Roman and Mediaeval History, Illlustrated Travel Journals, Mediaeval Literature, Geology

  To the South Pole - The Fram Museum in Oslo, Part 2

Here we go on our second expedition with the Fram (actually, it's the third voyage the ship made, but the more interesting one to go with photos of the interior of the Fram), Roald Amundsen's little trip to the South Pole. :)

The interior of the ship is very dark and cramped. They did put in some lamps but you still get a feel how it must have been like when the Fram drifted through the Polar night.

The cabins were small, a bunk bed that doubled as seat, with storage room underneath, a nightstand with drawers that also served as work table, a few hooks and a bookshelf (in some cabins). My cabin on the Hurtigruten tour was quite a bit larger. :)

Interior of the Fram, mess room
(The grammophone and piano were the few traces of luxury.)

Roald Amundsen (born 1872) came form a family of shipowners and captains, and abandoned his studies of medicine in order to become an explorer. His first independent tour led him through the Northwest Passage (1903 - 1906) on a rather small yacht called Gjøa. He traveled via Baffin Bay and stayed in Gjøa Haven (Nunavut, Canada) for two winters; until he eventually managed to clear a way to Beaufort Sea and from there into the Bering Strait, thus completing the navigation of the Northwest Passage.

During the time Amundsen spent in Nunavut, he became fascinated with the culture of the Inuit. He learned a lot from them: to build an igloo, to coat the sledge runners with ice to speed them up, to hunt with a harpoon; the advantages of sealskin clothes (the Goretex of the time) compared to the heavy woolens of western people. All this would prove useful on his later expeditions.

The Fram Museum displays pieces of the equipment in the cabins. Most of those are protected from the public by glass windows in the doors (I suppose the danger that smaller items somehow would grow legs is too big, since the ship is a labyrinth a guard could not oversee). So it was photographing through glass again, and with bad illumination to boot. Fun.

The galley

For his next expedition, Amundsen planned to reach the North Pole. He wanted to use the same approach as Nansen, have a ship drift through the ice, only starting from a different point - approaching from the Bering Strait - that would get him closer to the pole. But then news spread that Frederick Cook as well and Robert Erwin Peary (both Americans) claimed to have reached the Pole in 1909, which made Amundsen's plan sorta pointless - reaching a particular spot in a vast desert of ice and planting a flag there only counts if you're the first to do so.

Amundsen had already gotten the Fram for his expedition (which he equipped with a Diesel engine) and collected some money, so he merely changed his plans, all in secret, too - only his brother and the captain Thorvald Nilsen learned about it. Since reaching the Bering Strait would have meant sailing around Cape Horn anyway, he aimed for the South Pole instead. One of the reasons Amundsen was so sneaky about the changed destination was the fact that he didn't want to alert Robert F. Scott of the competition too early. The British marine officer planned to set out for the South Pole in August 1910.

Amundsen picked 18 men to accompany him (though some would remain on the Fram while the pole expedition was going on; the ship should meanwhile explore the southern Atlantic). One of the members was Hjalmar Johansen who had been with Nansen in 1896, and it seems that Amundsen felt somewhat pressured to accept him.

One of the cabins; probably the one of the the carpenter Olav Bjaaland

The Fram left Oslo on August 10, 1910 and reached Funchal / Madeira on Sept. 9. Here Amundsen informed the men about his intention to go for the South Pole instead of the North Pole. They all enthusiastically agreed to accompany him. Well, they must have been the adventurous types anyway and probably didn't care whether they got their frostbites on the South Pole instead. Amundsen's brother Leon would inform the public and the Norwegian government (which finally found out where their money went). Amundsen also sent a telegram to Robert F. Scott, "Beg leave to inform you. Fram proceeding Antartic. Amundsen." Scott got that unexpected invitation to a race to the Pole in Melbourne in October 1910.

The Fram rounded the Cape of Good Hope and proceeded into the Ross Sea where she anchored in the Bay of Whales on January 14, 1911. The Bay of Whales was the southernmost place to be reached by ship and a good hunting ground for seals and penguins - fresh meat was needed to enrich the diet and avoid skorbut, as well as to feed the 116 dogs. That's a lot of dogs, btw, I don't want to imagine what noise they made during the voyage; the ones in Kirkenes were loud enough in the open air.

Eight men would participate in the Pole expedition, the rest remained on the Fram. Amundsen had brought a pre-fabricated cabin that was now set up as main building of the base the men called Framheim. The cabin was 7.8 x 3.9 metres, with two rooms, one serving as kitchen, the other as sleeping and living room. Above was a garret for storage. Other storage was kept in deposits around the cabin (esp. 60 tons of fresh meat); a workshop and a sauna were added, and all the buildings connected by tunnels so the men had to stay outside as little as possible during the southern winter.

Amundsen began to set up depots some way towards the pole, so the team would have to carry less from the beginning. Those trips took several days, but it was worth the effort - the weight / provisions ratio was going to be a problem during longer tours (remember, Nansen had to turn back before reaching the North Pole because he was running out of food). The main depot was at 80°S. The men spent the winter improving their equipment (fe. they managed to get the weight of the 3.6 metres long sleds down from 156 to 53 pound without losing stability).

Skiing equipment
(The ski were 1,8 metres long and made of hickory wood

The first attempt to reach the Pole started on Septermber 8. Eight men set off with seven sleds, some 90 dogs, and provisions for 90 days, but they soon realised that they had started too early - something Hjalmar Johanson obviously had warned about. The temperature fell to -56°C, too cold even for the dogs. Amundsen decided to travel only as far as the depot 80° and leave most of the provisions and equipment there. They reached the depot after six days and fought their way back. A number of dogs died. What exactly happened isn't so easy to determine. The Museum Guidebook has a very short account of the expediion that doesn't include this first failed attempt. Looking around in the internet gave me a few contradictory versions, but the most likely seems to be that the return journey was disordered. Amundsen who had the fastest dog team, got ahead, and the others followed as best as they could, leaving Johansen and Kristian Prestrud without tent and cooking gear when a blizzard hit. Johansen, who must have been a very strong man, carried the exhaused and frostbite-suffering Prestwick back to the camp, saving his life.

Johansen confronted Amundsen about his, in Johansen's eyes, bad leadership, starting too early in the season and not keeping the team together in difficult conditions. To reestablish his authority, Amundsen excluded Johansen from the expedition to the Pole, setting him and Prestrud (and a third man) onto exploring King Edward VII's Land instead. The two versions are basically that either Johansen was a troublemaker with a drinking problem who needed to be put in his place and Amundsen did the right thing, or Amundsen was a meanie who punished Johansen because he was afraid of the man's greater experience.

The truth, as usual, seems to lie in the middle. My impression from - admittedly limited - research is that Amundsen could not risk quarrels, side-taking and a possible divison among the men on a such a dangerous mission and that he was right to settle things by excluding Johansen from the main expedition. But that he gave the command of the sub-expedition to the inexperienced Prestrud who was younger than Johansen and a lieutenant of the Norwegian marine while Johansen was a retired captain, must have hurt Johansen, and could imho, have been avoided. There's no reason to not having given Johansen the command.

Inuit style sealskin clothes

On October 20, Amundsen and four other men set out again with four sledges and 25 dogs. The sleds were only for transport; the men moved by ski. The temperature was now a comfortable -20°C to -30°C. *grin* They crossed the Ross Shelf (which is the size of France, to give you an impression of the dimensions), leaving a few depots on the way to have provisions on the way back and travel more lightly. One not so nice but necessary measure was the killing of dogs (which were fed to the other dogs) when they were no longer needed because of the lessened weight of the sleds.

They reached the barrier between the shelf and land, the Transantarctic Mountains, on November 17. Try crossing the Alpes with dog sleds and by temperatures that would make even penguins put on an extra fur cloak, and you get an image of what it must have been like. But the men managed to make pretty good time until they came across a glacier halfway up, the Axel Heiberg Glacier. Amundsen decided to tackle it instead of going around. When the men reached the plateau, they promptly got hit by one of the blizzards the travel catalogue had promised, and which lasted for days. They had to cross another glacier which they named 'Devil's Ballroom' because it was it was full of crevices, often hidden under a layer of caked snow. Several times a man or some dogs broke in, but they all survived.

The Antarctic Polar Plateau, situated 3000 metres above zero, is the most desolate place in the world. The penguins don't go that far - it's a bout 1000 kilometres from the open sea; and if other birds get there, they've been driven in by a storm and won't survive because of lack of food and water. It sounds odd, with all that ice and snow around, but the climate in the inner Antarctic is very dry. During the polar night, the temperature can go below -80°C (one of the reasons Amundsen traveled during the southern summer). But all that doesn't prevent us curious humans from having several research stations there.

Another view into a cabin, with sealskin boots and harpoons

The men reached the South Pole on December 14, 1911. They planted the Norwegian flag into the ice and rested a few days in a temporary camp which they called Polheim. They had journeyed 1400 kilometres with a daily average of 25 km - not bad considering they had to cross the mountain ridge and two glaciers which slowed them down during those days.

They set out for the return journey on Dec 18. Amundsen left a tent behind and a letter to the King of Norway which Scott should take, in case Amundsen would not survive. The men found a better way to traverse the Devil's Ballroom this time, and later followed the Axel Heiberg Glacier all the way back down to the Ross Shelf. Amundsen's strategy of setting up depots on the way paid off; there doesn't seem to have been any shortage of proviant, fire wood and other necessary things. The average on the return journey was 36 kilometres per day.

Amundsen and his men returned to Framheim on January 26, 1912. They had covered a distance of 3000 kilometes in 99 days - with ski and dog sleds in a hostile landscape.

Robert F. Scott reached the Pole on January 17th. He became the true tragic hero because of his - and his mens' - death and the struggles he described in his diary. It is true that Scott's expedition suffered from particularly bad weather on the way back, but Scott had also made several mistakes. He used ponies, motor sledges and dogs, but the ponies died, the sledges worked but unreliably (and the fuel cans leaked in the cold), and none of his men was a musher (like Amundsen). The men had do drag the sleds most of the time and made an average of 13 km per day. Scott had brought too little provisons as well and in the end, tragically, missed a major depot by only a few miles.

Surgical instruments and some shooting equipment

(Amundsen didn't bring a surgeon, but sent two of his crew to attend medical courses. Luckily none of the men got seriously ill, and the wannabe surgeons seem to have been able to deal with frostbites.)

Meanwhile, the Prestrud / Johansen team went eastward to explore King Edward VII-Land. While the expedition was first of all aimed at reaching the South Pole, research also played a role. The Fram woud come home with a lot of data and samples the men collected. Here, closer to the sea, the men actually found some mountains that were not completely covered by snow, and took samples of moss covered rocks with them.

The Fram herself returned to Buenos Aires with the remaining crew. After some repairs, she set out to explore the southern Atlantic on June 8, 1911. The men measured the depth of the water in different places, its temperature, took plankton samples, and did lots of other research. There's a display of several instruments, hydrometers, thermometers and whatnot in the museum, but you need to understand how they work in order to really enjoy that techno geekery. It has a steampunkish air, though.

The Fram returned to the Bay of Whales on January 9, 1912 and took up the members of the land crew. She set out for the voyage back home on Jan. 30. Thus, the Fram had sailed further north (85°6'N) and south (78°5'S) than any other wooden ship.

On March 7, the Fram reached Hobard in Tasmania, from where news of the successful expedition to the South Pole reached the public.

Cabin, nightstand with miscroscope

Amundsen sent Hjalmar Johansen ashore in Hobard, with barely the means to travel home to Norway on his own. That act effectively excluded Johansen from sharing in the fame of the other members of the expedition, and it would indeed take until 1997 when a biography about him appeared to restore his role in the eyes of the public (Ragnar Kvam, The Third Man). But I'm not to decide whether this was an act of petty revenge from Amundsen or a necessary measure. Johansen was not the most stable personality (he had problems with alcohol and was bound to depression), so he may have caused trouble during the voyage by confronting Amundsen again. The Fram was too small to get out of each other's way, after all.

But whatever the reason, Johansen did save Prestrud's life and was a member of the expedition, so he should have gotten some acknowledgement during his life, and that was denied him. He committed suicide in 1913.

The Fram returned to Norway on July 16, 1914. She had been destined to be one of the first ships to cruise the newly openend Panama Canal, but the opening was delayed, so Amundsen decided to travel round Cape Horn instead. He already had plans for another expedition, though not on the Fram who was allowed to retire.

Roald Amundsen disappeared during an airborne rescue mission in the Barent Sea in 1928. His body was never found.
Link to the medieval festival I did yesterday

Prettiest bride I have ever given away....
Ohh, that looks like a fun event. Very stylish dress, too.
Fascinating story - what a great read.
Gabriele, there is a heat wave here in the eastern U.S. but I felt a little frostbite as I read your story!
Thank you, Kathryn and ThisWas.
Remarkable story, and your photos have come out very well despite the glass!
Thank you, Carla. I had to play a bit with some of the photos, though. ;)
I know very little about Amundsen - thanks for this post!
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The Lost Fort is a blog based on my travels with illustrated essays on Roman and Mediaeval history - with lots of photos of old castles, cathedrals, Roman remains, and beautiful landscapes from Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, and the Baltic States. You may also find the odd essay about Geology, Medieaval literature, and some poetry translations.

All texts (except comments by guests) and photos (if no other copyright is noted) on this blog are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.

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Location: Germany

I'm a writer of Historical Fiction living in Germany. I got a MA in Literature, Scandinavian Studies, Linguistics and History which doesn't pay my bills. I'm interested in Archaeology and everything Roman and Mediaeval, avid reader, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, and photographer.