The Norwegian Roald Amundsen (1872-1928) was the first explorer to reach the South Pole. One of the greatest figures in the history of polar exploration, he was also the first to sail through the Northwest Passage.
Roald Amundsen was born in Borge. By age 15 he had determined on a career of exploration. He studied sailing techniques, steam navigation, scientific navigation, and terrestrial magnetism, and he trained himself to endure bitter cold and long travel.
After being a mate on an Antarctic expedition, he began at 25 to plan his own expedition. His aims were to attain the Northwest Passage and make magnetic observations near the North Magnetic Pole. His ship, the Gjöa, left Christiania harbor on June 16, 1903. Amundsen completed this voyage in 1906 by reaching the Pacific Ocean. He was the first to sail through the Northwest Passage, via Peel Sound, Roe Strait, Queen Maud Gulf, Coronation Gulf, Amundsen Gulf, Beaufort Sea, and Bering Strait. He had completed the first portion of his Arctic polar cap circumnavigation.
Robert E. Peary's attainment of the North Pole on April 6, 1909, convinced Amundsen that he should try to reach the South Pole. He resolved to reach the pole before the British expedition led by Robert F. Scott. After the establishment of three supply depots, on Oct. 29, 1911, Amundsen began the final dash to the pole with four companions and four sleds. On December 14 the Norwegian flag was flying at the South Pole. (Scott and his party did not arrive until Jan. 17, 1912.) On December 17 Amundsen began the return journey, completing 1,860 miles in 99 days.
In 1918 Amundsen left Norway in his ship Maud; his objective was to drift across the north polar sea from Asia to North America, but the polar ice pack made this an impossibility. He did reach Alaska, however, via the Siberian coast in 1920 and thus completed the Northeast Passage. This was the second portion of his circumnavigation of the world within the Arctic Circle.
The last phase of Amundsen's life was spent in new feats of polar exploration involving air travel. These were novel projects, more sensational than scientific in nature. In the spring of 1925 he flew in an airplane from Spitsbergen to within 150 miles of the North Pole. The next spring Amundsen, the American aviator Lincoln Ellsworth, and the Italian colonel Umberto Nobile used the dirigible Norge on the trans-Arctic flight from Spitsbergen to Teller in Alaska. The Norge passed over the North Pole on May 12, 1926. In 1928 Amundsen died in the Arctic during an air relief expedition in search of Nobile and the airship Italia.
Amundsen still awaits a definitive biography, but readers will find much in his own works: The Northwest Passage (2 vols., trans. 1908); The South Pole (trans. 1912); and My Life as an Explorer (trans. 1927). Two studies of Amundsen are Bellamy Partridge, Amundsen: The Splendid Norseman (1929), and Charles Turley, Roald Amundsen, Explorer (1935). There are numerous writings on polar history, but the best is L. P. Kirwan, The White Road: A Survey of Polar Exploration (1959; 1960 ed. entitled A History of Polar Exploration).