Roald Amundsen

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Roald Amundsen


Norwegian Explorer

As an Arctic and Antarctic explorer, Roald Amundsen accumulated a number of titles. After he became the first human to sail through the Northwest Passage, he struck out for the never-before-reached South Pole, narrowly edging out the British team of Robert F. Scott (1868-1912), which arrived a month later. Afterward, Amundsen went on to become the second person to sail the Northeast Passage, and the first to reach the North Pole by dirigible.

Amundsen was born in Borge near Oslo, Norway, in 1872. When he was a teenager, the young man took an interest in Arctic exploration. Despite his enthusiasm for the far north, he trained to become a doctor, the wish of his recently widowed mother. Seven years after his father's death, his mother also died, and Amundsen pursued his dream of becoming an explorer.

He believed that the best route to success in his chosen field was through attainment of navigational skills. He took assorted maritime jobs, and in 1897 landed the position of first mate on the Belgica, which was carrying a Belgian Antarctic expedition as well as American explorer Frederick A. Cook (1865-1940). The voyage lasted longer than expected when the ship became icebound, and all aboard were forced to spend the winter in the Antarctic. After the ship finally landed in Norway in 1899, the now 27-year-old Amundsen attained his skipper's license and began arranging a voyage on his ship, the Gjöa through the Northwest Passage.

The Gjöa set out on this ambitious journey on June 16, 1903. By September, the ship had withstood a fire and some reef damage, but the crew was able to anchor on the south shore of King William Island. There, Amundsen's men spent the next two winters making magnetic and astronomical observations, mapping nearby areas, and determining the location of the magnetic North Pole. They finally set sail again in August 1905 and two weeks later completed their crossing of the Northwest Passage.

After this success, Amundsen hoped to be the first to the North Pole, and even had an expedition planned when he learned that Robert E. Peary (1856-1920) team's had beat him to it. Amundsen quickly shifted his sights to the South Pole, which humans had still not reached. Another explorer, Robert F. Scott, had the same idea, and the two men began a race to the pole. Amundsen arrived in Antarctica in January 1911 about 60 miles (96 km) closer to the pole than Scott. There, he waited out the winter. In October, his team began a two-month traverse to the South Pole and planted the Norwegian flag on the site on December 14. Scott's expedition arrived at the South Pole on January 18, 1912.

Amundsen next took the Maud, a ship he designed, through the Northeast Passage from 1918-1921. With his former travel through the Northwest Passage, this trip completed his global circumnavigation within the Arctic Circle. From 1925-26, he hoped to be the first to reach the North Pole by air. With financial support from American Lincoln Ellsworth, Amundsen made a nearly disastrous attempt by plane. His aircraft, an N-25, had to make an emergency landing on an ice floe and nearly collided with an iceberg. The team spent more than three weeks on the floe before finally digging out and building a sufficient snow runway to launch the plane again. The following year, Amundsen switched his means of transportation to the North Pole from a plane to a dirigible. He reached the pole just two days after Richard E. Byrd (1888-1957) arrived by plane.

Amundsen's last Arctic trip was prompted by the disappearance of Umberto Nobile (1885-1978), the man who had designed and piloted the dirigible that took Amundsen to the North Pole. Nobile's party had vanished during an expedition in 1928 to reach the North Pole by a newly designed dirigible. Learning that the party was considered lost, Amundsen struck out immediately to join one of two search parties. His plane took off on June 8, 1928, but crashed. All perished. In the meantime, the other search party found Nobile and other survivors from his expedition.