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.

  • The Last Viking
    “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

  • The Last Viking

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.”

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