When the crew Gjøa returned to Norway in November 1906 they were treated to same cheering crowds and festivities that greeted Nansen in 1889 and 1897. As usual Amundsen was in debt. The great Norwegian philanthropist Axel Heiberg who helped finance the first (Nansen's polar drift) and second (Sverdrup's exploration of the Canadian high arctic) expeditions of the Fram, also came to Amundsen's rescue. A European lecture tour was carried out, including a stop at the Royal Geographical Society in London where all the old British arctic admirals used to sit around debating endlessly about whether or not dogs were a useful form of transport etc. They were impressed by the achievements of Amundsen's mission in relation to its small cost. The enormous expense of Capt. Scott's Discovery expedition was still on their minds. At this time Nansen was in London doing diplomatic work and was also in attendance.
Amundsen in his study, planning an assault on the Big Nail.
Amundsen was already thinking about getting away from society and of course heading North again. This time for 'the Big Nail' which was a term the Greenland Eskimos used to refer to the North pole. I don't know whether or not the Norwegians were in the habit of using this term or it's direct translation 'den Store Spike'. The plan was to repeat Nansen's drift, but enter the pack further east and thereby drift further North. This assumed that the currents of pack ice had not changed since Nansen's drift. For this he needed a ship. With some impunity Amundsen asked Nansen if he could use the Fram. At that time Nansen still had the idea of going to the south pole with a team of Norwegian skiers, something he started planning on the return from Greenland 17 years earlier. Explorers always want to do one last expedition before retiring. But in September 1907 Nansen had given up his plan and told Amundsen that he could have the Fram. The Fram had not been used for over 5 years and was in poor shape. Amundsen knew exactly how he wanted to re-fit her, but as usual money was lacking. He needed outside support and to that end he needed to dress the expedition in a scientific veil. This time it would be oceanography instead of magnetism. Following a similar pattern to the previous expedition, he traveled to Bergen on the west coast of Norway, to learn as best he could, from a world renowned expert, Professor Bjørn Helland-Hansen. With the training under his belt he officially announced and explained his plan to the geographical society of Norway. It would be a thorough scientific study of the polar sea. Nansen gave the plan his official seal of approval, which again marked the beginning of the expedition in Amundsen's mind. It was around this time that Amundsen had his house built in Svartskogen "Black Forest" (the area is also referred to Bundefjord) in the east shore of the Oslo fjord. The house is named Uranianborg after the street he grew up on, and stands today, open to the public.
During preparations Amundsen's loyal brother Leon did all the desk work, leaving Roald the time he needed to supervise all other activities. The re-fit of the Fram was carried out, including installation of one of the first reversible diesel motors, just invented in Sweden. All lessons regarding equipment failures from the Gjøa expedition were applied. Fur clothes, sleeping bags, boots, bindings, skies, food rations, etc. were all improved upon with an attention to detail that only Roald Amundsen could muster. Now famous, Amundsen had many people volunteering to join the expedition. But Amundsen did not want weekend thrill seekers, he wanted the best, i.e. professionals. Here is a list of notable crew members selected by Amundsen:
Rønne, Sundbeck, Andreas Beck, Jorgen Stubberud,
Ludvig Hansen, K. Olsen, Prestrude, Gjertsen, Kristensen, Lindstrøm,
Sverre Hassel, Wisting, Olav Bjaaland and Helmer Hanssen.
Amundsen thoroughly enjoyed the process of planning and organizing the expedition to end all expeditions. There was the ever present shortage of money to deal with. Arrangements were made with many suppliers to have their products used and displayed at the north pole, in return for free supplies. Departure was set for January 1910. On September 1 1909 a headline appeared that threw everything into disarray, "The North Pole Reached" by Dr. Cook on April 21 1908. His old friend from the Belgica expedition had apparently grabbed the prize more than a year before! Cook never announced he was going to the pole, he took a boat to Greenland in 1907, ostensibly on a hunting expedition. He disappeared into the arctic mists with 9 Greenland Eskimos, and wintered over in a cave on Devon Island on Jones sound. His trip is a whole story in itself, and it is people like Cook that make the study of polar history so colourful. When Cook arrived from Greenland in Copenhagen, Denmark he was the hero of the city, given an honorary doctorate from the university. However once the celebrations subsided and sober thinking began to prevail (if it ever does in these matters!), it was realized the Cook had no evidence for reaching the pole, no log books, no navigational records, nothing but his word. The Eskimos later claimed they never left sight of land.
Two days later the American Robert E. Peary hit the headlines with another claim to the north pole, on April 6 1909. Cook simply responded by saying "Two records are better than one", but Peary was furious, called Cook a lier, and claimed priority at the pole. Amundsen was quickly questioned by the press about how this affected his plans and whether or not he believed Cook. Inside, Amundsen no longer wanted to go north just to do oceanography, but he told the press it would not change his plans in the least. As for believing Cook, Amundsen was fiercely loyal to his friends and workers, "If Cook says it, I believe it". Also Amundsen did not like Peary and his habit of claiming exclusive rights to polar territory and it's people. In fact more sober thinking revealed that Peary had no more proof of reaching the Big Nail, than Cook did. However it took another sixty years for this sort of sobriety to occur.
Amundsen on the Fram in Christiana, 1909.
Keeping his real destination secret.
With the north pole gone, backers and suppliers quickly broke contracts and pulled out. Amundsen had a choice between financial ruin and proceeding with some sort of expedition, or calling it off. The later would also leave him in financial ruin. Sometime on or before September 9 1909, Amundsen decided to go south and grab the pole as a publicity stunt, but made no announcement. One can deduce that he changed his mind about this time, because of the number of dogs he ordered from Greenland and the delivery date for the dogs. Next to Nansen, Jens Daugaard-Jensen, a Danish administrative officer for Northern Greenland, was Amundsen's most important ally. He was the key to getting the world's best sledge dogs, and putting aside his official duties, he did exactly that for Amundsen. With Nansen, dogs, crew and Fram, Amundsen's enterprise had the momentum of a speeding steam train, but two great problems remained: 1) lack of money, which never phased Amundsen, and 2) Nansen, the King of Norway, the press and the public still thought he was going north, and any one of these entities could potentially stop the expedition if they knew Amundsen was going south. It is often stated that Amundsen only told his brother Leon about the real destination, but this is not true. By the eve of departure from Norway, seven people in total were party to the secret: Roald Amundsen, Leon Amundsen, Nilsen, Gjertsen, Prestrude, Herman Gade (his American financial manger), Bjørn Helland Hansen (the oceanographer who trained Amundsen).
Amundsen had barely started revising his plans and equipment when another item showed up in the times of London. "Captain Scott informs us that another expedition ought to be arranged for at once...". Scott wanted the south pole and again, of course, it was veiled in an altruistic pursuit of science. This was right on the heels of Ernest Shackleton's return from the Antarctic, having reached within 97 miles of the south pole, the greatest ever single advance towards either pole. This was Shackleton's's outstanding Nimrod expedition, which is now unfortunately one of the most overlooked polar expeditions. Shackleton had been kind enough (or brave enough) to leave a small 97 mile radius disc around the pole for Amundsen and Scott to race after. Amundsen knew there was a race, Scott did not. All the more reason for Amundsen to keep it a secret.
Fram outside Amundsen's house in Bundefjord, 1910.
This photo was probably hand colourized.
From September 1909 to June 1910, the new departure date, Amundsen spent every waking moment working on sourcing and improving equipment. The size of the "observation house" that Stubberud was constructing caused some questions among on lookers. Why was it so big? Why did it have a kitchen, dining table and bunk beds. How could a hut last on the shifting pack ice anyway? Nansen's requests for a visit went unanswered, he would have recognized winter quarters right away. Experienced crew members like Hjalmar Johansen probably had some suspicions as well. On June 7th 1910 Amundsen sailed at midnight with no fanfare, just as he had done seven years before heading off to the North West Passage. The Fram then went on a two month oceanographic cruise to test out the ship and crew and to collect some oceanographic data for prof. Helland-Hansen, before putting to port in Bergen on the West coast of Norway to pick up Sundbeck. Then to the south coast of Norway to pick up Hassel and the dogs without which there would be no pole seeking. The crew probably also found this odd, for if they were going north through the Bearing Strait it make much more sense to pick up dogs in Alaska rather than to risk disease by transporting them twice through the tropics. Finally Amundsen left Norwegian waters and was away from his creditors. Next stop was Madeira off Spain in the Atlantic. Up to this point the routes to the North and south poles were the same, but from Medira on they would split. Amundsen now had to tell the whole crew about the "small excursion" to the south pole before heading north. What if the crew said no? This was Amundsen's last great stumbling block, after which success depended wholly on seamanship, leadership and snow travel skills, which were his forte.
Nilsen checking his instruments in Medira, 1910.
The last evening in Madeira, the crew was assembled on deck. They were quite annoyed at being interrupted while writing their last letters home. Nilsen showed the crew a large map of Antarctica. After mentioning some of the oddities the crew had noticed (ice hut, dogs, etc) Amundsen said "It is my intention to sail southwards, land a party on the southern continent and try to reach the south pole". The crew was of course stunned. Try and imagine what was going through their heads, "Where do we land", "How to live in Antarctica?", "Do have the supplies?", "Can we really make it to the pole?", "How many years will the expedition last now?". etc. These were experienced men, and they needed to know how it was going to be done. Most of them had wives and children, they wanted to do the job and get home, heroics was of no interest them. Amundsen now explained in detail the reason for the deception, how living quarters, dogs, supplies etc. were already arranged for the race to the south pole, and finished by calling it a small detour, and that it would be a shame not to bag the pole while they going around the cape anyway! Amundsen was careful to call the expedition, "our expedition" not "my expedition". No one knows who was the first to say yes, but all did. Bjaaland thought it would be fun to be in on the longest ski race in history. Letters were finished and sent home from Madeira. Amundsen sent letters with instructions stating that it was very important Nansen and the King should be told at exactly the same moment. Keeping the secret from these grand gentlemen was very distressful for Amundsen, he had a spent the whole year avoiding them so he would not be put in a position of lying directly. The letter to Nansen was the most difficult Amundsen ever wrote.
Many difficulties lay ahead for this merry band of Vikings, but they were not related to money and politics, for now Amundsen vanished from civilization for eighteen months. The story now turns into one of the most fascinating accounts of snow travel in history.Back: main page.