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.
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.
From the superstitious cook Adolf Lindstrom, to 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 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 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. 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.
Viewed as the complement to Into the White – Scott’s Antarctic Odyssey, ‘Amundsen’s Way’ 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.