Douglas & McIntyre

Interview Details

Stephen R. Bown

Stephen R. Bown

August 2012

When Roald Amundsen began his career there were four unmapped corners of the world—the Northwest Passage, the Northeast Passage, the South Pole, and the North Pole. Why had no one reached these places before him? Had many people tried?

Hundreds of people had been trying for centuries to reach either of the two poles, but they had been rebuffed by bitter cold and impregnable ice. In the Arctic they were searching for a Northwest Passage from Europe to the fabled riches of the Orient, while in Antarctica they were searching for a reputedly vast southern continent to counterbalance the landmass of the northern hemisphere. In the early 20th century no one had fully explored either of these destinations. In fact Amundsen’s pioneering flights toward the North Pole were intended to discover what was believed to be the last unknown land on the planet.

Amundsen is known as a great Norwegian explorer. Did he consider his exploratory missions a source of national pride or service, or did he view them as personal undertakings? Did this viewpoint change over time?

Amundsen enjoyed great acclaim in Norway and was naturally proud of his heritage, but his expeditions were mostly privately financed from sources outside Norway. After his initial success sailing the Northwest Passage, he spent far more time living in the United States, where he was revered for his daring exploits and boundless drive. He even considered applying for American citizenship. Later in his life, perhaps as a counterbalance to the politically motivated attacks of one of his expedition partners—Colonel Umberto Nobile, an officer in Mussolini’s Italian armed forces—Amundsen became more patriotic toward his native country and returned there to live.

What were some of the major challenges in the type of arctic travel on which Amundsen embarked during the early 1900s?

The arctic regions were truly unknown places, with no maps, no local guides, and no effective or reliable communication. Nor were there any accessible outposts at which to resupply in case of emergency. By today’s standards the polar regions were inconceivably remote and dangerous, making them all the more difficult to explore and making potential mistakes or misjudgments in the frigid environment all the more life-threatening.

How are the four arctic journeys that Amundsen pioneered different for explorers today? Has technology diminished the dangers associated with them?

Without diminishing the efforts of modern explorers, there is no doubt that in Amundsen’s time the task was staggeringly more difficult. Explorers were challenged by relatively primitive food preservation techniques, less advanced fabrics and clothing designs, poor or non-existent communication, and the fact that the geography and conditions were unknown. Yes, it was exceedingly more challenging a century ago.

What did the way Amundsen responded to adversity tell us about the type of man he was?

Amundsen thrived on adversity. It was at those times that he became the calm, determined, and imaginative leader that gave rise to his towering reputation. He was the type of man who became fully engaged when faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles or problems. Of course he was also a magnificent organizer, and it was those two traits—the imaginative leader and the meticulous planner—that enabled his success, and his survival.

What sort of preparation in terms of packing and planning did Amundsen do to increase his likelihood of reaching his destination?

Amundsen spent many months, sometimes years, preparing for his expeditions. He began by thoroughly reading any related literature from other explorers. He counted the meals down to the day, measured travel times under various conditions, and tried to apply his calculations as stringently as possible, allowing great margins for error. He had an incredible imagination for anticipating the type of problems and challenges that could arise and planned solutions to them in advance. Perhaps most unusual for the time, he was not afraid to learn and adopt survival techniques from indigenous peoples, such as food preparation, dog and sled handling, snow house construction, clothing designs, and navigation techniques.

Do you believe that Amundsen’s successes in the polar regions could be credited to the time he spent living and learning from the Inuit people? Were these techniques the edge he needed to beat Scott to the South Pole?

Certainly that is the case. I don’t think Amundsen would have triumphed at the South Pole had he not spent years living with the Netsilingmiut at what is now called Gjoa Haven in the Canadian Arctic. He knew he was there to learn and that became the focus of his time there. If you look at photographs of Amundsen in Antarctica, and from his many later expeditions, you can see the clothing he and his men are wearing is based on Inuit design. It was also at Gjoa Haven that Amundsen learned the most indispensible skill of all: all about Arctic dogs and sleds. He learned how to treat them, resolve disputes between them (they were always fighting), how and what to feed them – what he could expect from them, and what he would have to provide for them. Without the dogs and sleds working so efficiently (being fed on frozen seal that they hunted and stored soon after their arrival in Antarctica) Amundsen could never have completed or survived his incredible dash to the South Pole. Amundsen became a master of Polar exploration only after his education at Gjoa Haven.

Were there occurrences in Amundsen’s childhood or early adulthood that predisposed him to a life of arctic exploration?

During Amundsen’s childhood in Norway skiing was just being developed, so he had early exposure to what would prove to be the most efficient and effective means of polar travel. He spent his youth skiing the hinterlands of Oslo. He also came of age at a time when other famous Norwegian explorers such as Fridtjoff Nansen were enjoying enormous fame and celebrity for their exploits, and he imagined the same acclaim for himself.

What sort of training did Amundsen have before his first major arctic journey? Did he take steps to continue building his survival knowledge and skill-set between trips?

According to his own claims, Amundsen devoted most of his life since his teen-age years to learning the skills he thought would prove useful as an explorer. He embarked on a regimen of physical training and toughening, including weight training and always sleeping with his window open in winter, and he devoted years toward obtaining his ship’s masters license so that he could captain a ship as well as be the expedition commander. He also spent a number of years living with the Inuit to learn polar survival techniques.

Who were the other players in the race to map the remaining four corners of the world, and how did their approach differ from Amundsen’s?

Amundsen had many competitors over the years: Shackleton, Scott, Byrne, Peary, Cook, and Nansen are the most famous but there were many others. They were all dedicated, hardened and highly skilled individuals—masters of their craft and certainly tough enough. Amundsen succeeded so frequently at his goals, I believe, because of his willingness, indeed eagerness, to learn from and adopt the travel and survival techniques of indigenous peoples and prior explorers. He truly learned from the success and failure of others. He was always looking to the future, refining and altering his techniques and technology over time, moving from sailing ships to marine diesel engines, from dogs and skis to airplanes and, finally, to a dirigible.

Other explorers pursued Amundsen in an effort to beat him to the four corners, but who pursued him in his personal life?

Amundsen was frequently pursued by young men eager to join his expeditions. He was also pursued by women. An internationally famous man of mystery and danger, he had affairs with a series of married women whom he met during his lecture tours. His last relationship was with a much younger Alaskan beauty who divorced her husband so as to follow Amundsen to Norway as his fiancée.

Amundsen was also dogged by creditors for most of his career, since he was extremely poor at managing his finances. Once, he set sail during a storm to avoid creditors seizing his ship. On another occasion, an expedition launched with no financing for the return voyage. He burned through a small fortune on airplanes and ships, and eventually declared bankruptcy. One of his friends recalled that their conversation in the privacy of Amundsen’s room at the Waldorf Astoria was frequently interrupted by the rustling of demand letters being shoved under the door.

Was Amundsen survived by any children, either in Norway, in the US or in Canada’s Arctic?

Amundsen never married and had no recognized children. However, there are claims that Amundsen fathered at least one child with an Inuit woman in Gjoa Haven. Genetic testing has disproved this one case, but has not shown that any other Inuit are Amundsen’s descendents, or the descendents of the men who sailed with Amundsen through the Northwest Passage. In the 1920s, Amundsen adopted two young girls from Siberia and brought them to Norway where they lived with his brother’s family and were educated for several years. They eventually settled in the lower mainland of British Columbia.

At what point in his life did Amundsen become an international celebrity? How did he react to the attention, and how do you think it affected him in the long run?

Particularly in the United States, Amundsen became so famous by the 1920s that he was a celebrity: famous for being famous. He was frequently in the newspapers and on the lecture circuit; when he appeared at prestigious venues other famous explorers and the political and cultural elite came out to hear him. Amundsen enjoyed the attention but found the routine lectures in lesser venues and cities to be burdensome—something he did to earn money and keep his creditors at bay. Amundsen particularly disliked talking about past adventures and telling old stories. He wanted new adventures and new stories, but this became more difficult as he got older.

Was Amundsen feared by his men or loved by them? What kind of leader was he?

Amundsen was a demanding and occasionally harsh leader. He had no patience for bunglers and no respect for people who couldn’t solve unexpected problems. Except for his final crossing of the Polar Sea in a dirigible in 1926, he was very particular about choosing his crew. Tellingly, it was on this expedition that he encountered his greatest interpersonal problems.

Amundsen demonstrated great loyalty to the men who joined him on his expeditions, finding employment for them, lending them money, or ensuring they received full credit for their participation, but when he felt they had betrayed him or abandoned him he cut off contact and in a sense disowned them. Many complained about how hard he could be, but then signed on for future expeditions or remained friends with him for their entire lives.

In his journals, Amundsen wrote many detailed accounts of the activities of his sled dogs. Were these dogs merely necessary equipment for polar exploration or were they important companions for him as well?

They were both. And I’m sure keeping the distinction separate was a difficult task, particularly on his South Pole expedition where many of the dogs died – in fact several were eaten by Amundsen and his men or fed to the other dogs. Amundsen’s love of the dogs is palpable in his writing. He clearly appreciated their unique personalities and reveled in their antics. The dogs provided an entertaining break from the tedium of the expeditions for all the men.

How did Amundsen die, and do you think it was the type of death he would have wanted?

As far as we know, Amundsen’s airplane crashed into the sea north of Norway on a rescue mission for a rival explorer whom he hated; only the wrecked pontoons were ever found. It was the type of death Amundsen claimed to have wanted: in action, in the frozen regions. While there are many who would profess a desire to die in action while secretly hoping for a comfortable end at home surrounded by family and friends, I think Amundsen truly did want a glorious and frightening death in the Arctic. Throughout his life he had repeatedly put himself in these situations and claimed that he wanted to die in action. I doubt that this was the case with the other young men who were with him in the doomed airplane.

What drew you to Amundsen as a subject, and in what way is he “The Last Viking?”

I was drawn to Amundsen because I had read conflicting assessments of his character. I knew of Amundsen as the first person to navigate the Northwest Passage, where he lived for several years (and is still respected by the Inuit there) and where he learned polar survival techniques that helped him attain the South Pole. In most accounts of the race to the South Pole between Amundsen and Scott, however, he is presented as a dour, ruthless, unforgiving taskmaster who cared about nothing other than defeating his enemies—a un-admirable character who may have reached the South Pole first but didn`t deserve to have done so. As a biographer, I sensed that these were incompatible views and set out to determine the truth.

What new information did your research reveal about Amundsen’s life and career?

When I did my initial research I discovered hundreds of previously unknown newspaper articles about Amundsen, particularly from the New York Times, which revealed a completely new side of Amundsen`s character and life: that he was an American celebrity who spent far more time in New York than in his native Norway and that he was a charming eccentric with a self-deprecating and amusing sense of humor, a great spinner of yarns. My research revealed an unknown side to the personality of the polar explorer and also revealed that his greatest fame and popularity in the United States began nearly a decade after he had raced to the South Pole.

Amundsen did not fade into obscurity after the South Pole as is often claimed. He achieved the pinnacle of his success and fame using airplanes and dirigibles, working out of Alaska. His later success was in the United States and Norway, not in Britain where he wasn’t very respected. It has been primarily British writers who have defined Amundsen to date, usually in relation to Scott and the South Pole. But they have missed a huge part of his life and career by focusing on this single event.

Do you think Amundsen has gotten the credit he deserves for his contribution to arctic exploration?

In a word, no. While he was at one time a household name, justifiably known as the greatest of polar explorers, his star has dimmed over the past century so that now he is known mostly as a dastardly, and perhaps unscrupulous, foil to Scott. It is very satisfying to bring to light all this new information that overturns prior assessments of his character and tells the incredible story of his overlooked adventures and achievements.

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