1928 Latham expedition

25 May 1928

It is around 10.30 a.m.

Some 110 kilometres north of Svalbard, Umberto Nobile‘s airship Italia hovers uncontrollably above the icy Arctic Ocean. On board are sixteen men and a fox terrier on their way home from the North Pole, but strong winds and icing are causing havoc.

They have been struggling for control for several hours, but now the airship is heading straight for the ice. The gondola containing the crew thunders into the frozen surface, and ten men are thrown across it.

The six men still on board when the airship rises will never be seen again.

The same day, Roald Amundsen is at the Ski Museum at Frognerseteren in Oslo, standing in front of the exhibition displaying the equipment he used on the South Pole expedition seventeen years earlier. Next to him is the American pilot Carl Ben Eielson, who is in Norway with the Australian George Hubert Wilkins after making the first successful flight from Alaska to Svalbard. Amundsen is one of several to ensure they receive their deserved tribute in Norway. 

Roald Amundsen and Carl Ben Eielson (left) study the equipment from the Fram expedition and the stuffed sledge dog Obersten. Source: Gyldendal Norsk Forlag.

Later in the evening, Amundsen is on stage in the large hall of the Colosseum cinema. In front of an audience two thousand strong, Amundsen introduces the lecture from Eielson and Wilkins. National anthems are played and cheers resound from the hall.

The contrast is huge between the festivities in Oslo and the struggle unfolding in the Arctic Ocean.     

26 May 1928

It’s been more than a day since anyone heard from the airship Italia. The newspapers carry rumours about possible rescue missions. The world does not yet know what happened.

In Oslo, the party continues. A procession with flag-adorned cars is on its way out to Bygdøy, outside the city centre. They stop at the Norwegian Folk Museum and the Viking Ship Museum, before driving down to the “Dronningen” restaurant by the sea. The newspaper Aftenposten is hosting a celebratory lunch in honour of Wilkins and Eielson.

Several celebrations were arranged for Wilkins and Eielson during their visit to Norway, including this one at Amundsen’s home. Photo: Henriksen & Steen / National Library of Norway.

It is a glorious summer day and several of the country’s polar personalities have been invited.

But over the course of lunch, Aftenposten’s editor-in-chief, Frøis Frøisland, is disturbed twice. First comes a telegram from the journalist Odd Arnesen, who announces that the Italian ship Città di Milano is now getting ready to head north to search for the airship Italia.  

Talk begins to go around the table, and among experienced men the opinions are many.

Soon after, a new message is delivered to Frøisland. This time it is the Norwegian Minister of Defence, Torgeir Anderssen-Rysst, who wonders if Roald Amundsen and Otto Sverdrup can meet in his office to discuss a possible Norwegian rescue mission.

“Right away,” answers Amundsen in English, before continuing in Norwegian, “answer that I am ready immediately.” Sverdrup, who is sitting above, nods his head calmly in agreement.

But eventually everyone realizes that the situation is complicated. Italy, led by Benito Mussolini, does not want to send out a Norwegian rescue expedition, and, according to some sources, especially not if Roald Amundsen is involved. Amundsen has made himself a controversial figure in Italy after the expedition with the airship Norge in 1926.

After the meeting with the Minister of Defence, Amundsen goes down to Victoria Hotel, where his good friend Herman Gade arranges a private party in honour of Wilkins and Eielson. When asked about the meeting with the minister, Amundsen answers,
“We agreed to give it a few days. If something significant happens during Pentecost, I will be notified immediately. For practical reasons, I am staying here at the hotel.”

On the Monday, Amundsen goes home to Svartskog.

In the first days of June, radio signals from Nobile and his men are picked up and optimism rises. At the same time, Amundsen receives a message from his American good friend Lincoln Ellsworth, who says he can provide money if Amundsen manages to organize his own rescue expedition. Amundsen is excited. So, too, are the public, as applications pour in to Uranienborg from people who want to join.

Several of the applications Amundsen received during these days are now kept at the National Library of Library.

It is during these days that Amundsen is visited by the Italian journalist Davide Giudici at home at Uranienborg. They sit down in the green chairs in the living room.

“What is indispensable, is the utmost speed and energy.” says Amundsen when Guidici asks him about the chances of survival of Nobile and his men. And about the relationship with Nobile, the man he has previously criticized publicly, Amundsen describes a common bond of solidarity, shared by all polar explorers, that is stronger than personal resentments in such situations as now. “Today I see one thing only,” he says, “General Nobile and his companions are in danger, and it is necessary to do everything that is humanly possible to save them.”

About his own plan, he can say that he is currently in the process of selecting the best pilots, mechanics and radio operators: “The question is not who will arrive first or who will do the most, but that the situation is growing worse from day to day.”

Several times during the interview, Amundsen gets up and goes to the radio to hear if there is anything new about the Italians. But each time he returns to his chair disappointed. From the ceiling above them hangs a model of the Dornier Wal aircraft Amundsen used on his North Pole attempt in 1925. Amundsen looks up at it, drifts away for a moment and says,

“Ah! If you only knew how splendid it is up there! That’s where I want to die; and I wish only that death will come to me chivalrously, will overtake me in the fulfilment of a high mission, quickly, without suffering. And this I hope for, because for over thirty years, from the time of the Belgian expedition in 1897, I have learned to defend myself well against the scurvy, the only danger I need seriously fear in those regions.”📜

14 June 1928

On 14 June, Norwegian newspapers print the news that Roald Amundsen will stay at home📜. Ellsworth’s funds will not stretch. But there is something the newspapers don’t know. Around midday, the phone rings at home at Uranienborg. It will be the turning point for Amundsen. When he lifts the receiver, Amundsen hears the voice of the influential Norwegian merchant in Paris, Fredrik Peterson. Peterson wants to assist Amundsen and has already been in talks with people in France who can raise an aircraft. Amundsen emphasizes that he cannot use an ordinary plane, that he needs an flying boat. Peterson will see what he can do.

Before hanging up, Amundsen is said to have said: “Yes, this was such a pleasure. Thank you very much.

It’s evening when Peterson calls again. A flying boat is now available, Latham 47.02.

With a French crew of four, the plane will be able to take off in two days and meet Amundsen in Bergen.

At Latham’s factories in Caudebec-en-Caux and at Amundsen’s home in Svartskog, intense preparations begin.

At 10 o’clock on the evening of 16 June, the French flying boat lands in the city fjord in Bergen and is towed to Marineholmen. That same evening, a crowd flocks around the carriages of the Bergen train at Østbanen in Oslo. In the middle of the crowd are Roald Amundsen and the pilot Leif Dietrichson. Three years earlier, Dietrichson had shown his qualities during the expedition to 88 degrees north, and Amundsen thought him “too good a man not to be used now.” 📜 So room would be made for both of them on board the Latham.

Together with Roald’s nephew Gustav “Goggen” Amundsen and the ever-loyal Oscar Wisting, who will accompany them to Bergen and then continue to Svalbard by boat, they prepare to board the night train that will take them over the mountains.

Østbanen, Oslo’s main rail station, 16 June 1928. Amundsen is surrounded by known and unknown. To his left is Oscar Wisting, next to him the Italian Minister Count Senni, and next to him Herman Gade. Leif Dietrichson is on the far left. Photo: Norwegian Polar Institute / National Library of Norway.

The small entourage enters a second class compartment, but before the train steams out of the station, a young woman suddenly steps in hesitantly. She asks if she can give Amundsen one last handshake:

“I must apologize for my boldness, but I’m just doing what thousands in this moment feel the urge to. Be careful now! Norway cannot afford to lose a son like you.”📜

At the last station before the train rolls into Bergen, a journalist enters the polar explorers’ compartment. “What’s the most important piece of equipment you are taking on your rescue mission with the Latham?” he asks Amundsen. It is firstly skis and sledges, collapsible boats, and otherwise other polar equipment from my previous travels, provisions, biscuits and chocolate, etc.” Amundsen replies, also mentioning that it was now, at this time of year, “very foggy in the polar regions. It will also make the search more difficult.”📜

It is 11 o’clock on the morning of June 17 when they emerge onto the platform at Bergen railway station. Here, too, the public have turned out. Among them are the French consul and several of the French flight crew from Latham 47.02.

Personnel

The French aircrew visit the Naval District Command after arriving in Bergen. To the right sits René Guilbaud, and next to him the commander’s wife with flowers brought from France. Front left is co-pilot Albert Cavelier de Cuverville. Telegraph operator Emile Valette sits on the armrest and next to him sits mechanic Gilbert Georges Paul Brazy. Photo: Preus museum.
Amundsen with a light hat and a big smile, in the middle of the Bergen people’s sea. Photo: K. Knudsen & Co. / University Library in Bergen.
Can you find Amundsen in the crowd? Photo: K. Knudsen & Co. / University Library in Bergen.

“While the cameras snapped and the cameramen cranked, Amundsen and his companions finally got out of the station and into the Hotel Terminus,” reports Bergens Arbeiderblad📜.

Amundsen has reserved room 503 to give them the opportunity to discuss the onward journey. In the fireplace room at Hotel Terminus, the Press are waiting. Here Amundsen repeats the message that it is now a matter of saving lives: The potatoes that should have been tended at home at Svartskog will have to wait a while, while a new chapter is being prepared for ‘My life as an explorer’.”📜

Journalists also have questions about the Latham. “What will happen if the machine comes into contact with ice in one of the leads?” they ask the captain René Guilbaud. “The machine does not bear much of that kind of stress. But it is probably impossible to start on the ice with this machine in the same way as with N 25. However, we can hope for the best,” replies Guilbaud📜. During the stay in Bergen, the Latham has been refilled with petrol, oil and water. Also, a hole discovered on the underside of the port wing float has been patched with a copper plate.

The time is 18:25 when Amundsen and Dietrichson are taken out to the Latham. As the small rowing boat sets off, cheers resound from thousands of people on shore and in boats on the fjord. Wisting, who has gone along to wave goodbye, is standing watching with Goggen: “The last thing we saw of Roald Amundsen was his characteristic figure sitting aft on the flying boat. Suddenly we see him get up and wave – the distance was quite large, several thousand metres. We turned to each other as if on command after answering the salutation along with ten thousand others: ‘You saw that. It was to us.’ The feeling was so strangely intense, and we both reacted at the same time; it was as if we instinctively felt that the gesture applied only to us and no one else.”📜

The Latham is towed out for a while, before starting up and heading north.

Guilbaud, Amundsen and Commander H. Moe at Marineholmen in Bergen. Photo: K. Knudsen & Co. / University Library in Bergen.
A smiling Amundsen on the left. With a leather jacket in the middle, Guilbaud stands next to Wisting. Photo: K. Knudsen & Co. / University Library in Bergen.

This raw recording made in Bergen before departure is among the last moving footage of Roald Amundsen and the others on board. Film: National Library of Norway.

18 June 1928

It is around 6 in the morning when they land in Tromsø. The water is quiet and the sun is shining. Several of Tromsø’s residents have stayed awake through the night to greet them. Amundsen takes Dietrichson up to his good friend in town, the pharmacist Fritz Gottlieb Zapffe. Here they get breakfast, a well-packed morning pipe, a bath and rest. The French crew checks into the Grand Hotell.

For breakfast this day chez Zapffe, smoked salmon is served, something both Amundsen and Dietrichson really appreciate. In fact, it is so good that they would like to have it as a packed lunch on the way to Svalbard, so a small box is filled with several sandwiches. At 11 o’clock, Dietrichson goes down to the harbour to make sure the refuelling is going as planned. Zapffe and Amundsen are left to talk. Zapffe is sceptical, about both the flying boat itself and the temporary float repair made in Bergen.

Half an hour later, Zapffe calls the director of the Geophysical Institute, Ole Andreas Krogness, who is responsible for the area’s weather forecast. Krogness has already informed Dietrichson about the weather situation and warns Amundsen of a depression around Svalbard. It is not ideal and concerns Amundsen, who decides to wait until the next weather forecast arrives at 14.00. In the hours that follow, it clears up and preparations for departure begin 📜.

Before he leaves Zapffe, Amundsen prepares for a smoke. But as he is about to light the pipe, he is unable to make the lighter work. He borrows Zapffe’s and gives his broken one to Zappfe: “You keep it, as a reminder of this last journey,” he adds 📜.

Zapffe would later recall that there was something unusual about Amundsen this day. It was “something strangely distant and resigned about him. It seemed like it did not concern him at all, and yet maybe it was just him. Without saying anything he just sat quite still and looked at me. I felt bad inside, but did not understand why, but there must have been something that entered my subconscious.”📜
In 1953, Zapffe spoke to NRK radio about this last meeting with Amundsen in an interview that can be heard at the National Library of Norway🔊.

Through the day, several planes have tried to take off but been thwarted by the weather. Now it’s the Latham’s turn to try. Eventually, the entire crew is gathered down by Tromsøsundet where Latham 47.02 is ready.

“Yes, so we fly then,” said Amundsen.

Equipment and provisions

Dietrichson (standing under the propeller) with two of the Frenchmen preparing to depart Tromsø. Photo: Ragna Sofie Hansen / Finnmark Fylkesbibliotek.
Latham 47.02 on the water. Photo: Ragna Sofie Hansen / Finnmark Fylkesbibliotek.

Amundsen standing on board before departure. Photo: Christian Hansen / Perspektivet Museum.
Preparations on board before departure. Photo: Christian Hansen / Perspektivet Museum.

One of the last pictures of Amundsen before departing Tromsø. Photo: Follo museum / MiA.
The photo of Amundsen unbuttoning his jacket, standing in front of the propeller, became one of the most iconic last images of him. Photo: Norwegian Polar Institute / National Library of Norway.

At around four in the afternoon, the roar of the Latham’s engines is heard across the city. The aircraft will later be said to have appeared overloaded and to have needed several attempts get airborne. But it takes off and disappears north.

At 17:40, Ingøy radio station at Måsøy on the Finnmark coast receives a message from the Latham:

Captain Amundsen aboard Latham 47, asks to have ice reports if any.

A quarter of an hour later, the telegraph operator on Ingøy hears the Latham crew trying to call the radio station in Longyearbyen, but no one there hears them.

An hour later, at 18:45, the telegraph operator at the Geophysical Institute in Tromsø overhears a message from the Latham. This is the last reliable report of a message from Amundsen and the crew.

What happened next, we simply don’t know.

The newspapers suggest that the Latham may have headed straight out over the ice towards Nobile and his men, instead of stopping in Kings Bay as arranged.

“Of course, an accident may have occurred, but this is unlikely and hopefully we will receive good news from Amundsen and his companions during the day,” writes Haugesunds Arbeiderblad on June 20 📜.

For many, an accident is unthinkable. In the days after the Latham’s departure from Tromsø, several other planes took off without any problems. The weather was good, and Latham 47.02 was described as one of the best aircraft available.

“There is still an eerie silence about the fate of Amundsen and his comrades. It has now been so many days that one begins to feel anxious that an accident has happened,” wrote Arbeiderbladet on June 22 📜.

Source: Arbeiderbladet 22.6.1928 / National Library of Norway.

The rumours and the finds

As the days pass, the rumours begin to circulate. Some have heard Latham, others have seen Amundsen on ice floes, some have found messages in bottles. Two fishermen report that they have seen on Bjørnøya tracks from two wheels about six feet apart over a length of 80 feet. The track led to the edge of a precipice, with a large drop to the sea. Near the edge of this abyss the fishermen found a leather hat, part of a fur coat and some pieces of wood.”📜

There are also rumours that Amundsen has been seen at home in Svartskog.

Eventually, fundraisers begin to set up search operations. Rewards are promised for those who can provide information. Several ships, planes and dog teams help to search. Norwegian newspapers arrange lottery sales to raise money, offering as first prize a new Chevrolet Touring donated by General Motors.

The first prize in the lottery arranged by Norwegian newspapers. Source: Laagendalsposten 9.7.1928 / National Library of Norway.

But it helps little, and in August comes the first sign that something fatal must have happened.

On 31 August, the fishing boat Brodd is on its way home from the season’s halibut fishing at Bjørnøya. Near Torsvåg Lighthouse in Karsløy, they spot something they think is an empty oil barrel. Suddenly, a cry is heard from one of the crew:
“It looks like it belongs to an airplane.”

It falls quiet on board. Nobody says anything.

They take hold of the object and hoist it on board, and realize it’s a float, from a plane.

But it is not intact. At the front on its left side is a square hole, about 20 cm long and wide, and one of the struts has been repaired with a piece of wood. Elsewhere are clear signs of a previous repair, one that turns out to have been made in Bergen before departure.

The float is from Latham 47.02.

Even the most optimistic now lose hope.

Aftenposten 5.9.1928.

On October 13, it happens again when new wreckage from Latham 47.02 is discovered.

At Haltenbanken, off Trøndelag, the crew of the fishing boat Leif catch sight of a grey-blue petrol tank in the sea. It has also clearly been worked on, with a wooden plug fitted to a small copper pipe belonging to the filling nozzle. In other words, the tank has been modified so that it would float. Why? Maybe to act as a float.

Weeks and months then pass before any more debris appears, but on 11 January 1929 another petrol tank is found. It is completely empty of fuel.

These discoveries give rise to several theories, but even today it is far from clear what really happened to Latham 47.02 and those on board.

Finds and theories

In the period following the disappearance, several observations, finds of wreckage and various theories were reported.

Memorial Day

On 14 December 1928, the whole of Norway stands still for two minutes, the Norwegian government having issued several calls in advance. Church bells should ring for two minutes from 12 o’clock, at the same time as a general work stoppage is encouraged. Flags will be lowered to half-mast between 12.00 and 14.00. All school students will, instead of regular teaching, listen to their teacher talk about Roald Amundsen.

The call is respected in several countries, with speeches, ceremonies, newspaper articles and radio clips.

One of those to speak is Fridtjof Nansen.

Nansen speaks in memory of Amundsen in the Kringkastingselskapet A/S studio. Photo: Henriksen & Steen A/S / Norwegian Technical Museum.

Related resources

1872
Roald Amundsen born July 16
1880
Starts at Otto Andersen’s School
1886
Jens Engebreth Amundsen dies
1887 – 1889
Polar interest aroused
1890
Starting university
1893
Gustava Amundsen (née. Sahlqvist) dies
1893
Mountain ski tour with Urdahl and Holst
1894
Hunting in Arctic waters with the Magdalena
1895
Ship’s Officer’s exam
1896
Hardangervidda with Leon
1897 – 1899
Belgica expedition
1899
Cycling from Christiania to Paris
1900
Studying geomagnetism in Hamburg
1903 – 1906
Gjøa expedition
1907
Polar bears as draft animals
1908
Amundsen buys Uranienborg
1909
The North Pole reached?
1910 – 1912
Fram expedition
1914
Amundsen becomes a pilot
1916 – 1917
The polar ship Maud is being built
1918
Maud expedition
1922
Nita and Camilla move in
1923
Uranienborg for sale
1924
Amundsen goes bankrupt
1925
To 88 degrees north
1926
Norge expedition
1927
Lecture tour in Japan
1928
Latham flight
1928
1928 Latham expedition
1934 – 1935
Uranienborg becomes a museum
1938
Betty’s house burns down
2015
A chest full of photographs is discovered
2020
Roald Amundsen’s home goes digital

1926 Norge expedition

The story of the Norge expedition will appear here soon.

In the meantime, you can explore our resources related to this expedition.

Norge expedition

1872
Roald Amundsen born July 16
1880
Starts at Otto Andersen’s School
1886
Jens Engebreth Amundsen dies
1887 – 1889
Polar interest aroused
1890
Starting university
1893
Gustava Amundsen (née. Sahlqvist) dies
1893
Mountain ski tour with Urdahl and Holst
1894
Hunting in Arctic waters with the Magdalena
1895
Ship’s Officer’s exam
1896
Hardangervidda with Leon
1897 – 1899
Belgica expedition
1899
Cycling from Christiania to Paris
1900
Studying geomagnetism in Hamburg
1903 – 1906
Gjøa expedition
1907
Polar bears as draft animals
1908
Amundsen buys Uranienborg
1909
The North Pole reached?
1910 – 1912
Fram expedition
1914
Amundsen becomes a pilot
1916 – 1917
The polar ship Maud is being built
1918
Maud expedition
1922
Nita and Camilla move in
1923
Uranienborg for sale
1924
Amundsen goes bankrupt
1925
To 88 degrees north
1926
Norge expedition
1926
1926 Norge expedition
1927
Lecture tour in Japan
1928
Latham flight
1934 – 1935
Uranienborg becomes a museum
1938
Betty’s house burns down
2015
A chest full of photographs is discovered
2020
Roald Amundsen’s home goes digital

1925 To 88 degrees north

The story of the expedition to 88 degress north will soon come here.

In the meantime, you can explore our resources related to this expedition.

To 88 degrees north

1872
Roald Amundsen born July 16
1880
Starts at Otto Andersen’s School
1886
Jens Engebreth Amundsen dies
1887 – 1889
Polar interest aroused
1890
Starting university
1893
Gustava Amundsen (née. Sahlqvist) dies
1893
Mountain ski tour with Urdahl and Holst
1894
Hunting in Arctic waters with the Magdalena
1895
Ship’s Officer’s exam
1896
Hardangervidda with Leon
1897 – 1899
Belgica expedition
1899
Cycling from Christiania to Paris
1900
Studying geomagnetism in Hamburg
1903 – 1906
Gjøa expedition
1907
Polar bears as draft animals
1908
Amundsen buys Uranienborg
1909
The North Pole reached?
1910 – 1912
Fram expedition
1914
Amundsen becomes a pilot
1916 – 1917
The polar ship Maud is being built
1918
Maud expedition
1922
Nita and Camilla move in
1923
Uranienborg for sale
1924
Amundsen goes bankrupt
1925
To 88 degrees north
1925
1925 To 88 degrees north
1926
Norge expedition
1927
Lecture tour in Japan
1928
Latham flight
1934 – 1935
Uranienborg becomes a museum
1938
Betty’s house burns down
2015
A chest full of photographs is discovered
2020
Roald Amundsen’s home goes digital

1918-1925 Maud expedition

The story of the Maud expedition will appear here soon.

In the meantime, you can explore our resources related to this expedition.

Maud expedition

1872
Roald Amundsen born July 16
1880
Starts at Otto Andersen’s School
1886
Jens Engebreth Amundsen dies
1887 – 1889
Polar interest aroused
1890
Starting university
1893
Gustava Amundsen (née. Sahlqvist) dies
1893
Mountain ski tour with Urdahl and Holst
1894
Hunting in Arctic waters with the Magdalena
1895
Ship’s Officer’s exam
1896
Hardangervidda with Leon
1897 – 1899
Belgica expedition
1899
Cycling from Christiania to Paris
1900
Studying geomagnetism in Hamburg
1903 – 1906
Gjøa expedition
1907
Polar bears as draft animals
1908
Amundsen buys Uranienborg
1909
The North Pole reached?
1910 – 1912
Fram expedition
1914
Amundsen becomes a pilot
1916 – 1917
The polar ship Maud is being built
1918
Maud expedition
1918 – 1925
1918-1925 Maud expedition
1922
Nita and Camilla move in
1923
Uranienborg for sale
1924
Amundsen goes bankrupt
1925
To 88 degrees north
1926
Norge expedition
1927
Lecture tour in Japan
1928
Latham flight
1934 – 1935
Uranienborg becomes a museum
1938
Betty’s house burns down
2015
A chest full of photographs is discovered
2020
Roald Amundsen’s home goes digital

1903-06 Gjøa expedition

The story of the Gjøa expedition will appear here soon.

In the meantime, you can explore our resources related to this expedition.

Gjøa expedition

1872
Roald Amundsen born July 16
1880
Starts at Otto Andersen’s School
1886
Jens Engebreth Amundsen dies
1887 – 1889
Polar interest aroused
1890
Starting university
1893
Gustava Amundsen (née. Sahlqvist) dies
1893
Mountain ski tour with Urdahl and Holst
1894
Hunting in Arctic waters with the Magdalena
1895
Ship’s Officer’s exam
1896
Hardangervidda with Leon
1897 – 1899
Belgica expedition
1899
Cycling from Christiania to Paris
1900
Studying geomagnetism in Hamburg
1903 – 1906
Gjøa expedition
1903 – 1906
1903–06 Gjøa expedition
1907
Polar bears as draft animals
1908
Amundsen buys Uranienborg
1909
The North Pole reached?
1910 – 1912
Fram expedition
1914
Amundsen becomes a pilot
1916 – 1917
The polar ship Maud is being built
1918
Maud expedition
1922
Nita and Camilla move in
1923
Uranienborg for sale
1924
Amundsen goes bankrupt
1925
To 88 degrees north
1926
Norge expedition
1927
Lecture tour in Japan
1928
Latham flight
1934 – 1935
Uranienborg becomes a museum
1938
Betty’s house burns down
2015
A chest full of photographs is discovered
2020
Roald Amundsen’s home goes digital

1910–1912

Fram expedition

It is a little past midnight when the Fram weighs anchor just off Amundsen’s home at Svartskog on 7 June 1910.

On land are closest friends and family. They wave with Norwegian flags and white handkerchiefs. There is a slight breeze in the air but the summer night is still warm. In addition to Amundsen, there are nineteen men on board Fram, but only a few know where they are going.

“It may possibly appear to many people that I was running a pretty big risk in thus putting off till the last moment the duty of informing my comrades of the very considerable detour we were to make. Suppose some of them, or perhaps all, had objected! It must be admitted that it was a great risk, but there were so many risks that had to be taken at that time,” wrote Amundsen later.📜

Members of the expedition before departure from Kristiania (Oslo). Standing from left: Oscar Wisting, Martin Rønne, Anders Sandvig (disembarked at Madeira), Adolf Schröer (left the expedition in Bergen), Halvardus Kristensen, Olav Bjaaland, Helmer Hanssen, Ludvig Hansen, Hjalmar Johansen, Andreas Beck, Jørgen Stubberud, Karenius Olsen. Seated middle row, from left: Thorvald Nilsen, Roald Amundsen, Kristian Prestrud. Sitting in front, from left: Oscar Eliassen (disembarked in Kristiansand), Hjalmar Fredrik Gjertsen, Alexander Kutschin.

The next day, June 8, the Fram is in Horten and Amundsen uses the opportunity to send a letter to Fridtjof Nansen, the man who has given him permission to use the Fram to drift across the Arctic Ocean.

“Once again before we go, I must send you my warmest thanks for everything you have done for me. We are going today and we will seek to do what is in our power. Respectfully, Roald Amundsen.” 📜

What Amundsen chooses not to mention in Nansen’s letter is that the plan has changed.

After a month-long oceanographic cruise in the waters around the British Isles, on which both crew and engine are tested, the course is eventually set towards Kristiansand. Here, the Greenland dogs come aboard – ninety-seven of them – and are given their different names: Obersten (the Colonel), Lucy, Storm, Suggen, Arne, Kamilla, Knægten, Madeiro and the rest.

On July 10, the journey south begins.

Polar ship Fram

The plan is revealed

On September 9, 1910, the Fram is lying off Funchal in Madeira. In Norway, newspapers can report that the Fram will stay here for three days to load coal and provisions, while in Funchal the newspapers write something completely different. They write that Amundsen is going to the South Pole. They think it seems likely now the expedition has arrived in Madeira.

Little do they know how right they are.

Fortunately for Amundsen, the rumours do not spread beyond Madeira. For it is from here, far from home, that Amundsen will inform the crew and later the world that the planned North Pole expedition is actually going south.

 “At 6 o’clock I called all the men together and informed them of my intention to try for the South Pole. When I asked if they were willing to follow me, I got a unanimous – yes,” writes Amundsen in his diary that day.📜

Leon Amundsen, who has met the expedition in Funchal, takes home the mail, including another letter from Amundsen to Nansen. Written on August 22, almost three months after he last wrote to Nansen, this letter has a completely different content:

It is not with a light heart, that I send you these lines, but there is no way around it, and so I might as well get on with it. […] Yes, it is difficult for me, Herr Professor, to inform you, but since September 1909 my decision has been to take part in the contest to answer this challenge. Many times I have been on the point of confiding all to you, but always waited for fear that you would stop me. I have often wished that Scott had been aware of this decision of mine, so that it did not appear that I would sneak down there without his knowledge to get ahead of him, but I have not dared to make any publication for fear of being stopped.”📜

At the same time, Robert Falcon Scott is also informed. On October 5, after Leon Amundsen has returned home to Kristiania (Oslo), he sends the Englishman a telegram:

”Captain Robert F. Scott

S.S Terra Nova, Melbourne

Beg leave to inform you Fram

proceeding Antarctica.

              Amundsen

While the world tries to digest the news of Amundsen’s new plan, the Fram continues south.

On October 2, there is a party on board the Fram. Equator party. The entire ship is decorated with flags and banners. Coffee, wine, brandy and biscuits are brought on deck. Sundbeck and Prestrud bring out the mandolin. The gramophone is hung under the boom of the mainsail. Out over the ocean ring songs like “Ja, vi elsker” (Norway’s national anthem), “Dollarprinsessen”, “Les millions d’Arlequin”, “Graf von Luxemburg” and “The happy troll”. Hjalmar Fredrik Gjertsen then twirls around in a white dress like a ballerina.

Even the dogs are invited to dance by some of the crew.

Martin Rønne leads one of the dogs in a dance. This photograph was discovered at Amundsen’s home in 2015. Photo: Follo museum, MiA.
Lindstrøm with a bottle in each hand. The cakes are ready on the table and the gramophone can be seen in the background. This photograph was discovered at Amundsen’s home in 2015. Photo: Follo museum, MiA.
Hjalmar Fredrik Gjertsen goes from lap to lap in his white ballerina dress. This photograph was discovered at Amundsen’s home in 2015. Photo: Follo museum, MiA.
Gjertsen makes sure that his stockings stay up. This photograph was discovered at Amundsen’s home in 2015. Photo: Follo museum, MiA.

Antarctica

Fram at the ice edge in the Bay of Whales. The picture is from a glass plate negative that was discovered in a chest at Amundsen’s home in 2015. Photo: Follo museum, MiA.

The Fram arrived in the Bay of Whales, Antarctica, on January 14, 1911, ten days after Terra Nova and Scott arrived on Ross Island, where they established their base at Cape Evans. About the choice of the Bay of Whales, Amundsen writes in his diary for January 25,

“Here on this barrier [ice shelf], which Ross kept a respectful distance from. Here on this same barrier as Shackleton praised his God that he had not landed – here we have built our house – here we shall have our home. […] But, that Scott did not go in here to take the great opportunities a degree further south offers, I do not understand. Not one of us gave a thought to any danger with this. The future will show if we were right.” 📜

Knut Sundbeck gets a close encounter with one of the local penguins. Film: “Roald Amundsen’s Sydpolsferd” / National Library of Norway.

Although their bases are a long way apart, the two expeditions are still close enough to meet.

On February 4, Terra Nova is on its way back to Ross Island after an unsuccessful attempt to land and explore King Edward VII Land. Scott is currently busy establishing depots on his route to the South Pole and not on board, but for the rest of the crew a big surprise awaits when they sail past the Bay of Whales.

There is the Fram.

For the first time, the English get to see the Norwegians’ plans. They are impressed with the dogs, the logistics and the equipment. Even Lindstrøm’s homemade hotcakes are to their liking.

A historic meeting in the Bay of Whales. Fram in front, Terra Nova in the background. Photo: Follo museum, MiA.

Framheim

With the Fram settled at the ice edge in the Bay of Whales, the crew quickly begin to move materials, equipment and provisions onto the ice. They move up to 10 tons of equipment and materials every day.

A few kilometres onto the ice shelf, they find a site to build the winter hut. Bjaaland and Stubberud take the job; first several metres must be dug into the snow, then the surface must be levelled, before the various modules for the hut are erected. After 10 days, Framheim is ready to move in to.

Equipment and clothing

Expedition equipment

Clothing

Provisions

Depot laying

Before winter, the Norwegians make three trips to lay depots on the route to the South Pole.

The first starts on February 10. Amundsen, Johansen, Prestrud and Hansen head towards 80° S. The sledges weigh around 250 kg, and six dogs are harnessed in front of each. The trip gives a taste of what they have in store for them next season.

The day after they set off, Amundsen writes in his diary:

”Have throughout gone only in one shirt and undertrousers -11 ° C. The dogs pull superbly to lead, here on the ice shelf is ideal. Do not understand, what the English mean when they say that they cannot use dogs here. There are no better draft animals under these circumstances.”📜

On February 14 they reach 80° S and leave salt beef, chocolate, pemmican, biscuits and more. In total, they leave 500 kg of provisions.

To make the depot visible, they mark it with ten black flags in a line running east-west, at 500-metre intervals. Each flag is numbered so that they know where they are in relation to the depot. In addition, ten numbered bamboo poles with black pennants, one for every 15 km, are deployed to mark the way to the depot. The route home is marked with stockfish every half kilometre.

On the return trip, with unladen sledges, they really get to prove what the dogs are capable of. The first day they cover 70 km, the second day 100, which takes them back to Framheim in two days.

One week later, on February 22, it is time for a new depot trip. This time they leave 500 kg of provisions and fuel at 81° S and 620 kg at 82° S. Both depots are just as properly marked as the first. A month later, every man is sitting around the long table at Framheim again. But the trip had its cost. Eight dogs lost their lives in the hard drive, leaving 85 adult dogs and 22 puppies still available for more sledge journeys.

The third trip goes to the depot at 80° S, but due to a wound in the rectum that would not heal, Amundsen is left at Framheim with Lindstrøm. Hjalmar Johansen is set to lead the trip. This time, approx. 1200 kg of seal meat was left in the depot.

When winter comes, Amundsen knows that he has more than enough food and fuel established on the route to the Pole. In addition, they have acquired valuable experience with the equipment and dogs, and with the Antarctic weather.

Overwintering

Life in Framheim is characterized by careful preparation and planning and high well-being. In the kitchen, Lindstrøm rules. In the large living room, people sleep, eat, play cards and throw darts at the bullseye. In the various snow caves that are dug around Framheim during the winter, the men get their different workspaces.

Photograph taken on August 28, 1911, to mark the return of the sun after 4 months absence. All except Johansen are wearing sunglasses and summer headgear. From left front: Sverre Hassel, Olav Bjaaland, Oscar Wisting, Helmer Hanssen. From right rear: Roald Amundsen, Hjalmar Johansen, Adolf Henrik Lindstrøm (standing), Kristian Prestrud and Jørgen Stubberud. Photo: Norwegian Polar Institute / National Library of Norway.

The journey to the South Pole

On July 4, 1911, Amundsen presents what he calls an improved plan:

“We leave Framheim around mid-September, 8 men, 7 sledges, 84 dogs and provisions & equipment.”📜

The plan is to stop at each depot, eat well and save energy. At the depot at 82°, they will build snow houses and wait for the midnight sun to return around mid-October, before moving further south. Everyone around the table guesses on what date they will reach the South Pole, Amundsen himself bets on December 2, 1911.

Amundsen is still impatient, preparing for departure on several occasions, but the cold and weather conditions make things difficult. Everyone knew what was going on: “if you were not the first at the South Pole, you might just as well just stay at home,” wrote Sverre Hassel in his diary.

On Friday, September 8, 1911, it is finally clear. Outside, the thermometer shows -38° C. Lindstrøm is the only one left at Framheim. He thinks it means bad luck to leave on a Friday. From Framheim, he watches the caravan with 84 dogs on seven sledges and eight men moving across the ice shelf.

But not many days pass before the first problems arise.

When they crawl out of the tent on Monday 11 September, the temperature has dropped almost 30 degrees since they left Framheim. It is -55.5° C and getting colder. As the breath of men and dogs freezes in the air, it’s like walking through a dense fog. The alcohol in the compasses freezes, and the mood drops to match. On September 14, they reach the depot at 80° S, where they decide to leave equipment and return to Framheim. Both dogs and men struggle with frostbite.

To risk men and animals to stubbornly continue once I had set off – this never entered my mind. If we are to win the game, the pieces must be moved well – one mistake and everything can be lost,” writes Amundsen in his diary for 12 September. 📜

With 75 km still left to Framheim, the decision is made to drive without stopping. The decision is bold – the distance is double that of a normal day’s march – but the weather conditions are promising, and for several of the men and dogs, their frostbite is starting to get serious.

Nine hours later, Hanssen, Wisting and Amundsen are the first to enter Framheim. Two hours later, Bjaaland arrives, and half an hour later, Stubberud and Hassel come through the door.

But there are still two men left, Prestrud and Johansen. They still have a mile to go, with neither food nor fuel, and both they and the dogs have frostbite. Prestrud is badly hurt; with great pain in his feet, and staggers after Johansen and the dogs. As darkness sets in, the temperature drops below minus 50 degrees.

Only after midnight do Prestrud and Johansen set eyes on the light from Framheim. At the door, they are greeted by Amundsen and Lindstrøm’s hot coffee. Little is said before they all go to bed, but the next morning the reaction comes.

“At the breakfast table this morning I asked about the reason for their long absence. To my surprise, Joh. saw fit to make unflattering statements about me in my position as leader of our enterprise here,”📜 writes Amundsen in his diary for 17 September.

“The grave and unforgivable in these statements is that they were made for all to hear. Here the bull had to be taken by the horns and the example established immediately. At the dinner table I then said that after these statements of his I found it most appropriate to exclude him from participating in the journey to the Pole. Instead, I have written ordering him to take part in a research expedition to King Edward 7’s Land under the leadership of Pr.”📜

Roald Amundsen’s letter to Hjalmar Johansen after breakfast in Framheim on 17 September 1911. The letter was later found folded in Johansen’s diary. Photo: National Library of Norway. Click on the picture to read the letter online.📜

Later in the day, Hjalmar Johansen delivers a rejection of Amundsen’s new order to proceed under Prestrud’s command to King Edward VII Land.

Click on the picture to read the letter online at the National Library of Norway.

📜

“At the dinner table I asked each individual what he thought of my actions. There was only one opinion that I had acted correctly. This was a sad end to our excellent unity. But I found it only right to exclude him after his behaviour. On our journey south, there must be no critical elements. Especially, when they come from an old polar explorer like him, they become doubly dangerous.”📜

There are several sources for the story of this episode. Amundsen’s diary reveals only his version of the situation. From the others who were in Framheim that day come several different descriptions, and their diaries reveal more details about both the trip home and the settlement the following morning. The way Amundsen handled Johansen’s criticism has in modern times been often used to characterize both men’s personalities and leadership qualities.

What is known for sure is that the mood and the plan changed. Johansen felt betrayed, not only by the leader of the expedition, but also by all the others. In his diary on September 17, he writes,

They are now relieved that what should be said has been said by another, and they smile and are now even gentle towards the leader. The scapegoat has been found.📜

The plan had to be changed, and it had consequences for several.

Three men were expelled from the polar party. Johansen, Prestrud and the carpenter Jørgen Stubberud were commissioned to undertake a sledge expedition eastwards towards King Edward VII Land. Johansen joined in the end.

New start

It’s 20 October when they try again; Amundsen, Wisting, Hassel, Hanssen and Bjaaland.

Four sledges with thirteen dogs in each team. The departure is captured on film by the four who remain at Framheim.

Departure from Framheim for the South Pole. Film: “Roald Amundsens Sydpolsferd” / National Library of Norway.

The journey as far as 82° S follows known sledge tracks, but beyond that is unknown terrain, seen by no one. Several times they have to fight their way through dangerous crevasse fields; both sledges and men fall, but each time they recover.

The map Amundsen has in the tent gets new lines for each day and for each latitude they pass.

Amundsen’s map that was drawn daily on the trip to the Pole. In 1924, Amundsen gave the map to the Bergen Maritime Museum. Photo: Bergen Maritime Museum, MuseumVest. Click on the picture to see the map at full scale at the DigitaltMuseum. 📜

On November 21, they slog their way onto the plateau, 2,800 metres above sea level. For 24 of the dogs, this will be the end of the journey; they are shot and distributed as food to both dogs and men. The place is named Slakteren (The butcher’s shop). The party pushes on with three sledges, provisions for 60 days and 18 dogs.

As they approach the top of the plateau, they also encounter new crevasse fields.

‘Fandens bre’ [Devil’s glacier] has proved worthy of its name. One walks two miles to make one. Chasm after chasm, abyss after abyss, must be walked around. Treacherous cracks, among other things, make progress extremely difficult. The dogs are struggling, and the drivers no less.”, writes Amundsen in his diary on 30 November. 📜

When they pass 88° 23′ S, the point where the British Ernest Shackleton had to turn back in 1909, they are closer to the South Pole than anyone has been before them. The moment makes Amundsen struggle to hold back his tears:

My snow goggles annoyed me from time to time. A rather weak breeze from S fogged them up and made it difficult to see. Then all of a sudden I hear a loud, powerful hurrah behind me. I turn around. In this light breeze from S wave the dear, familiar colours of this first sledge, where they have surpassed the Englishmen’s record and left it behind. – It was a wonderful sight. The sun had just broken through in all its splendour to illuminate in such a wonderfully beautiful way the lovely little flag – gift from Helland Hansen and Nordahl Olsen –. My goggles now misted again. But it was not the southerly wind, which this time was to blame. We stopped at 88° 23.2′ to congratulate each other. We were all happy and satisfied. 📜

A tinted version of the photograph taken on December 8, 1911, after they had passed Shackleton’s record. Photo: Norwegian Polar Institute / National Library of Norway.

Six days later, on December 14, 1911, they are there.

Then we managed to plant our flag at the geographical South Pole – King Haakon VII’s Plateau. Thank God! It was 3 p.m. when this happened.” 📜

Map of Amundsen’s route to the South Pole (red line). The black line is Shackleton’s route from 1909. Scott followed almost the same route in 1911 when he reached the South Pole. Photo: National Library of Norway.

But the job is not yet complete. The next day, they begin circling the pole. Getting to the South Pole first has little value if you cannot prove it. Bjaaland, Hassel and Wisting set out, 20 kilometres in each direction, carrying with them a sledge runner with a black flag attached.

In fact, they are doing something foolhardy and life-threatening.

Without a compass, they rely on either navigating back with the sun or following their tracks back. Amundsen later wrote:

“But to trust to tracks in these regions is a dangerous thing. Before you know where you are the whole plain may be one mass of driving snow, obliterating all tracks as soon as they are made […] That these three risked their lives that morning, when they left the tent at 2.30, there can be no doubt at all, and they all three knew it very well.”📜

The photograph Amundsen called “The Pole”. Amundsen takes the sun elevation and Hanssen controls the artificial horizon. This version was discovered in a chest at Uranienborg in 2015. Photo: Follo museum, MiA.

 

Detailed map of the circling of the Pole. Photo: Follo museum, MiA.

On Sunday 17 December, the five Norwegians get up early, break camp and begin the journey towards what they have calculated is the actual Pole. Olav Bjaaland gets the honour of going first. The course must be kept straight if they are to hit the Pole exactly. Amundsen goes to the back to check.

At 11 o’clock they stop. They are there. They erect the small tent, which they name Polheim, and begin the work of calculating the observations. Every hour throughout the day, they are out with the sextant and the artificial horizon to take the position.

“We’re going to observe all night, as these results are quite noteworthy. We must, after all, now consider this place the Pole. We pitch our little tent here tomorrow to leave the place heading N. A boil gave 11000 feet a.s.l. Here we are at the South Pole – an extremely flat snow plain. Almost nothing uneven to see. The sun passes around the sky at practically the same height to shine and warm from a cloudless sky. It’s quiet tonight and so peaceful. The dogs are all stretched out in the sun to enjoy, despite the slight hustle and bustle – apparently life is pretty good” .📜

The fear is there all the time, that they are not the first.
“We have all used the binoculars diligently to see if there were signs of life in any place – but in vain. We are probably the first here.”📜

Above is a 3D version of one of the sledge compasses they took with them on the journey to the South Pole. In total, they had four instruments. Amundsen later took this compass home with him, and it is still in his study today at Uranienborg.

Olav Bjaaland’s iconic photograph of the tent they called Polheim. Photo: Follo museum, MiA.

It is approaching eight in the evening of December 18 when Amundsen and the others get ready to begin the journey home.

We have erected the small tent, and the Norwegian flag with [the pennant] “Framvimpel” beneath fly from the top of the tent pole. In the tent are left several things: My sextant with horizon glass, a hypsometer, three reindeer skin foot bags, some kamiks and mittens and incidentally some trifles. I leave in a folder a letter to the King and a few words to Scott, who I must assume will be the first to visit the place after us. To the tent pole we staple a plaque, on which we all write our names – And so goodbye, dear Pole – we will probably not see each other again.”📜

They decide to travel at night, so that they get the sun on their backs. Bjaaland goes first, then the others follow with the dogs. On Christmas Eve, they arrive at the depot they had left at 88° 25′ and celebrate the evening with a porridge of biscuits and the last cigars. There is still more than 1,000 km to Framheim.

They reach the severely crevassed areas around Fandens Bre in early January, but confusion reigns. They are off-course and do not recognize their surroundings. They arrive at the depot at Slakteren on 5 January. Amundsen writes in his diary:

HH it was, with his sharp eyes, discovered it. Had that not been the case, I certainly do not know how it would have gone. The land was utterly unrecognizable – entirely as if I had never seen it before.📜

Two days later, they reach the depot at 85° 09′, by the mountain named after Amundsen’s nanny, Betty. Amundsen sent Hanssen and Wisting up to the small peak to build a cairn.

HH & W are going now – after having packed the depot on the sledges – up to ‘Bettytoppen’ to build a stone cairn and leave a report. In the cairn, a can of paraffin is walled in (17 l.) together with 2 packs of matches (20 boxes). They could possibly come in handy in the future.”📜

The cairn was rediscovered in 1929 and has since been visited by a few expeditions.

Panorama from the top of Mount Betty and the cairn. Photo: Astrid Furholt, who together with Jan Sverre Sivertsen followed Amundsen’s route to the South Pole in 2017-2018.

The can that Wisting and Hanssen left behind still contains paraffin. Photo: Astrid Furholt.
The rock from Mount Betty, which was brought back for Amundsen’s nanny and is still at his home, Uranienborg. Photo: Follo Museum, MiA.

A contrasting return

17 January 1912 becomes a red-letter day for Roald Amundsen and the four other Norwegians.

They reach the depot at 82°. Now only around 370 km remain before they are home at Framheim, a distance that is also well marked from the year before.

Had a small feast tonight on the occasion of our arrival at ‘civilization’s most southerly outpost’. W. must cook on such occasions. He treated me to a mixture of pemmican and seal meat. For dessert chocolate porridge. – Milk flour, which has been lying on top of the depot in a fairly thin sack exposed to strong moisture and burning sun, was just like the day we put it on board. The sweet biscuits were also just as nice as before. The chocolate too.” 📜

On the same day, five Britons stand around a tent at the South Pole.

They had realized their defeat the day before, when they spotted a black flag fluttering in the wind in front of them. The flag was one of the markers the Norwegians had set up when they circled the pole. Robert Falcon Scott, who until that day had had a hope that they could reach the South Pole as the first, realizes the defeat when he sees the flag.

The worst has happened, or nearly the worst. […]. This told us the whole story. The Norwegians have forestalled us and are first at the Pole. It is a terrible disappointment, and I am very sorry for my loyal companions. Many thoughts come and much discussion have we had. Tomorrow we must march on to the Pole and then hasten home with all the speed we can compass. All the day dreams must go; it will be a wearisome return. 📜

When the five Britons arrive at the South Pole on January 17, they find the tent with the Norwegian flag at the top. Inside are the letters and things from Amundsen.

Scott and his men around the Norwegian tent at the South Pole, January 1912. From left: Robert Falcon Scott, Henry Bowers, Edward Wilson, Edgar Evans. Photographer Lawrence Oates. Photo: National Library of Norway.

(Click on the picture to read the letter online at the National Library of Norway)📜

On January 26, 99 days after departure, Amundsen and the four other Norwegians are back at Framheim. Four days later, on January 30, everyone is back on board the Fram, which has spent the meantime at the quay in Buenos Aires and on an oceanographic cruise in the South Atlantic. A course is set for Hobart, Tasmania.

At the same time, Scott and his four comrades are still on their way home from the Pole. They are in the middle of the plateau, at an altitude of over 3000 metres, surrounded by ice and over 1000 kilometres from the expedition’s base at Cape Evans. But this far they never reach. All five die on the way back, and only Wilson, Bowers and Scott are later found. With Scott is found the letter Amundsen had left to King Haakon.

Upon arrival in Hobart, the Fram drops anchor and Amundsen goes ashore in disguise.

From Hobart he sends the first telegrams, all written in code, to his brother Leon, to Nansen and to King Haakon.

The telegram Roald Amundsen sent his brother Leon from Hobart on March 7, 1912. Photo: National Library of Norway. Click on the picture to read it online at the National Library of Norway. 📜

Sources:

Amundsen, Roald: “Sydpolen: den norske sydpolsfærd med Fram 1910-1912”, 1912.  

Amundsen, Roald: “The South Pole : an account of the Norwegian Antarctic expedition in the Fram 1910-1912”, 1912.  📜

National Library of Norway: Roald Amundsens privatarkiv , Roald Amundsens sydpolsferd (film) 1910–1912.

British Library: Robert Falcon Scott’s diary

Related resources

1872
Roald Amundsen born July 16
1880
Starts at Otto Andersen’s School
1886
Jens Engebreth Amundsen dies
1887 – 1889
Polar interest aroused
1890
Starting university
1893
Gustava Amundsen (née. Sahlqvist) dies
1893
Mountain ski tour with Urdahl and Holst
1894
Hunting in Arctic waters with the Magdalena
1895
Ship’s Officer’s exam
1896
Hardangervidda with Leon
1897 – 1899
Belgica expedition
1899
Cycling from Christiania to Paris
1900
Studying geomagnetism in Hamburg
1903 – 1906
Gjøa expedition
1907
Polar bears as draft animals
1908
Amundsen buys Uranienborg
1909
The North Pole reached?
1910 – 1912
Fram expedition
1910 – 1912
1910–1912 Fram expedition
1914
Amundsen becomes a pilot
1916 – 1917
The polar ship Maud is being built
1918
Maud expedition
1922
Nita and Camilla move in
1923
Uranienborg for sale
1924
Amundsen goes bankrupt
1925
To 88 degrees north
1926
Norge expedition
1927
Lecture tour in Japan
1928
Latham flight
1934 – 1935
Uranienborg becomes a museum
1938
Betty’s house burns down
2015
A chest full of photographs is discovered
2020
Roald Amundsen’s home goes digital

The Belgica expedition 1897–99

At the end of the 19th century, much is still unknown about Antarctica. No one has yet wintered there, either in the sea ice or on land. The Belgian naval officer, Adrien Victor Joseph de Gerlache de Gomery, plans to change that. The closest he has been to a polar expedition is his rejected application to participate in a Swedish one. Now he wants to lead his own.

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Vincenz von Haardt’s map of Antarctica from 1895 is considered the first modern wall map of Antarctica and shows the expeditions that by 1895 had explored the continent. This map still hangs on the wall in the study at Uranienborg. Photo: Follo museum, MiA.

Preparations in Antwerp

It is summer 1896 and Roald Amundsen is 24 years old. He has recently hunted seals in the Nordic Seas, earned a mate’s ticket, and completed dramatic winter trips in the Norwegian mountains. Several times he has tried to join expeditions further north and south.In August 1896, he can finally share good news with his brother, Leon:

“From the 1st of June 1897 I have been hired by the Belgian Antarctic Expedition as a sailor and skier. The trip will last for 2 years and will be very interesting as it is the first of its kind.”📜

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In Norway, de Gerlache recruits several crew members and buys a suitable expedition ship, the whaler Patria originally built in 1884. He renames it Belgica and has it equipped in Sandefjord. For Amundsen, there is also much to prepare. Before the expedition leaves, he is promoted to first mate, and in early 1897 he goes to Antwerp to take navigation courses and to learn French and Flemish to make himself understood on board. In Antwerp, he rents a room from a small host family. The man of the house is often away travelling, and Amundsen and the hostess get to know each other well. 

No one knows for sure how the friendship develops, but on the night of March 24, 1897, something dramatic happens. 

“A story has passed here so sadly in the night that I will never forget it. The lady of the house has taken herself away by carbon monoxide poisoning,” writes Roald in a letter home to Leon (Amundsen had found her early in the morning). “2 zinc buckets with coal were on the floor and one was still burning,” he continues 📜 .

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Amundsen goes home to Norway at the first opportunity, but he will encounter death again before the Belgica expedition is over.

Departure

In Sandefjord, Belgica receives a venerable visitor, the Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen. Having returned in the summer of 1896 from a spectacular voyage across the Arctic Ocean, Nansen has come to wish the expedition good luck. A photograph is taken as several of the crew stand together on deck and Nansen and Roald Amundsen meet for the first time.

Nansen (second from left) visiting on board Belgica. Amundsen is fifth from the left. Photo: National Library of Norway.

The expedition’s departure is postponed several times, and long before they reach the ice personnel problems arise. Even before they leave the Antwerp quay in August 1897, two of the crew leave the expedition. The chef is then replaced, and in Punta Arenas in Chile three others are struck from the crew list. When they finally set course for the Southern Ocean, there are nineteen men on board who speak a total of five different languages. Also on board is the ship’s cat “Nansen”.

Personnel

On October 6, Belgica reaches the equator, and those of the crew who have not “crossed the line” before must be baptized by King Neptune to be considered fully-fledged seafarers. Amundsen is one of the unbaptized. One by one, they are led to a chair on deck, as Amundsen describes, “to first be shaved by Neptune’s court barber.”📜 The razor blades are made of wood for the occasion, the shaving brushes are paint brushes and the soap a mixture of fat, flour, soot and water. If the unbaptized person unthinkingly tries to answer the captain when asked for his name, he gets a loaded ‘shaving brush’ in his open mouth. He is then ‘soaped’ up before finally getting three buckets of water washed over him. Only then is he worthy enough to attend the banquet in the evening.

Good atmosphere during the equator party. Photo: Follo museum, MiA.

As they set course for the notoriously stormy Drake Passage, they are overloaded and understaffed. They are also out late, with the Antarctic summer already in full swing.

There is drama to come.

The sailor who disappeared

On January 22, a strong gale blows up. The waves come foaming over the deck and the snow whips against the crew’s faces. Around them drift icebergs, visibility is poor, and clouds are low. On board they change shifts; it is 12 noon when Amundsen takes command on deck. Together with the Norwegians, Johansen and Wiencke, and the Belgian Dufour, he is responsible for holding a course through the storm.

The wind increases, the waves get higher, and gradually more and more water accumulates on deck. Several of the scuppers (where the water should drain from the deck) are clogged and Amundsen puts Johansen and Wiencke to work cleaning them. He himself is at the helm and does what he can to keep the ship on an even keel. Suddenly he hears Johansen’s voice, in a way he has never heard before: “Wiencke overboard! Wiencke overboard!”

A wave has broken over the deck, and the unsecured sailor has no chance. People come running to help. In the waves they can see Wiencke fighting for his life. Lecointe pulls himself into the water with a rope around his body, but fails to get Wiencke with him. The water is ice cold. But hope rises when Wiencke grabs the log line that hangs behind the ship. Johan Koren describes the drama in the diary: “But his hands are all powerless after the strenuous swimming in the icy water, heavily dressed as he was in oilskins and sea boots. His grip is constantly slipping while we are hauling in on the line.” 📜

Wiencke pulls himself to the side of the ship. Johansen lies down and grabs his arm and Amundsen grabs Johansen’s collar. In the heavy sea they make an attempt to pull him on board, but suddenly the ship rolls and Johansen misses. Wiencke disappears into the waves again.

“We all stand still for a long time and look for him. His yellow oilskin shines so mercilessly up from the depths for so long,” Koren writes in his diary. 📜

Ludvig-Hjalmar Johansen, the sailor who held Wiencke as he disappeared, later wrote a five-page report on the incident. 📜

The ice closes up, the mood drops

When the storm subsides and the fog thins, land appears. Unknown land.

Through waters no one has seen before, they drift further south, past islands, mountains and ice. They meet penguins, whales, seals and birds. They hunt, research and discover. Maps are drawn and names immortalized. One of the largest islands is named after the man who disappeared in the waves – Wienckeøya.

In several places they go ashore, but all the while moving further into the ice. Through February, the ice becomes denser and denser. Sometimes they are stuck for several days before getting free, but still they continue.

February 23, Amundsen writes in his diary: “Unfortunately, the scientists are showing great signs of fear. They are reluctant to go further into the ice. Why then have we come here? Is it not to explore the unknown realms? This cannot be done by lying still outside the ice and dozing off.”📜

The crew ashore in unknown land. Photo: Follo museum, MiA.

March 6, 1898, it stops. “We are stuck. The freshly frozen ice is already walkable everywhere, and I doubt that Belgica would handle it even under favourable circumstances. We must no doubt spend the winter here, and that is fine with me,” writes Amundsen in his diary. 📜

But there is also a great deal of uncertainty on board. The official plan has always been that only a select few men would be put ashore and overwinter, while the ship would return to South America. Now there is no going back. Now everyone must spend the winter in the ice, even though they lack equipment, knowledge and provisions.

For many, it will be a battle for survival.

On March 11, Amundsen writes in his diary, “One starts to get familiar with the idea of ​​wintering. The cold has begun sharply. The ice is firm around us and without ridges. This is starting to get interesting.” 📜

Only later does Amundsen hear expedition leader de Gerlache’s actual plan.

“As a Belgian, I could not – with a steamship such as we have – help but penetrate south in these areas […] I am very sorry, that I am thus the cause of our getting stuck in the ice,” he tells Amundsen in confidence. 📜

Belgica frozen in. Photo: Norwegian Polar Institute / National Library of Norway.

The time in the ice gives Amundsen the opportunity to make his own plans. On April 1, he notes a spectacular idea in his diary: “Here is my plan. As soon as the sun comes back, two of us push south with a light two-man kayak on a sledge with provisions for 6 months. After a 6-week march south, we turn around and search for the vessel. A certain time and place must be agreed. This is not impossible, but unlikely. Most reasonably, one would not find the vessel again. Well. We then move SW as far as the year allows. Towards winter, we arrange ourselves in the most appropriate way on an iceberg suitable for this purpose. We have nothing to fear here in the winter. Once the site is found, we provide ourselves with supplies for the winter – penguins and seals. Next spring go southwest again until land is hit. If there is no protruding land before Syd-Victoria, when this has been reached we will continue north in the kayak. We seek to reach Australia from the northernmost islands. This would of course take several years, but there is no doubt that it should be possible.” 📜

In addition, Amundsen uses the time to learn. He enjoys being in the ice, in the cold and the wind. He absorbs everything he can benefit from, noting, thinking and drawing. Scientist Emil Racoviță does the same, filling an entire book with caricatures of the crew, which he later gives to Amundsen. 📜

For many of the others it is the opposite – for them the situation is intimidating and life threatening. For the Belgian scientist Émile Danco, it does end in death. During the Antarctic winter, he becomes ill and bedridden. “There is something with the heart,” notes Amundsen in his diary. Frederick Cook, the ship’s doctor, can do little for him, and on June 6, Danco fails to wake. They cover him with the Belgian flag and two days later the icy sea becomes his grave. Danco’s death affects the mood on board. Amidst low morale, doubt, and symptoms of the vitamin deficiency disease scurvy, fear spreads. No one knows whose death will be next.

Amundsen, for his part, is confident in his choice. On June 20, 1898, he notes in his diary, “It is this life that I have craved for so long now. It was not a childish whim that made me come along. It was a mature thought. I do not regret, and hope to have the strength and health to continue my work that has just begun.” 📜

Penguin beef

In July, when winter is at its coldest and darkest, many people suffer from scurvy. Some start to write their wills, others lose control of mind and mood. The fact that different languages ​​are spoken does not make the situation better. The French word “quelque” (“some, a few”) is misheard as the Norwegian word for choke, which creates several misunderstandings. The atmosphere is so fraught, it is alleged that death threats are made .

In the autumn, Dr Cook is already writing that “The curtain of blackness which has fallen over the outer world of icy desolation has descended upon the inner world of our souls.” Even the ship’s cat Nansen is struggling. During the winter, he lies either in one of the crew’s beds or by the stove. Eventually, he becomes both shy and angry and shuns both cosiness and food. The crew tries everything, even catching a live penguin for him as a playmate, but to no avail. Neither Nansen nor the penguin will play. They just stand in their own corners of the room. Nansen simply does not thrive in Antarctica, and in June, in the middle of the dark season, he dies. The loss of the expedition’s mascot makes some of the crew even more anxious for the future.

To get people out of bed, Cook suggests changing their diet. Away with canned food without proper nutrition and forward with fresh meat. Seal and penguin meat are served several times a day, but some refuse to eat from the new menu. At first, there are several who think that they would rather die than eat what is suggested. They cling to the canned food they brought with them. But Cook is just as stubborn, and as the fresh meat is digested most people notice an improvement. For Amundsen, it is all a new experience. He thinks penguin meat is “excellent as beef, and not unlike ox meat”.

One of the penguins they catch is later stuffed and given a home in Amundsen’s study at Uranienborg.

In the diary on April 1, 1898, Amundsen writes, “Penguin beef is absolutely excellent. However, care must be taken to separate all the fat from the meat. Extensive preparation in vinegar is unnecessary. Take the meat as it is and put it in the pan with a little butter, and you have the most delicious steak you could wish for.”📜

Penguins around Belgica. Photo: Follo museum, MiA / National Library of Norway.
One of the captured penguins. Photo: Follo museum, MiA / National Library of Norway.

Amundsen’s friendship and interaction with Frederick Cook becomes invaluable for him through this period. The American has previously been on several expeditions to Greenland and willingly shares his knowledge.

In his diary for July 22, 1898, Amundsen notes:

“So I asked the doctor today, what he considered the most important foodstuffs for a polar expedition. First milk, he replied, then eggs if they can be kept fresh. So salt meat (pork), ham, etc. Not prepared and chopped food, one gets bored of it so quickly. I value this man’s opinion, based on the knowledge I now have of him.” 📜

Cook will become best known for his claim to be the first man to the North Pole, which is debated even today. For Amundsen he will be a close and lifelong friend.

Amundsen and Cook in a whimsical exchange on board Belgica. Photo: Follo museum, MiA.

The first sledge expedition

Gradually, the condition of more people on board improves, until they are ready for sledge travel.

On July 30, 1898, Amundsen can embark on what he describes as “The first sledge expedition on the Antarctic sea ice.” With him are Lecointe and Cook. The goal is to find penguins and, not least, experience something other than life on board. With skis that are over three metres long and with snowshoes, they must pull the sledge of roughly 100 kilos around on the ice.

“At the moment of departure, I was solemnly appointed to the highest rank of the ‘Penguin Order’ and handed this. The other participants were appointed knights general of the same order,” Amundsen writes in the diary that day. 📜

Amundsen saved the medal presented to him on the occasion of his appointment to the highest rank of the “Penguin Order”. It was later discovered in his home at Uranienborg. Photo: Follo museum, MiA.

Although the trip lasts only six days, it makes a great impression on Amundsen. In August, during a night shift in full moonlight, he writes in his diary:

“A more glorious spectacle can hardly exist than these moonlit nights on the ice. It is crystal clear. Even the icebergs on the horizon can be seen from their outlines. The summer night & the winter night at home are beautiful, but they do not seem as captivating as this silent cold of the moonlit polar night. It is a marvellous feeling that grabs one. Did God create this whole great area for it to be abandoned & forgotten by humans? No, & again no, certainly not. It is our duty to do what we can to one day recount all the glory & wisdom God has given us.” 📜

But on board it remains turbulent. In November, Amundsen experiences a new side to the expedition’s organization when he learns in a meeting with de Gerlache that it has been agreed in advance that, no matter what happens, the expedition will be under Belgian command. In other words, nationality is above rank. For Amundsen, this means that in practice he has lost his status as first officer, something he cannot accept, nor will be a part of. To de Gerlache he replies that he considers himself “relieved of his position on the expedition.” 📜

“There is no longer any Belgian Antarctic Expedition for me.”

Although he no longer sees himself as part of the expedition, Amundsen has little alternative: “I see in Belgica only an ordinary vessel, trapped in the ice. I have a duty to help the handful of men who are assembled here on board.” 📜

One of the larger icebergs that lay near Belgica. Photo: Follo museum, MiA / National Library of Norway.

The ice releases its grip

The sun returns on July 21, 1898, and as winter’s hold weakens and positive temperatures return, the crew begin to move more outside the ship. A long-awaited activity can be taken up – penguin hunting.

The catch premium is 50 francs for each dead penguin, and double if you catch a live one. Amundsen specializes in his own unique technique. With a hoarse, light voice, he tries to imitate the penguins’ call so that he can sneak up on them. In January 1899, Amundsen and Cook attempt a new experiment, tying a rope around the legs of one of the captured king penguins and placing it in front of a sledge. The hope is that it will act as a draft animal. It manages a few meters, but no further. Draft penguins will never be a success.

Penguins as draft animals were not successful, although Amundsen thought it would work with specially sewn body harnesses. Photo: Follo museum, MiA / National Library of Norway.
Amundsen after a successful penguin hunt. Photo: National Library of Norway.

What occupies the crew’s everyday life during the first days of summer is getting out of the ice. A second overwintering would be catastrophic. Again, it is Cook who takes the initiative. He proposes to make a channel in the ice, through which Belgica can push itself forward and out into the open sea. The crew brings out picks, shovels and explosives, and after several weeks of work, the ice opens up. The engine is started, the sails are hoisted, and the ship pushes forward.

Eventually, they are rewarded for their struggle. On March 14, they reach the open sea and set course for Punta Arenas. They arrive on March 28, 1899 and Amundsen’s expedition ends. He keeps his word about withdrawing and takes a passenger boat home to Norway. With him he carries experiences, knowledge and ideas that will lay the foundation for a further life in the ice.

Sources:

National Library of Norway: Letters and diaries of Roald Amundsen

The National Archives of Norway: The diary of Johan Koren

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