Roald Amundsen Revisited

The first man to reach the South Pole, Amundsen is often seen as humourless and unsympathetic. But these are just facets of a uniquely complicated character – and a key part of what made him so extraordinary, writes Joly Braime.

28th October 2021 | Words by Joly Braime @ WildBounds HQ

Today, the popular perception of Roald Amundsen is of a strait-laced and po-faced adventurer. It is certainly true that he had little time for sentiment, as is evidenced by his famously unsympathetic take on the notion of luck: ‘Victory awaits him who has everything in order – luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck.’

When you read gloriously dour quotes like this one, it’s tempting to make the legendary polar explorer into a figure of fun – a mash-up of Werner Herzog, Andy Murray and Conan the Barbarian – but in truth there was nothing funny about Norway’s most famous son.

With a hawkish profile that was as distinctive as Hitchcock’s, Amundsen was among the most unsympathetic and complicated of the Golden Age explorers, but also one of the most fascinating. Thin-skinned and haughty, he didn’t have Nansen’s diplomatic charm, Scott’s charisma or Shackleton’s empathy, but in terms of ‘successful’ expeditions he surpassed them all.

Amundsen possessed that rare combination of single-minded drive and open-minded curiosity, backed up by a mastery of logistics and a clear streak of obsession. It was a life of triumphs, feuds, almost unimaginable endurance and the occasional dogmeat cutlet.

‘A splendid set of muscles’

Born into a maritime family, even childhood pictures of Roald Amundsen have a glint of steel about the eyes. His mother wanted him to be a doctor, but he was ‘a worse than indifferent student’, much more concerned with developing a ripped physique and devouring stories of long-dead British explorers. When she died, the 21-year-old Roald immediately sacked off his medical studies and signed up for national service with the Norwegian army. He was short-sighted, but fortunately the elderly medical examiner was so impressed by his ‘splendid set of muscles’ that he forgot to test his eyes.

Portrait of Roald Amundsen in 1906, aged 34.
Portrait of Roald Amundsen in 1906, aged 34.

Following national service, young Amundsen went to sea. He cut his teeth as a mate on the Belgian Antarctic Expedition then got his first taste of glory when he successfully navigated the Northwest Passage in the Gjøa, spending two years in an Inuit village along the way.

A Norwegian flag fluttering at the South Pole subsequently etched him into history, though strangely his own successful expedition is usually overshadowed by Scott’s catastrophic one. There’s a sort of unspoken notion that Amundsen managed it rather too easily, which must have felt distinctly unfair. As he himself wrote with characteristic brusqueness:

‘Scott and his companions died on their return from the Pole, not from broken hearts over our earlier arrival, but from actual starvation, because of their inability to provide adequately for food on the return trip.’

Husky stew

Famously, of course, Amundsen solved this same problem by incorporating the flesh of his faithful sled-dogs into his menu planning. As the loads got lighter, surplus dogs could be fed both to their comrades-in-harness and also to the crew.

‘In my calculations [...] I figured out exactly the precise day on which I planned to kill each dog as its usefulness should end for drawing the diminishing supplies on the sleds and its usefulness should begin as food for the men.’

When it came to it, even Amundsen himself baulked at such ice-cold pragmatism. His men referred to the camp where they killed two-dozen dogs as the ‘slakteri’ (‘slaughterhouse’), and in his diaries he recalled this first cull as a ‘terrible crime’ that left him physically shaking. Overcoming his remorse, however, he discovered that boiled dog cutlets made a ‘delicious’ dish, even if they were ‘not as tender as one could have wished’. Amundsen and his companions soon learned to reconcile the competing urges of guilt and gluttony, and dinner on 19 December 1911 was ‘Lasse, my own favourite dog. He had worn himself out completely and was no longer worth anything.’

A dog team in front of the ship Maud, during Amundsen’s failed attempt in 1918 to reach the North Pole by traversing the Northeast Passage.
A dog team in front of the ship Maud, during Amundsen’s failed attempt in 1918 to reach the North Pole by traversing the Northeast Passage.

The rest of the world has remained morbidly fascinated by this aspect of the expedition ever since. At a London dinner in Amundsen’s honour some years later, Lord Curzon raised his glass and quipped ‘Three cheers for the dogs!’ but the Norwegian didn’t see the funny side. ‘I feel justified in saying that by and large the British are a race of very bad losers,’ he wrote afterwards.

Feuds and rivalries

Amundsen wasn’t what you’d call a people person. He felt criticism keenly and usually translated it into lifelong enmity, falling out very publicly with everyone from his expedition comrades to the Royal Geographical Society.

A good illustration of this came on the South Pole expedition after a rare tactical mis-step. Returning to his basecamp on the Bay of Whales after an unsuccessful first run at the Pole, Amundsen charged on ahead, leaving some of his men struggling in a blizzard behind him. One crewman nearly didn’t make it back to camp, and was only saved by the seasoned explorer Hjalmar Johansen – famous for having overwintered with Fridtjof Nansen in Franz Josef Land in 1895–6.

Arriving back in camp, Johansen was furious, and Amundsen responded by demoting him, dropping him from the polar party, packing him off on a minor side-trip to King Edward VII Land, and pretty much writing him out of the official record. Johansen was one of the most experienced polar adventurers on the expedition, but in Amundsen’s published account he is an incidental, slightly comic character, constantly fretting over his sleeping bag. Haunted by disappointment and spiralling alcoholism, Johansen took his own life six months after returning home.

But it was a later feud that would become Amundsen’s most notorious. Despite being commonly associated with skis and dogsleds, by the 1920s he considered these things obsolete, writing that ‘aircraft has supplanted the dog’. After two unsuccessful attempts to reach the North Pole by plane, he eventually managed it in an airship called the Norge.

Though Amundsen was the leader of this expedition, the dirigible was designed and piloted by an Italian colonel called Umberto Nobile, who unfortunately tried to claim some credit for it afterwards.

The Norge N1 airship over Ny-Ålesund on departure to the North Pole, 11 May 1926
The Norge N1 airship over Ny-Ålesund on departure to the North Pole, 11 May 1926

Amundsen’s 1927 memoir, My Life as an Explorer, devotes nearly 100 pages to a raging character assassination of ‘this strutting dreamer, this epauletted Italian, who six months before had no more thought of Arctic exploration than he had of superseding Mussolini as the Chief of State.’ As far as Amundsen was concerned, Nobile was simply an expedition employee, and his thirst for glory was like the skipper of a troop ship trying to take credit for a victorious military campaign.

Nobile and Amundsen spent the next two years trashing each other on the lecture circuit, little knowing that they were laying the groundwork for a terrible tragedy.

‘Exploring is a highly technical and serious profession’

None of this makes Amundsen sound very appealing, but then that’s the problem with trying to judge extraordinary men by ordinary standards. If he’d worked in an office, Roald Amundsen’s personality might well have made him unbearable, but he didn’t. He was one of the greatest Western explorers who ever lived, thanks to a uniquely complicated mix of character traits. Energy, willpower, and a combination of self-confidence and independence so extreme that it must have felt quite lonely.

Most remarkable was his extraordinary adaptability and his capacity to learn. In an era where Arctic peoples like the Inuit and Yupik were popularly regarded as backward curiosities, the comparatively open-minded Amundsen picked up valuable lessons about equipment, travel and campcraft from them, noting that ‘nothing either in the Eskimo's clothing or other arrangements was, in fact, without meaning or purpose.’

Amundsen’s polar clothing was based on the furs worn by Inuit peoples.
Amundsen’s polar clothing was based on the furs worn by Inuit peoples.

During his early expedition through the Northwest Passage, his two-year basecamp at ‘Gjøahaven’ became home to 200 local Inuit. Amundsen’s writing about them is distinctly uncomfortable to the modern reader (‘To all savages, the civilised white man has some of the attributes of the gods…’) but he was intrigued by their skill at working very limited raw materials into complex garments and tools, which he described as ‘a fascinating example of human ingenuity’. He wore Inuit clothing for 20 months and came to favour it over any cold-weather kit he could get back home.

Not that he believed there was any gear out there that couldn’t be improved through rigorous field-testing. From his South Pole base at ‘Framheim’ on the Bay of Whales, Amundsen used his depot-laying runs as an opportunity to refine his equipment and skills. By the time they set off for the Pole proper, the Norwegians had redesigned their boots, dog harnesses and ski bindings, stripped their sleds back to a third of the weight and even changed the colour of their tents to absorb more heat and protect their eyes. They’d developed a fool-proof way to find their depots in a blizzard (involving frozen fish), and of course they’d also solved a certain issue around calorie intake.

Amundsen would never cling onto a plan just because he’d invested time and effort in it. Here, for example, was a man who was part way to the North Pole when he discovered that the Americans had (allegedly) beaten him to it, so he simply turned his ship around and made a successful run for the South Pole instead. Later, when an attempt to reach the North Pole by plane ended in a crash, he found he couldn’t take off again without an airstrip. So he and his companions built one – shifting 600 tons of ice during three weeks on starvation rations. For Amundsen, every problem had a solution if you were ingenious and committed enough.

The final flight

Every problem, that is, except the last one.

In 1928, the discredited Umberto Nobile led a second expedition to the North Pole in a new airship, pointedly named the Italia. He made the pole without incident, but pancaked into the pack ice on his way back, sparking an international scramble to rescue the survivors.

Strangely, among those who rushed to Nobile’s aid was Roald Amundsen in a French Latham 47 Flying Boat. Technically retired from adventuring, it’s unclear whether the 55-year-old was motivated by an urge to help his former comrade or to get one over on him by turning up to save the day, but whatever the case, he and a flight crew of five men took off from Tromsø on 18 June and flew out into the Barents Sea. Neither they nor the plane were ever seen again.

Amundsen’s Dornier-Wal flying boat N24 on the ice in Ny-Ålesund, May 1925
Amundsen’s Dornier-Wal flying boat N24 on the ice in Ny-Ålesund, May 1925

A float from the Latham was found adrift two months later, and in the autumn, one of the fuel tanks was washed up on shore, at which point the obituaries began to appear. In the meantime, Nobile and several of his men had been successfully rescued, along with the expedition mascot – a small fox terrier called Titina, who mercifully remained uneaten.

The recovered fuel tank is in the Polarmuseet (Polar Museum) in Tromsø, and it features a curious modification. In the side, someone has cut three rectangular holes, each one about the size of a tea tray. Experts have suggested that the plane may have torn one of its floats off in the crash, and that some unknown person has attempted to improvise a replacement from the spare fuel tank so that they could take off again. Was this Roald Amundsen’s last play for survival?

Often mangled into the trite motivational slogan, ‘adventure is just bad planning’, Amundsen’s actual words on the subject of adventure were rather more nuanced, and perhaps they make a fitting epitaph:

An adventure is merely a bit of bad planning, brought to light by the test of trial. Or it is unfortunate exemplification of the fact that no man can grasp all the possibilities of the future.

Amundsen in polar gear, c. 1920.
Amundsen in polar gear, c. 1920.

All images public domain, courtesy of the National Library of Norway

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