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Tension-packed narrative of explorer Amundsen

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THIS is the 101st anniversary of Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen's (1872-1928) conquest of the South Pole.

Canadian historian Stephen R. Bown's tension-packed narrative recounts the illustrious career of the most accomplished polar explorer of all time.

Amundsen's adventures stretched over 30 years. His expeditions lasted years. Bown quotes him from his 1912 book The South Pole saying that "years had no meaning" for his team of rugged individuals, even though death lurked at their hoary door.

His first expedition, from 1897-1899, was to Antarctica with a Belgium team of scientists. He was the first to successfully navigate the Northwest Passage (1903-06), the first to reach the South Pole (1910-1912), and the first to cross the point of the North Pole (1926). He died in 1928, attempting to rescue the Italian aviator Umberto Nobile, whose dirigible had gone missing in the Arctic.

Amundsen was a born explorer who worshiped the great Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen. Nansen achieved fame skiing across the interior of Greenland (1888) and attempting to reach the North Pole in his 1893-1896 expedition.

Amundsen adopted Nansen's pioneering techniques in his Arctic and Antarctic expeditions. Both explorers relied on speed, using small parties of men with light-weight sleds, dogs and skis.

Amundsen perfected his skills by studying how the indigenous Netsilik survived on his expedition through the Northwest Passage.

Proficiency in these skills, as well as eating their dogs, kept him and his men alive in the quest for the South Pole.

Bown credits Amundsen's successes to perfectionism and obsession with planning. As Bown makes clear, Amundsen understood the dangers men faced when spending years trapped in the snowy wasteland.

"If we are to win the game," he wrote in his South Pole diary, "the pieces must be moved carefully -- one false move and everything can be lost."

In what many considered an arrogant slap at Robert Falcon Scott, who died in his 1912 quest for the South Pole, Amundsen wrote, "Victory awaits him who has everything in order, luck people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time, this is called bad luck."

However, Amundsen did not always follow his own advice, as Bown shows. He almost led his companions the way of Scott, by blundering off into an early spring blizzard during the 1911 dash for the pole.

Perhaps his most foolish endeavour was attempting to fly a primitive open cockpit airplane from Norway to the North Pole in 1925.

It didn't turn out well but it resulted in a marvellous story of courage, determination and resourcefulness.

Bown references Amundsen's remarkable 25-minute 1925, archival film of the hardships the team faced, which is available on YouTube.

It is an understatement to say that Amundsen wasn't good with money. Throughout his career he couldn't make enough from book sales and public speaking to finance his expensive projects. He hated scrounging for money from the Norwegian government and well-heeled patrons.

He had to skip out on creditors who demanded their investment back for his Northwest Passage trip and fraudulently claimed he was going to the North Pole in 1909, when, in fact, he was heading to the South Pole.

Much to his embarrassment, his ship, Maud, was seized and he had to declare bankruptcy after his trip through the Northeast Passage.

An obvious question is: Why did Amundsen want to go to the poles? There was no scientific reason to go, there was nothing to see and no one wanted to stay, unless they wanted to die miserably.

The answer: he was ambitious and arrogant and he wanted fame and honour for himself and Norway. As well, as British mountaineer George Mallory explained, when asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, "Because it's there."

 

Winnipeg writer Ian Stewart teaches at Cecil Rhodes School and seldom ventures beyond the Perimeter Highway.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 6, 2012 J9

History

Updated on Tuesday, October 9, 2012 at 4:39 PM CDT: replaces U.S publisher info with Canadian publisher in fact box

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