In late 2016 I travelled to Norway to research Roald Amundsen. In the English-speaking world he is somewhat of a mystery and his exceptional feats are more often than not, represented as a footnote, passed over swiftly or worse, attributed to others.
In the case of his singular Antarctic achievement, Amundsen has largely been consigned to the shadows with the glory and sacrifice of Captain Scott and his four companions shining ever brighter.
Amundsen’s South Polar conquest is an extraordinary tale which combines risk, intrigue and personal conflict. There are aspects of his story that are unpalatable in the extreme. His use and abuse of sledging dogs appear unacceptable to a modern reader as do the lies and deception he deemed a necessary evil in mounting a successful polar campaign. The harsh treatment meted out to certain members of his team during his assault on the South Pole would result in legal action nowadays.
Those who prefer heroes with a spotless character will be soundly disappointed with Amundsen. But Roald Amundsen offers too many compelling character qualities to simply be able to write him off as an egocentric bully. Here is a man of striking intelligence whose brilliance in planning and anticipating the moves of his opponent have propelled him into first place. His single-minded thirst for world records in the most unforgiving environments betrays a distinctly 20th century mindset. In this respect he is the undisputed forerunner of the many modern day explorers who must tackle increasingly perilous exploits in order to secure sponsors who are only too happy to fuel an adventurer’s adrenalin addiction.
The men that join Amundsen in his polar quest are as interesting a collection of men as ever sailed to the other side of the world seeking adventure. From the superstitious cook Adolf Lindstrom, who was the first man to circumnavigate the Americas, to the hardy Helmer Hansen who spent several years living among the Inuit with Amundsen during his Northwest passage journey, to the troubled former army captain Hjalmar Johansen whose struggles with alcohol and inability to hold his tongue sets him on a collision course with Amundsen – colorful characters guarantee that is never a dull moment during the wintertime spent in close confinement. Petty rivalries and shifting alliances ensure that the 10 months the men spend cooped up in their hut in the Bay of Whales are eventful, and culminate in the very real possibility of mutiny.
Of course the extreme antagonism of the Antarctic environment to both men and dogs offers a constant source of tension in Amundsen’s story. The ice shelf where the men have based themselves could float away at any time. High winds assail their jerry built hut threatening to turn the temporary structure to matchsticks until it is ultimately buried under metres of snow, with the smoke issuing from its chimney the only evidence of its existence. Survival in such an inhospitable place is not a given but the men draw on their experiences of living and working with the Inuit to great advantage with their unconventional clothing and ground-breaking work practices offering a radical departure from accepted norms.
Viewed as the complement to Into the White – Scott’s Antarctic Odyssey, my Amundsen book highlights two great men’s wildly differing approaches to achieving the same outcome. Fate plays its hand and ultimately favours the bold. In many ways, Amundsen risks more than Captain Scott. The ignominy of leaving Norway with a secret agenda would have laid waste to his public reputation had he not returned victorious. Such a man, with everything to lose will stop at nothing to secure his goal and consequently his story is a testament to utter brilliance and ruthlessness.