1918–1925 Maud expedition
Thursday, November 10, 1908, Kristiania (Oslo).
Gamle Logen’s great hall is packed with people. Sitting in expectation are the capital’s prominent women and men, among them scientists, professors, and members of government. King Haakon is in the front row. All eyes, though, are on the 36-year-old man behind the podium, who two years ago conquered the Northwest Passage. As slides are projected onto the wall behind him, Roald Amundsen presents his plan for a new expedition.
“With Fram equipped for seven years and a skilled crew, I will leave Norway at the beginning of 1910. The course is set round Cape Horn for San Francisco, where coal and provisions will be taken on board. From here, we will head for Point Barrow, America’s most northerly point, where I hope to be in July-August. From here we will send the last message home before the real voyage begins. On leaving Point Barrow, my intention is to continue the voyage with the smallest possible crew. We will set course for the drift ice in a N-NW direction from here, and then seek out the most favourable place for further penetration north. Once this has been found, we will push as far in as possible and ready ourselves for a four-to-five-year drift across the Arctic Ocean.”
If all goes to plan, they will leave Kristiania (Oslo) on January 2, 1910. But Amundsen will quickly learn that with this expedition very little goes as originally planned. First, two Americans get in the way: Frederick Cook and Robert Peary. Each believes that he has become the first to reach the North Pole, and that the other is lying. Perhaps neither of them speaks the truth, but in any case, they create a problem for Amundsen. The North Pole has been the main commercial selling point for his expedition, and something has to change.
On September 8, 1909, he sends out a message to the expedition members: “…the expedition’s departure has had to be postponed for some months because of various delays. The departure will probably take place in July 1910.”
Behind the scenes, the expedition had been expanded to include a visit to the Pole that remained unconquered, the South Pole. Amundsen’s official explanation that came later described how the trip to the South Pole had been made purely for economic reasons, admitting at the same time that it would provide little scientific value in comparison with a drift across the Arctic Ocean. But he had needed money, and money goes to those who come first.
It is early 1912 when Amundsen sails triumphantly north from Antarctica. Several have since suggested that Amundsen is now satisfied, that he actually doesn’t want to fulfil the original plan to drift across the Arctic Ocean. But in some of the first telegrams that he sends after conquering the South Pole, Amundsen is still occupied with heading northward. The plan is intact.
But Amundsen still finds that not everything goes to plan: again, there is a lack of money, and when some of the crew withdraw, they leave the expedition at one point with no scientists. Is there even any value in drifting over the Arctic Ocean without scientists on board? Even Nansen advises Amundsen to wait. The delay is also hard on the polar ship Fram. After spending a long time in South and Central America, in anticipation of becoming the first ship through the Panama canal, it is decided that she will instead sail home to Norway.
The expedition’s costs continue to mount – repairs, new equipment, crew, and delays – and then in the summer of 1914, war breaks out in Europe. It is in all this chaos that the real story of the polar ship Maud begins, when it becomes clear that Fram is no longer fit for long expeditions. The ship is in worse condition than first thought and Roald Amundsen realizes that he needs a new one. Shipbuilder Christian Jensen in Vollen, Asker, gets the job.
The ship must be as strong as Fram, about the same length, but even broader. Also, it must have the same oval hull shape, so that it can survive the force of the ice. But the world’s economic turmoil makes the project increasingly expensive. The 300,000 Kroner originally intended for the building of the ship becomes in the end 650,000 Kroner, the equivalent of over 16 million today.
“A more careful, skilful and conscientious work has not been carried out in Norwegian shipbuilding,” writes Amundsen later. 📜
On June 17, 1917, everything is ready for the launch. Amundsen’s diary for the day will read,
“In the afternoon at 5.45, Maud slipped onto the water. Everything was as ordered – flat calm, scorching hot, and sparkling clear. No party was announced, but a lot of people from the village were present. I christened the vessel – in its element – ice!” 📜
The polar ship Maud
But it will be some time before the expedition is ready to sail — the world is still in the chaos of war. Maud spends her first winter on the water lying off Akershus fortress in Kristiania (Oslo). New Year’s Eve 1917 brings Amundsen his first night on board and he wakes up to a new year on a new ship.
Work proceeds through the spring to put in place crew, provisions and equipment for the planned five years. When at last fully loaded, the ship is 200 tons heavier, with, amongst other things, 500 kilos of chocolate and 300 books. On St John’s Eve (June 23), 1918, Maud weighs anchor and leaves Kristiania. They put into Horten first, and then Bergen, where the scientific instruments are brought on board. Amundsen himself comes aboard in Tromsø. On July 18, they leave Vardø, the expedition’s last Norwegian port.
In his book about the expedition, Nordostpassagen (1921), Amundsen describes Maud from the inside:
“On the wall hung the photographs of the royal family, given to the Fram expedition in 1910. On a small shelf beneath stood the beautiful large silver mug that the King and Queen gave the expedition on the same occasion.” 📜
The wicker chairs were the same as had been on board Fram on the journey to Antarctica eight years earlier. Two of the chairs are today at Uranienborg.
“On the walls hung other photographs. Linoleum was laid on floor, and over this coir runners. Around the lounge lay the 10 cabins, one for each man. From the expedition’s side, these were equipped with a desk, a bunk with linen, linoleum with carpet overlaid, and curtains for the windows and doors. […] Friends had equipped my cabin, and so nicely and beautifully was it done that I blushed and lowered my eyes the first time I went in there. You would think I was going on honeymoon.” 📜
The first winter, 1918–19
It is August 6 and evening has fallen when the expedition reaches the Russian Arctic outpost of Khabarova. Among those at the telegraph station is the 21-year-old Gennadiy Nikitich Olonkin, who has a Norwegian mother and speaks both languages. Olonkin pays the Maud a visit, after which Amundsen writes in his diary, “To my surprise, he asked – when he said goodbye – if he could be allowed to stay with us. Since this guy – he is 21 years old – has made an extremely good impression on all of us and is also an engine expert, I decided to adopt him as our 10th man.” 📜
With Olonkin on board, Maud sails on to the telegraph station at Dikson, before continuing towards Cape Chelyuskin, the northernmost point on the Eurasian land mass. But there they are stopped by the ice. Nothing helps, and an overwintering is unavoidable, in a bay that they name “Maudhavn”.
Through autumn and winter, several sledge journeys are made, and the scientific work, led by Harald Ulrik Sverdrup, begins. Geomagnetic and astronomical observatories are established, along with a kite station, a balloon station and a site for the meteorological instruments. At some of the stations a telephone connection to the ship is also installed.
On deck, a steam bath is installed, of the same model that Amundsen had used on his Antarctic expedition. Saturday is set as the regular wash day and the routine is established: breakfast at eight o’clock, everyone at work a half hour later. After three hours’ work comes an hour’s lunch break, and then back to work. In the evenings, the books from the ship’s library come out, or chessboards, draughts, or darts. Every Saturday is marked with a toddy and a gramophone concert or film showing. Crew members’ birthdays and any others they want to celebrate are marked with a day off.
But Amundsen’s diary will record several dramatic and painful turns during his time in Maudhavn.
September 30 sees the first accident, when he falls over the ship’s rail and lands three metres below, ”head first with right upper arm and shoulder straight into the glass-hard, mirror-smooth, gnarly ice. It was a terrible shock. I immediately straightened up into a sitting position but could hear how the broken bones ground against each other. Stars of all colours passed my eyes, but I did not lose consciousness” 📜
Wisting comes running, bringing a dram – and only then do the stars disappear. Amundsen stays in his bunk for four days, and for the next five weeks he must carry his broken arm in a sling. Rønne sews a bespoke reindeerskin suit for a one-armed man.
On November 8, it gets worse. At around half past seven in the morning, Amundsen comes up on deck to enjoy the stillness and the light – even though the sun set for the winter fourteen days ago, there is still a red glow on the horizon. He goes down the gangway and out onto the ice in front of the ship. Suddenly, he sees the dog Jakob dash off over the ice towards land and out of sight. Soon, Amundsen hears Jakob bark, and someone who answers. It was a sound unintelligible to Amundsen: “Yes – right now I’m wondering what this sound reminded me of. It reminded me of that a human being produces when he breathes hard on a mirror, for example, to brush off a mark. It was exactly the same sound, only louder.” 📜 “As I stand thus, 3 figures suddenly appear in the dim moonlight. The first was Jakob, the second a female bear, followed immediately by a little cub.” 📜
Amundsen runs for his life and at the same time shouts for help – ”Bear, Bear!”. They reach the gangway at the same time, Amundsen and the bear. First, he feels the blow from behind, and then he is thrown to the ground, landing right on his broken arm and staying down. He’s just waiting to feel the polar bear’s jaw around his neck. But, ”when I turned around I saw her in a cat-like leap set out on the ice towards the cub.” 📜
Amundsen seizes the chance to run on board, where he is met by Wisting with a rifle in his hands. Armed, Wisting feels safe enough to go down onto the ice and put an end to the bear. He moves closer and readies to fire, but the bolt jams – he tries again, with the same result. Now it is suddenly Wisting whose life is in danger. Several others are now also on deck, including Sverdrup with his own gun. Quick as flash, they swap guns and Wisting fires. The bear roars its last and sighs. Amundsen’s injury is less serious, but the bear has left its mark. Wisting writes later that ”Virtually the entire back of his skin suit was ripped out and hanging in shreds, and in the small of his back were the deep tracks of four bear claws.” 📜
Not until the end of November is Amundsen back at work, but just a few weeks later his life is again in danger. His diary for November 10 reads, “Had a little suffocation episode in the magn. obs. this afternoon.” 📜
Amundsen has been working lately in the magnetic observatory. As well as being built without nails or iron of any kind, the small building they had set up near the ship was very cramped. Whenever Amundsen worked inside, he would light the Lux paraffin lamp on the ceiling, and in this airless space the fumes from the lamp and the lack of oxygen were a deathtrap. At first he feels dizzy, then something happens to his pulse, which beats “with the pace of a machine gun during a major attack”. 📜
Amundsen has carbon monoxide poisoning. He staggers outside – “That was as far as I reached, the vessel, where the legs refused further service … I simply could not stay upright.” 📜 Many hours pass before he recovers and the incident will affect his health for the rest of his life.
The winter in Maudhavn is cold; several times the thermometer reads 30 or 40 degrees below zero. Nevertheless, the crew is doing well and they hunt often – polar bear skins and meat are excellent for both dogs and people. There is also a lot of equipment to be made: Tessem makes sledges, Sundbeck is in the smithy, and Rønne sews ski boots, leather clothes, sleeping bags and tents.
When Christmas comes, Maud is decorated for a party. As Amundsen tells it, ”Christmas Eve came with the most wonderful weather. Calm, clear, and around ‑40°. Heaven’s vault shone in competition with our saloon in its decorations. In here, it was decorated with garlands and flowers, arrangements, coloured lanterns and much more. In the sky shone the most beautiful northern lights. At 12 noon we ate a light lunch, to be able to attack the Christmas dinner at 5 with greater vigour.” 📜
New Year sees the publication of the “Maud saga”, featuring Roald Polfarer, Oscar Bueskytte and Harald Boklærd in a retelling of the expedition’s first winter. In February, Sverdrup begins sending instrumented balloons and kites into the air. Amundsen recalls later, “The old boyhood joy of seeing a kite rise is still inside me. And then all the strange messages it brings down again!” 📜 And when the sun and the temperature climb, the season for sledge journeys begins. Hunting, cairn building and mapping are all needed, but this summer will see Maud‘s complement reduced in number, because Peter Tessem and Paul Knutsen want to go home. Their reasons are several.
Amundsen’s offical line will be that they are taking the expedition’s mail and scientific material home with them to Norway. When Maud leaves Maudhavn on September 12, 1919, Tessem and Knudsen are left behind to begin their overland journey. It is the last time the two men are seen alive.
Through the Northeast Passage
When Maud leaves Maudhavn in September, it is with the hope of getting far enough into the ice that they can begin the final drift across the Arctic Ocean. But that’s not how it will go. Just eleven days from weighing anchor, they are stopped by the ice again, and on September 23, 1919, the expedition’s second winter camp is established, this time off Ayon Island [Ajonøya].
It isn’t long before those on board Maud discover that they are not alone at Ayon Island. Ashore, several tents can be seen – they belong to the Chukchi, the local indigenous people. Olonkin, Hanssen and Amundsen go ashore to the nearest Chukchi tents. Amundsen has experienced this before, in the Northwest Passage when he met the Netsilik Inuit, and he seizes the opportunity to study the Arctic experts again. He suggests that Sverdrup should join the Chukchi and live with them through the winter. Sverdrup agrees and will later spend long periods with several of the local indigenous peoples along the coast.
Sverdrup will describe his experiences from these encounters in a book on the life and ways of the Chuckchi (English title “Among the tundra people”).
(Click on the image to read the book online at the National Library of Norway📜)
The winter at Ayon Island erodes the morale of many on board, and the atmosphere is sometimes fraught. Conflicts arise, and gradually more people express their wish to be out of the ice. On September 26, 1919, Amundsen writes in his diary, “Have today said goodbye to Rønne & Tønnesen and informed them that they will be allowed to go home.” 📜
December 1 sees Tønnesen, accompanied by Hanssen, Wisting and a local Chukchi, set off with a dog sledge in the direction of Nome on the other side of the Bering Strait. As well as driving Tønnesen ashore so that he can begin the journey home, the three carry valuable mail and reports from the expedition.
On Maud, only four crew remain, and though they are often visited by local Chukchi and traders, the work duties must still be distributed between them. As Christmas approaches, Amundsen’s place is in the galley to take care of the Christmas baking. For December 21, his diary entry reads, “Today, I did a complete dry run and served for dinner reindeer roast with cranberry jam and, for dessert, cakes, lentils, chocolate cakes, rum cakes and cream rolls. Pretty well done, it must be said, for a Sunday morning.” 📜
Despite there being so much to do, there is still time for various handicrafts. Amundsen is particularly impressed when Sundbeck and Rønne present the ship with a gramophone player inlaid with pieces of mammoth tooth: “On Wednesday evening, the Sundbeck-Rønne company delivered a table that is probably the finest work that was ever delivered on a polar expedition. It is made according to the pattern of small 8-sided Algerian smoking tables with mother-of-pearl. However, this table is considerably more valuable – the inlays are of mammoth and a gramophone is housed in the interior. It is simply art. Of course, we tried it immediately and its tone was far clearer and sharper than in the purchased Pathephone. Belonging to the table is an 8-sided copper tray with the following set in copper: cigarette box, 2 ashtrays, candlestick and match holder.” 📜
One who comes often to visit Maud is the local trader George Kibisow, who represents the Copenhagen-based Russian Trading Company. At the end of April 1920, Amundsen buys himself a mammoth tooth and 27 white fox skins from Kibisow. He is also offered a bear cub, which Kibisow says he captured off Kolyma on a trip in March. When the bear cub arrives on Maud, it is tethered to a small crate out on the ice and given the name Marie.
May 22, 1920 – Amundsen tries to take Marie for a walk on a lead: “Have had my first walk today with Marie, who did not seem to find any pleasure in it. Resisted as far as she could, but had to let the superior force drag her. Can already pat her without danger of losing fingers. She places no great value on it, but completely turns her back on me. She likes blubber best. She has not eaten fish yet. 📜
The next day, Amundsen writes, “It’s not easy to make friends with Marie, but it may happen. I carry her now whenever I want, but then have to make sure to hold her head otherwise she would bite. She is constantly feuding with the dogs. The little thing is not afraid.” 📜
When Amundsen comes with sweet milk, the friendship with the little bear improves. On 27 May, Amundsen notes: “The relationship [between] Marie and me – gets better every day. She now comes to me quite boldly to get her milk.” 📜
Gradually, Marie accepts more and more contact. She lets herself be petted and cared for. In just a month, several of the crew have established good relationships with Marie, and Amundsen in particular often writes about her in his diary.
So it comes as quite a surprise when he says on June 17, 1920, “Chloroformed Marie to put her down this morning. I had to give up all hope today of getting it trained. After having cared for and given it food for a month, when I came to her with milk in the morning, she came right at me in full rage. Under an experienced trainer she might have become well-mannered, but I had to give it up.” 📜
Marie, then, never becomes the tame pet that Amundsen may have hoped. Instead, she will be stuffed and brought home to Uranienborg.
The contrast between life on board Maud and life behind the sledges is great. For Wisting, Hanssen and Tønnesen, who are on their way to Nome, the days are arduous, particularly so for Tønnesen, who becomes separated from the others on several occasions. The first is when he leaves the tent to stretch his legs in a snowstorm. Only several hours later does he hear the shouts and shots from the others and find the tent again. On a later occasion, after he sets off before the others to avoid the dogs snapping at his heels, they lose him for several days. Eventually, on January 12, 1920, they reach Nordkapp (now Cape Schmidt), around 250 km east of Maud’s location. Tønnesen finds lodgings here with the trader George Kibisow, who promises to help him get home to Norway. Wisting and Hanssen continue in order to dispatch the reports from the expedition. But conditions are difficult, and Wisting waits at East Cape (now Cape Dezhnev) on the Chukchi Peninsula, while Hanssen continues along the Bering Strait coast to Anadyr. Here, he manages to send and receive both mail and telegrams. When they return to Maud on June 14, Hanssen and his dogs have travelled more than 1500 km.
The expedition news in the telegrams that Hanssen sends is quickly on the Norwegian front pages. Among several dramatic headlines is that of Dagbladet on April 29, 1920, which in English reads, “Roald Amundsen’s North Pole expedition falling apart.”
(Click on the image to read the article online at the National Library of Norway📜)
When the ice finally loosens its grip on 8 July, 1920, course is set for Nome, Alaska. A week later, they have become only the third expedition in history to navigate the Northeast Passage, yet they remain far from their ultimate goal.
Rønne, Sundbeck and Hanssen all leave the expedition on arriving in Nome. Only four men now remain: Amundsen, Wisting, Sverdrup and Olonkin. But even these few do not give up hope of completing the plan to drift across the Arctic Ocean. Just a few weeks after arriving in Nome, they are on their way back to the ice.
Again, they face obstacles, as the ice ravages Maud and damages both propeller and shaft. Eventually, the men on board realize that they will spend yet another winter off the coast of Siberia. Off Cape Serdtse-Kamen, the expedition’s third winter quarters are established.
To boost morale, Amundsen establishes a new tradition – every Saturday’s gramophone concert will now end with the singing of It’s a long way to Tipperary.
Through the darkness of winter shine some brighter moments, such as when the locals come to visit. One of these is Kakot, a Chukchi who comes to find work. Kakot is widowed and has been relying on relatives to look after his five-year-old daughter while working on the Maud, but now she is sick and he brings her on board.
Amundsen is charmed by the girl who will eventually come to call him Grandpa. She is nursed back to health by the crew and given the name Kakonita, or “Nita” for short (her original Chukchi name apparently too difficult to pronounce and now lost). In a process that remains unclear, Kakot agrees to hand over her care to Amundsen, who will take her back to Norway.
At East Cape, a stand-in big sister is found for Nita in the form of ten-year-old Camilla Carpendale, whose Australian trader father and Chukchi mother welcome Amundsen’s offer of a European education for her.
Soon, then, the two girls will leave the ice far behind, as part of Amundsen’s new plan. His diary for April 27, 1921 reads,
“The plan for the future is beginning to take shape. At the end of May I travel to East Cape, whereupon by whale boat and Eskimos I try to reach Nome most quickly via the Diomede Islands, Cape Prince of Wales and Teller. From here I send my first telegrams. First of all, the official report telegr.” 📜
– Amundsen will apply to the Norwegian Storting (Parliament) for funding for a new attempt to reach further north. He needs 300,000 Kroner –
“Then I will go as quickly as possible to Seattle to arrange everything. I will try to meet Maud in Dutch Harbor by tugboat – If I don’t get the 300,000, then I will have to sell Maud to acquire a smaller vessel. We 4 are determined to make the trip over the pole, cost what it will. But it will be a shame if we have to travel less well equipped. If we get the 300 – I want 2 airplanes and an experienced pilot – preferably an officer in the Norwegian Navy. Yes, they should be happy, if we were finally able to get on board with tip-top equipment. But – after the severe adversity we have had, I am prepared for rejection. There is nothing people can tolerate less than adversity. On us 4 it has had the opposite effect. Never have we been more keen to get started than now.” 📜
One does not make money drifting around in the ice – it is the time afterwards that is profitable, when one can sell the story of one’s spectacular experiences. But then one must also have a story that sells. This is exactly what Amundsen has in mind, and it is in the air that it will happen, but first he must get to Seattle, where there is much to organize, and then home to Norway with Nita and Camilla. The three of them travel overland to East Cape in May and then by sea via Nome, to arrive in Seattle on July 5.
Left on Maud are Wisting, Olonkin, Sverdrup, and four Chukchi locals, among them Kakot, father of Nita. After escaping the ice in June 1921, and finally reaching Seattle on August 31, they put the ship into dry dock to be repaired and equipped for the new plan.
Amundsen is optimistic when he meets the press in Seattle. Bergens Aftenblad writes, “Granted, the hair is grey and the features marked, but never has Roald Amundsen had a clearer belief in his great enterprise than right now, and he is cheerful and happy as a schoolboy.” 📜
It is also in Seattle that Amundsen gets to know Håkon Hammer, a Danish-born businessman whom he refers to as “The Expedition’s Honorary Member”. Later, Amundsen will style him “an optimistic scoundrel”, but here and now he is excited about Hammer’s business sense and his plans for the expedition.
Through the winter, Wisting and Olonkin are responsible for equipping Maud. Sverdrup travels to the Carnegie Institution in Washington DC, where he can collate the scientific observations and acquire more scientific equipment. In January 1922, Amundsen leaves for Norway with the girls and Oscar Wisting’s wife Elise. The crew will reassemble in May.
Maud has been improved in several ways and the crew augmented: Sverdrup has acquired his scientific assistant in Finn Malmgren; Søren Marentius Syvertsen has been given responsibility in the engine room; ship’s officer Carl Hansen has joined; and pilots Odd Dahl, Oskar Omdal and Elmer Fullerton have come on board. Several Chukchi also remain, including Kakot.
It is in the large crates being loaded on board that the new plan lies. They contain two aircraft: a Junkers-Larsen JL-6 that has been named Elisabeth and a smaller Curtiss Oriole that carries Kristine on its side. With these names, Amundsen is honouring Kiss Bennett, the woman he is currently enchanted by.
The bold plan is to fly the Junkers to Spitsbergen or Greenland via the North Pole, while the smaller aircraft will be used from Maud for ice reconnaissance.
As Maud casts off on June 3, 1922, the wharf is full of people and the streets are crowded with spectators. For the newspapers, the expedition is still good material and expectations are high. 📜
From Seattle, the voyage takes them first to Nome, where Amundsen comes on board, and then to East Cape, where all of the Chukchi except Kakot leave the expedition. The intention is to sail from here to Point Barrow, but ice conditions force them to pause at Deering, on Alaska’s west coast. Here, at the trading post run by Samuel Magids and his brother Boris (Amundsen had met Sam’s wife Bess on the SS Victoria between Seattle and Nome), Amundsen celebrates his fiftieth birthday. On the same day, July 16, the locals, and perhaps Bess in particular, are treated to the sight of Kristine in the air. The aircraft had been towed to the beach on a raft for assembly and a week had been spent preparing an airstrip.
On July 28, Maud heads off to begin her drift with the sea ice across the Arctic Ocean, but Amundsen, Omdal and the Junkers aircraft “Elisabeth”, are transferred to the cargo ship Holmes and are landed with filmmaker Reidar Lund at Wainwright in northern Alaska. The area will be quieter than Barrow, with its roughly five hundred inhabitants, and the beach will be perfect as an airstrip. Little does Amundsen know as he is rowed ashore that he will never set foot aboard Maud again.
It is already too late in the year and the weather too poor to attempt the trans-polar flight that Amundsen had planned, so in Wainwright they build a small overwintering station that they name “Maudheim”. The summer ends with Elisabeth yet to take to the air, and Reidar Lund heads south on the Holmes after a month or so. In December, Amundsen also heads south, leaving Omdal at Maudheim to work alone on the aircraft through the winter. An impressive sledge journey takes Amundsen to Nome, where he will spend the winter still on the hunt for more money.
On April 13, 1923, Amundsen sets off with a dog team towards Wainwright. When he arrives on May 9, efforts to fly with Elisabeth swiftly resume. Omdal manages a fifteen-minute test flight on May 11, but a ski collapses on landing and the plane is badly damaged. Still, they persevere.
“What would you all say if we gave up?” writes Amundsen in his diary three days later 📜. On June 10, he and Omdal try again to fly from Wainwright, but when the axle breaks as they try to get off the ground, it really is all over. Rather than being flown to the North Pole, Elisabeth is instead dismantled and abandoned on the beach.
Meanwhile, the crew of the Maud continue, but their progress, too, is frustrated. When they become icebound off the New Siberian Islands, another overwintering begins without Maud having begun to drift over the Arctic Ocean. The old routines fall into place and the scientific work begins.
On July 16, 1923, Amundsen’s fifty-first birthday, Odd Dahl makes two short flights in Kristine with Wisting on board. These trials are pioneering in their use of the ship, and of skis on the Arctic Ocean ice, but they end abruptly when on the third test the landing gear collapses and the propeller is damaged. Kristine is reloaded aboard the Maud and does not fly again. Odd Dahl later declares the aircraft totally unsuitable for the Arctic: “The Curtiss Oriole was made for California conditions; it was a padded and nicely equipped Sunday plane that would transport movie stars from Hollywood to various filming locations.” 📜
Then, they lose a man. In July 1923, Søren Marentius Syvertsen dies – Wisting diagnoses encephalitis. In his book, Tre aar i isen med ‘Maud’ [Three years in the ice with ‘Maud’], Sverdrup describes the mood after Syversten’s body is lowered into a break in the ice: “We went back to Maud. We did not like to look at each other, because none of us had dry eyes […] A long time passed, it was over a year before we again talked about Syvertsen when we sat together.”
Yet life in the ice must go on for those who remain on board. Several sledge journeys are completed and the scientific work goes on throughout the winter. The routines on board are established as before. There is still a toddy and gramophone concert every Saturday, but now the audience is becoming more demanding. Carl Hansen, who is responsible for the music, receives a stream of varying requests: Dahl wants to hear Hawaiian music, which Sverdup can’t stand; Olonkin protests if two violin solos are played one after the other; Malmgren wants to hear jazz, while Hansen’s favourite is “Carry me back to old Virginia”. Not one of those on board can sing himself, according to Sverdrup. But Dahl, Sverdrup and Malmgren do have other talents — they start drawing calendars, and every month a new picture is hung in the salon.
After the unsuccessful flying attempts, Amundsen returns to Norway in September 1923 to try to pull together a new aircraft expedition. But it costs money, and Haakon Hammer, whom Amundsen has involved in the project, has been entering into agreements that are impossible to honour.
On June 27, 1924, the Norwegian newspapers print a press release from Amundsen announcing that: “As sufficient financial support has been impossible to find, the expedition must be postponed until further notice.” 📜 Finally, then, it is over – the debts are too great, the promises from Hammer too many, and Roald Amundsen is broke. Newpapers around the world print stories about how much everything has cost – the Norwegian state has contributed more than one million kroner to the expedition – and many are tired of Amundsen’s spending: “We have a poor country. We cannot afford to provide our only university and our science with tolerable conditions. There can be no talk in these times and in these circumstances of the state’s money being used for continued promotion of Roald Amundsen’s person” argues Morgenavisen on June 30, 1924.
(Click on the image to read the Morgenavisen article online at the National Library of Norway.📜)
Later Amundsen will concede, “I had undoubtedly committed a major mistake by leaving my business affairs so blindly to others.” 📜 The collaboration with Hammer costs Amundsen dearly.
Already, in February 1924, Wisting had received a discouraging telegram from Amundsen, ordering that if no ocean current took them northward, then he should take Maud to San Francisco. Then, in April 1924, had come Amundsen’s unqualified instruction in the form of a new telegram: “Go to Nome if possible. The expedition’s financial situation is miserable.” 📜
But the opportunity would be a long time coming. Maud is forced to spend yet another winter in the ice north of Siberia, and only in June 1925 is a course finally set for Nome. Here, they are met on arrival by a police boat that comes to seize the ship. Only with help from the local consul and other Norwegians is the crew released and Maud allowed to sail for Seattle, where they dock in October. Maud is impounded and the crew is laid off — the expedition is definitively over.
Wisting is the last man on board, remaining there to prepare Maud for sale. “So it is with us sailors, that a ship we have sailed with for a long time, we love her. It may sound a little corny, but it is nonetheless the case. We dress her up in finery, we take care of her and rejoice when others think she is beautiful. Maud was not exactly beautiful, but she had another quality that is far, far more valuable and that outweighs all the beauty of the world – she was dependable. I felt as if I had failed her on the heavy day when I ambled on board for the last time and saw all those dear places that for me held so many good memories. I lived again with my comrades, and I remembered it, and I remembered it. Right from laughter and jokes, to life’s bitterest seriousness. Now, irrevocably, it was all over.” 📜
When Wisting is done, he goes on a drinking binge that lasts two days.
Later that year, Maud is sold to the Hudson’s Bay Company for 40,000 USD and renamed the Baymaud. Five years later, in 1930, the ship sinks in shallow water in Cambridge Bay. There it remains, until 2016, when it is raised to be returned home to Norway. In August 2018, what remains of Maud is towed into Bunnefjord and up to Amundsen’s home, Uranienborg, before being taken to her temporary home at Tofte in Oslofjord.
When the North Pole became the South Pole
In 1908, Roald Amundsen presented a plan to explore and drift across the Arctic Ocean. Three years later he reached the opposite end of the world.
“I have never known any man to be placed in such a diametrically opposite position to the goal of his desires as I was at that moment,” he wrote later.
Join the drama that led up to the expedition and learn why Amundsen’s plans were turned upside down.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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
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 📜.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.📜
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
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.
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.” 📜
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.
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
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.
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.
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.”📜
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.“ 📜
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.” 📜
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.”📜
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.
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.
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.
(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.
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
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.
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.”📜
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. Early in1897 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 📜 .
Amundsen goes home to Norway at the first opportunity, but he will encounter death again before the Belgica expedition is over.
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.
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”.
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.
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 lowers 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 last held Wiencke before 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.”📜
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. 📜
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.” 📜
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.”📜
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.
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 ‘Order of the Penguin’ and handed this. The other participants were appointed knights general of the same order,” Amundsen writes in the diary that day. 📜
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.” 📜
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.
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.
National Library of Norway: Letters and diaries of Roald Amundsen
The National Archives of Norway: The diary of Johan Koren