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Roald Amundsen is best known as the Norwegian who won the race for the South Pole in December 1911, but his career uniquely spanned the transition from the classic era of men on foot to mechanised travel in high latitudes. Born in 1872 Amundsen was, in that order, a practised mountain skier and a merchant ship's captain. His first polar foray was under Belgian command on the Belgica which, in 1897-99, became the first ship carrying the first expedition known to have wintered in Antarctica. From 1903 to 1906, in a sloop called Gjoa, he became the first man to complete the elusive North West Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific through Arctic America on one and the same keel.
After victory at the South Pole, Amundsen sailed a somewhat larger vessel, Maud along the Siberian coast in a failed attempt to drift across the Arctic ocean via the North Pole. In so doing, Amundsen nonetheless became the second man known to have navigated the North East Passage, the other fabled short cut to the Pacific. That expedition lasted from 1918 to 1925, although Amudsen himself left it in 1923. Next, in 1925, he unsuccessfully attempted the first flight to the North Pole, having to make a forced landing on the polar ice and, in one of the sagas of the age, somehow flew himself and all his men safely home again. The next year, in an airship called Norge -- 'Norway' -- he finally did make the first flight across the Arctic Ocean; from Spitsbergen to Alaska, passing the North Pole along the way. In the process, he became the first man to have reached both Poles of the Earth. He vanished over northern waters in 1928 when flying to the rescue of an Italian airship which had crashed in the Arctic. His body was never found. It was perhaps a fitting end for someone who was arguably the greatest of all polar explorers.
All this was a long, melancholy epilogue. Victory at the South Pole was the climax of Amundsen's career. It was the culmination of the Norwegian school of polar exploration which, using the interplay of men on skis with sledges hauled by dogs, perfected polar travel, and closed the last chapter of terrestrial exploration before the leap into space. It was the greatest snow journey ever made.
Amundsen and his four companions on the polar party saw themselves not so much as explorers as skiers, with the fight for the South Pole a nordic ski race writ large. Between them they had more than a century on skis, against the six years mustered by their hapless British rival, Robert Falcon Scott. In a word, they were at home in the territory they had chosen to invade. Sheer figures tell the tale. Amundsen reached the Pole on the 15th December 1911, having taken 57 days, against 78 days for Scott, whom he beat by nearly five weeks. It is true that Amundsen started 60 nautical miles closer to the Pole, because his base was that much further South than Scott's, but still he drew ahead by 3½ nautical miles a day. In a mile race, that would mean lapping Scott just after the bell; and so on and so forth. Amundsen was safely back in 99 days, men and dogs bursting with rude health. Scott as everyone knows, perished in unclear circumstances after 150 days.
It was not only that Amundsen was devastatingly superior on the trail. He was a technical innovator. His expedition ship, his great predecessor Nansen's Fram, was the third oceangoing vessel with a diesel engine. Amundsen also invented a cold weather boot that was the prototype of all counterparts today. He learned the Eskimo art of coating sledge runners with a thin layer of ice so that he could travel in any depth of cold. One of his men produced the first ski binding with quick release. Another adopted specialised navigation for high latitudes. The list is long. Above all, Amundsen pioneered the selection of what has been called the 'virtuoso team'. Its epitome was in Olav Bjaaland, the equivalent of a double Olympic skiing gold medallist today. It was Bjaaland, using the language of a skier, who best summed up the Norwegian expedition. On arriving at the South Pole he wrote in his diary that 'here it's ... flat ... and the skiing is good'; then feelingly towards the end of the return journey, 740 nautical miles further on, that 'it was a damned hard job being forerunner'. Amundsen could not have put it better himself.
Roland Huntford, 10 August 2006
THE PROPERTY OF ANNE-CHRISTINE JACOBSEN, ROALD AMUNDSEN'S GREAT NIECE
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FIRST TRANSIT OF THE NORTH WEST PASSAGE
Amundsen, with some experience of ice navigation after serving as mate on the Belgica, and inspired by reading about Franklin as a boy, set out from Christiania in the Gjoa in June 1903 to navigate the Passage and locate the North Magnetic Pole. The Gjoa, a small herring boat, with sails and a small engine, and strengthened for the ice in Tromso, sailed with Amundsen and six companions and six dogs. They made their first landing at Beechey Island in the Canadian Arctic, finding the poignant monuments, graves and relics of earlier voyages, before continuing on down Peel Sound and past the western end of Bellot Strait. They landed again on the south side of King William Island to make observations and met the Netsilik Eskimos (Amundsen's 'Inhabitants at the Magnetic Pole'). From here Amundsen made a sledging journey toward the Magnetic North Pole in April 1904 (only to discover later that he had miscalculated its position) and his second-in-command, the Dane Hansen with Ristvedt, undertook a sledging and survey journey in 1905 to explore the uncharted west coast of McClintock Channel and cross the Victoria Strait, naming islands for the Royal Geographical Society and Queen Maud Sea to the south. They discovered further evidence of earlier expeditions at the western end of King William Island: more human remains and Captain Hall's stone inscribed 'Eternal Honour to the Discoverers of the North West Passage'. They made their furthest north on Victoria Island before returning to the Gjoa after covering 800 miles. The expedition sailed on, navigating the channels between the Arctic islands and the mainland ('we bungled through zig-zag as though we were drunk'), and reached Cape Colborne, at the entrance to Cambridge Bay, on 17 August 1905, having sailed through the 'hitherto unsolved link in the North West Passage.' They passed Nelson Head on 26 August into what would later be called Amundsen Gulf and the following day met a San Francisco schooner: 'The North West Passage had been accomplished -- my dream from childhood.' Stopped by the ice, Amundsen overwintered in 1905-06 at King Point near the mouth of the Mackenzie River, and Amundsen made an overland journey to Eagle City, Alaska, to send a telegram announcing his success. The Gjoa sailed on in July 1906 and passed through the Bering Strait on 30 August, completing the first navigation of the North West Passage. After celebrations in Nome, Alaska, Amundsen took the Gjoa on to San Francisco where she remained until returning to Norway in 1972. The ship is now on the waterfront in Oslo, in front of the Fram Museum.