One of the greatest stories of all-time, in my opinion, is the story of Ernest Shackleton and his ill-fated crew of the Endurance. Shackleton was an early 20th Century polar explorer, but is probably better known today for his leadership abilities in unthinkable circumstances.
Multiple films, documentaries and books were produced at the 100th anniversary of the Endurance adventure.
The ship was crushed in the shifting ice pack in the Antarctic. The crew of 28 set up camp on the ice, and then they relocated via lifeboats to a desolate island of ice and snow, Elephant Island. Shackleton and a few men attempt to go for help by sailing to a whaling station on South Georgia Island 800 miles away. Despite sailing through ridiculous conditions of hurricane force winds, gigantic waves, minimal food and no navigation but the stars, they make it to the island. But shit, they’re on the wrong side of the island and they have to scale snow-capped mountains, which they do with no map in 36 hours. Shackleton then finds a ship that will assist in a rescue of his men stranded on ice island, but it takes four attempts due to the ice. But they finally get there and save everyone. The whole thing took about three years, 1914-1917.
Those years became known as the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.
Shackleton was certainly a hero, but he was also unsuccessful in his major exploration attempts.
“The Last Viking: The Life of Roald Amundsen” by Stephen Bown tells the life story of a guy who got the job done … Roald Amundsen, the greatest polar explorer of all-time … first to the South Pole, first to the North Pole, who successfully navigated the Northwest and Northeast Passage first. But most people are more familiar with Shackleton than Amundsen; this book goes a long way towards making the case for Amundsen.
Shackleton’s bad luck was epic, but bad luck was fairly routine in polar exploration. There was a good chance that you were going to suffer and suffer for a long time and suffer to the brink of death. Plus, you were going to have to eat a fair amount of blubber. Nevertheless, there were nations lining up to explore the globe, seeking glory for their homeland by achieving great feats.
Roald was inspired as a young man to do big things. Amundsen saw how fellow countryman Fridtjof Nansen returned to Norway after crossing Greenland … he was lauded as a national hero. Roald thought, “That’s what I want to do.” To prepare for polar exploration, he slept with his windows open … in the winter. He trained to work as a crew member on a ship and took that experience to later captain a ship and eventually lead an expedition. He was laser-focused and learned from those who went before him and put those lessons into practice.
He went on several expeditions to very cold places; most of them took years.
The most riveting section of The Last Viking centered on the race to the South Pole: Norway vs. Great Britain. I was aware of the basic details of the story from a leadership class I took. Amundsen was a sensible strategist and hands-on leader, who clearly used a better plan than his rival, Robert Scott, who perished on his way back from the pole.
In 2011, the world celebrated the 100-year anniversary of Amundsen’s feat. Because everyone on the crew kept journals and the journals were all translation — for the first time — near the anniversary, all sorts of great details emerge. When Roald would write his official accounts of his exploits, he was often downplayed the difficulties of the missions.
But the author of The Last Viking did a good job of researching the man and the times and flushing out the true story of his exploits and tells a full picture. Amundsen was a flawed man, but what he accomplished is indisputable. He had financial problems. He had public disputes with business partners. He had affairs with married women.
The British Royal Geographical Society held sway in much of the scientific community and when their boy — Captain Scott — ended up taking an eternal ice nap, for whatever reason, they discredited Amundsen. Not disputing the feat, but his motivations and tactics. They depicted him as being relentlessly ambitious, which I think is comical, and that he wasn’t motivated by pure scientific goals, which is also funny. That was a guise that these explorers used to get funding. The larger goal was to get to the Pole. Amundsen had the best plan and he executed.
America did not care about that scientific stuff. Amundsen toured the U.S. over and over, telling his stories. The New York Times wrote over 400 stories on Amundsen.
But because of his often poor financials, later in life, he had to cede total control of his expeditions. The pilot of the airship, the Norge, that flew to the North Pole was Italian named Nobile. He was a military man and he was under orders from Mussolini to go get some glory for Italy. That story was unbelievable and almost funny too. Getting to the North Pole turned out to be the easy part, the exit flight over uncharted territory was fraught with dangers.
My grandfather was born in Trondheim, Norway. In 1906 at the age of 17, Andreas Haave boarded a ship for America, all alone, speaking no English. I was going to like Roald Amundsen and The Last Viking no matter what, but I like the book and it sparked a larger interest in me to learn more about my Norwegian roots and my new interest in the heroes of that age … the polar explorers, the aviators … that spirit.
One of my favorite parts about the book was Roald’s relationship with Nansen, his inspiration who became his mentor. In fact, Amundsen borrowed Nansen’s famous ship for the South Pole expedition. The ship was named Fram, which is Norwegian for ‘forward.’ I like that. I like that a lot.
Fram is on display in its own museum in Oslo. I’m going to have to visit.