Roald Engelbregt Gravning Amundsen (1872–1928) was a Norwegian explorer who dedicated his life to the exploration of dangerous and uncharted territories. He was the first person to navigate the North American Northwest Passage, a legendary Arctic sea route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the first person to reach the South Pole, and the leader of the air expedition to the North Pole.
Amundsen, c. 1923
Amundsen is one of the most well-known explorers active during the “Heroic Age of Arctic Exploration,” when several daring men competed for the rights and honor of being the first to set foot on different uncharted regions throughout the Arctic (North Pole) and Antarctic (South Pole).
Born into a seafaring family, young Roald Amundsen promised his mother he would attend a university rather than pursue life at sea. She died when he was 21, and he promptly quit school to pursue his dream of charting the world’s wildernesses. After four years as a sailor, he served as first mate on the Belgian Antarctic Expedition. The expedition’s ship became locked in ice, causing Amundsen to gain the distinction of being one of the first people ever to spend a winter in Antarctica.
Adventure is just bad planning.
In 1903, Amundsen led a crew of six men on a trek to fulfill his boyhood dream: find and chart the fabled Northwest Passage. It took three years, including harsh winters, but Amundsen and his crew finally maneuvered their way from the Atlantic to the Pacific around the north side of North America.
Amundsen’s next plan to drift across the North Pole was thwarted by news of Robert E. Peary’s prior success. Undeterred, he secretly set his sights on the South Pole. Departing in June 1910, Amundsen established a base closer to the pole than his rival, Robert Falcon Scott. With careful preparations and sled dogs, he embarked on October 19, 1911, reached the South Pole on December 14, recorded scientific data, and safely returned to his base on January 25, 1912. Tragically, Scott and his team perished on their journey back after reaching the South Pole on January 17.
Norwegian flag at the South Pole, 1911
Amundsen’s Antarctic adventure yielded funds that paved the way for a prosperous shipping business. Acquiring a new vessel, he embarked on a new endeavor, aiming to fulfill his previous plan of drifting across the North Pole. However, circumstances compelled him to abandon this pursuit, shifting his focus toward reaching the North Pole by airplane.
In a historic flight alongside American explorer Lincoln Ellsworth in 1925, Amundsen came remarkably close to the pole, reaching within 150 miles (250 km). A year later, accompanied by Ellsworth and Italian aeronautical engineer Umberto Nobile, he achieved a momentous feat by crossing over the North Pole in a dirigible, voyaging from Spitsbergen (now Svalbard) to Alaska. Sadly, disputes over credit for the flight cast a shadow on his final years.
Amundsen and plane in Svalbard, 1925
Tragically, in 1928, at 55, Amundsen lost his life while attempting to rescue Nobile from a dirigible crash near Spitsbergen. His legacy as a pioneering explorer remains indelible, marked by his relentless pursuit of the unknown skies and icy landscapes.
Words of wisdom
“Don’t be afraid to fail. Be afraid not to try.” —Michael Jordan
“Victory awaits him, who has everything in order—luck we call it. Defeat is definitely due for him, who has neglected to take the necessary precautions—bad luck we call it.” —Roald Amundsen
“Every man’s life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another.” —Ernest Hemingway
“People don’t take trips, trips take people.” —John Steinbeck