Tag Archives: Amundsen


13 Nov

On our cruise to Norway and Spitsbergen we visited the Polar Museum in Tromso – many details of Roald Amundsen’s expeditions; lantern slides, original letters, photographs, newspaper articles, which gave information about his attempts at the North Pole and the North West Passage in 1906, and his plans for a further attempt to go north in 1909. Also information about his successful expedition to the South Pole in 1911

 I was of course, particularly interested by Amundsen’s change of plans, his decision to sail south from Madeira in September 1910 instead on north: Why did he do this and why did he keep the plans secret? The explanation was funding. 
 In 1910 he wrote that although the plan to take ‘Fram’ south rather than north could be interpreted as a change of plan, this was not the case; it was actually an extension of the original plan, an extension needed so he could be sure of attracting sufficient funds and equipment for the long drift on the polar ice. He wrote that he had actually changed his plans in 1909, secondary to the announcement that the Americans, Peary and Cook had claimed to have got to the North Pole. This claim would have deterred donors from giving Amundsen the necessary funds for his northern plans. Something else was needed to attract public attention and interest in order to attract the large amount of money still needed.
In August 1910, he wrote to Nansen (who he had not informed before sailing), in the same vein. He started his letter; ‘It is not easy to send you these lines, but there is no way to avoid it, and therefore I will just have to tell it to you straight. When the news from the Cook, and later the Peary, expeditions came to my knowledge last autumn, I instantly understood that this was the death sentence for my own plans. I immediately concluded that after this I could not be expected to secure the financial support I required for the expedition’. He said that the Norwegian Parliament’s decisions to decline requests for support proved him right. He did not want to abandon his plans but he realised that the South Pole, the main remaining challenge in the Polar Regions, was the one to excite public interest. He had not told Nansen of his plans because he was afraid that Nansen would stop him. He had no animosity against Scott and wanted to meet him.
He wrote that he was sending the King the same message and that his brother would make a public announcement a few days after Nansen had received the message.
He did not go back to the ‘long drift on the polar ice’ and the scientific expedition he had planned to the north. But his achievement in reaching the South Pole first was magnificent. He attracted world fame, international attention and he lectured widely to fascinated audiences.

31 Oct

The Maud

The Maud, the ship built for Roald Amundsen for his attempt to reach the North Pole, has been finally freed from her icy prison after eighty –six years.
She had a tough existence. In 1917 Amundsen planned a further scientific expedition. He was inspired by Fridtjof Nansen’s 1890s expedition on the Fram, and aimed to sail through the Northeast Passage (via the Baring Strait between Russia and Alaska and into the icy labyrinths of north Canada), allowing the Maud to be frozen in pack ice north of the Baring Strait.
The pack ice formed early in 1918 and within three months Maud was frozen in for the winter. The expedition eventually proceeded eastward in August 1819, only to be caught again for a second winter in September 1919.
Amundsen then decided to return to Nome in Alaska for a refit. Having sailed through the Northeast Passage he arrived in Nome in July 1920 and after her refit Maud set out again, only to become stopped by ice in the Baring Strait for a third winter in the ice. Amundsen later left the Maud for an (unsuccessful) attempt to fly across the Arctic
After six years the Maud ended up in Nome, Alaska, and was sold to the Hudson Bay Company. In the winter of 1926 she was frozen in, in Cambridge Bay. She sank there in 1930.
In 1990 Maud was sold by the Hudson Bay Co. to Asker, a municipality near Oslo, with the hope that she would be returned to the town, but the plans proved too expensive could not be acted on.
Now she as been salvaged! Jan Wanggaard, who builds Viking longships has worked for six long years between July and September (when the ice melts and the temperature is above zero), to place airbags under the Maud and lift her slowly onto a barge. She is to be transport to Oslo and is in remarkable condition considering her decades in the sea – the sea is so cold that the timbers have been protected from microbial attacks; her hulk is in one piece.
In Oslo she will be displayed in a purpose built museum. Here she can be admired and revered.


21 Feb

For centuries explorers and ships have been lost in an attempt to find a path through this icy maze, a path that would allow faster transit between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans (said to be 40% quicker than through the Panama Canal). Amundsen realized that sea nearest to the mainland remained passable for longer for navigation. He was the first to sail from the Atlantic to the Pacific but the journey took years (1903-1906). His route was through shallow waters.
In 1957, three American Coast Guard Cutters, Storis, Bramble and Spar became the first to navigate a Deep Water Passage through the Northwest Canadian Archipelago but the time and costs involved were not economic in commercial terms. Now as an example of the benefits of climate change, the recent opening up of the Northwest Passage is one of the most remarkable. Previously any cargo vessel needed an escort from Canadian icebreakers.
The ice melt reached a point last year that allowed a strengthened cargo vessel to navigate through the passage without this escort. 23,000 tons of nickel were transported from a Canadian mine to China via the deep-water passage, saving time and costs – a remarkable first!
The Passage is within the Arctic Circle. Inevitably, as with the Antarctic, sovereignty questions arise. The United States, Canada, Russia and Denmark (Greenland), all have significant interests within the region. In addition, as mentioned in the Geographical (February, 2015), the Inuit population hunt and travel over the area. Canadian Rangers now mount permanent sovereignty patrols. Some Russians (inevitably) have suggested that the Rangers role is a militarization issue; the Rangers operate snow machines that keep the passage open. Let’s hope that their role will be accepted as a service to the worldwide community.


6 Aug

The centenary of Shackleton’s most famous expedition is coming up fast. I imagine there will be many celebrations.

Shackleton is looked on as a charismatic leader, known throughout the world. His management skills are hugely admired. But, I wonder, would he, at the end of his career, have looked upon himself as a success or a failure?

Although his achievements are many, he never in fact, commanded more than 27 men and, it can be said,  he failed in the Antarctic goals he set himself: He was sent home by Scott from ‘Discovery’, a tremendous blow to a proud and ambitious man. On the ‘Nimrod’ expedition he achieved a glorious success in getting to within a hundred miles of the Pole, but he did not get to the Pole and, when eventually he had funds to return this had been achieved, not only by Amundsen, but also by Scott, no glory in being third. On the ‘Endurance’ expedition he did not achieve any of the ambitions that he had set himself – it has been said that some failures are more glorious than success and certainly, his command of this expedition is legendary (the sail to South Georgia and the boat journey to Elephant Island are regarded as almost miraculous), but he did not actually get onto the mainland.

I think ‘Endurance’ (part of the family motto), applies not only to the ship but to Shackleton himself. His endurance was both physical and outstandingly, mental. His overwhelming gift was to instill confidence and hope.

But I think at the end of his life, on balance, he would not have considered himself a great success.

‘The Blinding Sea’, documentary film by George Tombs

5 Mar

My attention has been drawn to this film, (which is due for release this month), by the Canadian writer and film maker, George Tombs.  The work emphasises how Amundsen was extremely well versed  in dealing with Polar conditions, well before his attempt on the Pole in 1911. He  lived with and learnt from the Inuits. He understood how to manage dog teams, when to kill weaker dogs and importantly how to ward off scurvy by eating meat regularly as well as undigested seaweed from the intestines of slaughtered seals. Amundsen’s recognition  and appreciation of Inuit skills stood him in good stead in the Antarctic. They apparently thought of him as ‘one of their own’.

These were skills that  Scott had no opportunity to learn. Although diligent in acquiring every piece of information and technical advance, his time was completely taken up  between 1904 and 1909 with his naval career (and supporting his mother and sisters). There was no space for exploration. The fact that he did not take dogs onto the glacier and plateau in 1911 contributed significantly to the final tragic outcome.