Amundsen's Expedition

Part of the Race to the End of the Earth exhibition.

Roald Amundsen: From Aspiring Explorer to National Hero

Early Antarctic Experience and Early Success

Born to a family of Norwegian shipowners on July 16, 1872, Roald Amundsen was four years younger than Robert F. Scott. Despite his mother's hopes that he would become a doctor, Amundsen knew by the age of 15 that he would one day be an explorer.

Leaving university for a life at sea, he joined the 1897-99 Belgica Antarctic Expedition under Adrien de Gerlache to explore the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula. The ship became trapped in the ice for 13 months and the relentless darkness, isolation, and inadequate nutrition began to affect the crew. Amundsen credited the expedition's surgeon and photographer, Frederick Cook, for saving them from the looming threat of scurvy by organizing hunting excursions to find seal meat, which contains small quantities of vitamin C. The ship finally escaped the ice and the crew returned home. Amundsen gained crucial experience in Antarctic survival and developed the ability to cope with life-threatening situations.


Amundsen's first independent journey was the 1903-06 Gjøa expedition to the ice-choked channels north of mainland Canada. During the 19th century, the British Royal Navy had unsuccessfully tried to find a dependable route, or a Northwest Passage, through this daunting maze. It took three years, but where others had failed, Amundsen succeeded. He became a hero in Norway and gained the notice of the country's most famous explorer, Fridtjof Nansen.

Armed with Experience, Amundsen Makes Plans for the North Pole

Amundsen had learned valuable lessons from the Netsilik Inuit he encountered in northern Canada, especially with regard to proper clothing and the handling of dogs. He knew preparation was everything and, armed with this knowledge, he was ready for all that the polar regions had to show him. He set his sights on the North Pole, which modern explorers had been trying to reach since the late 18th century.

Amundsen spent the next two years planning his assault. He wanted to use Nansen's famous ship, Fram, because it was specifically designed to withstand being frozen into the sea ice without damage.

To win support for this venture, however, Amundsen included a significant scientific component in his plans.

Amundsen was poised to leave in 1909, but in April, two American explorers--Robert Peary and Fred Cook--claimed to have already reached the North Pole. Had scientific research been Amundsen's chief goal, failure to be the first shouldn't have mattered very much. But for Amundsen, it meant finding another objective, one that would be regarded just as important in the world's eyes.

With Plans to Head North in Shambles, Amundsen Secretly Aims South

But there were some problems with his decision to head south. Robert Falcon Scott had already announced his intention to sail for Antarctica in 1910, with the same aim of reaching the South Pole. More importantly, Amundsen had received funding from the Norwegian government for his planned Arctic expedition.

Amundsen was faced with a choice. He could openly announce his intention to go south and hope that everyone would regard the change of plan as acceptable. Or he could pretend the Arctic trip was still on while surreptitiously making his preparations for Antarctica. Amundsen did not hesitate for very long: All would be done in secret.