Roald Amundsen and the South Pole

Who sailed?

Roald Amundsen was at first planning on discovering the North Pole, so when he was deciding on a crew, he based his plans on the needs for that type of expedition. When Robert Scott announced he had reached the North Pole, Amundsen turned his sights southward. He then kept the same criteria for the men of the southern journey. Amundsen wrote,

“I intended to try to get people with me who were specially fitted for outdoor work in the cold. Even more necessary was it to find men who were experienced dog-drivers; I saw what a decisive bearing this would have on the result. There are advantages and disadvantages in having experienced people with one on an expedition like this. The advantages are obvious…The drawback to which one is liable in this case is that someone or other may think he possesses so much experience that every opinion but his own is worthless.”

The crew of the South Pole Expedition and the Fram were:

  • Roald Amundsen - expedition leader, member of the South Pole expedition
  • Lieutenant Thorvald Nilsen - Captain of the Fram and second in command of the expedition
  • Lieutenant Fredrick Gjertsen - 1st Mate of the Fram
  • Lieutenant Kristian Prestrude - 2nd Mate of the Fram
  • Sverre Hassel - was in charge of the sledge dogs’ care and feeding, also a member of the South Pole expedition
  • Ludvig Hansen - ice pilot
  • Olav Olavson Bjaaland - member of the South Pole expedition
  • Oskar Wisting - member of the South Pole expedition
  • Helmer Hanssen - member of the South Pole expedition
  • Hjalmar Johansen - member of the Framheim party
  • Knut Sundbeck - was brought to replace Eliassen as the Fram’s engineer
  • Jacob Nödtvedt - 2nd engineer on the Fram
  • Halvardus Kristensen - 3rd reserve engineer on the Fram
  • Jörgen Stubberud - ship’s carpenter
  • Martin Rönne - sailmaker and all around handyman
  • Andreas Beck - seaman
  • Alexander Kutchin - seaman
  • Adolf Henrik Lindström - cook at Framheim
  • Karinius Olsen - cook on the Fram

Where did they sleep?

The Fram was designed for polar exploration. Because of the cold, the Fram was especially designed with insulated cabins for each member of the crew. In the book, The South Pole, by Roald Amundsen, he lists the special treatment the cabins received.

  1. In the cabins, against the ship’s side and under the upper deck, there is first a layer of cork, and over that a double paneling of wood with tarred felt between.
  2. Above the orlop deck aft there is a layer of cork, and above this a floor of boards covered with linoleum.
  3. Under the orlop deck forward there is wooden paneling, with linoleum over the deck.

The tarred felt and cork insulated the cabins. Linoleum was used because it repelled water. One of the problems in the cold, polar air was when the men would breathe out, the water vapor would condense on the walls, causing frost and making everything wet. The linoleum allowed the crew to wipe off the walls and keep the cabins relatively dry.

Before they left Norway, the cabins were decorated. Many organizations gave photographs and even embroideries to hang on the walls. Amundsen also encouraged the men to decorate their cabins in a style that would make them most comfortable. Their cabins would be an oasis from the others and the cold.

The dogs, the other important passengers on the voyage, were given a special location to sleep. A secondary deck was built three inches above the Fram’s main deck. Why? The main deck was tarred to make it waterproof and would be too hot and wet for the dogs to be comfortable. The small platform had gaps in the wood so that rain and the wash over the side would run away from where the dogs were laying. In the warmer climates, the platform allowed air to flow underneath and cool the dogs. An awning was hung over most of the deck to shade the dogs and the crew from the hot tropical sun.

What did they eat?

Roald Amundsen had explored the Arctic regions for many years. Along the way he experimented with provisions and observed the native population’s eating habits. One of the foodstuffs that was common to the native populations was pemmican. Native Americans made pemmican by drying meat in the sun or smoking it over fire. It was then ground and mixed with melted lard and stored in airtight containers like animal bladders and intestines. This food traveled well and was a good source of protein and energy over the winter months. Dried fruit and nuts were also added to the mixture. The European explorers discovered this food and adopted it for long trips. The Hudson Bay Company actually bought supplies of pemmican from different native suppliers. They fed their fur traders with the high-energy food. But, as technology moved forward, Europeans and Americans traded pemmican for tinned food during voyages of exploration. Amundsen discovered that the tinned food did not supply enough energy or had the nutritional value of pemmican. The pemmican he took to the South Pole had been specially formulated to be a complete meal.

The pemmican we took was essentially different from that which former expeditions had used. Previously, the pemmican had contained nothing but the desired mixture of dried meat and lard; ours had, besides these, vegetables and oatmeal, an addition which greatly improves its flavour, and, as far as we could judge, makes it easier to digesting.

The expedition also carried with them salted fish and tubs of lard for the dogs on the sea voyage. Other food included cheese, biscuits, tea, sugar, and coffee. Professor Sophus Torup supervised the provisioning of the expedition. All the food was sealed in tin cans with lead and all the food kept well during the trip. All of the crew and dogs were in good health throughout the expedition. There were no cases of scurvy and no reported cases of lead poisoning.

Other provisions that were supplied for the expedition included wine and alcohol. Amundsen commented on why he allowed alcohol on the trip:

An occasional glass of wine or a tot of spirits were things that we all, without exception, were very glad of. The question of alcohol on Polar expeditions has often been discussed. Personally, I regard alcohol, used in moderation, as a medicine in the Polar regions—I mean, of course, so long as one is in winter quarters. It is another matter on sledge journeys: there we all know from experience that alcohol must be banished—not because a drink of spirit can do any harm, but on account of the weight and space.

Alcohol was rationed aboard the voyage on the Fram, one dram and fifteen drops of spirits were given at dinner on Wednesdays and Sundays. A glass of “toddy” was given on Saturday evenings.

The expedition was treated with “bonbons and drops” and “Gala Peter,” which was a chocolate bar made by Swiss Peter Chocolate Company (it eventually became Nestle’s Chocolate Company in 1951), and fruit syrup they could drink. All the provisions were soldered into tin boxes and then enclosed in wooden crates for the voyage. During a stop in Buenos Aires, they bought pigs, sheep, and some fowl to have fresh meat on the voyage south. The animals were penned in on the top deck.

Provisions for the sleds: Amundsen said, “I have never considered it necessary to take a whole grocer’s shop with me sledging; the food should be simple and nourishing, and that is enough—a rich and varied menu is for people who have no work to do.”

They took tinned pemmican, biscuits, milk-powder, and chocolate. The biscuits were made special for the expedition in Norway. They were made out of oatmeal, dried milk, and sugar.
These biscuits formed a great part of our daily diet, and undoubtedly contributed in no small degree to the successful result.” Milk-powder was a new product Amundsen took on his expedition. He liked it so well he wrote, “Neither heat nor cold, dryness nor wet, could hurt it; we had large quantities of it lying out in small, thin linen bags in every possible state of weather: the powder was as good the last day as the first. They also took malted milk-powder from Wisconsin that kept well during the expedition and was a “tasty” alternative to the regular milk-powder.

What did they do aboard ship?

While Amundsen was planning the expedition, many groups donated supplies to the ship and crew. If Amundsen were the first to reach a pole, it would create a swelling of national pride. King Haakon and Queen Maud of Norway gave them photographs to hang in the saloon of the ship. The “Ladies of Horten” donated embroidered pictures to hang in the cabins. A group donated breakfast and dinner dishes with the name Fram on them. Many different groups donated books for the long voyage and confinement. When they set sail, there were over 3,000 books in the library. The crew had playing cards and other board games to play during the voyage. A gramophone (an old-style record player) and a large number of records helped provide music during the expedition. The crew was also provided with musical instruments; a piano, violin, flute, mandolin, mouth organ, accordion, as well as sheet music was aboard. Now, whether any of the crew could play these instruments was not noted, but with a trip of that length, they had time to learn the instruments.

During the voyage to Antarctica, the crew made themselves busy preparing for the expedition. Charts were examined, calculations were made, weather equipment was checked and fixed, and strategies were talked out. Among the many amusements they were given, tobacco and cigars were highly prized. Each crewmember was allowed a cigar Saturday night and Sunday after dinner.

The crew also was supplied with soap. Amundsen noted that there was soap enough to last five years. They also were provided with combs, toothbrushes and tooth powder.

What did they wear?

When Roald Amundsen explored the Arctic, he took note of the clothing worn by the Native peoples. His expedition in 1903 aboard the Gjǿa attempted to traverse the North West Passage. Half way through the passage the ship spent two winters on King William Island. During those winters, the crew interacted with a group of Netsilik Inuit that camped near the ship. Amundsen learned from them hunting, sledging and how to sew clothing suitable for the Arctic. He then took this knowledge on the Antarctic expedition. Amundsen decided to clothe his crew as opposed to having the expedition members provide their own clothing. He wanted to make sure they were warm, dry, and safe throughout the voyage and expedition and it took much of his time and money to do this.

Wool clothing that was used manly by other explorers had many drawbacks; when worn in many layers it was bulky and gave the wearer little range of motion. It would also freeze stiff when it became wet.

“Our outfit of clothing was abundant and more complete, I suppose, than that of any former Polar expedition.” Amundsen made preparations for any eventuality in the South Pole. They took with them multiple levels of clothing: one for really low temperatures, one for more moderately cold temperatures, one for crossing the tropics on the Fram, and one for use in camp.

For the coldest weather, Amundsen manufactured reindeer-skin clothing like that of the Arctic peoples he encountered. The skins came in thick, medium, and light and the first shipment was purchased in a “raw” state. A Mr. Zappfe of Tromsö purchased the second shipment, and the Lapp people dressed the 250 reindeer skins. Amundsen had a difficult time finding someone to sew the clothes,

We then went to work to make clothes after the pattern of the Netchelli Eskimo, and the sewing went on early and late—thick anoraks and thin ones, heavy breeches and light, winter stockings and summer stockings.

Each man was also given a suit of sealskin clothing that was made in Greenland. The expedition also took ten pairs of snowshoes for the voyage to the Pole.

Clothing for moderate temperatures included “thick woolen underclothing and Burberry windproof overalls.” The Burberry wind-clothes were made in an anorak style heavy jacket, a jacket with a hood, and pants. The wool mittens purchased were not specially made for the expedition. The mittens were worn inside the base camp and with a waterproof covering for the outside. In addition, they bought ten pairs per crewmen of what Amundsen called, “ordinary kid mitts,” or leather mittens.

For the basic clothing for the expedition, Amundsen acquired 200 old Norwegian Navy blankets. They were felted wool and many of them were so stained that he had them all dyed blue. He had difficulty finding a tailor to sew the blankets into clothing, but as Amundsen says, “It was not an outfit that cut a dash by its appearance, but it was warm and strong.”

Other clothing included “two sets of extra-thick woolen underclothing, two thick hand-knitted woolen jerseys, six pairs of knitted stockings, Iceland and other lighter jackets, socks, and stockings.” Most of this clothing was obtained from the Norwegian army depot.

Boots were also an important part of the outfitting for the Antarctic. Amundsen wrote of his concern for his crew and of preventing exposure to their feet: “But most important of all is the covering of the feet, for the feet are the most exposed members and the most difficult to protect. One can look after the hands; if they grow cold it is easy to beat them into warmth again. Not so with the feet; they are covered up in the morning, and this is a sufficiently troublesome piece of work to make one declined to undo again until one is turning in. They cannot be seen in the course of the day, and one has to depend entirely on feeling; but feeling in this case often plays curious tricks.” Amundsen felt that soft boots were better suited to prevent frostbite than hard boots. The ability to move the foot around in the boot helped to keep it warm. Amundsen’s biggest challenge was that they were using cross-country skis and needed a hard sole boot to be able to ski. Using a ski-boot-maker in Norway, Amundsen created a combination soft-canvas-upper and solid-sole boot. Amundsen himself was the model for the first boot. His foot was measured wearing two pairs of reindeer socks. The maker displayed the boots in his shop windows in Kristiansund, Norway, and they looked so large that Amundsen was embarrassed to walk by them.

Oilskins and “sea-boots” were also provided for each of the crewmen. The oilskins were used as foul weather gear while at sea. The boots were made to order for each man’s foot. But, when they tried to wear the boots, the legs were either too big or too small for the man to put his foot in, or the foot was too big or too small. Very few of the boots fit the original man they were made for, so a few were traded, but most were not used. Luckily, many of the crewmen brought their own boots.

Finally for the trip across the equatorial latitudes, the crew was provided with three sets of linen underclothing to wear in the tropical regions they sailed through. The men had to take their own outer clothing for the tropics.

Burberry - Burberry is a British outfitter, whose founder, Thomas Burberry, discovered gabardine. The gabardine fabric’s yarn was water proofed before the weaving process. The fabric was well known among sportsmen and adventurers for being hard-wearing, water-resistant and breathable. Burberry provided coats and tents to Amundsen’s expedition. It was a Burberry tent that Amundsen used at the South Pole and it was in that tent he left a note for Captain Scott.

Lapp (Sámi) People - Amundsen refers to the Lapp people of Lapland in Norway as “dressing the reindeer skins.” Lapp people are the indigenous people of modern-day northern Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Russia. Lapp describes the patching of cloth when mending torn or ripped clothing. The Sámi people wore patched clothing, hence the Norwegian term, Lapp. Traditionally, the Sámi fished and trapped animals for furs, and today they are most commonly associated with reindeer. Around 1500, many Sámi began herding reindeer when the hunting became poor. Reindeer herding was originally a nomadic lifestyle, but today, the Sámi, as well as others, raise and herd reindeer like cattle. The Sámi are also well known for their high-quality reindeer furs and skins, hence Amundsen’s pride in obtaining reindeer furs tanned by them.

Netsilik Inuit - The Netsilik Inuit live in an area called the Netsilingmiut, meaning “people of the Seal.” The seal in the area have provided the inhabitants with food and clothing, along with barren-land caribou, walrus, muskoxen, arctic hare and fox, whales such as the narwhal and beluga, the wolf, and polar bear. The location of the community is on tundra at 70°N and there are few plants. The first Europeans to encounter the Netsilik was during an expedition by Sir Jon Ross (1829-1833), and the Hudson Bay Company developed a modern community there in 1948 called Taloyoak. In April 1999, the Taloyoak community became part of Nunavut Territory, Canada.

What was their pay?

Amundsen was originally attempting to reach the North Pole. He obtained financial backing from private donations and governmental support, especially in supplies. With the news that Robert Scott had reached the North Pole, Amundsen decided that since he already had spent a large amount of money on the preparations, he should head to the South Pole. Amundsen wrote:

…it was also true that many of the contributors who had so warmly supported me had done so with the original plan before them; 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.

In Amundsen’s accounts of the expedition, neither the amount of money given to him by the backers nor the amount of money he paid to the crew was listed.

Did they get sick?

There was no doctor or surgeon on the expedition, so Amundsen was in charge of any medical problems that arose. To prepare for this, Lieutenant Fredrick Gjertsen, was sent to a quick training class on amputation and pulling teeth. His training was in a hospital and Amundsen thought he was learning the basics. He also wrote that Gjertsen actually did pull some teeth. But he thought it was not a painless experience for the patient. Frostbite was the most common problem in the extreme cold because toes can become frostbitten very quickly without the person knowing. Once the skin has turned black and the extremity cannot be warmed, gangrene may set in and the toe or finger will have to be amputated. This did not happen on Amundsen’s expedition.

The other ailment that was common on polar voyages was scurvy. Amundsen prepared for this by insuring there was plenty of canned fruits and vegetables. He also had fruit added to the pemmican to prevent scurvy on the sledge trips. With careful monitoring, no one on the expedition came down with scurvy.

What kind of punishments did they have?

Because of the small crew, the importance of the expedition, and that all the men wanted to go on the trip, there was little to no discipline problems. If there were personality differences, the men usually worked it out themselves. They had to live in tight quarters for a very long time and it was important to get along. It was also important to follower the leaders’ orders. In the coldest conditions in the world, one mistake could cost them their lives.