1913–1928 main content.


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

A group of Antarctica explorers, one man holding a United Kingdom flag, another a flag of Norway. The title beneath reads: “1913 to 1928, Amundsen After the End.”

Scott's Death Muddles Amundsen's Success

Was The Norwegian's Victory by His Deception?

The effect of Scott's death on Amundsen's fortunes was complex. For nearly a year he had reigned as the conqueror of the South Pole. The Scott tragedy did not change the facts, but it did change the way in which many viewed Amundsen's victory.

In Britain, the sensationalist press insisted that Amundsen's success was built upon a deception no honorable man would have committed. Amundsen may have won the pole, but by his own actions had made himself unworthy of the laurel.

Elsewhere, however, in countries like Germany and America, the fact that Amundsen's competitor had died--whether of cold, hunger, or disappointment--was seen as additional evidence that the victory was hard-earned and deserved respect.

These contrasting evaluations of Amundsen's character have alternated with each other over the past century. He is sometimes evoked as the hardest of hard travelers, taking whatever measures were necessary to ensure his success, no matter who or what lay in his path. At other times, particularly in recent decades, attention has instead focused on his meticulous efforts at preparation and remarkable ability to calculate the odds. Both snapshot assessments touch on the truth in different ways, because like many successful explorers, Amundsen was both shaped and driven by many forces.

Amundsen Continued To Explore; Dies On Mission To Save Others

Amundsen died in 1928, sixteen years after Scott. He continued to explore with some notable successes, such as making the first crossing of the Arctic Sea by airship in 1926. In his last years he was a controversial figure, who quarreled with most of his old companions and died very much alone.

Yet it is important to remember that, once more defying his stereotype, he died in an effort to save others. In 1928, the airship Italia had gone down north of Svalbard on its way to the North Pole. Amundsen intended to look for survivors by airplane, but the aircraft he used was not designed for Arctic conditions. His plane went down somewhere in the Norwegian Sea, and Amundsen and his companions were never found.

There was no reason for Amundsen to risk his life in this way, and certainly he had little reason to look for a man whom he detested--Italia's captain Umberto Nobile. But he did it anyway, for his own reasons. As a result, he may be said to have died a real hero--and not just as the man who made a career of going to the coldest, most isolated places on earth.