Roald Amundsen

February 18, 2011

Roald Amundsen was a man of many accomplishments, one of which was that he led the first expedition to successfully reach the South Pole. He had also been to the North Pole, and had led the first successful traversal of the Northwest Passage. He was a consummate professional who knew exactly what he was doing, and executed his plans with care and precision. He made it look easy.

If you have ever wondered why the men who explored the polar regions did what they did, it is illuminating to recall Amundsen’s childhood in Norway. As a young boy he had been fascinated by Franklin’s attempt to find the Northwest Passage, and apparently he even tried eating his shoe to see whether he could survive in those harsh conditions. In his book Roald Amundsen: A Saga of the Polar Seas J. Alvin Kugelmass tells us this about Amundsen’s boyhood:

During the months when the weather was fiercest, from November through April, he was rarely home on his days off from school. He went out, usually alone, to traverse the craggy mountains that ring Oslo. He preferred to be alone, for he wanted to test himself against the rugged terrain and the elements without having to explain to a school chum why he was doing so.

There was something in him that pushed him out to the margins.

It is easy to admire Amundsen, but it is hard to love him. Part of the pleasure of reading about Antarctic exploration and adventure is that one can admire the dogged determination and heroic perseverance of the explorers in the face of overwhelming difficulties. They struggled for their lives  in unimaginably harsh conditions, and we are amazed at them, whether they succeeded or not.

Amundsen, precisely because of his cool professionalism, rather spoiled things from this point of view. He arrived on the scene, with his dogs and his skis and his small group of men. His objective was to reach the South Pole, and he did so. His account of the journey is rather perfunctory: they skied a certain distance, camped, did a bit of scouting, had a good sleep, and then continued the next day. There is none of the struggle and agony that one finds in Scott’s journals, for instance, and also none of the warmth and heart. Amundsen completed his journey, there and back, without any major problems.

He reached the South Pole on 14 December 1911, after a journey of almost two months. At that point Scott and his party were already well into their trek, and they arrived just over a month later to find the Norwegian flag flying at the Pole.

Amundsen never returned to Antarctica, but he did continue his activity in the Arctic. In 1928, when he was 55 years old, he boarded an airplane to help search for an airship, the Italia, which was flying exploratory missions in the north and had crashed. His plane was lost, probably in the Barents Sea, with Amundsen and the others on board presumed dead. Their bodies were never found.

Amundsen at the South Pole.

8 Responses to “Roald Amundsen”

  1. Janet Says:

    About 25 years ago there was a BBC miniseries based on Roland Huntford’s book, “The Last Place on Earth,” which was based on Scott’s and Amundsen’s “race” to the pole. It was very well done, and when it was over I read a biography of Amundsen. I tried to like him, but I just couldn’t. I don’t remember if it was the one you quote. I do remember his telling of going out as a boy and digging a hole in the snow where he stayed during a blizzard. I can’t tell you how horrifying this is to me, but it’s fascinating, too.


  2. cburrell Says:

    I haven’t heard of that documentary, though I think there is a book with that title on that theme. I actually have not read the Amundsen biography; I came across the quotation in Anthony Esolen’s most recent book and thought I would use it.

    Thanks for all these comments, Janet. I feel bad for having let them pile up while we were away. (Mind you, I couldn’t do otherwise; we were bereft of internet access.)

  3. Janet Says:

    I somehow managed to struggle through.

    It wasn’t a documentary. It was a BBC miniseries. It’s almost 400 minutes long, so it must have lasted a couple of months.


  4. Mac Says:

    I’m catching up here after having been gone or extremely busy for most of the past week. Slightly off-topic, I’ve meant for a long time to look up Franklin’s expedition, because it’s the subject of a ballad memorably performed by Pentangle. Dylan stole the tune for “Bob Dylan’s Dream.”

  5. cburrell Says:

    I did not know that Dylan had borrowed that tune. I’ve always thought it one of his less distinctive melodies; what does that say?

    The song, I gather, is “Lady Franklin’s Lament”. I’ve not heard it, but now I am going to have to. I’d like to know more about Franklin’s expedition than I do. Perhaps next year (or the year after) I will do a North Pole blogging project.

  6. Mac Says:

    I thought the same about Dylan’s use of that tune, but somehow it’s very different in Pentangle’s hands. I don’t see theirs on YouTube, but here’s John Renbourn doing it solo much as he did with them.

  7. cburrell Says:

    I misspoke when I said it is one of Dylan’s “less distinctive” melodies; what I really meant was that it is not “Dylanesque”, not really in character for him. It’s a lovely melody on its own, as that John Renbourn video makes clear. Oh, to be able to play the guitar like that!

  8. […] British expedition had recently been narrowly beaten to the Pole by the Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen. While praising Amundsen, The Times maintained a suitably stiff upper lip supporting the […]

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