It is one of history's coincidences that Norway's two giants of polar exploration, Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen, were contemporaries. Amundsen was born in 1872, eleven years after Nansen, near the town of Sarpsborg in southeast Norway. Abandoning a planned career in medicine, he decided instead to devote his life to polar research. A qualified seaman, he worked aboard a merchant ship in the Arctic, prior to signing on as first mate of the "Belgica", the vessel that from 1897-1899 was the first to winter in the Antarctic.
The experience he gained on these voyages gave Amundsen sufficient confidence to tackle a challenge that had defied all navigators for 300 years, the Northwest Passage. Explorers had long been aware of the existence of this passageway linking Europe with Asia, north of the North American continent, but no ship had succeeded in sailing its entire length. Amundsen purchased a sturdy, 45 ton vessel, the "Gjøa", equipped with sails and a 13 horsepower engine, and in the summer of 1903 the "Gjøa" nosed out of the Oslo Fjord, and with its crew of six prepared to make its way through the ice-ridden waters of the Northwest Passage.
The expedition was successful, and in August of 1906 the "Gjøa" broke through the final stretches of the passageway. En route the men had also compiled a wealth of scientific data, the most important of which concerned earth magnetism and observations of the exact location of the magnetic North Pole. Furthermore, they had compiled ethnographic material regarding the Eskimo population along the Northwest Passage.
Encouraged by this early success Amundsen turned his attention to the North Pole. He planned to allow his ship to freeze into the ice north of the Bering Strait, but financial backing was difficult to obtain. In September 1909 came the news that the Americans Robert Peary and Frederick Cook had reached the Pole. Amundsen then resolved to postpone his North Pole expedition and in the meanwhile to make a bid to reach the South Pole ahead of Robert Falcon Scott, who was already on his way to the Antarctic as the head of a large expedition.
In August Amundsen sailed south in the "Fram", which Nansen had put at his disposal. In order to pass through the Bering Strait ships had at that time to round Cape Horn. Therefore, no one suspected a change of plans when the Fram steamed southwards.
When the vessel stopped at Madeira, Amundsen informed the expedition members that they were going south, not north. A telegram was despatched to Scott, with the news that the Norwegian expedition was making for the Antarctic. The dramatic race that ensured continues to captivate audiences today.
Amundsen located his base camp in the Bay of Whales. This was closer to the South Pole than Scott's departure point, McMurdo Sound. However the terrain between the Bay of Whales and the Pole was unknown, whereas Scott would follow a route staked out by his compatriot Shackleton in 1908. On 19 October 1911 Amundsen left base camp with his four companions, four sledges, and 52 dogs. Amundsen's mission had only one goal; to reach the Pole, fast. Two months later this task was accomplished, five weeks before Scott and his exhausted men arrived at the Pole to find Amundsen's flag and tent.
On 14 December 1911 the Norwegian flag was raised at the Pole. The Norwegian team had crossed the dangerous Ross Barrier, to reach the foot of a high mountain range interlaced with glaciers. Further progress seemed hazardous. But thanks to skill and a fair portion of luck, the men forced their way up the Heiberg Glacier, crossed the mountain range, and gained the plateau which led to the Pole.
For an explorer of Amundsen's calibre, there were no great challenges left, but there was one thing he still wished to do; to explore the Arctic Ocean by air. He carried out a daring expedition in two seaplanes, the N24 and N25 in 1925. The planes had to crash land on the ice at 88 degrees north, but the team succeeded in getting one of them airborne again and returned to Svalbard three weeks later.
American Lincoln Ellsworth had financed and taken part in the seaplane expedition together with Amundsen. The following year Roald Amundsen, together with Ellsworth and Italian Umberto Nobile, led an expedition in the airship "Norge" (Norway) from Svalbard over the North Pole to Alaska. The explorers passed over hitherto unknown territory, filling in the last blank, white patch on the map of the world.
Arctic exploration was Amundsen's whole life. It was also to be his death. When Nobile, two years later, embarked on a second arctic flight aboard the "Italia" -- sister ship to the "Norge" -- the expedition disappeared. Amundsen joined a search party that set off to look for it. A second search party found the airship and Nobile, alive. But Amundsen and his companions never returned.