As I complete The Blinding Sea: An Experiment in Biography, it strikes me that Roald Amundsen’s life was a series of peaks and troughs. Something like the Four Peaks in the Mazatzal Mountains of Arizona, illustrated in the feature image at the top of this blog.
The first peak in his life came when he took part in the Belgica expedition to Antarctica and the Bellingshausen Sea in 1897-1899. This expedition managed to escape disaster, and became known as the first expedition to overwinter in Antarctica. After this peak, Amundsen headed back to Norway and began quietly preparing an expedition of his own. Planning, acquiring a little ship, then undertaking sea trials during an oceanographic cruise took him several years. This planning period from 1899 to 1903 was a trough.
Then came the Gjoa expedition itself, in 1903-1906, during which he spent two years sharing with and learning from the Inuit of Gjoa Haven, Nunavut. This again was a high point. He led this expedition right through the Northwest Passage, which brought him fame and fortune since nobody had ever navigated all the way through the passage before. Then Amundsen headed back to Norway in 1906, and began quietly preparing his next expedition. This planning period continued until 1910, and came as another trough.
Amundsen laid his hands during this time on the Fram, with the stated objective of drifting across the ice-pack of the Arctic Ocean, hopefully reaching the North Pole. But he changed course in 1910, taking the Fram to Antarctica, and reaching the South Pole in December 1911 with a small crew, well ahead of his British rival Robert Falcon Scott.
Once Amundsen returned to civilization, he was lionized by the world press … so he remained at the peak for awhile. But then Scott’s fate was revealed in 1913, and suddenly Amundsen was seen differently in the English-speaking world: for many people, he was no longer the protagonist in his own story: he became the antagonist in Scott’s story, the person thwarting and forestalling Scott. So the peak of being first to reach the South Pole was quickly followed by a devastating new trough, which carried on … until 1925. Twelve long years!
His next plan was to build the Maud, a polar ship much like the Fram, and take her drifting across the ice-pack of the Arctic Ocean as he had previously hoped to do. But with the First World War raging, it was extremely difficult to finance the Maud expedition and get it underway. Amundsen did not experience the Maud expedition from 1918 to 1920 as a peak: this frustrating trough seemed to drag on and on. Actually, he left the expedition after two years, in order to focus on polar aviation. The Maud continued without him, on an erratic course in the ice-pack north of Siberia, but the expedition eventually brought about Amundsen’s bankruptcy.
His exploits as a polar aviator in 1925 and 1926 came as another peak. The dénouement or resolution of this phase of his life came when he disappeared without trace in 1928, during a polar flight on board the experimental float-plane Latham-47, just south of Spitsbergen.
Amundsen is not remembered as a tragic hero. He is remembered for the peaks, not the troughs.
In the illustration below, I align four Freytag pyramids, as a way of visualizing the four peaks in Amundsen’s career: