The Last Viking: The Life of Roald Amundsen

Poorly documented, totally derivative (mainly from NY Times), this book is riddled with errors, but generally an engaging and respectful biography. Repeats story of Amundsen’s teenage reading of everything he could find on polar exploration, but adds something about a voyage from Spain to Florida: He is careful to emphasize Amundsen’s careful reading of fellow explorers and to use that information to give himself an extra edge. For that Amundsen probably gets insufficient credit.

p. 40-41: …Amundsen was soon at sea on a two-month voyage bound for Pensacola, Florida. He brought with him a large collection of books on polar travel and exploration—everything from Sir John Franklin’s decades-old books to British naval officer James Clark Ross’s account of reaching the magnetic North Pole in 1831 to the British explorer Frederick Jackson’s more recent A Thousand Days in the Arctic, concerning his recent expedition to Franz Josef Land, northeast of Spitsbergen, in the late 1890s. [No date is given (it’s after the Belgica voyage), no source cited, and Franz Josef Land and Svalbard share the 80° latitude.]

p. 86: when Amundsen emerged from the NW Passage into Amundsen Gulf, he encountered the American whaler, Charles Hanson and he and Captain McKenna visited briefly. The Norwegians bid Farewell to the Americans and returned to the Gjøa with an armful of old newspapers as a precious parting gift. One of the newspapers contained a vague and unnerving article under the headline “War between Norway and Sweden.” Norway was about to win independence and Amundsen would be the new nation’s first hero.

p. 120, in preparing for his secret changed plans for the South Pole in 1910, Amundsen made his characteristic reading preparation: …poring over both old and recent maps, and reading historical accounts of mariners and explorers who had visited Antarctica. He studied all the literature he could obtain, seeking any information that would give him an edge, an advantage over his rivals that might sway the race in his favour or increase his chances of survival…. From his reading, Amundsen determined the precise location to which he wanted to sail and begin skiing to the South Pole [Bay of Whales].

p. 134, on voyage south: “The crew also occupied themselves with other pastimes during the tedious voyage. Several of the men offered musical performances on their violins, mandolins and other instruments; the ship’s captain, Nilsen, gave refresher courses in English; and the men read Amundsen’s library of works on polar exploration.”

p. 139: “He had studied Shackleton’s account of his polar trip, which was published in early 1910, and had learned much from it, especially much about what not to do, how not to proceed. Shackleton’s hair-raising tale is a litany of near disasters; food was scarce, the supply depots too far apart, the equipment not quite suited to the task….”

p. 158: “Amundsen believed Johansen’s “demotion” was for the good of all, and perhaps it was he had read dozens of accounts of failed expeditions, of breakdowns in leadership, of the infighting and suffering that followed….”

p. 192: “Although I have had offers of wireless installation for the Fram,” he said in one rambling interview, “that also I declined. I don’t care for it. It is very much better to be without news when you cannot be where the news comes from. We are always more contented if we get no news. A good book we like, we explorers. That is our best amusement and our best time killer.”