Wednesday, 2 June 2010


Today I gazed upon the face of Roald Amundsen. It was a picture of a statue, I admit, but all the same, it was enough to remind me of the man’s steely grit. I was flagging on the cleaning front, having packed up the house and being left on cleaning duty, it was becoming DECIDEDLY BORING. Luckily I came across Roald’s craggy stare just as I was wondering how to skive out of the housework, and he more or less ordered me to stop lounging around on the lawn and get on with it.

Roald Amundsen was of course famous for being hot on leadership, and famous for being hot on leadership in very cold places. I, meanwhile, am particularly unhot on cleaning, but unlike Roald, I had not been planning this as my vocation since childhood. So he had a head start, you might say.

Little Roald was born at Borge near Sarpsborg in 1872 . Despite the place being situated on the southern coast of Norway, from an early age he was interested in properly freezing places and dreamed of being a polar explorer. He read every book on the subject he could get his fleecy mitts on, but his Mum was having none of it.

‘Oh Roald, why seek the North West Passage?’ she asked. ‘Just because Sir John Franklin failed to do it in 1845 doesn’t mean it’s up to be a good boy and go study medicine.’

Which he did. Until she died. And then he immediately began studying for his master’s licence (he had already decided that most polar expeditions failed as a result of poor leadership). By 1897 he was sailing to the Antarctic as the first mate on a Belgian expedition when the ship froze into the ice and the captain fell ill with scurvy. Amundsen took command and over the next 13 months, with the ship encased in ice, he successfully displayed his remarkable leadership skills along with his famous grit.

In 1903 Amundsen set sail from Oslo to realize his dream of finding the North West Passage. After two years of taking magnetic readings, studying the Inuit and learning how to drive dog teams, they sailed on and successfully navigated the North West Passage. Tick Number One. Something to write on Facebook, at least.

So the next goal was to reach the North Pole, but just after persuading his good friend Nansen to lend him is ship ‘Fram’, Amundsen heard that Robert Peary had just reached the Pole. ‘Oh bother,’ said Roald as he turned his attention to the South Pole instead.

As he set off in 1910 he heard that Robert Falcon Scott had come up with the same plan and a British expedition was already underway. The race was on. Amundsen’s party arrived at the South Pole on 14th December 1911. And, as every British school child knows, Scott’s party arrived at the Pole on 17th January 1912, only to find the Norwegian flag already there.

I find the stories of both of these extraordinary men and their expeditions very moving. Scott’s was tragic, not just because he had failed to reach the Pole first, but because he and four other men died of starvation and cold on the route back. But he has also gone down in history as being one of the great leaders of the last century, and the story of his ill-fated expedition is gripping. For some reason, Amundsen’s achievement has been felt by historians to have made the expedition look too easy. Well, I’d like to see THEM try. Others have argued that perhaps Amundsen, having studied the Inuit and learnt how to work with nature very closely, was better prepared than Scott, and that Scott was also unlucky.

The real point is that both of them displayed exceptional leadership skills, and both of them did reach the South Pole. It was a great moment for the newly independent Norway, and we Brits all know what the Norwegian flag looks like when planted in snow as a result.

This particular statue of Amundsen is in Tromso. I was wondering why the tourist shop up there doesn't sell 'Amundsen Grit' in little bottles. It's useful stuff.


  1. I have deep respect for both Amundsen and Scott, but for me the greatest of them all is Ernest Shackleton. True, Amundsen was the first one to reach the South Pole. However, history tells us that his leadership skills were much debated, even back then. When reading "Endurance" by Shackleton one understands what a great leader he was, what a remarkable achievement it was to return to Europe with his entire crew intact, and what an extraordinary explorer he was.....

  2. Tor,
    Absolutely. The Shackleton story is extraordinary, and certainly to be recommend to anyone interested in polar exploration. Huntford's book on him is another great read by the same author I have mentioned re Nansen, and now Scott and Amundsen.
    I haven't really mentioned the Oslo museums, especially the 'Fram' museum....fantastic!

  3. Hi,
    I'm hoping you can help me. In the next issue of a magazine I help produce, we intend to run a short piece about Amundsen reaching the South Pole 100 years ago. While web-searching I came across your blog and I wonder if you would allow us to use the statue image? We would of course print an appropriate photo credit including your website if applicable, and post you a copy of the printed magazine. If you can help in this matter I would be most appreciative. For more information I can be contacted at