Wednesday marks the centenary of Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen’s epic achievement – the first man to reach the South Pole.
At 3 p.m. on Dec. 14, 1911, his five-man team (and the remaining 16 of what had once been a pack of 52 dogs) reached the geographical pole.
With frost-bitten hands, they took turns planting the Norwegian flag in the snow, erected a tent – at 89 degrees, 56S – and named the site Poleheim.
Then they celebrated their historic quest, with seal meat and postprandial cigars.
Two months earlier, they had started out from a base camp at Framheim on the Ross Shelf, in a frantic race to beat rival British explorer, Captain Robert Falcon Scott.
Scott and his team arrived at the site more than a month later, only to discover the bitter truth: the cross of St. Olav waving in the wind, along with a note from Amundsen and a letter for Norway’s King Haakon VII.
“It is a terrible disappointment,” Scott wrote in his diary. “All the daydreams must go; it will be a wearisome return.”
There would have been no victory, Amundsen knew, without meticulous planning.
“This is the greatest factor,” he would later write, “the way in which the expedition is equipped – the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it. 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”
Amundsen’s ability to prepare for all Antarctic contingencies owed a great deal to the years he spent in the Arctic, living among the Inuit.
Between 1903-06, Amundsen successfully guided his ship, the Gjoa, through the Northwest Passage – another first.
In The Blinding Sea, a documentary film scheduled for release in March, and in an article published this fall in Canada’s History, Montreal writer and filmmaker George Tombs chronicles the critical role played by the explorer’s exposure to Inuit culture.
Amundsen already had learned something about inhospitable climates, having accompanied a Belgian expedition to Patagonia in 1897.
But it was his two years with Netsilik Inuit in Gjoa Haven, in what is now northeast Nunavut, that taught him tactics essential to survival in polar extremities.
From the Inuit, according to Mr. Tombs, he learned how to build snow houses, drive dog teams, slaughter and feed frail dogs to strong ones during long sled trips, hunt effectively for food, manufacture tools, and dress in suitable polar clothing,” usually parkas made from caribou and seal skin.
More critically, he learned how to ward off scurvy by consuming fresh meat and the undigested seaweed in the intestines of hunted seals.
They managed to communicate using a combination of Norse and the Netsilik’s Inuktitut dialect.
Amundsen’s contact, however, was more than simply instructional. Living among the aboriginals, Amundsen fathered a son – Luke Iquallaq – with an Inuit woman named Quleoq. In the Inuit tradition of occasionally sharing wives with male visitors, it is possible that she may have already been married.
Amundsen never met his son; he had left Gjoa Haven by the time the boy was born.
Luke Iquallaq became a Hudson Bay Co employee and a soapstone carver. He died in 1979, only days after disclosing to his children the truth of his biological origins.
Amundsen’s Canadian descendants continue to live in the region. Mr. Tombs quotes a great-great-grandson, Damien Iquallaq, as saying that the knowledge imparted by the natives “is what made him so ready for the environment. All that knowledge gave him the skills and abilities to survive.”
Unlike most of the white explorers that followed him, says Mr. Tombs, Amundsen recognized the collected wisdom of the Inuit. “[He]admired the ingenuity, resourcefulness and good humour of the Inuit and hoped civilization would never reach them.”
In turn, the Inuit regarded the Norwegian “as one of their own. They shared a life together. He was a positive influence among them.”
In preparing his one-hour documentary, Mr. Tombs says he filmed in many of the places lived in and visited by Amundsen, including the Antarctic peninsula.
“I didn’t just want to rely on archival documents,” he says, “but to show what it’s like to live in these places. I spent one winter in the Beaufort Sea, with -56 C. temperatures. It gave me the fear of God. We had access to satellite communications and, if we needed it, a helicopter. Imagine what it was like for him.”
A decade after his polar conquest, Amundsen sailed through the Northeast Passage of Siberia. Although his name was linked with various women, he never married. But during the Siberian voyage, at the request of her father, he adopted a motherless five-year-old Siberian Chukchi girl, Cakonita.
Later, Cakonita and another half-Siberian girl accompanied him to the United States during a speaking tour. They lived briefly with Amundsen’s brother, Leon, and his wife in Norway, but were sent back to Siberia in 1924. They fled Bolshevik Russia in 1926 for Nome, Alaska, where Cakonita she was officially registered in immigration records as ‘Nita Amundsen,’ and eventually settled in Canada.
In an interview, her daughter, Gloria Corbould, told Mr. Tombs that Amundsen probably saved her mother’s life by bringing her to Norway. But she saw little of him, owing to his busy lecture schedule. “He was a driven man,” she said, “an adventurer, a loner. She represented the family that he never really had.”
Becoming interested in air travel, in 1926 Amundsen joined an international crew that is thought to have been the first to reach the North Pole by air, although the claim is disputed.
He died in June, 1928, age 55, when his plane – attempting to rescue another lost crew – is believed to have crashed in the Barents Sea. Neither the plane nor his body were ever found.