One of Norway’s most celebrated sons, Roald Amundsen (1872–1928) was intent on becoming a polar explorer from his early teens. He read everything there was to read on the subject, even training as a sea captain in preparation, and, in 1897, embarked with a Belgian expedition upon his first trip to Antarctica. Undeterred by a winter on the ice after the ship broke up, he was soon planning his own expedition. In 1901, he purchased a sealer, the Gjøa, in Tromsø, leaving in June 1903 to spend three years sailing and charting the Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific. The Gjøa (now on display in Oslo) was the first vessel to complete this extraordinary voyage, which tested Amundsen and his crew to the very limits. Long searched for, the Passage had for centuries been something of a nautical Holy Grail and the voyage’s progress – and at times the lack of it – was headline news right across the world.
Amundsen’s next target was the North Pole, but during his preparations, in 1909, the American admiral and explorer Robert Peary got there first. Amundsen immediately switched his attention to the South Pole, and in 1910 set out in a new ship, the Fram (also exhibited in Oslo), for the Antarctic, which he reached on December 14, 1911, famously beating the British expedition of Captain Scott by just a couple of weeks.
Neither did Amundsen’s ambitions end there: in 1926, he became one of the first men to fly over the North Pole in the airship of the Italian Umberto Nobile, though it was this last expedition that did for Amundsen: in 1928, the Norwegian flew north out of Tromsø in a bid to rescue the stranded Nobile and was never seen again.