It is nearly impossible today to appreciate the achievements of the many icy land explorers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who trekked and charted the north and south polar regions. The icy lands have long held a unique fascination for ordinary mortals. Few in the temperate zones, or even the subarctic, can imagine daring the brutality of polar cold, ice and snow in the name of science, let alone adventure. That discovery of both the North and South Poles was delayed into the 20th century is a reflection of the difficulty of the task. We commemorate this month the life of one man who was not only willing and able, but was the first to reach the South Pole, and though not the first to reach the North Pole, helped pioneer air exploration of the Arctic, and spent a good deal of time in Alaska in the process.
He is Roald Amundsen, perhaps the most capable and determined of all the icy land explorers. In the English-speaking world we hear a good deal about the Englishmen Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton, heroic Antarctic explorers who died tragically, Scott after losing a race to the South Pole with Amundsen, Shackleton after failing to reach the pole, and two unsuccessful attempts to cross the Antarctic continent. They both made significant contributions to polar knowledge, but nothing like the information accumulated by the Norwegian Amundsen, about whom we hear too little.
Amundsen first went to Antarctica at age 25, as a mate on a Belgian expedition that was the first to winter over there. The most important lesson he learned in that enterprise, he said later, was using fresh meat to ward off scurvy.
Between 1903 and 1906 Amundsen led the first traverse of the Northwest Passage. Deliberately allowing his small steel ship, Gjoa, to become frozen in Arctic ice, for over three years he floated and navigated his way across the top of the North American continent. Having started west of Greenland in 1903, in the summer of 1906 Amundsen and the Gjoa were in Nome. Among other lessons, the explorer had learned to use animal skin parkas, rather than the heavy woolen garments preferred by the English, and to rely on sled dogs and sledges to move overland when off the ship.
In 1911 Amundsen put his icy land knowledge to a full test, setting out in September from the coast of Antarctica for the South Pole. Driven back, he reorganized and set out again in October. For fresh meat he relied on 52 dogs, which he took with him on the trail. He and his four other team members used skis, and had the dogs pull sledges. They reached the pole successfully on Dec. 14, one hundred years ago this week, where they left a note for Scott, who was a month behind, on a different route. Amundsen and his men retreated successfully back to their ship.
In 1918 Amundsen began what became a seven-year attempt to make a crossing of Arctic Eurasia, from the Kara Sea to the Bering Strait. The attempt was unsuccessful, and the explorer spent much time in Nome, planning and refitting his ship, Maud, which had been taken round to Seattle, and then to Nome. He gave up the Northeast Passage idea, and decided to fly across the North Pole. This, too, was a failure.
But Amundsen was nothing if not committed. In 1925 he led two flying boats, one piloted by the American Lincoln Ellsworth, to within 150 miles of the North Pole, landing and taking off on the Arctic ice. A year later, he organized the first successful flight over the North Pole, in the dirigible Norge, piloted by the Italian Umberto Nobile. Leaving Spitsbergen on May 11, 1926, they landed in Teller, Alaska, two days later, buffeted by strong winds and icy rain.
Two years later Amundsen disappeared on a flight between Norway and the North Pole, searching for Nobile, who had crashed a new dirigible somewhere along that route. Today Amundsen is virtually universally recognized as the premier icy lands explorer, opening the polar regions to further exploration, and our imaginations to what may yet be made of them.
Steve Haycox is a professor of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.