Roald Amundsen didn’t reach the poles being a nice guy
The great polar explorer Roald Amundsen stood alone on the icy shore of the Arctic, gazing into the distance. He was fifty-three – but looked seventy-five – and bankrupt.
On the ice in front of him, the men of the Amundsen-Ellsworth polar flight had smashed the large, long wooden boxes that contained the two seaplanes. Now their job was to reassemble the craft, working in sub-zero temperatures with little more than a block and hoist, the Kings Bay coal miners ready to provide muscle power when they had it. need. Nearby, a journalist and a photographer recorded their every move.
Beautiful White Mountains have parked Amundsen on three sides. Their glaciers shone in the May sun. For a moment, the twenty-two houses in the mining village looked more like vacation homes.
âThe Arctic is smiling now, but behind the silent hills hides death,â another reporter later wrote, and he would be right.
In the bay, the sea was filled with large chunks of ice. Beyond lay the endless, empty ice floe known as the Arctic Desert, a huge empty hole on the world map about the size of Canada that had never been explored before. Somewhere on the other side was Alaska.
Men quickly became invisible from the sky in this dazzling white landscape. If their primitive flying devices came down and they couldn’t get up, then there was almost no chance that they would be found. Even if someone knew where they were, there would be a good chance that they had strayed beyond the reach of their potential rescuers, especially if they were part of the crew of an airship. These lighter-than-air craft could stay in the air for days and fly much further than their fixed-wing rivals.
The pack ice that makes up the pack ice might be several feet thick, then suddenly only half an inch thick, ready to plunge the reckless or too hasty explorer into the frozen water below. The night might not bring much relief to the Explorer either. The crackle and crackle of ice could keep many men from sleeping no matter how exhausted they were, their bodies bracing for the moment they and their tent could suddenly be submerged in the icy water below. Then there was the disorientation. When they woke up they could be up to twenty miles from where they had fallen asleep.
“Amundsen’s decision to use huskies, bred for these conditions, on his run to the South Pole made the difference between his life and Scott’s death.“
Crashing there would in all likelihood mean death, though surprisingly it didn’t seem to bother the average adventurer. It was their choice: to be noticed, to remember. Fame and glory was what most of them had come there for, and somehow they were determined to get it.
Welcome to the Svalbard archipelago.
To locate these mountainous islands on a map, you must first find Scotland and then trace your finger beyond Iceland, Norway, and Greenland. From the map, it looks like you can swim – or even walk – from islands to Greenland, Canada, Alaska, or Russia. But of course you can’t: the distances are still vast, the passages grim and unwelcoming.
All Amundsen needed, he told himself as he stood there, was one last big paycheck.
It was in 1925: twenty years since the Norwegian had become the first man to successfully navigate the Northwest Passage, the sea route from the Arctic to the Pacific Ocean. Sir John Franklin and his 128 men had disappeared some sixty years earlier in this attempt to make the same voyage in two old warships. * Amundsen had made it slowly with six men over three years in an old fishing boat. This trip had been overtaken six years later when Amundsen defeated British hero Robert Falcon Scott at the South Pole in 1911. Scott and his four companions died on their way home from the Pole. Amundsen was the first to arrive at the South Pole after claiming to be heading for the Arctic Ocean. He had kept his “coup” a secret from most of the crew on the trip from Norway to Portugal, the politicians who were funding him (whom he hated after rejecting his request for more money), the government that owned his ship and the King of Norway himself. He had even betrayed the trust of his Norwegian mentor, Fridtjof Nansen, who was eyeing the same prize. The fate of others did not concern Amundsen much.
Amundsen’s decision to use huskies, bred for these conditions, on his run to the South Pole made the difference between his life and Scott’s death. The Englishman’s choice for gasoline-powered ponies and tractors, which had not been tested in such extreme conditions, had doomed him to second place – and, ultimately, him and his men to death. . Yet Amundsen had refused to see Scott when the Briton traveled to Norway to see a demonstration of mechanical tractors before his trip to the Pole. The Norwegian had kept his doubts to himself. Amundsen did not become a world famous arctic explorer by being “nice”.
The Norwegian was also smarter than his English rival. Frederick Cook’s claim to have reached the North Pole on foot in April 1908 and that of Robert Peary a year later were quickly questioned at the time. Despite the rather dubious support of over fifty psychics, the question mark over Cook’s claim was so strong that he was widely viewed as an impostor, and his career was ruined. The scandals that surrounded the “achievements” of these men threatened to mar the claim of every explorer, and Amundsen quickly realized. By leaving for the South Pole, he made sure not to suffer the same fate as these two men. Amundsen listened to the experts who explained why Cook’s and Peary’s navigation cast doubt on their accomplishments. Conversely, Scott ignored their advice. Amundsen then used the latest in navigation know-how to ensure that accurate records of his expedition route were regularly taken and kept as evidence that he had reached the South Pole. Scott used the traditional, slower, exhausting methods in such extreme and less precise conditions. He paid the price for his decision.
When Amundsen and his men arrived at the South Pole in December 1911, they did not sing a patriotic hymn, give speeches, or engage in other unmanly histrions. Instead, the Norwegians simply read a passage from the 19th century version of the The saga of Fridtjof, a celebration of traditional and heroic masculinity, which had been incredibly popular when it was published, but was now fading from memory.
However, the challenges Amundsen faced did not end when he returned home. A life spent at the ends of the earth, in close company of men, and oscillating between the rooms of luxury hotels and the snow and ice of the two poles, had not led to any hope that Amundsen might have had of wedding. Instead, he contented himself with relationships with several married women, the wives of powerful men in the towns and cities he passed through. Indeed, Amundsen was not alone in this case. Many of his fellow explorers also struggled to settle down. In the absence of his own children, Amundsen had adopted two Inuit daughters a few years earlier, despite gossip about who their real father was, but controversially sent them back to Siberia when he faced bankruptcy. .
* In 2014 and 2016, the wrecks of the HMS Erebus and Terror were eventually discovered. While the fate of the survivors is still obscured, it is now believed that the expedition succeeded in exploring the unexplored portion of the Northwest Passage. However, ships and their ghosts have one more duty to fulfill to their country: shipwrecks help Canada strengthen its claim to the Arctic in the face of competition from countries like Russia.
Of N-4 low by Mark Piesing. Copyright Â© 2021 by Mark Piesing. Reprinted with permission from Custom House, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.