The Last Viking

Untitled photo
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

The Last Viking The Life of Roald Amundsen

Stephen R Bown (2012)  Douglas and McIntyre

The book is organized into four sections, each covering Amundsen's explorations in these geographic areas:

West: the Northwest Passage (in the Gjoa)

South: the South Pole (the Fram)

East: the Northeast Passage (the Maud)

North: flight over the North Pole (the Norge)

Early Adventures

Roald Amundsen was a Norwegian polar explorer in the early 1900s. He was known for careful, meticulous planning, as well as studying and adapting Inuit techniques such as dogs, sleds, clothing, and food.

Amundsen's expeditions were the first to cross the Northwest Passage by ship, first to reach the South Pole, second to cross the Northeast Passage, and first to fly over the North Pole. He died in an attempt to rescue a rival who was lost near the North Pole.

At an early age Amundsen decided he wanted to be an explorer. He read the stories of Sir John Franklin's lost ships, and the many search and rescue attempts made in the Canadian Arctic. Fridtjof Nansen, the heroic Norwegian explorer, became Amundsen's mentor.

Amundsen's mother wanted him to be a doctor, but he dropped out of school after her death. He spent years in training to get a captains license, so he could lead his own explorations.

Always known for meticulous planning, an early near disaster almost cost the life of Amundsen and a companion. They attempted to cross the high, desolate Hardangervidda plateau of Norway, in winter, without sufficient food, clothing, or a tent. At one point, Amundsen's sleeping bag became encased in ice and snow during a blizzard, and his companion had to work for hours to dig him out.

A Young Amundsen

Untitled photo

The Belgica Disaster

The Belgian Antarctic Expedition seemed a good project for the young explorer to join, but this also turned into a disaster. Amundsen was nominally second in command by rank, but later found out the Belgian officers had secretly excluded him from the chain of command.

The plan was supposed to be for the ship to cruise along the Antarctic coast, and return to Australia for winter, but the commander impulsively got the ship frozen into the ice. The ship and crew did not have sufficient food or proper clothing to survive a winter in the Antarctic. Scurvy set in, the captain and crew became lethargic and depressed.

Dr Frederick Cook, who would later falsely claim to have reached the North Pole, saved the lives of the crew by feeding them fresh seal and penguin meat, a lesson Amundsen would repeat in his later expeditions.

This difficult experience led Amundsen to get a captains license, and to always have a thorough plan, sufficient supplies, and a solid, unified crew.

Netsilik Inuit at Gjoahavn

Untitled photo


The Northwest Passage had remained an enigma, despite dozens of expeditions in the region of the Canadian High Arctic. Amundsen went with a small ship and a crew of six.  Earlier British ships had taken hundreds of sailors into the Arctic, often with disastrous results. The route was not totally known, and only partially mapped.   Amundsen studied magnetic science in Germany, to give a scientific veneer to his trip.

The group overwintered for two years at Gjoahavn, named after their ship, a small harbor on King William Island in the Canadian Arctic.  An Inuit band settled here with the crew, and Amundsen studied their arctic survival methods firsthand. They learned to drive dogsleds, hunt, build snow houses, all skills which would be invaluable in Antarctica.

After completing the journey and returning to the world, Amundsen learned the hard way about managing publicity and fame. He traveled overland to a trading post in Alaska, to telegraph news of his success to the papers, but the news was leaked out, and he didn't receive the promised money for first rights from papers in London and New York.

When he got to Seattle, Amundsen went on a speaking tour across the America, before returning to Norway and Britain. The British had expected Amundsen to make his debut in London. This would be the start of a sometimes irritating relationship between Amundsen and the British Royal Geographic Society. But Amundsen was always a popular celebrity in America, where social class pretensions were not so important, and where there were large numbers of Scandinavian immigrants. At one time he considered becoming an American citizen.

The Crew of the Gjoa Arrive in Nome

Untitled photo


Amundsen spent the next two years preparing to repeat Nansen's ice drift across the polar sea to the North Pole. When Peary and Cook both claimed to have reached the Pole, Amundsen's plans changed to an attempt to reach the South Pole. But he kept his plans a secret from everyone except his brother Leon.

When the ship reached Madeira, he told the crew about the plans for the South Pole, and the men were all enthusiastic. He sent messages to Nansen and the Norwegian Government, and went incommunicado until his successful return from Antarctica.

Amundsen famously sent a telegram to Scott: “Beg leave to inform. Fram heading south. Amundsen." Thus began the race to the South Pole.

Amundsen of course reached the South Pole a month before Scott's party. The Fram stopped in Tasmania on the return voyage. This time Amundsen kept quiet, and sent his brother and Nansen coded telegrams, his brother relayed the message to the London Times and New York Times, which had first rights to the story.

The Fram and Amundsen went on to Argentina for repairs to the ship. Amundsen stayed there for months, writing his book and worrying how he might be received, both in Norway and London. His press agent in Britain assured him that he would be well received, and had already booked speaking engagements.

When Amundsen finally lectured at the Royal Geographic Society in London, he was angered when after his talk, the head of RGS commented, “Well I say, three cheers for the dogs!”

A year later news came that Scott's party had all died on the return journey from the Pole. Ironically the British considered Scott a martyr, and Amundsen became a villain, as he had broken Scott's heart.

Roland Huntford has carefully explained Scott's failures in his book “Scott and Amundsen”. Scott was locked into the rigid class hierarchy of the British Navy. He refused to learn how to drive dog sleds, instead relying on “man hauling” as a sacred, manly effort. Scott's men didn't ski. They wore British Navy wool clothing, instead of Inuit clothing as worn by the Norwegians and Americans (Peary also relied heavily on Inuit methodology).

The Author, Stephen Bown,  noted that Amundsen, in his books and lectures, tended to minimize the difficulties he and his men encountered,  and did not mention several near disasters in attempting to reach the Pole.

He liked to talk at length about the dogs rather than his crew, and made no mention of several nasty episodes with one crew member Hjalmar Johansen.

Amundsen made the expedition seem more like a pleasant ski tour than the dangerous, but well planned and well executed, years long effort it really was.

I think part of this is Amundsen's self effacing humor, which is part of the Norwegian (and Scandinavian) character.

At the South Pole

Untitled photo


Upon returning to Norway from Antarctica,  Amundsen had to reassure Nansen and the Norwegian Government that he would now devote himself to replicating Nansen's attempt on the North Pole in the Fram.  But his heart wasn't into it, as this had already been done.

He went on long speaking tours in Europe and America. He stayed in England for months, carrying on a secretive relationship with a married woman.

Then World War 1 came, and polar explorations became of secondary importance. Amundsen invested in shipping during the war, and made his fortune. He had a new polar ship built for his next journey, he named her the Maud, after the Queen of Norway.

The Maud and her crew left Norway near the end of the war, deciding to cross the Northeast Passage north of Russia, rather than risk crossing the Atlantic, due to German U boats. His previous expeditions had met great success, but now Amundsen's luck ran out.

The Maud got frozen in the ice north of Siberia, well short of their goal of reaching the Bering Strait. One day when going for a walk, Amundsen was tripped on the ship's gangway by a dog, and fell hard and broke his shoulder. A month later, with his arm still in a sling, he was mauled by a polar bear. He spent months recovering.

The next summer the ship again didn't get very far, and spent another winter short of their goal. The third year the Maud finally got frozen in the ice north of the Bering Sea, but didn't drift in the direction they hoped.

Amundsen finally gave up, went overland and caught a ship from Siberia to Alaska and on to Seattle. He was well received by the Scandinavian community in Seattle, where he stayed for the next six months. His remaining crew sailed the Maud to Seattle for repairs that next summer, becoming only the second ship to traverse the Northeast Passage.

Flying Boat

Untitled photo


After the Maud's disappointing, three year journey, Amundsen's attention was fixed on airplanes, and the idea of flying over the polar ice to the North Pole.

The last segment of the book covers Amundsen's financial problems, bankruptcy, and nearly miraculous salvation by Lincoln Ellsworth, an American who was the son of a millionaire, and who wanted to be a polar explorer. When Amundsen was in despair after the lack of success of the Maud project, and deep into his financial woes, he got an unexpected phone call in his New York hotel room from Ellsworth, asking to come up to talk about financing a polar flight.

Amundsen and Ellsworth purchased two German airplanes and the game was on again. Their plan was to fly round trip from Spitzbergen across the polar ice to the North Pole. The planes were called flying boats as they had pontoons to land on water. This was the early days of air flight, and the technology was still developing.

The two planes flew together for several hours before one plane had engine problems and had to land on the ice. The other plane landed too, and they were stuck on rough ice without a runway, and too much weight to carry in one plane. They were not prepared to survive in the Arctic, as they didn't have tents, clothing, or food.

They spent a month smoothing the rough ice with improvised tools to make a runway, and one day they all got into one plane and flew back to Spitzbergen. The press hailed them as heroes, as they had been thought to be dead.

Lost on the Polar Ice

Untitled photo

Amundsen decided airplanes were unreliable, and began a plan to float over the Pole in an airship, a Zeppelin or dirigible. Ellsworth purchased an airship from Italy. The designer and builder, an Italian named Nobile insisted on coming on the trip, with Italian crew members. Mussolini made the expedition into a publicity stunt for Fascist Italy, and the Norwegians and Americans lost control of the mission. It was a recipe for disaster from the start.

The actual trip was a success. The dirigible left from Spitzbergen, flew over the Pole, dropped several flags, and went on to Alaska. Nearing Alaska the balloon became heavily coated with ice from freezing fog, got weighted down, and was forced to land short of the planned finale in Nome.

Afterwards Nobile told his side of the story to the papers first, and went on a speaking tour.   Amundsen believed Nobile had breached their contract, as he and Ellsworth were counting on making money from the publishing rights. Nobile claimed he alone was responsible for the success of the trip, and had only bad things to say about Amundsen.

The Air Ship Norge

Untitled photo

Soon afterwards, Amundsen wrote his autobiography “My Life as a Polar Explorer”. He spends much of the book defending himself against the slander spread by Nobile.

Apparently the episode brought out long held grievances especially about the arrogance of the British and how he had been treated after the South Pole and Scott's death. The book caused a controversy between Norway and Britain, which Nansen tried to calm by saying Amundsen was having a nervous breakdown.

But Amundsen remained popular in America. He spent more time in New York and Seattle than in Norway. He had the status of a celebrity and was almost continually in the newspapers for years.

The last great irony occurred when Nobile was lost in an airship trying to repeat the flight over the pole. Amundsen volunteered to join the rescue mission, maybe feeling guilty about the bitter dispute with the Italians. He took off from Spitzbergen with a crew in an airplane, flew into the clouds, and was never seen again.

Inuit on the Gjoa

Untitled photo


The author notes that most treatments of Amundsen's life stop after the South Pole. He was regarded in Britain as a publicity hound, who had usurped Scott's right to the South Pole.

A new interpretation emerged with Roland Huntford's book “The Last Place on Earth”, which contrasted the rigid hierarchy of the British Navy, with the egalitarian ethic of the Norwegians.

Scott and his party refused to learn to use skiis or dogs, and dragged their heavy sledges with their backs. Amundsen's party learned the use of Inuit survival techniques, dogs, sleds, combined with skiis. Amundsen spent an extra winter at Gjoahavn, to learn from the Inuit firsthand,  and several of his companions later went with him to the South Pole.

The Last Viking extends this interpretation into the later events of Amundsen's life, and creates the portrait of a complex, driven man, who was most comfortable in extreme environments, but was never happy in a day to day life.

Rather than staying at his home in Norway, he would soon leave on another speaking tour of America. His home became a hotel in New York.

Always looking for the next great challenge, he died when he had achieved all his goals, and could not be content to retire to a quiet life.

Photo Credits

The black and white photos are taken from my personal copies of Roald Amundsen's Books: 

Nordvest-Passagen  (1908) Kristiania. 

Sydpolen (1912)  Kobenhavn

Mitt Liv Som Polarforsker (1927) Oslo

Die Jagd Nach Dem Nordpol (Berlin)

Further Reading 

I Support Independent Bookstores

The links will take you to IndieBound, a Community of Independent Bookstores

Roland Huntford, author, Scott and Amundsen (1979) Hodder and Stoughton, London. 

Later republished as "The Last Place On Earth".  (Also a BBC miniseries.)

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit
  • No Comments

Northern Mists Photography

Robert Bergstrom
Landscape and Travel Photographer

Featuring Oregon Coast, Puget Sound, PNW, Faroe Islands, Sweden, Denmark.

Landscapes, Seascapes, Maritime themes.
Powered by SmugMug Owner Log In