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Roald Amundsen

The Norwegian Roald Amundsen (1872-1928) was the first explorer to reach the South Pole. One of the greatest figures in the history of polar exploration, he was also the first to sail through the Northwest Passage.

Roald Amundsen was born in Borge. By age 15 he had determined on a career of exploration. He studied sailing techniques, steam navigation, scientific navigation, and terrestrial magnetism, and he trained himself to endure bitter cold and long travel.

After being a mate on an Antarctic expedition, he began at 25 to plan his own expedition. His aims were to attain the Northwest Passage and make magnetic observations near the North Magnetic Pole. His ship, the Gjöa, left Christiania harbor on June 16, 1903. Amundsen completed this voyage in 1906 by reaching the Pacific Ocean. He was the first to sail through the Northwest Passage, via Peel Sound, Roe Strait, Queen Maud Gulf, Coronation Gulf, Amundsen Gulf, Beaufort Sea, and Bering Strait. He had completed the first portion of his Arctic polar cap circumnavigation.

Robert E. Peary's attainment of the North Pole on April 6, 1909, convinced Amundsen that he should try to reach the South Pole. He resolved to reach the pole before the British expedition led by Robert F. Scott. After the establishment of three supply depots, on Oct. 29, 1911, Amundsen began the final dash to the pole with four companions and four sleds. On December 14 the Norwegian flag was flying at the South Pole. (Scott and his party did not arrive until Jan. 17, 1912.) On December 17 Amundsen began the return journey, completing 1,860 miles in 99 days.

In 1918 Amundsen left Norway in his ship Maud; his objective was to drift across the north polar sea from Asia to North America, but the polar ice pack made this an impossibility. He did reach Alaska, however, via the Siberian coast in 1920 and thus completed the Northeast Passage. This was the second portion of his circumnavigation of the world within the Arctic Circle.

The last phase of Amundsen's life was spent in new feats of polar exploration involving air travel. These were novel projects, more sensational than scientific in nature. In the spring of 1925 he flew in an airplane from Spitsbergen to within 150 miles of the North Pole. The next spring Amundsen, the American aviator Lincoln Ellsworth, and the Italian colonel Umberto Nobile used the dirigible Norge on the trans-Arctic flight from Spitsbergen to Teller in Alaska. The Norge passed over the North Pole on May 12, 1926. In 1928 Amundsen died in the Arctic during an air relief expedition in search of Nobile and the airship Italia.

Further Reading

Amundsen still awaits a definitive biography, but readers will find much in his own works: The Northwest Passage (2 vols., trans. 1908); The South Pole (trans. 1912); and My Life as an Explorer (trans. 1927). Two studies of Amundsen are Bellamy Partridge, Amundsen: The Splendid Norseman (1929), and Charles Turley, Roald Amundsen, Explorer (1935). There are numerous writings on polar history, but the best is L. P. Kirwan, The White Road: A Survey of Polar Exploration (1959; 1960 ed. entitled A History of Polar Exploration). □

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Roald Amundsen (Roald Engelbregt Grauning Amundsen) (rō´äl ä´mŏŏnsən), 1872–1928, Norwegian polar explorer; the first person to reach the South Pole. He served (1897–99) as first mate on the Belgica (under the Belgian Adrien de Gerlache) in an expedition to the Antarctic, and he commanded the Gjöa in the Arctic in the first negotiation of the Northwest Passage (1903–6); the Gjöa was the first single ship to complete the route through the Northwest Passage. His account appeared in English as Amundsen's North West Passage (1908). He then purchased Fridtjof Nansen's Fram and prepared to drift toward the North Pole and then finish the journey by sledge. The news that Robert E. Peary had anticipated him in reaching the North Pole caused Amundsen to consider going south. He was successful in reaching the South Pole on Dec. 14, 1911, after a dash by dog team and skis from the Bay of Whales (an inlet of Ross Sea). He arrived there just 35 days before Robert F. Scott. This story he told in The South Pole (tr. 1913). In the course of these expeditions, he added much valuable scientific and geological information to the knowledge of Antarctica.

In 1918, back in the Arctic, Amundsen set out to negotiate the Northeast Passage in the Maud. After two winters he arrived at Nome, the first after N. A. E. Nordenskjöld to sail along the whole northern coast of Europe and Asia. Amundsen then turned to air exploration. He and Lincoln Ellsworth in 1925 failed to complete a flight across the North Pole, but the next year in the dirigible Norge, built and piloted by Umberto Nobile, they succeeded in flying over the pole and the hitherto unexplored regions of the Arctic Ocean N of Alaska. A bitter controversy followed with Nobile as to the credit for the success. Yet in 1928, when Nobile crashed in the Italia, Amundsen set out on a rescue attempt that cost him his life. Although credit for the first flight over the North Pole has long been given to Richard Byrd, notes from Byrd's diary suggest that he may not actually have reached the pole, in which case Amundsen and Nobile would hold that distinction. The story of the ventures with Ellsworth, written by the two of them, appear in Our Polar Flight (1925) and The First Crossing of the Polar Sea (1927).

See the autobiographical My Life as an Explorer (tr. 1927).

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Amundsen, Roald (1872–1928) Norwegian explorer and the first man to reach the South Pole. In 1903–06, Amundsen became the first man to sail through the Northwest Passage and determined the exact position of the magnetic North Pole. He was beaten by Robert Peary in the race to the North Pole and he turned to Antarctica. Amundsen reached the South Pole on December 14, 1911 (35 days before Scott). In 1918, he sailed for the Northeast Passage. In 1926, Amundsen and Umberto Nobile made the first flight across the North Pole. He died in a plane crash while searching for Nobile.

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Adrien de Gerlache (ädrē-ăN də gĕrläsh´), 1866–1934, Belgian naval officer and explorer. Sailing with Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen who would later be the first to reach the South Pole, Gerlache led a scientific expedition to Antarctica in 1897–99. During the expedition his ship became trapped in ice for more than a year. Gerlache planned and executed many other scientific expeditions throughout the world, including the Persian Gulf and the Arctic.