As I was finishing a book about polar explorer, Roald Amundsen, I re-watched the Martin Scorsese film, The Aviator, about Howard Hughes. It occurred to me that many of these feats tied together with other major world events and I wanted to know more, so I pieced together this timeline. Amundsen was a ship captain, but he was also an early adopter and learned how to fly a plane. These eras of exploration fascinate me. They were willing to lay it all out of the line. Amazing stories of courage in an amazing time of technological advances in the world.
1888 – 1889
Norway’s Fridjof Nansen crosses Greenland. He becomes an inspiration for a young Roald Amundsen, and later a mentor, and a national hero for his countrymen.
Nansen builds his ship, the Fram (which is Norwegian for “forward”), and explores near the North Pole; he survives a winter in the Antarctic in a wooden hut, killing bears and walrus.
A young Roald Amundsen serves as first mate and American Frederick Cook is the surgeon on a Belgian expedition; when the ship gets trapped, the crew becomes the first to survive an Arctic winter.
Brits Robert Scott with crew mate Ernest Shackleton attempt, but fail, to reach the South Pole.
On the 17th attempt, with American Orville Wright at the helm, the Wright Brothers are credited with conquering flight. The Flyer covered 120 feet in 12 seconds. Later Wilbur Wright takes a 59-second flight that covers 852 feet.
Roald Amundsen becomes the first person to navigate the Northwest Passage.
Norway becomes an independent country on May 17. Amundsen is the new nation’s first hero.
My grandfather, Andreas Haave, at 17, boards a ship in Trondheim, Norway, for America.
Shackleton comes within 97 nautical miles of the South Pole, but is forced to turn around because he and his men are ill and starving
Americans Fredrick Cook and Robert Peary both claim to have reached the North Pole, both claims are later disputed and disproved.
Amundsen successfully reaches the South Pole on Dec. 11 on cross country skis and dog sleds, spends four days at the pole taking measurements and observations to make a valid claim. He wins the “Race to the Pole” with Scott by over a month.
American archeologist Hiram Bingham discovers Machu Picchu in Peru on July 24.
Scott reaches the South Pole on Jan 18, but his team perishes on the return. Scott is revered as a romantic tragic figure.
The Titanic sinks on April 15.
Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, drift in ice for nine months before the ship is crushed by the ice beginning a long and arduous survivalist adventure, perhaps the greatest story ever told. In Shackleton’s captain’s quarters, the great explorer kept a number of books, including’s Amundsen’s “The North-West Passage.”
World War I
Roald Dahl is born in Wales to Norwegian parents, who named their son after Amundsen.
Amundsen makes an attempt at the North Pole, following Nansen’s strategy of lodging the ship in ice to drift, hoping that the natural flow would take the ship to the pole via the Northeast Passage. The trip fails to reach the North Pole, but they navigate the Northeast Passage. Amundsen breaks his arm in a fall and is badly injured in an polar bear attack.
Shackleton dies on his ship of a heart attack.
British archaeologist Howard Carter and his workmen discover entrance to King Tut’s tomb in Egypt on Nov. 4.
Brits George Mallory and Sandy Irvine are last seen at 28,400 feet on Mount Everest before disappearing; they were attempting to become the first to ascent the 29,000-foot summit. People believe the pair ‘could’ have made it to the top, but no one will ever know for sure.
Amundsen and American partner and expedition funder Lincoln Ellsworth attempt to reach the North Pole via airplanes; they were not successful and were lucky to survive. One of the two planes is damaged on landing. So they make no attempt for the Pole, they spend a month removing ice and snow to build a runway in frigid conditions with minimal food and no snow removal tools. The world assumes they are dead. With all six men in one plane, they escape death.
Amundsen reaches the North Pole on May 12, the first undisputed claim, in the airship, the Norge, designed and piloted by Italian Umberto Nobile, who is backed by Benito Mussolini. Amundsen, Ellsworth and Nobile drop Norwegian, American and Italian flags on spiked poles into the geographic North Pole ice. Crew member Oscar Wisting and Amundsen become the first men to reach both the South and North Pole.
My favorite book, “The Sun Also Rises” by Ernest Hemingway, is published.
American Charles Lindbergh makes the first solo transatlantic flight from New York to Paris in 33 hours.
Roald Amundsen disappears aboard a French Latham 47 flying boat in the Barents Sea near the North Pole on June 18. Amundsen was 55. He had joined a French rescue effort, attempting to save Umberto Nobile, who had crashed his own plane on a return flight from the Pole.
Howard Hughes gets his pilot’s license.
Black Friday, the stock market crashes in the U.S. triggering the Great Depression.
American Wiley Post and his navigator fly around the world in eight days. He flies at a higher altitude in the jet stream (something he discovered), which allows faster flight, and he develops one of the first pressure suits.
Post completes the trip solo in seven days. He becomes a worldwide hero.
Post perishes, along with his friend, humorist and fellow Oklahoman Will Rogers, in a failed plane takeoff in Alaska. Rogers’ funeral is the biggest funeral in America since Abraham Lincoln’s in 1865. The Will Rogers’ monument in Colorado Springs was under construction at the time of the fatal crash.
Hughes flies his plane, H1, a record 352 mph.
A five-year-old Neil Armstrong takes his first airplane ride with his dad in a Ford Trimotor, also known as the “Tin Goose.”
Hughes breaks the transcontinental record from Burbank to Newark in 7 hours, 28 minutes
Amelia Earhart disappears attempting to circumnavigate the globe.
The German dirigible, Hindenburg, circles a New Jersey airfield for three hours, dropping fuel, but eventually catches fire and crashes. This new mode of air travel sported a swastika and the Olympic Rings, having flown over the 1936 Olympic Games’ Opening Ceremony in Berlin.
Hughes and a crew of four fly around the world in four days in the Spruce Goose. Hughes wanted to promote air travel, but he also was promoting the 1939 New York World’s Fair, which my dad attended. Flying from New York to Paris, Hughes cut Lindbergh’s time in half, crossing the Atlantic in 16 hours, 38 minutes. The plane had every possible new, innovative gadget and instrumentation, many of which are still employed in planes today. His crew included two navigators, a mechanic and a radio engineer. Millions of ham radio operators followed the progress on the ground.
Hughes told the New York Daily News: “There’s no use trying to compare this with Wiley Post’s flight. His feat never will be duplicated. His flight must still remain the most remarkable in history. He did it alone. To make a trip of that kind alone is beyond comprehension.”
Roald Dahl, as fighter pilot in the Royal Air Force, crashed his plane in the Libyan desert, fracturing his skull, smashing his nose and temporarily blinding him. He went on to earn five aerial victories, qualifying him as a ‘flying ace.’
American Chuck Yeager exceeds the speed of sound in flight on Oct. 14, after breaking two ribs from falling off a horse on Oct. 12.
Great Britain’s Edmund Hillary and Nepal’s Tenzing Norgay are credited as the first to summit Mount Everest on May 29, nearly 30 years after Mallory and Irvine’s 1924 attempt. Hillary says, hey, maybe Mallory and Irvine got to the top, but a successful summit requires a successful descent, where you end up not dead. I’m paraphrasing.
Hillary becomes the first person in 46 years, since Amundsen and Scott, to reach the South Pole. This expedition was aided by motorized vehicles and planes that provided reconnaissance and dropped supplies. Amundsen and his men skied 2,100 miles in a period of 99 days. On Nov. 21, the team ascended a glacier travelling 17 miles and climbing 5,000 feet.
Roald Dahl’s book, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” is published.
American Neil Armstrong becomes the first person to walk on the moon on July 21. Buzz Aldrin joined Armstrong minutes later and described the view as “magnificent desolation,” which could easily describe the polar landscapes.
Howard Hughes dies of kidney failure at 70 on a plane in flight. Someone else was piloting.
On April 6, Edmund Hillary, along with Neil Armstrong, first man to walk on the moon; Steve Fossett, first man to fly a balloon around the world; and Patrick Morrow, the first person to climb the highest peaks of all seven continents; fly to the North Pole. They land, get out and “They popped a bottle of champagne, which froze solid before even two glasses were poured.” — Atlas Obscura. The trip was set up by Mike Dunn, who wanted to take the day’s greatest explorers to the North Pole.
Jake Norton, a Colorado College graduate and former Colorado Springs’ resident, gives a lecture at the Shove Chapel, ‘Lost on Everest,’ detailing his experience as part of the 1999 expedition that found the frozen body of George Mallory, who disappeared on the mountain in 1924. I attended that presentation. Another amazing story.
A former longtime British Army officer Henry Worsley leads an expedition to retrace the Ernest Shackleton route to the South Pole from 1909. Worsley is a descendant of Frank Worsley, the captain of Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, in fact, the team was comprised of descendants of the original Shackleton party. They reached Shackleton’s Furthest South — 97 miles away from the pole — exactly 100 years to the day.
Worsley leads a team that retraces both Amundsen and Scott’s South Pole routes to commemorate the 100th anniversary. Worsley leads the Amundsen team, skiing 900 miles unsupported.
At 55, Worsley attempts to complete Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic crossing attempt from 1916, to become the first person to complete the crossing, solo and unsupported in any way. Worsley skiied over 900 miles in 69 days, pulling his equipment and food. He was just 30 miles from completion when he called for help.
“When my hero, Ernest Shackleton, was 97 miles from the South Pole on the morning of January the 9th, 1909, he said he’d shot his bolt. Well, today, I have to inform you with some sadness that I too have shot my bolt.”
He was airlifted off the ice and flown to a hospital in Chile. He died on Jan. 24 of peritonitis.