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The Last Viking

The Life of Roald Amundsen


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 that were 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."