Roald Engebreth Gravning Amundsen was born in Borge, near the Norwegian city of Sarpsborg, on the 16th July 1872. He was brought up in Oslo, and studied medicene at the behest of his parents. His father died in 1886, but is was not until his mother died in 1893 that Amundsen was free to follow his chosen career, that of an Arctic Explorer.
At 15, Amundsen had read Sir John Franklin's books on Arctic exploration and fallen in love with the life of an explorer. He resolved that this would be his future and began to train his body for the rigors of outdoor life. He became an avid skier, and spent a lot of time climbing and walking in the hills of Norway. He even insisted on sleeping with the windows open at night to help condition his body to deal with low temperatures. At 21 with both his parents gone, Amundsen sold his medical books and went into military service which was required at the time. He should not have been allowed to join up as he was shortsighted, but the doctor was so impressed by his physique that he completely forgot to give Amundsen an eye-test!
Sources are sketchy about his time in the army. During this period Amundsen also went to sea, working towards obtaining his Master's Ticket which would allow him to captain a vessel. Having read as many accounts of previous polar expeditions as possible, Admundsen had realised that merely leading the expedition while at the same time having a skipper for your vessel, meant a division of power which was often why previous expeditions had failed. He was determind that he would not fail for this reason.
In 1897 he was appointed as Ship's Mate aboard the Belgica. The ship was bound Antarctica to take part in the first survey of the ice bound continent. The leader of the expedition was a young Beligian lieutenant, Adrien de Gerlache, who would later sell Earnest Shackleton the ill-fated boat that would become known as Endurance.
The expedition was a disaster. Many of the crew deserted the ship in South America, she was beset by heavy storms in January, and became trapped in the pack ice on February 28th, 1898. Finally, almost a year later on Febrary 15th 1899, the Belgica escaped the pack ice and returned home to Norway becoming the first ship to have ever wintered in the long dark of the Antarctic.
Over their time trapped in the ice, Amundsen had assumed command when Gerlache had fallen ill from scurvy. He had learnt how to trap penguins and seals for food, learnt about real polar conditions, and fallen in love with the Antarctic continent.
In 1903 he set off again to discover Franklin's North-West Passage, this time as captain and leader of the expedition having earned his Master's Ticket from his adventures on the Belgica. His boat was a 47 tonne cutter, the Gjöa (pronounced y-eu-a), and he had spent many months training with her previous owner who was himself a very able polar seaman. One of the aims of the expedition was to work out where the North Pole actually was, seeing as magnetic north kept changing and there was much debate in scientific circles.
Gjöa departed from Oslo at midnight on the 16th June, 1903 with a crew of only seven men. She crossed the North Atlantic, followed the west coast of Greenland, traversed the Baffin Sea and entered the Lancaster Strait. The expedition made a stop at Beechy Island in August, in order to pay their respects to a memorial to Sir John Franklin in whose footsteps they were about to tread. By the late summer the ship had reached King William Island where they set up base, known as Gjøahaven, and spent two seasons identifying the position of the North Pole. During this time Amundsen spent a lot of time with the native Inuit people learning about survival in the Arctic, skills which would aid him in his later Antarctic conquests.
By August 1905, Amundsen and his men had completed their work locating the North Pole and on the 13th Gjöa raised anchor and continued west along the treacherous channels of the North-West Passage. On the 26th August they saw a boat heading for them and Amundsen writes in his diary:
The North West Passage was done. My boyhood dream - at that moment it was accomplished. A strange feeling welled up in my throat; I was somewhat over-strained and worn - it was weakness in me - but I felt tears in my eyes. 'Vessel in sight' ... Vessel in sight.
The Gjöa had made it into the navicable waters of the Beaufort Sea, having made the first crossing of the North-West passage. However, the ship became stuck in the ice and did not arrive in Alaska until August 1906.
Having spent so much time in the Arctic, Amundsen decided to try and reach the North Pole. Unfortunately Robert Pearcy, an American, reached the pole first on April 6th, 1909. Amundsen had already bought Fridtjof Nansen's imfamous boat Fram and had re-fitted her, ready for another expedition. He had also hand picked his men for a polar expedition, and procured 27 Greenland sled dogs who were to be the key to his success.
The news was full of polar exploration stories, Dr. Frederick Cook having challenged Peary for being the first man at the North Pole, and Shackleton having just returned from the South Pole, having had to turn back 97 miles from his goal. Once again at midnight on June 7th, 1910 Amundsen departed Norway and set out onto the Atlantic, the world thinking he was bound for a surveying trip at the North Pole. Off the coast of Morocco, Amundsen told his crew that they were bound instead for Antarctica where they would race British born Robert Falcon Scott for the pole. No one knew of Amundsen's plans as he had been worried that his challenge of the English expedition would lead to problems with the Norwegian Government, who were dependant on Britain at that time. He sent a telegram that Scott received in Melbourne on the 12th October 1910:
Beg leave inform you proceeding Antarctic. Amundsen
On January 14, 1911, Amundsen and the Fram reached the Bay of Whales on the Ross Ice Shelf. This base was 60 miles further south than Scott's base in the Mc Murdo Sound, giving Amundsen an immediate advantage. Also, Scott's expedition were relying on Siberian ponies to get them to the pole, rather than the faster, sleeker dogs that Amundsen was relying on. Until April, the crew set out supply depots on the way to the pole, before returning to their base, 'Framheim' (Home of the Fram) on the ice shelf to wait out the Long Dark of the winter. During that time, while they awaited the return of the sun, Amundsen's men made themselves comfortable and followed a strict regime in order to stay sane and healthy. They even erected a sauna!
The sun returned in August, but it was not until October 20th, 1911, the team of five men set out from the Bay of Whales. The food depots that they had previously laid down meant they did not have to carry all of their supplies with them and progress was fast. As they progressed they built over 150 cairns, each one detailing where they were, and the distance to the next cairn. On December 8th, they reached the furthest point that Earnest Shackleton's Nimrod expedition had reached previously. The men were all anxious to reach the pole, and the desire to race ahead overcame them. On Friday the 14th of December at 3pm, after an exhaustive four day sled dash, Amundsen and his men finally reached the pole and planted the Norwegian flag firmly in the snow. They returned to their base camp and set sail for Tasmania, and it was not until March 7th, 1912 that Amundsen made his triumph known to the world.
Not content with this victory, Amundsen planned another trip to the North Pole. The Fram was no longer seaworthy, so he comissioned the building of the Maud and in 1918 sailed along the North-East passage, the coasts of Europe and Asia, being only the second to do so. In 1925 he attempted to fly accross the North pole with Lincoln Ellsworth but failed, only to try again in 1926 in the Norge airship with Umberto Nobile. Unforunately Nobile gained all the credit for this which was a source of controversy over the next couple of years for Amundsen. In 1928, Nobile crashed in the airship Italia attempting to clear his name, and Amundsen set out on a rescue mission. Sadly this was to be his last expedition as his plane crashed into the Arctic Ocean on the 22nd June, 1928. However, he did achieve another of his goals as he told one reporter:
If only you knew how splendid it is up there, that's where I want to die.
The information above was compiled from several sources on the web.
For more information about the Belgica expedition see:
For more information about the Gjöa expedition see:
For information about the South Pole expedition see:
For a very good account of Amundsen's life see: