Roald Amundsen was, simply put, one of the greatest explorers of all time. He is most famous for being the first man to reach the South Pole, but in his journeys across the polar wastes, he experienced unimaginable horrors. Let us journey forth to discover 50 trailblazing facts about the Last of the Vikings.
1. A Legend is Born
Roald Engelbregt Gravning Amundsen was born on July 16, 1872, in Borje, Norway. The sea was in his blood. He came from a long line of shipowners and captains, including his father, Jens Amundsen. Roald was the youngest of four brothers born to Jens and Hanna Sahlqvist.
2. A Ladies’ Man
Although he never married himself, Amundsen was rumored to have many lady friends. He preferred the company of married women, but left them when he felt things were getting serious. Some of his most famous conquests included the wife of a famous Norwegian lawyer and the wife of a landed British aristocrat.
3. Commitment Ready
The year Amundsen died was the year he had become engaged to Bess Magids, a 31-year-old from Alaska who had been in a long relationship with him while she was married to a proprietor of trading stations. She had recently divorced her husband and her marriage with Amundsen was supposed to take place later that year. Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be.
4. Medicine Man
Amundsen wasn’t originally going to be an explorer. He didn’t even plan on ever going out to sea—at least not if his mother had a say in it. She wanted her youngest to become a doctor. A dutiful son, Amundsen enrolled in university to study medicine, but it quickly became clear that school was not the place for him. Instead of studying, he would spend time skiing, developing his nautical skills, and learning to survive in the bitter cold.
5. No Bookworm
I’m sure that Amundsen’s professors would have been shocked that their pupil had gone on to great things. Although he was enrolled in the best schools, he barely managed to pass any of his classes.
6. Change of Plans
Amundsen was only in school for his mother, so after she tragically died, he had no reason to keep pretending he was going to be a doctor. Not long after she passed, he dropped out of medical school.
7. Thrill Seeker
Though he didn’t enjoy studying, a book was what sparked Amundsen’s interest in exploration. It was about Sir John Franklin’s doomed expedition in search of the Northwest Passage. Rather than deter Amundsen, the daring story inspired him, and Franklin’s incomplete voyage became a lifelong source of fascination and motivation.
Amundsen dealt with immense heartache before he was even old enough to rent a car. He was left fatherless at the young age of 14, and his mother passed when he was only 21.
9. When Life Gives You Lemons…
Amundsen’s now-legendary trip to the South Pole happened quite by chance. His original plan was the exact opposite…literally. He wanted to lead an expedition to be the first person to reach the North Pole. Unfortunately, before he set out, Robert E. Peary and Frederick A. Cook announced they had already made it to the top of the world. That put an end to that dream for Amundsen…but the bottom of the world was still waiting.
10. Fairweather Friends
Amundsen maybe wouldn’t have given up on his North Pole expedition, but his funding disappeared. The people who had been willing to support the journey suddenly backed out when they discovered he wouldn’t be the first man to get there. Although Amundsen had explained there was still scientific value to the expedition, they had only been willing to finance his voyage if he had a chance to be the first.
I’m sure it didn’t take much thinking for him to realize a way to keep his funding…
11. Critically Speaking
Not everyone was excited about Amundsen joining the race to the South Pole. Robert Falcon Scott had already started out for the Pole when he got a telegraph from Amundsen to let him know he was on his way there as well. In fact, Amundsen faced a lot of criticism for making his expedition a race against Scott. It does seem a little…ungentlemanly.
12. Big Win and a Loss
Amundsen reached the South Pole first, making it there on December 14, 1911. A little over a month later, on January 18, 1912, Scott’s team limped over the finish line, only to discover they’d lost. However, there’s another key difference in the two expeditions: Amundsen made it back to his ship alive, while Scott’s entire crew perished on the return journey.
13. How it Happened
So why did Amundsen succeed where Scott failed? A big factor was their equipment. Amundsen used lighter sleds, more appropriate clothing, and skis to reach the South Pole. He used the knowledge he had gained from the Inuit he had met during a previous expedition, and it all worked out to his advantage. Scott, on the other hand, relied on poorly-suited ponies and unreliable motorized sleds, and paid the ultimate price for his mistake.
14. The Details
The journey to the South Pole was no leisurely stroll through the snow. From Amundsen’s base camp on the Ross Ice Shelf, it took him and his crew of four men, with four sleds and 52 dogs, two agonizing months to get to the South Pole. They returned to base camp another month later with no human casualties, but only 11 dogs remaining.
15. Antarctic Twist
In an ironic twist, though Amundsen won the race to the South Pole, the public viewed Scott as the more heroic figure. His journey and sacrifice were praised and his diaries with entries about struggle, commitment and bravery caught the world’s imagination. He was put on a pedestal and idolized—while the sneaky Amundsen was thrown under the bus.
16. Learning from the Natives
While becoming the first person to successfully navigate Northwest Passage in 1903, Amundsen formed a close relationship with the Netsilik Inuit people of Nunavut. They taught him about using sled dogs to transport goods and the advantage of wearing animal skins for protection from the icy weather. Most Europeans at the time wore heavy, woolen parkas, which, it turns out, do a terrible job of keeping you warm when wet—something that happens often.
17. Strong & Silent
Amundsen was a man of action who did not like sharing his plans and ideas with the world. He preferred to achieve the goal he had set for himself before publicizing it. This made a lot of people think he was conceited, but that was just the way he was.
18. The Namesake
Some famous people named after Amundsen include the famous children’s book author, Roald Dahl, and theoretical chemist and Nobel Laureate, Roald Hoffman.
19. A Childhood Dream
Ever since reading about Sir John Franklin, the Northwest Passage had captured Amundsen’s imagination. So, when it finally came time for him to search for it, he was absolutely meticulous in his preparations. First, he had to find a ship that was well suited for the journey. Eventually, he found the Gjøa, a 45-ton fishing vessel, which fit his requirements perfectly. His plan was to use a small ship, have a small crew, and stay close to the coast.
20. Every Man for Himself
Amundsen strongly believed that every man on his voyage should have a task to do and feel equally responsible for the expedition’s success or failure. As such, he brought a much smaller crew than many of his contemporaries.
21. Quality not Quantity
When he set out for the Northwest Passage, Amundsen’s crew consisted of only seven people, including himself, and 20 dogs.
22. Role Model
Amundsen idolized Fridtjof Nansen, a Norwegian explorer, scientist, and Nobel Laureate. He even sought out Nansen’s support before he tried to navigate the Northwest Passage. Nansen not only approved of his plans wholeheartedly, but would also help him when he ran into financial troubles later in life. I guess sometimes it’s good to meet your heroes.
23. Learning and Relearning
When it came to exploration, at least, Amundsen was a keen student and thorough in his planning. To understand how to observe and record measurements and find the magnetic North, he went to Hamburg and met with Dr. G. Von Neumayer—the world’s foremost expert in the field of terrestrial magnetism. Neumayer encouraged and helped Amundsen for several months so he could learn how to make detailed and precise observations.
24. Test Spin
Before setting off in search of the Northwest Passage, Amundsen took Gjøa for a spin in the East Greenland waters. With his idol Nansen by his side, Amundsen used the trip to get the hang of the ship and to practice the various experiments and observations he would be doing in a safer environment. While he’s famous for his ventures into the unknown, Amundsen was always sure to be as prepared as he could possibly be beforehand.
25. Preparation is Key
Amundsen spent a total of two years preparing and gathering equipment and provisions for his trip to the Northwest Passage. The boy scouts would’ve loved this guy.
26. Impressive Preparation, Insufficient Funds
Even after they saw the kind of preparation Amundsen put into his voyage, creditors refused to loan enough money for him to make the trip. They threatened to pawn his ship to get back the money they had already loaned, so Amundsen made a desperate move: He gathered his crew and set sail without paying off his debts. He got Nansen to hold off his (no-doubt furious) investors…but their initial trust was paid off when the Northwest Passage had been conquered.
27. A Two-Year Study
While traveling the Northwest Passage, the Gjøa entered a natural harbor above the Arctic Circle. It wouldn’t sail out again for two brutal years. Like with the Belgian expedition, the ship became trapped in ice. Today, the spot is called Gjøa Haven. Making the best of a bad situation, Amundsen and his men would travel in sleds to verify the location of the North Magnetic Pole and spend time with the local Inuit people.
The interaction with the Inuit at Gjøa Haven was beneficial to both parties. While Amundsen and crew learned how to survive in the arctic, they gave the Inuit needles, empty tin cans, knives, and other metal tools in return. Since the local Inuit had never encountered any Europeans before, they had no knowledge of metalworking. But, if the rumors are to be believed, that’s not all Amundsen and his men gave the locals…
28. Friends with Benefits
Though it has never been confirmed, it’s widely rumored that many men in the crew began relationships with the local women. Amundsen vehemently denied partaking in such a tryst himself—though many have reported he wet his beak as well.
29. Rumor Has It
Many people from Gjøa Haven have claimed to be descendants of Amundsen and his crew members. One man in particular, Luke Ikuallaq, told his sons on his death bed that he was Amundsen’s son. However, a DNA test eventually revealed otherwise.
30. An Orderly Life
Amundsen wasn’t exactly Captain Kirk, who uttered romantic words like “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” No, Amundsen’s most famous quotes were about…preparedness. “Victory awaits him who has everything in order.” “Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time.” In case you couldn’t tell at this point, Amundsen really liked being prepared.
31. Another Ship to Sail
Amundsen was never a man to rest upon his laurels. As soon as he returned from his brutal journey to the South Pole, he started making plans to go back to the North Pole! However, the Fram, his trusted ship, which had belonged to Nansen and which he had used to get to the South Pole, had been damaged beyond repair. So, he had another one built on the same design as Fram and named it Maud after the queen of Norway.
32. Air Exploration
Though he spent much of his life at sea, Amundsen was also very interested in using airplanes to explore the Arctic. In the early days of aviation, this seemed like an utterly insane idea—but it would eventually change the face of polar exploration forever.
33. First Plane
In 1914, Amundsen decided to put his money where his mouth was, so he bought a biplane and obtained his pilot’s license. However, before he had the chance to put the plane to much use, WWI broke out and he lent it to the Norwegian government.
34. The Plan Goes Awry
Amundsen just could not stop getting ships stuck in ice. In 1918, he set sail on the Maud on yet another North Pole expedition—and once again, his ship became trapped for over a year. He and his crew had to spend two winters frozen in one place, somewhere on the Arctic Ocean, unable to continue their planned journey towards the North Pole.
35. Murphy’s Law
As if he wasn’t going through a run of bad luck already, Amundsen also broke his arm and was attacked by a polar bear while the Maud was stuck in ice. Amundsen was certain the bear would kill him, but was saved in the nick of time by one of his dogs, who drew its attention by barking and running away. Naturally, he was unable to participate in outdoor work, like sleigh rides and hunting, for some while after this episode.
36. A Parting of Ways
Amundsen decided to change things up after the Maud finally managed to break free from the ice. Do we mean he was finally giving on polar exploration? Of course not! On his next voyage, he split his expedition in two—one group in the Maud in the sea, and another group with him, trying to reach the North Pole by air.
Did the change of plans pay off? Nope. The ship drifted for three more years but never reached the North Pole. This time, Amundsen’s creditors had finally had enough. They seized the Maud and sold it to the Hudson Bay Company to get back some of their money.
37. An Unfortunate Series of Events
Amundsen never recovered from the bitterness he felt after the South Pole expedition when Scott was hailed a hero and he was accused of ungentlemanly conduct. Perhaps that was what kept him going—and also why he decided it would be a bigger achievement if he managed to fly across the North Pole instead of drifting across it. But, like so many of Amundsen’s expeditions, his first few attempts of flying over it failed.
Coupled with decreasing sales of his books and no new offers of lectureships, this caused a severe depletion in his finances. It also resulted in a clash with his brother and business manager, Leon. Eventually, he had to declare himself bankrupt. But while he was down, Amundsen was not finished yet.
38. A Ray of Hope
Things seemed to look up for Amundsen when Lincoln Ellsworth, a New Yorker, agreed to back him on his flying mission. Although they were unable to fly over the North Pole, they did succeed in flying to the farthest point in the North. But of course, it wouldn’t be an Amundsen journey without getting trapped in some ice! They crashed their plane and had to spend three weeks trying to clear the ice enough to fashion a runway so they could take off and return to the island of Svalbard.
Still, despite the setbacks, this expedition won Amundsen the public’s support and applause—even though he hadn’t accomplished what he had set out to.
Amundsen finally managed to fulfill his dream of flying over the North Pole in 1926. He and a crew of 15 men set off on May 11 and reached the North Pole in the early hours of the 12th, where they dropped flags of Norway, Italy, and the United States. Then, they just kept on going, eventually landing in Alaska after 72 hours of flying.
I know what you’re thinking: 72 hours is a long flight…but I’d be willing to bet it beats two years trapped in ice.
40. Peace Out
Although Amundsen declared he wanted to retire and live peacefully after this expedition, it was not meant to be. Instead, he and another of his crew, Umberto Nobile, were involved in a very public clash over who should have received credit for the flight. The Italian government sided with Nobile, much to the fury Amundsen and the Norwegians.
41. The End
In spite of their differences, when Nobile and his crew crashed on their next expedition aboard another airship, the Italia, Amundsen volunteered to be part of the rescue efforts. He was a civilian, and thus could not join the Norwegian Government’s rescue operation, so he went on a private French plane with five others. The plane flew into a dense fog…and that was the last that was heard of it. None of the crew members’ bodies were ever found.
42. Who Got There First?
We all know that Amundsen was the first man to get to the South Pole, but was he also the first one to reach the North Pole? Peary and Cook’s claims to have reached the North Pole remain shrouded in conflict. Richard E. Byrd, who flew to the North Pole two days before the Norje made its journey, has also had his claim disputed.
43. Father Figure
Amundsen did not have any children of his own, but when he left Maud and came back to Norway, he brought two indigenous girls with him. He adopted a four-year-old, Kakonita, and her companion, Camilla. He sent both girls to live with Camilla’s father in Eastern Russia when he went bankrupt.
44. All Aboard
Amundsen worked on various ships before he joined the RV Belgica as the first mate on the now infamous Belgian Antarctic Expedition in 1897. This voyage was important for one major reason: It would allow Amundsen to get his captain’s license. He needed this if he wanted to head his own polar expedition. However, if he’d known about the horrifying nightmare he was heading into, maybe he would have thought twice about the voyage.
45. The Long Winter
There are many controversies about the Belgian Antarctic Expedition. The commander, Adrian de Gerlache of Belgium, had not realized how the harsh weather might affect him and his crew. They reached the Antarctic waters late in the exploring season and their ship, the Belgica, got stuck on packed ice after just a few weeks of drifting. They didn’t realize it at the time, but this was the beginning of 13 grueling months trapped in the ice.
To make matters worse, they were extremely ill-equipped for such a long stay. Morale plummeted, many men fell sick and died, and some completely lost their minds.
46. Cook, the Hero
Amundsen firmly believed that if it hadn’t been for American explorer and physician, Dr. Fredrick A. Cook, the crew of the Belgica would have perished. Cook insisted that the men eat fresh penguin and seal meat, which helped them recover from scurvy, and he organized games to prevent them from giving in to melancholy and solitude.
47. Problems and Solutions
After nearly a year of being stuck on packed ice, the Belgica got a glimpse of salvation: a stretch of water appeared just 700m from the ship. That may not seem far—but it was painfully out of reach. The crew, at the behest of Cook and Amundsen, tried to create a channel by blasting and sawing through the ice. The men were weak, and the ice was solid, so it took almost two more months to bridge the gap.
Finally, thirteen months after first becoming stranded on the ice, the ship finally reached freedom on March 14, 1899.
48. Lessons Learned
This whole episode helped Amundsen learn a lot of lessons about survival in a harsh and unforgiving climate. Clearly, when it came to his trip to the South Pole, this experience came in handy.
49. A Loyal Friend…
Amundsen was mindful of the time he and Cook had spent together aboard the Belgica and always supported him thereafter. Unfortunately, Amundsen’s faith turned out to be misplaced. Sure, Cook turned out to be a lifesaver during the Belgian Expedition, but he wasn’t exactly the most stand-up guy in other matters. In the years following, he claimed to have been the first person to reach the North Pole and the summit of Denali, the tallest mountain in North America.
Those are two extremely impressive feats, and to have managed both would seem almost too good to be true. And of course, they were. Both claims are almost entirely discredited, and Cook was disgraced.
50. Till the End
When Cook was arrested and jailed for an unrelated fraud (he just couldn’t stop lying), Amundsen visited him frequently…until his own disappearance.