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Amundsen, the Cabin Boy Who Conquered the South Pole

Roald Amundsen explorer South Pole

Roald Amundsen, Svalbard, 1925. [Photo: Preus Museum Anders Beer Wilse, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

Spirit of emulation, thirst for adventure, extraordinary capacity for work, but also great generosity are the traits that define the exceptional figure of Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer whose name is linked to two important milestones in the history of geographical discoveries: the Northwest Passage and the conquest of the South Pole.

The regions of the northern and southern extremities of the planet were the usual scenario of his life, from the moment when, still a child and against the wishes of his parents who wanted to make him a doctor, he ran away from home to embark as a cabin boy in a whaling ship; many years later, the ice of the North Pole would be precisely the scene in which his life and his exceptional career as an explorer would end.

One of Amundsen's characteristics was precisely his open spirit to innovations and his insatiable curiosity to experiment with all the new means that could open up new possibilities for mankind to conquer the planet. Thus, two years after his victorious expedition to the South Pole, Amundsen was already fully engaged in preparations for a new expedition to the Arctic lands, an expedition that had to suffer a delay due to the start of the First World War. He was finally able to leave in 1917, aboard the ship Maud, which remained in the waters of the glacial Arctic Ocean until 1922 and traveled, following the route of Nordenskjöld, the places of the Northeast Passage.

The Maud expedition was certainly one of Amundsen's less spectacular, but one of the richest in scientific results. Among other things, and for the first time in the history of polar expeditions, aviation was used as an auxiliary means in research tasks; At the moment this did not give the results that could be expected from it, but in spite of everything Amundsen firmly believed in its possibilities, if not immediate, at least for the not too distant future, because at that time aeronautics was making rapid progress. There was, of course, the financial problem, but he was helped by a wealthy American with a passion for the new medium of travel, Lincoln Ellsworth.

On the other hand, the future of aviation aroused keen interest in commercial and industrial circles, so that it was not difficult for a man of Amundsen's fame to find financing, after having triumphed on the roads of the land and the sea, for his project to test the path of the air. So in 1922 he landed from the Maud (which, under the command of Captain O. Wisting and scientist H. U. Sverdrup, continued its research until 1925) and devoted himself entirely to his project of reaching the North Pole by air. But Amundsen, who had been favored by fortune in all his land and sea explorations, encountered serious difficulties in the field of air travel. Despite careful preparation for two years, the flight from the Spitzberg Islands to Alaska via the North Pole was virtually unsuccessful. Having departed in May 1925 from the land of Haakon VII with a small expedition consisting of two Italian-made seaplanes, Amundsen and Ellsworth were forced, due to bad weather, to land about 300 km from the pole; they were unable to take off again, and were forced to return on foot in a nearly month-long march.

Nobile, Companion and Friend

The result, lower than the hopes that had been forged on the project, inclined the indefatigable Amundsen to decide on the airship, which in those years was considered safer and had greater flight autonomy than airplanes. And so, with the double purpose of finding a new route for communications through the arctic regions, and also continuing his scientific research, he contacted the Italian Government and obtained from it the concession to use an airship manufactured in Italy, of the semi-rigid type, which was renamed Norge, but with the condition that it would be commanded by the Italian engineer and aviation general Umberto Nobile, who was a world-renowned technician. In addition to Nobile and Amundsen, they were part of the crew Ellsworth along with other 14 members.

After a voyage through Europe, the Norge departed from King's Bay, in the Spitzberg Islands, for its final voyage on May 11, 1926.

While Amundsen was preparing for this flight, two days before the American Richard Evelyn Byrd took off almost unexpectedly aboard a trimotor and after a few hours he was flying over the pole to happily return to the starting base; the primacy that Amundsen so earnestly pursued was thus slipping out of his hands. But the fact remains that the Norge, which departed two days after Byrd's flight, nevertheless flew over the pole on May 12, 1926, and furthermore, and unlike Byrd's flight, did not return immediately, but rather continued his journey to arrive a day later in Alaska, and landed, on the 14th, in Nome, on the Pacific coast. To the brave aviators of the Norge belongs the indisputable credit of having carried out the first aerial crossing of the arctic regions with such regularity and safety that they allowed great hopes for the future to be built on them.

El dirigible Norge
The Norge Airship in flight after leaving its hangar in 1926. [Photo: Bain News Service, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]
In fact, the brilliant result achieved by Byrd disturbed the spirits and there was a series of unpleasant controversies as a result of which Amundsen, who was already more than 50 years old, retired to private life. It is certainly not easy to formulate an appreciative judgment of this enterprise: from a strictly technical point of view, perhaps Amundsen made an error in his evaluation by preferring the airship —which had already almost reached its maximum potential— to the airplane, possessing broader future. But what surely decided Amundsen to retire to private life was the journalistic controversy between Nobile and the other leaders of the expedition about the part that each one had in the success of the venture, a controversy that prompted the Italian Government and Nobile to embark on a new expedition that was to end tragically.

Amundsen's Last Flight

Whether or not the criticisms made of his decision were justified, Amundsen managed to silence them two years later, thanks to the most noble gesture that, unfortunately, would put an end to his existence. In 1928 the Italian Government wanted Nobile to attempt by himself, with an exclusively Italian crew, to repeat the undertaking that two years earlier had been carried out so happily. And so Nobile left aboard the airship Italy and flew over the pole for the second time. But on the return trip the airship fell on the arctic pack; part of the crew perished in the accident, but the rest of the crew, including Nobile wounded, was able to escape the catastrophe, although they were forced to camp on the ice because they were completely deprived of the necessary means to carry out a walk.

Thanks to a new discovery, the radio, the world knew in a few hours the news that previously would have needed a long time to be known. As expected, it produced an intense emotion. Amundsen, as soon as he heard that his friend and former companion Umberto Nobile was in danger, did not hesitate for a moment to come to his aid. He knew better than anyone how urgently the survivors had to be rescued, so that the injured crew members would not suffer the terrible effects of the freezing temperature.

Roald Amundsen Latham Nobile
Image of the Latham-type flying boat shortly before taking off from Trom in search of the Nobile expedition. [Photo: Anders Beer Wilse, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]
Thanks to his prestige, it did not take him long to obtain a plane at his disposal. It was provided by the French Government, which looked for the pilot that considered most suitable to face the risky operation. It was Captain Guilbaud.

Amundsen left on June 18, 1928. His heroism did not bear the fruit it deserved. He was betrayed by the means of transport used, which was not yet prepared for flights of that nature. The plane suffered a breakdown and crashed into the ice. Amundsen, who had challenged and defeated it so many times, lost his life in the accident.

On the other hand, Umberto Nobile, whom an investigative commission would declare, in 1929, responsible for those disasters, was fortunate to be rescued by another brave aviator, the Swedish Lundborg.


[Source: Vv.Aa (1978). Amundsen's Flight. In Maravillas del Saber. Consultor didáctico (Tome III, pp. 40-43). Milano, Italy: Editrice Europea di Cultura]