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Roald Amundsen, probably 3 years old
Roald Amundsen,
probably 3 years old
Young Roald grew up in a relatively upper class family of ship owners and seamen during a time when Norway was far from being a rich country, depending primarily on timber, fish and shipping. As a boy he participated in gymnastics, football (soccer), rowing, skating and most notably skiing, Norway's native sport. Skiing was a very different sport then: skiers used only one pole, they used no wax or fish scales for grip, and there were no pre-constructed ski runs or tracks. Long and difficult trips in hilly terrain were achieved by sheer determination and technique.

At the age of fifteen Amundsen began reading about the explorations of John Franklin and immediately decided to become polar explorer. It is a testament to Amundsen's character that he made such a decision at this young age and kept to it. It was not a popular choise, as polar exploration was not so much a profession as it was something Naval officers engaged in once or twice during their career in order to advance their rank. When Fridtjof Nansen returned to Norway from the first ever ski trip across the Greenland ice cap, a 17 year old Amundsen was in the cheering crowd, thinking to himself "I could sail through the North West Passage." The NorthWest Passage had for five hundred years been the elusive dream of many mariners including Franklin, who perished in the attempt. It was a bold dream for a young man.Inspired by Nansen's ski trip across Greenland, Amundsen and three friends decided to make their first long ski tour, through the forests outside Christiania (Norway's capitol, now called Oslo). They skied for twenty hours without sleep through an area called Krogskogen, and covered about 50 miles. This could be considered training for polar exploration, butt young Roald was also most likely having fun.

Roald Amundsen, probably 8 years old
Roald Amundsen,
probably 8 years old

At his mother's urging Amundsen spent two years studying medicine at the University in Christiania . During this time Amundsen was always thinking about the north, and going on long ski trips in the forests near Oslo (see map below). Nansen was, at this time, preparing for his famous arctic drift in the Fram, a vessel specially designed to withstand the strain of the pack ice. Although eager to apply for a crew position, Amundsen was convinced by his mother to stay at medical school. At the end of the second year, his mother died. Amundsen left university, and started sending letters of application out to various expeditions, volunteering his serivices for trips to the arctic.

In the absence of a positive response, he then proceeded to join an elite group of adventurers who were attempting to pioneer a winter crossing of Norway's high mountain ranges, in particular the Hardangervidda. One might observe that the word danger appears in the name, which is pure coincidence, but in no way misleading. (In fact, the author's great uncle, Henrik Reimers, died while skiing in a white out blizzard on the Hardangervidda.) Preparations for these trips were meticulous: Nansen's journeys were studied intensely and equipment design based on his own; Mistakes from past trips were never repeated; Ski equipment, clothing and sleeping bags were always under scrutiny, being modified and optimized. The first trip started from the railhead at Kroderen on Christmas day 1893. After skiing in the foot hills for forty miles the group of three reached the Hardangervidda proper. The snow was very soft, very wet and very sticky, after many days mucking about in this mess, one member of the party had to go home from Hovin. The other two carried on, finally reaching a mountain farm call Mogen where they spent the night outside in their sleeping bags at -40°C. A blizzard forced them to turn back without finishing the crossing.

Notable ski trips
taken by Young Amundsen.
(Click for a blowup)

The next trip was in 1896 with Roald's brother Leon, again the goal was to cross Hardangervidda. Skis, bindings, boots, clothes, food were all modified based on what was learned on the last trip. Starting this time in Kongsberg there was a long prelude before reaching Hardangervidda, which went rather smoothly this time. They reached Mogen and then proceeded to a mountain hut call Sandhaug. Instead of wet snow, this time they were buried in fog and then a storm which covered over their ski tracks so they could not get back to the hut. There were complete white out conditions for days, during which time they wandered around in circles. To top it all off, their food bag disappeared, perhaps taken by an animal. While sleeping in a snow hole, Amundsen was actually frozen in, Leon had to dig him out. Eventually they made it back down to the forests from where they came, apparently defeated again by the Hardangervidda. But there were reports from Garen in the west, of ski tracks heading off to east, they must have belonged to the Amundsen brothers. They planned to be away for one week, they returned after three. The story made the national newspapers. On Hardangervidda one can make a few mistakes and survive, the brothers were indeed pushing the envelope in this regard. In Antarctica, for example, such mistakes will usually be fatal. Amundsen realized this and was always careful not to push the envelope on his future adventures in the polar regions.

In-between these ski adventures were periods at sea on sealing vessels, culminating in a mate's certificate. His ultimate goal was a Master's certificate, which would mean he could captain a ship in foreign waters. From his careful study of polar literature he was aware that hiring someone to captain a ship would mean divided command, and this often led to problems. Posterity would show that Nansen's drift in Fram was a glaring counterexample this problem: Nansen was undisputed leader while Otto Sverdrup was captain of the ship, and there was never a trace of problems from the divided command on that expedition. On the sealing vessels Amundsen was mainly interested in how the ships were constructed in order to withstand the pack ice, and in how to navigate through it.

During this time Amundsen was thinking about starting his own venture, the first being a trip to Spitzbergen in order to claim it for Norway. The second was a trip to Graham land on a Norwegian whaler. Skis and dogs would be used to explore the interior of Graham land, and native seal meat would provide food the dogs. Neither of the plans materialized, but it is interesting to note that at the age of twenty two Amundsen already knew exactly how one should go about traveling in Antarctica. Amundsen knew full well that skiing, sailing and driving dogs were the three main skills required for polar exploration. While he had two skiing expeditions under his belt, there were no opportunities to learn dog driving in Norway at that time. It would be another 7 years before he would get chance to work up such skills.

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