My Life as an Explorer

Roald Amundsen (1872-1928), Norwegian Explorer. It is appropriate for Amundsen to take pride of place in this compilation since he can easily lay claim to being the world’s most successful Polar explorer. His experience was broad and his successful explorations included priority conquests of the South Pole, the North Pole by air, the Northwest Passage, and a third transit of the Northeast Passage. Pride of place goes to his Norwegian team’s “discovery” of the South Pole on December 14, 1911, thereby winning the so-called “race to the Pole” over Robert Falcon Scott and his British companions.

A fairly straightforward autobiography of Amundsen’s life, from childhood adventures on the ice, the Belgica expedition and its problems with scurvy, his secret departure for the Northwest Passage to avoid his creditors, the two years on King William Island, another year near Herschel Island, and completion of the Passage in 1906. Next he planned a North Pole expedition, but Peary’s claims to have reached the NorthPole in1909 clandestinely shifted Amundsen’s focus to the South Pole. He quickly passed over the South Pole trip before moving on to his attempt to drift by airship across the North Pole, his interest in aerial exploration (1922), his business difficulties with H.H. Hammer as well as brother Leon, his dirigible work with Lincoln Ellsworth, and the flight of the Norge in 1926.

Throughout Amundsen claimed he was misrepresented and sometimes his apologia is convincing, sometimes not; either way it is a lengthy (over 100 pages) exercise in self-justification. He is particularly incensed at Nobile for claiming the Norge expedition was his idea (later attributed to Mussolini), and for any number of contractual difficulties. The work concludes with miscellaneous chapters on Stefansson, on Amundsen’s views on the business of exploration, on food and equipment, and finally an appendix of notes by Riiser-Larsen further refuting Nobile’s claims; these are more dispassionate than Amundsen and therefore more convincing. His comments on reading follow:

p. 2: When I was fifteen years old, the works of Sir John Franklin, the great British explorer, fell into my hands. I read them with a fervid fascination which has shaped the rest of my life. [Amundsen says it was the suffering they endured which appealed to him.]

p. 28, Amundsen praises Dr. Frederick Cook, with whom he served on the Belgica expedition: the one man of unfaltering courage, unfailing hope, endless cheerfulness, and unwearied kindness.

p. 60-61: I had the good fortune in 1899 to buy all the literature upon the Northwest Passage from an old gentleman in Grimsby, England. By reading these books, I had thoroughly informed myself in the literature of this specialty before I made my successful attempt [on the Northwest Passage]…. The distinctive characteristic of my successful venture was that I turned south along the west coast of Boothia Felix to the southernmost point of King William Island, and then proceeded on my way westward, closely following the coast. I owe a good part of my success to the old gentleman in Grimsby, for it was in one of those books, Admiral Sir Leopold McClintock’s account of his search for Sir John Franklin, that I read a prophecy that the true channel would be found by following a more southerly route than that taken by previous explorers. It was largely due to this prophecy that I adopted that route.

p. 68: I had, however, carefully read and long pondered the works of the earlier explorers in the Antarctic. In comparing their records, I had been greatly struck with the discovery that the Bay of Whales…had not substantially changed its shore line since its first discovery by Sir James Ross in 1842.

p. 71: I feel justified in saying that by and large the British are a race of very bad losers.

p. 91: Studying our navigation books, I found that high tide was to be expected on the night of September 12th.

p. 225: But, you may ask, how do you know he [Peary] reached it? He went there practically alone—of course, the Negro Hanson [sic] was too ignorant to know whether they reached it or not. And of course, too, Peary, with his technical knowledge, could easily have faked his records. [Amundsen’s answer is simply that Peary was not that kind of man.]

p. 258: Victory awaits him who has everything in order—luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time—this is called bad luck…our success in attaining the Pole was due to the correctness of our planning. [Amundsen goes on to draw largely negative comparisons to Scott.]