what exactly happened to them is uncertain, but the subsequent discovery of wreckage from the plane indicates that the plane crashed in the Barents Sea, possibly after flying through a thick bank of fog. . Amundsen’s remains and those of the others on the flight were never found.

Nobile and seven companions were rescued weeks later, but eight of her crew perished.

11. He has a ship named after him

The MS Roald Amundsen is a Hurtigruten line expedition ship, launched in 2019. It can carry 528 passengers, and is the first of the line’s ships to have hybrid propulsion.

Innovative hybrid propulsion system reduces fuel consumption and vessel CO2 20% emissions.