The Last Viking: Roald Amundsen, One of the Greatest Explorers of all Time

The first person to reach the South Pole lived an extraordinary life, now highlighted in a thrilling literary biography.
By Stephen R. Bown
February 2013
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“The Last Viking: The Life of Roald Amundsen” tells the story of the great Norwegian explorer who conquered Northwest Passage, the Northeast Passage, the South Pole, and the North Pole all in less than 20 years, putting the map of the world together in the early twentieth century.
Cover Courtesy Da Capo Press


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In 1900, the four great geographical mysteries—the Northwest Passage, the Northeast Passage, the South Pole, and the North Pole—remained blank spots on the globe. Within twenty years Roald Amundsen would claim all four prizes. Renowned for his determination and technical skills, both feared and beloved by his men, Amundsen is a legend of the heroic age of exploration, which shortly thereafter would be tamed by technology, commerce, and publicity. In The Last Viking: The Life of Roald Amundsen (Da Capo Press, 2012), Stephen R. Bown tells Amundsen’s tale with suspense, thrills and a literary touch fit for an extraordinary story. The following is an excerpt from the book’s prologue, which sets the scene for Amundsen’s death during an Arctic rescue mission. As Bown writes, though, the way the Last Viking died is far less intriguing than the way he lived. 

“The standard of Fascist Italy is floating in the breeze over the ice of the Pole,” radioed General Umberto Nobile, commander of the dirigible Italia, on May 24, 1928. The enormous airship and its crew of sixteen had flown from their base on Spitsbergen the day before and were now leisurely circling the frozen expanse at the top of the world. In the tiny main cabin strapped underneath the monstrous gas chamber, a gramophone scratched out the Italian folk song “The Bells of San Giusto,” and the men celebrated with a homemade liqueur.

A month earlier, Pope Pius XI had publicly blessed the crew and commander in Italy, urging them to “consecrate the summit of the world,” and had presented them with an enormous ceremonial oak cross for that purpose. It was impossible for the crew to disembark from the cabin onto the ice due to winds that kept the airship 150 metres in the air, and the men struggled to manoeuvre the great cross out the cabin door. They solemnly watched it plummet to the ice with the flag of Italy’s National Fascist Party attached to it, fluttering in the polar wind. Then, in a “religious silence,” they tossed out a Milanese coat of arms and a little medal of the Virgin of the Fire.

After the brief ceremony, which also included playing the Fascist battle hymn “Giovinezza” followed by a flourish of salutes, the airship slowly turned around and began to struggle against headwinds and fog on its way back south to Spitsbergen. The visibility being poor, Nobile couldn’t determine the Italia’s location. The crew became disoriented, and Nobile ordered the airship to descend closer to the pack ice for a better view. They were still almost three hundred kilometres northeast of Spitsbergen when the rear of the airship became “heavy” and lurched toward the ice. Alarmed, Nobile and his officers tried to regain control over the Italia by increasing the speed of the propellers. But it was too late. The rear end of the dirigible hit and scraped along the jagged surface of the ice. “There was a fearful impact,” Nobile wrote later. “Something hit me on the head, then I was caught and crushed. Clearly, without any pain, I felt some of my limbs snap. Some object falling from a height knocked me down head foremost. Instinctively I shut my eyes, and with perfect lucidity and coolness formulated the thought: ‘It’s all over!’”

During the impact one man plunged from the cabin onto the ice and died instantly. Nine men scrambled from the wreckage and leaped or were thrown to the ice. As flames erupted from the crippled airship, it spun away in a trail of smoke. Six men were trapped in the cabin, never to be seen again. The nine survivors, several of them severely injured, huddled on the ice amid the detritus of boxes and equipment that had been thrown from the airship while Nobile’s little dog Titina, uninjured in the collision, explored the bleak surroundings. After several days without radio contact, Nobile finally accepted that the expedition was indeed in trouble and in need of rescue; only a month of provisions had survived the crash.

Roald Amundsen was attending a public luncheon when news of the disaster reached Oslo. Upon hearing the news he stood up and announced, “I’m ready to leave at once to do anything I can to help.” But as the Norwegian government began planning a rescue expedition, astonishing word came from Italy. Benito Mussolini had refused all assistance from Norway (despite the fact that the airship had probably gone down off Norway’s northern border), particularly if the rescue were to be led by Amundsen. Nobile and Amundsen had been caught up in a nasty public feud for the past eighteen months—the fallout from a previous joint dirigible expedition to the North Pole—and Mussolini did not want the honour of Italy besmirched by Nobile’s being rescued by his enemy. It would be an affront to Italian dignity. To the budding strongman, then beginning his scheme to reinvigorate Italy’s image in the eyes of the world and to reposition his country as a powerful player on the international stage, the prospect of the nations of the world coming to Italy’s rescue was humiliating. Captain Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen, an organizer of the Norwegian rescue operation and a past colleague of Amundsen’s, wrote in astonishment: “I could not rid myself of the idea that it was preferable for the expedition to suffer a glorious death, [rather] than a miserable homecoming.”

To avoid offending Mussolini, the organizers of the Norwegian expedition quietly dropped Amundsen from the rescue operation. It was a slight the aging but proud adventurer, officially retired for over a year, would not easily accept. Over six feet tall, weatherbeaten and still powerfully built at fifty-six years of age, he could not resist the urge to step into the spotlight one more time, perhaps to find closure for his quarrel with Nobile and redemption from the sordid publicity of the past two years.

In the 1920s, dirigibles were considered the future of air transport. A spectacular airship crash in the howling wastes of the polar sea commanded public interest; both nations and publicity-seeking individuals were eager to be seen as part of the thrilling escapade. So Amundsen began to arrange a private rescue plan. Money, as it had been throughout his tumultuous career, was Amundsen’s chief concern. He had only recently cleared most of his debts, so his friends and family were not enthusiastic about financing his participation in what had become an international game played for national prestige.

There was strong sentiment in Norway that passing over Amundsen to please Mussolini was not only foolish but also a national embarrassment. Through the intercession of Fredrik Petersen, a Norwegian businessman in Paris, the French government quickly approved the use of a Latham twin-engine biplane equipped with pontoons, and a crew, to be put under Amundsen’s command. The aircraft would help scour the ice for the stranded survivors of the Italia and ensure that France was a player in the great game of rescue, a drama that was generating voluminous columns of print in newspapers and magazines throughout Europe and North America. Although his fiancée was travelling from America to meet him, the Norwegian adventurer readied himself for the dangerous dash to Spitsbergen.

There was a reason Amundsen was able to command such international attention on short notice: he was the most famous of Norwegian explorers, and probably the most famous living explorer in the world. For nearly two and a half decades, his many thrilling exploits had pushed the frontiers of geographical knowledge and entertained millions. There was no one alive more deserving than Amundsen of the honour of a commanding role in the international extravaganza that would eventually include eight nations, dozens of ships and planes, and over 1,500 men.

 

In the early twentieth century, many of the great geographical mysteries that had intrigued adventurers for centuries remained unsolved, leaving unexplored blank spots on otherwise increasingly detailed global maps. Whereas Tibet, Africa and the Amazon had been repeatedly visited, every ocean navigated and every desert traversed, the Northwest Passage, the South Pole and the North Pole, sirens to generations of seekers, had not yet been conquered. Yet one man would undisputedly claim all these prizes within a twenty-year span.

Although he is known for being the first person to reach the South Pole—which, ironically, he didn’t consider to be his greatest accomplishment—the Norwegian Roald Amundsen should also be remembered as one of the greatest explorers of all time. Like the accomplishments of the revered British mariner James Cook, Amundsen’s feats are unrivalled. Unlike the expeditions of others—particularly British empire-against-the-world, our-way-as-the-civilized-way excursions—Amundsen approached his goals as physical and mental challenges. They were planned like military operations. The Norwegian explorer’s style—a rational, as opposed to a romantic, approach to travel and exploration—proved successful where others had failed: in the harshest, most unforgiving places on the planet, where a single mistake could result in failure and perhaps death. His military-style execution of his objectives, carried out with gusto and flamboyant self-promotion, changed forever the way the geographical world would be perceived and future expeditions planned.

Amundsen was a skillful publicity seeker. To fund his exploits, he made the rounds of the lecture circuit telling hair-raising tales of his death-defying adventures and geographical conquests. In the press he was referred to as “the last of the Vikings,” and he learned early never to do anything without securing advance publicity (and payment for exclusive rights to his story). Larger than life, arrogant and competitive, Amundsen was a meticulous organizer and avoided the extreme sufferings and early death so common among other adventurers. He could be taciturn and rude in public, and his accomplishments were tainted by the perceptions that he was devious and cold-hearted, that his quest for glory and public acclaim in the exploration game was somehow unseemly or ungentlemanly and that he had violated some unwritten code that dictated how respectable adventurers were to conduct themselves. In fact, while Amundsen viewed exploration as an exciting undertaking to settle his restless spirit, he somehow failed to appreciate, or ignored, the underlying political and nationalist motivations that inspired and financed others, making him the object of much vitriol, as occurred when Robert Falcon Scott of the British Antarctic Expedition perished while racing Amundsen to the South Pole.

Amundsen has been contrasted and compared with Scott by biographers and polar historians for the past century. His life and accomplishments have been condensed to this single episode, in which he is often portrayed as an uncouth bit player in the tragic drama of Scott’s death. But Amundsen was not universally regarded as a cold and austere man. His American friend Lincoln Ellsworth claimed that “he was like a child whose confidence has been betrayed so often that it finally trusts nobody. So he encased himself in a shell of ice. . . . Nobody was warmer hearted, no boy could frolic more joyously than Amundsen in his fifties, as he was when I knew him.” Amundsen also had an intuitive sense of other people’s moods and thoughts. When he sensed that others found it uncomfortable to be constantly looking up at him, he would indicate that everyone should be seated.

Although he strove for respectability, cloaking his exploits in scientific accomplishment, Amundsen pursued his objectives as a series of conquests, as records to be broken and listed on his résumé, metaphorical trophies for his mantel, much like professional adventurers do today. He commented to a friend when he heard of the American Richard Evelyn Byrd’s plan to fly to the South Pole: “Of course Byrd can fly to the South Pole, if he wants to, but what is the use? I don’t understand such a thing. I was there, Scott was there—there is nothing more to find. Why should anybody want to go to a place where somebody else had already been? Or go there for the sake of doing it a different way?” On another occasion he wrote that he was glad he hadn’t been born later, because then there would have been nothing left for him to do but go to the moon. He was the supreme man of action, an actor in a grand drama of his own devising. The only reason he didn’t endorse equipment in order to fund his expeditions was that adventure tourism as a form of middle-class recreation did not yet exist and there was not much equipment to promote, although he did promote other products—shoes, toothpaste and tinned meat—whenever he could.

During the early twentieth century, Amundsen was a towering public figure. In an era before the Internet, television, radio and easy travel, he excelled at selling excitement and adventure to the public. A casual search of the New York Times archives between 1903 and 1928 reveals over four hundred articles about Amundsen. These articles include gushing tributes to his accomplishments, notifications of his honours, decorations and citations, notices of his upcoming lectures, news of his opinions on global events and details of his future plans. Some of the pieces read like the society pages, announcing which prestigious prize Amundsen would receive in Paris, what President Theodore Roosevelt had written in a public letter read aloud at a dinner in Amundsen’s honour in New York, or which German scientific medal the Norwegian explorer had renounced during the war. Even the auctions of his manuscripts to publishers made the papers.

Amundsen wrote about his exploits with a wry, self-deprecating sense of humour free of the nationalist bombast and pedantic cereal-box philosophy, the fake moralizing and shallow introspection, that was so common in the pronouncements of many other explorers of the era. Much of his own writing is tongue-in-cheek and deliberately lurid; he was a natural story-teller chuckling at his own tales. “I tried to work up a little poetry,” he wrote just before setting off on skis for the South Pole, “the ever-restless spirit of man, the mysterious, awe-inspiring wilderness of ice—but it was no good; I suppose it was too early in the morning.” After surviving a dangerous situation in the Arctic, he observed that “my nerve-wracking strain of the last three weeks was over. And with its passing, my appetite returned. I was ravenous. Hanging from the shrouds were carcasses of caribou. I rushed up the rigging, knife in hand. Furiously I slashed off slice after slice of the raw meat, thrusting it down my throat in chunks and ribbons, like a famished animal, until I could contain no more.” On another occasion, quoting the novelist Rex Beach, he mused that “‘the deity of success is a woman, and she insists on being won, not courted. . . . [Y]ou’ve got to seize her and bear her off, instead of standing under her window with a mandolin.’”

Amundsen was an entertainer of the highest order, and his geographical conquests were his art, executed with simplicity and grace. People sought out his opinions, snapped up his books and lined up to attend his lectures. Yet for much of his professional career he teetered on the cusp of bankruptcy, pursued by debt collectors even at public venues and ceremonies. He was indifferent, if not incompetent, when it came to dealing with the business aspect of his adventures, pouring all his earnings and borrowings into his next great adventure. At one point he was even involved in a lawsuit over debts to his own brother. Ellsworth, his friend and adventuring partner, remembered that in the 1920s, “In his room at the Waldorf, I frequently heard a mysterious rustling of paper on the floor—another court summons for Amundsen being slid under the door.” It speaks to his character, however, that he always paid off his creditors as soon as he was flush with cash from his latest book or tour.

Like all larger-than-life characters, Amundsen had several nicknames: “Last of the Vikings” invoked his national heritage for bold undertakings, “Napoleon of the Polar Regions” referenced his style of operation and the planning of his geographical conquests, and “White Eagle” was a concession to his striking appearance. Like his Viking ancestors, he was an imposing figure. His stride was confident and his stance defiant, his great beak of a nose a cartoonist’s delight, his bald head dominated by the white tufts of his imperial mustache. His face was weathered and prematurely aged from ploughing his way through blizzards on skis and dog sleds and from endless fretting over the state of his foundering finances. The skin around his piercing blue-grey eyes was crinkled from a lifetime of squinting into the sparkling ice and vast, frozen seas. These eyes, one friend noted, bored “through one as their gaze passed on into infinite distances.”

Amundsen lived with verve and enthusiasm. According to Ellsworth, who knew him for four years in the 1920s and joined him on two polar adventures, he inherited “from those half-wild ancestors who voyaged to America centuries before Columbus . . . a heroic physical appetite that matched the strength of his restless spirit.” He could eat almost anything, from multiple hard-boiled eggs to a succession of greasy meatballs. He seemed to thrive on a monotonous diet of pemmican and oat biscuits, but was never averse to hunting and eating unfamiliar animals such as dolphins, seals and penguins, which he proclaimed made for excellent eating, “not unlike beef.” He even ate his own sled dogs once. “His throat seemed to be lined with asbestos,” Ellsworth recalled, “and his digestion was that of an ostrich.” Amundsen was known to gulp burning hot chocolate, place his empty mug on the ground and proclaim “That is good” while others patiently waited for their drinks to cool. Never a routinely heavy drinker, Amundsen nevertheless poured himself a glass of aquavit or other liquor, eyeing his watch to await the precise moment of 5 p.m. each afternoon before drinking it.

The Last Viking was stubborn and intractable. He had many strong opinions, many friends and many enemies. It was nearly impossible to compel him to do anything he didn’t want to do—even to deliver a speech if he wasn’t in the mood—yet when he disappeared it was while dashing to the rescue of a man he hated. Ever restless and on the move, to the very end Amundsen was out to prove that he still had what it took to be a leader, that his glory days did not lie in the past. He shied away from the role of elder statesman, from becoming an object of morbid curiosity while fading away on his remote property. Unlike his mentor and countryman Fridtjof Nansen, the celebrated Norwegian patriot famous for the first recorded crossing of Greenland, Amundsen was not a scientist or an academic—he did not crave comfortable respectability but, rather, sought continued acclaim for daring exploits. He was a professional with a lifelong dedication to his skills and craft, and he had no other career to fall back on.

Amundsen was loved by his men, commanding a devotion of which others could only dream. He repaid loyalty with loyalty, even at considerable cost to his reputation, as was the case with the disgraced American explorer Dr. Frederick Cook. Revealing his own leadership style, Amundsen once admitted in a rare critique that “Nansen is too kingly. He will not hobnob with the common herd.” Some of Amundsen’s men even claimed they would sacrifice themselves for him. “If we were in want of food,” claimed Oscar Wisting, who was with Amundsen at the South Pole, in the Northeast Passage and at the North Pole, “and he said one must sacrifice himself for the others, I would gladly go quietly out into the snowdrift and die.”

Amundsen himself had a few qualities he demanded of his men, in addition to physical strength and quiet competence: “courage and dauntlessness, without boasting or big words, and then, amid joking and chaff—out into the blizzard.” Ever the optimist, who often counted on luck and always came out ahead, one of his favourite maxims was “When it is darkest there is always light ahead.” Yet he could share the complaints of his men in a down-to-earth way even while remaining the indomitable commander—he somehow was both leader and comrade. “There are two times a man is happy up here,” he claimed about the North Pole. “When his belly is full of hot liquid, and when he is in his sleeping bag.” Once, on a small ship that was bucking and corkscrewing in an ocean storm, a companion remarked that he didn’t like the sea. Amundsen, pale from seasickness himself, replied, “I don’t either. It is something we have to put up with.”

But as with any public figure, there was more to the explorer than the press revealed. An intensely private and secretive man, Amundsen rarely discussed things that were not part of his public persona—the elaborate façade of invincibility and determination that captivated the public for decades. He was as guarded and circumspect in his private life as he was flamboyant in his public exploits. Never, in any public documents or lectures, did he mention his three complicated affairs, all with married women, nor his quarrels with his family, until his strangely imprecise and erratic autobiography was published, barely a year and a half before his death.

 

Perhaps it was a chance to redeem his reputation, a gambit to claim the limelight, that propelled Amundsen on his final dangerous and hastily planned flight in a French biplane. Perhaps he feared the arrival of his American fiancée. Whatever his reasons, on June 18, 1928, the Last Viking set off on his last great polar adventure. The twin-propeller biplane, with a Norwegian co-pilot and four French crew, soared into the blue northern sky from Tromsø, in northern Norway, toward Spitsbergen.

Oddly, many observers had premonitions of Amundsen’s fate in the days before takeoff. One even noted tears on Amundsen’s cheek the day he belatedly boarded the train north to Bergen, twenty-five years to the day since he had set sail on his first great conquest, of the Northwest Passage. “Ah, if you only knew how splendid it is up there in the North,” he said to an Italian reporter at his home in Uranienborg, on the coast outside Oslo. “That’s where I want to die, and I wish only that death would come to me chivalrously, that it will find me during the execution of some great deed, quickly and without suffering.” His last hours, spent with his friend Fritz Zapffe, were also notable for unusual musings. Amundsen handed his broken lighter to his friend, and when Zapffe said he would have it repaired, Amundsen replied that he shouldn’t bother: “I’ll have no more use for it.”

It was almost as if there were warring factions within him: a nostalgic melancholy in his final days at home, pushed aside by a sense of duty that was propelling him to fulfill the expectations of his public. Even the sailing from New York of his bride-to-be did not deter him from his quest for yet more acclaim in the polar regions, which had for two and a half decades served as the set for his grandiose life. We will never know his thoughts about the imminent arrival of his Alaskan paramour who planned to marry him in Norway, because Amundsen was never seen again. A few weeks after the biplane lifted off from Tromsø, a seven-foot-long blue pontoon and other detritus were spied floating in the choppy waters of the Barents Sea. The pontoon had clearly been used as a life raft.

Amundsen’s final bow on the international stage was an oddly fitting conclusion to the life and career of the most enigmatic and dynamic of the pioneers of the golden age of polar exploration. His disappearance was a neat conclusion to his adventure-novel life. Yet it was also somewhat anticlimactic. With Amundsen, the way he died is far less intriguing than the way he lived.

Reprinted with permission from The Last Viking: The Life of Roald Amundsen by Stephen R. Bown and published by Da Capo Press, 2012. 


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