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December 14, 1911 

Roald Amundsen reaches the South Pole

Detail from a drawing that appeared in the magazine "Vikingen" 2.11.1909 src="https://dms-cf-09.dimu.org/image/013AjPwgLNaT?dimension=1200x1200"/>
Detail from a drawing that appeared in the magazine "Vikingen" 2.11.1909

When the North Pole became the South Pole

Chapter 1

Tuesday, November 10, 1908

The Norwegian Geographical Society arranges a meeting in the great hall of the Old Lodge in Kristiania.

The room is full.

The King, members of the government, diplomats and scientists, including Fridtjof Nansen - everyone is eagerly waiting to hear the man who is climbing to the podium.

Roald Amundsen is 36 years old. It is two years since he returned from his last expedition and wrote himself into polar history as the conqueror of the Northwest Passage.

Now a new plan will be presented.


“With Fram equipped for seven years and a skilled crew, I leave Norway in the beginning of 1910. The course is set round Cape Horn for San Francisco, where coal and provisions are taken on board. Then we set course from here for Point Barrow, America's northernmost point, where I hope to be in July-August [...]”


“The course is set from here in a N-NW direction towards the drift ice, where we will then seek out the most favourable place for further penetration to the north. Once this has been found, we search as far as possible and get ready for a four-to-five-year drift across the Arctic Ocean.”

In preparation, Amundsen has undergone training in marine research and has been in close contact with both Fridtjof Nansen and the marine scientist Bjørn Helland-Hansen.

The plan to drift across the Arctic Ocean has great scientific potential.

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    In the summer of 1908, Amundsen goes to Bergen to participate in a "series of marine surveys in the Bergen fjords", the newspapers can report. The stay lasts two months, and in the following spring he is back on a new six-week course. Several of the crew also receive similar training. The teacher is Bjørn Helland-Hansen (right), who becomes an important figure in the expedition preparations. He will also be one of the few people aware of Amundsen’s new plans for the South Pole before departure. Photo: Follo Museum, MiA.

Sunday, March 7, 1909  

Photographer Anders Beer Wilse has come to visit Roald Amundsen. Amundsen poses at his desk and by the stove in the living room, and outside in the snow.

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In the norwegian version of the book "My life as an polar explorer" (Gyldendal, 1927), this photo has been subtitled "Roald Amundsen on the South Pole expedition". Photo: Anders Beer Wilse, National Library of Norway. src="https://dms-cf-09.dimu.org/image/013AjPqAHBw4?dimension=1200x1200"/>
In the norwegian version of the book "My life as an polar explorer" (Gyldendal, 1927), this photo has been subtitled "Roald Amundsen on the South Pole expedition". Photo: Anders Beer Wilse, National Library of Norway.

One image will later become iconic.

But he knows nothing about it this now, as he poses looking out over Bunnefjord.

Chapter 2

  • Carl Hagenbeck. Phto: Wikimedia Commons

Amundsen has a bold plan

He wants to train polar bears so that they can pull his sledges. The German animal trainer Carl Hagenbeck gets the job.

Hagenbeck is an optimist. He tells journalists that it will also be possible to teach the bears to sleep in tents at night, so that Amundsen and the others can lie next to a soft and warm polar bear every time they camp.

When the newspapers ask Amundsen about the polar bear plan, he replies:

Detail from a drawing that appeared in the magazine "Vikingen" 2.11.1909 src="https://dms-cf-08.dimu.org/image/013AjPwgM35r?dimension=1200x1200"/>
Detail from a drawing that appeared in the magazine "Vikingen" 2.11.1909

The experiment will succeed best in the South Polar regions, where the trained animals would not encounter wild polar bears.

Source: Norges Sjøfartstidende. 28.8.1907 / National Library of Norway

But even though he is optimistic, the polar bears are never used on any expedition. As early as the summer of 1908, Amundsen gives up.

The polar bears are such that once they have got used to the warmth, they cannot bear to be brought back to the cold again. And the training took too long. The animals were both willing and obedient. But when such animals are civilized, they do not thrive in the polar cold. When I last saw them at Hagenbeck's they were so over-cultivated that they used iron bars from the cage as toothpicks, no, it does not work, you see, when they become such bon vivants

Source: Bratsberg-Demokraten. 17.7.1909 / National Library of Norway

Amundsen experiments not only with draft animals

In July 1909, he tests specially made kites near Horten. These can take a human several hundred metres up into the air, which will be useful for reconnaissance on the journey across the Arctic Ocean.

The expedition's deputy leader, Ole Engelstad, describes the equipment to the journalists present:

Photo: Norwegian Aviation Museum / unknown photographer src="https://dms-cf-01.dimu.org/image/013AjPqAHCAH?dimension=1200x1200"/>
Photo: Norwegian Aviation Museum / unknown photographer

«It all consists of two bottomless boxes of a light fabric, connected by thin rods. Wings are attached to one end to strengthen the lifting capacity. By the way, six more kites are needed, which are set up on top of each other, in order to lift man and gondola.»

Photo: Norwegian Aviation Museum / unknown photographer src="https://dms-cf-05.dimu.org/image/013AjPqAHCAD?dimension=1200x1200"/>
Photo: Norwegian Aviation Museum / unknown photographer

Engelstad explains that the kites can lift a person 500 metres into the air.

Photo: Norwegian Aviation Museum / unknown photographer src="https://dms-cf-10.dimu.org/image/013AjPqAHCAF?dimension=1200x1200"/>
Photo: Norwegian Aviation Museum / unknown photographer

«And then one can get a good reconnaissance of the landscape. It can probably be useful when it comes to finding a way through the ice. But if we send up a kite alone without weight, it can reach 8000 metres. Then one can hang instruments on it and take measurements of the temperature high up and much more.»

Source: Jarlsberg og Larviks Amtstidende. 12.7.1909 

Thursday, July 22, 1909

Roald Amundsen receives a visit from the expedition's deputy leader Ole Engelstad and marine scientist Bjørn Helland-Hansen.

It will be the last time Amundsen sees Engelstad alive.

  • Ole Engelstad was intended to have an important role in the expedition and was heavily involved in the preparations. Photo: Follo Museum, MiA

The following day Engelstad goes out to Vealøs off Horten to test fly the kites, together with the aviation pioneer, Einar Sem-Jacobsen. 

They send up a kite, fastened to the ground with a long copper wire.

At four o’clock the thunderstorm hits Horten.

Engelstad touches the copper wire that is attached to the kite.

«There's quite a lot of electricity in the air now. I grabbed the cable and got a real shock,» he said to Sem-Jacobsen.

To avoid any greater injury, they decide to let the kite hang in the air until the storm is over.

No one wants to risk a major shock.

But it still happens that Engelstad changes his mind.

He watched the clouds for a while and then began to crank in the kite that was up. A blinding flash suddenly lit up the whole kite string, the winch was enveloped in smoke, and they saw Engelstad collapse.

Einar Sem-Jacobsen recounted the accident in the book "Til veirs på norske vinger" [“Aloft on Norwegian wings”] (Gyldendal, 1930) by Odd Arnesen and Einar Sem-Jacobsen.

Lightning strikes his body and exits through his hands and feet. His boots almost burn up and the grass beneath is left charred.

It is over in seconds.

Unconscious, Engelstad falls backwards. There is a burnt smell and smoke comes from the body. People run forward – there is still a pulse – but time is short.

Engelstad is carried aboard a motorboat. But it is in vain.

Ole Engelstad never regains consciousness and is declared dead when he comes ashore.

Engelstad's body is later transported to Porsgrunn where his funeral takes place.

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    During the South Pole journey, Amundsen named a mountain in Ole Engelstad’s honour. After he returned to Norway in 1912, he also contributed to the erection of a memorial in Engelstad’s hometown of Porsgrunn. Photo: Follo Museum, MiA.

Chapter 3

Wednesday, September 1, 1909

The message that turns everything upside down.

«North Pole reached,» write the Norwegian newspapers.

The American Frederick Cook claims that he and his Inuit companions Ittukusuk and Aapila have become the first to reach the North Pole. This is said to have happened on April 21, 1908. 

On their way home from the Pole, they have overwintered in a shelter in the far north of Canada, but now Cook is on his way back and has set course for Copenhagen.

Source: Danish Film Institute.

But it isn’t long before doubts arise.

Maybe Cook has not been as far north as he claims?

Amundsen does nothing but believe in his old friend from the Belgica expedition. He tells the newspapers that Cook's expedition was "planned as a sports affair," and that it will have no effect on his own expedition.

Tuesday, September 7, 1909

  • Stavanger Aftenblad 7.9.1909 / National Library of Norway.

Another surprising news headline.

“Stars and Stripes nailed to North Pole.” The message comes from another American, Robert Peary.

Peary also believes that he has been to the North Pole. On April 6, 1909, according to him, he stood there as the first to do so.

But can either of them prove it?

Who is telling the truth?

Perhaps Cook, perhaps Peary, perhaps neither of them.

For Amundsen, it changes things in any case.

Are these photographs from the North Pole? Frederick Cook (left) and Robert Peary (right) each believed that his photo was taken at the northernmost point of the earth. Photos: United States Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division / Wikimedia Commons.

According to him, Amundsen makes his decision the same day as the newspapers print the news of Robert Peary's expedition, September 7, 1909.

He decides that his expedition will have a new goal, which will be the pole still no one thinks they have reached, and the reason is financial. Amundsen later explains:

but in view of the altered circumstances, and the small prospect I now had of obtaining funds for my original plan, I considered it neither mean nor unfair to my supporters to strike a blow that would at once put the whole enterprise on its feet, retrieve the heavy expenses that the expedition had already incurred, and save the contributions from being wasted.

"The South Pole" (John Murray, 1912, vol. 1:48)

But great uncertainty remains. The crew receives only a preliminary message:

The expedition’s departure has had to be postponed for some months due to various delays. The departure will probably take place in July 1910.

Excerpt from letter to Oscar Wisting 8.9.1909
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    An undated note, probably from September 7, 1909, written by Roald Amundsen to his brother and collaborator Leon Amundsen. Here Leon is instructed to inform Captain Thorvald Nilsen and the rest of the crew that the expedition has been postponed until July 1910. Photo: National Library of Norway.

On Thursday, September 8, Roald Amundsen boards the train to Copenhagen, his destination is the Hotel Phoenix where Frederick Cook is staying.

Officially, Amundsen has taken the trip to be part of honouring Cook. Twenty-five years later, Cook will relate that there was also talk of other things:


Amundsen told me in confidence that he was about ready to take the Fram to the Bering Sea for another try at the Pole. He asked me about the currents, the weather, and what I thought of the prospects. I advised against the execution of the enterprize because at first I believed he could only duplicate the voyage of Nansen and Sverdrup. Furthermore, I said the North Pole is now out of the picture [,] why not try for the South Pole.

Amundsen is said to have been silent for a few seconds, before answering:

The Fram is not a good sea boat for the heavy South seas. But this is the thing to do. Let me think it over.

These quotes from Frederick Cook's rendering of the meeting with Amundsen are taken from Cook's archive kept at the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center, Ohio State University. Reproduced earlier in "Scott and Amundsen" (Hodder and Stoughton, 1979) by Roland Huntford.

This is how it happened, if one can trust Frederick Cook.

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    A blurred photograph in an unclear situation. The photograph was taken at the Hotel Phoenix in September 1909. On the left is the Norwegian polar explorer Otto Sverdrup, who also participated in the tribute to Cook. Cook sits in the middle, Roald Amundsen on the right. Photo: Arctic Institute, unknown photographer.
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    The equipment and dogs described are the same as originally ordered from the Royal Greenland Trading Department. The order was later expanded to include one hundred dogs. Photo: National Library of Norway.

Originally, Amundsen had planned to pick up dogs in Alaska on his way north. But in Copenhagen he writes a letter to Jens Daugaard-Jensen, Inspector of Greenland, that contains an order for dogs and equipment from there.

The order is written on Frederick Cook's letterhead.

When journalists ask, "Do these things with Peary and Cook have any effect on your business?"

Amundsen replies:

"They will not bring a trace of change in my plans."

Chapter 4

  • Robert Falcon Scott (1868-1912) had extensive experience from the British Navy and had previously led an expedition to Antarctica. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, September 13, 1909

The next big surprise comes from England, from Robert Falcon Scott.

The Briton who in 1901-1904 failed to reach the South Pole will now try again.

Scott plans to use horses, dogs, and motor sledges, in addition to the men pulling the sledges themselves.

Before he heads south, Scott also wants to go to Norway - to test the motor sledges, to meet Fridtjof Nansen and to get equipment.

Together with his wife, Kathleen, Scott comes to Norway in March 1910. During his stay, he is introduced to the Norwegian Tryggve Gran, whom he recruits to join the expedition. They then go to Fefor in Gudbrandsdalen to test the motor sledges and equipment.

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    The motor sledges attracted a great deal of attention from the local people in Norway. Photo: Hans H. Lie / Maihaugen.
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    Photo: Hans H. Lie / Maihaugen.
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    Photo: Hans H. Lie / Maihaugen.
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    A motor sledge ride on the lake with the locals in tow. Photo: Hans H. Lie / Maihaugen.
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    Photo: Hans H. Lie/ Maihaugen.

While in Norway, Scott also wants to meet Roald Amundsen. Perhaps his work in the south can have a comparative value with the work Amundsen intends to do in the north?

Together with Tryggve Gran, he arranges a meeting with Roald Amundsen in his home Uranienborg in Svartskog. They drive out on the narrow, bad winter roads, but when they arrive, they are surprised.

Roald Amundsen is nowhere to be seen.

Only Roald’s brother Gustav appears.

Just over an hour goes by without Roald Amundsen showing up. Eventually, Scott and Gran return to Oslo disappointed.

What could have been a historic meeting never materialized.

Where Roald Amundsen was during these hours, and whether he avoided meeting Scott on purpose, no one knows.

On the desk at Roald Amundsen's House is a pile of blotting paper bearing mostly illegible writing.


But one word is clearly legible.

Written in one corner is "Scott".

Chapter 5

Nansen and Fram

As early as the autumn of 1907, Roald Amundsen went to Lysaker, outside Oslo, to the home of Fridtjof Nansen. This was the man Amundsen referred to as:

"the prophet, whom I always looked up to with awe."

Nansen was the nation's polar hero. He had led the first expedition across the Greenland ice sheet (1888) and the heroic Fram expedition across the Arctic Ocean (1893-1896). He was the scientist, the national hero, and the polar explorer, and he had plans for more expeditions. Among other things, he wanted to go to the South Pole, which would mean another long period away from his wife Eva.

when the da came and Amundsen was standing in the hall waiting for his answer, Eva could not disguise her anxiety. She was up in the bedroom and she heard Father’s slow tread above her head. She looked at him, eyebrows raised, as she came in, but all she said was: 'I know what it will be.' Father walked out again without a word and down the stairs to the hall, where he met another pair of anxious eyes. 'You shall have Fram,' he said.

So described Nansen’s daughter Liv the moment when her father decided to entrust Fram to Amundsen, which at the same time meant abandoning the opportunity to lead an expedition of his own to the South Pole. Quote taken from “Nansen : a family portrait” (Longmans, Green 1957: 168).


In the summer of 1910, Amundsen acquired another important element in reaching the South Pole.  An overwintering hut.

Jørgen Stubberud and his brother Harald, born and raised in Svartskog, will be responsible for building the hut, together with several of the expedition members. Materials are purchased at Skedsmo Dampsag and Høvleri's outlet in Oslo.

The hut will be 8 metres long, 4 metres wide and 5 metres high under the apex.

The plan is to erect it on the grass by the flagpole outside Uranienborg and then dismantle it and load it aboard the Fram. That way, they can quickly rebuild it when they arrive in Antarctica.

But still, few people know where the hut will actually be used. Amundsen tells the journalists that the hut will be important on the journey across the Arctic Ocean.


We bring with us a fully finished wooden house that can be set up on the ice and from where the investigations can take place

Norsk Idrætsblad, Christmas issue, 1909 / National Library of Norway

The work becomes both easier and more reliable for those who conduct the investigations when they can be in a good house - and moreover, one has the great advantage that the ice holes through which the sounding takes place are in the house and thus do not freeze.

Moss Tilskuer 11.8.1910 / National Library of Norway

The hut is later named Framheim.


Chapter 6

In December 1909, Amundsen applies to the Norwegian Storting (Parliament) for more money, without informing them that the expedition has been given a southern sub-goal. He bases the application on his need for more money to pay for a larger crew for a longer period, but is rejected.

Although the Storting will give no more, both King Haakon and Queen Maud are enthusiastic about the expedition.

Thursday, June 2, 1910 

The royal couple arrive on board the Fram, having come straight from England where they attended the funeral of the queen’s father, King Edward VII. According to some, the queen looks worn out, and the king is also understood to be clearly moved and fraught.

On deck they are received by Amundsen. Fridtjof Nansen is also on board and standing behind are the crew in blue suits. One by one they are presented to the royal couple.

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    King Haakon greets Fridtjof Nansen. Roald Amundsen stands to the left. Photo: Follo Museum, MiA
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    Amundsen and the King in conversation. Photo: Follo Museum, MiA
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    In turn, the crew shook hands with the King… Photo: Follo Museum, MiA
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    ...and the Queen. Photo: Follo Museum, MiA
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    The King showed great interest during the tour on board. Photo: Follo Museum, MiA
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    The flags are hoisted. Photo: Follo Museum, MiA
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    The King and Amundsen look down at the rudder housing. Photo: Follo Museum, MiA
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    Roald Amundsen says goodbye to the royal couple. Photo: Follo Museum, MiA
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    Nansen tips his hat. Photo: Follo Museum, MiA
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    Nansen and several of the crew look over the ship's side, Amundsen in the middle with his back to camera. Photo: Follo Museum, MiA

They gather in the large study to hear the King speak. The King emphasizes the value of science and says that wars these days are not fought with swords, but through pioneering scientific work. The expedition is presented with signed portraits of the king, queen and Crown Prince Olav, and a silver mug. 

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    The portraits of the royal family were hung on board the Fram and were later also taken on the Maud expedition (1918-1925) and the voyage with the airship Norge across the Arctic Ocean (1926). Finally, they found a place on the wall in the blue living room in Roald Amundsen's House. Photo: Follo Museum, MiA.

Monday, June 6, 1910

At home at Uranienborg a farewell party is thrown. Moored just offshore is Fram and on board are the equipment and materials for Framheim. Ashore are Amundsen, the crew, and relatives and friends. In the garden are tables covered with flowers and cakes, and in the glasses there is sparkling wine. The gentlemen smoke cigars. Everyone has turned up to wish their loved ones a good trip north, ready to say goodbye for perhaps seven years.

One of the guests raises a glass and urges them to send good thoughts north in the coming years. Amundsen thanks them.

Roald's brother Leon comes running at the last minute, having punctured on the way when cycling over a broken horseshoe.

The horseshoe is nailed to the mast in the vestibule, for good luck.

Then the engine is started, the anchor is weighed and Fram begins the journey out into the fjord.

Only a few know where they are really going.

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    Fram moored off Roald Amundsen's home before departure in summer 1910. Photo: Norwegian Polar Institute / National Library of Norway

Read more about the expedition

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