02 January 2021

Amundsen's diaries

When I was in the Netherlands in summer, my sister lent me a book. She had been in Norway since the last time I saw her, and there she had bought an English translation of Amundsen's diaries. She thought I might be interested in that! And I was. I think these early polar expeditions were fascinating. And it was good too that these people survived. Reading, for instance, about the Franklin expedition is a bit bleaker. And in general I prefer to read books in the original language, but I know that my Norwegian and my Welsh don't go together well. If I try to speak Norwegian now, lots of Welsh pops up in it, and I'm sure that if I now read in Norwegian, the opposite effect will happen. So maybe English was a better choice!

Most of the book deals with Amundsen and his crew first travelling down to Antarctica, and then setting up a base camp. They leave Norway on June 7, but it takes them a while to get anywhere; Amundsen had had a new engine installed on the ship, and he intends to run it on something they call "solaroil", but he hasn't really tested the engine so by June 22 he decides it should run on petroleum  and he turns back to Norway. He is somewhere near Fair Isle by then. He is back in Bergen on July 10, and sets off with new fuel on August 9. It is a complete miracle he managed to get anywhere before anyone! And I personally would have insisted on trying out my new engine before I would take it to Antarctica. But I suppose people like me don't end up in the history books.

On January 13, they reach Antarctica and disembark. Then they go and build themselves a house. It is summer there then, but for not much longer, so they will set off during the next spring. That gives them a lot of time to faff! From that base camp they venture south and establish several luggage depots, with food and fuel and such. That allows them to travel a bit more lightly. 

I admired how self-sufficient these men were; they sew their own tents while they are on their way on the Fram. And when they are on Antarctica, they decided their sledges are too heavy and just make them lighter. They also make snow goggles. I don't think I would want to have to do that sort of things if I would have to take them to the South Pole! And rather have professionals make my equipment. But as I said; it's not me in the history books.

One thing that puzzles me about their time before they set off is the dogs. Firstly, quite a lot of the female dogs are pregnant when they set off (or maybe get pregnant on board), so a lot of puppies are being born. They have some hundred dogs! But when puppies are born, they throw the bitches overboard and keep the dogs. Why is that? Are they just being clangingly sexist? Do they only want dogs that cannot get pregnant during the actual trip to the South Pole? It is never explained; Amundsen just mentions it again and again without seeming to think an explanation is in order. And it still doesn't make sense to me; when they set off in the end they do have female dogs with them. And as well; during the entire expedition there are so many dogs that either die, or get ill and are shot that you would think you want to keep some females as without them, you don't get more dogs!

The other thing about the dogs is that Amundsen makes a lot of scatological observations. He repeatedly mentions his surprise at the fact that soon as one of the dogs takes a dump, the other dogs come running and eat the turd. Once the men are on land and not crapping into the sea any more, the dogs do the same with the humans. I am less surprised as on Greenland I learned that that just is something these sledge dogs do!

I am also interested, of course, in what Amundsen thinks of the glaciological features he sees. He makes his base camp on an ice shelf, and the big one at that. He then has to travel all the way to its start before he can continue on Antarctic land. But he has no idea what an ice shelf is! The northern hemisphere doesn't have much in the way of these things. He just calls it a barrier. Due to the nature of an ice shelf, it ends in a cliff, so that understandable. I wonder now when people realised what ice streams and ice shelves were. And discussing that made me realise I have no idea what an ice shelf is in Dutch. Neither do my dictionaries. 

He also regularly claims he is travelling over dead glaciers. But he is travelling over the approach to the Ross Ice Shelf! How is there any dead ice there? Things move like the clappers in that area! This is one of those things that I would have brought up during a lunch break with glaciologically knowledgeable colleagues. But what can I say. This is not the time for it!

By page 281 it's September 8, and they finally set off. But it is a little bit like them sailing from Norway; they don't get far. It is really cold and Amundsen thinks they won't make it this way. They turn back four days later. And they will wait for better weather. But something interesting happens during these few days; on all these 281 pages, Amundsen is full of praise for all his men, and for how they collaborate. He says there is never any discordance at all. But when he gets back to the house, he knows two of his men are lagging behind a bit, and are likely to only reach it next day. He doesn't think that is a problem; they have all they need in their luggage. On top of that, the bloke he travels with has some frostbite, and he is keen to get him into the house and start treating that. But when the next day the last two men appear, one of them is angry for having been left behind; his mate had frostbite too, and he thinks that it was a failure in leadership they were left to fend for themselves. This is the only conflict Amundsen mentions in the entire book. He immediately decides that the angry bloke will not join him on the actual trip to the South Pole. That doesn't mean he has to sit there and twiddle his thumbs; some of the men are intended to do some surveying, and this bloke is now one of them.

I was extra interested in this incident as the bloke was Hjalmar Johanson. And when I was working in Norway, the Institute I worked at was at Hjalmar Johanson Street. I had asked people who this Hjalmar Johanson was, and they had said he was one of the companions of Amundsen. No one had mentioned he had been the only bad guy in Amundsen's eyes! Wikipedia is some interesting things to say about how this man ended up on this expedition in the first place. He still got a road named after him!

Anyway. They wait for better weather, and finally set off on October 20. Then all works out! And then the book suddenly speeds up. They stormed to the South Pole, which they reach on December 14. They leave the tent that Scott will later find, and then go home again. That all goes rather smooth; the thing most worth mentioning is that they find dog footprints at some of the depots they have left along the way. Some of the dogs have run away in the months they spent on the continent, and most come back, but not all do. These are assumed dead. But now they find footprints and signs of their depots having been tampered with, and they realise some most have survived! And even though there is evidence for some of the dogs earlier on having gone off and independently, and successfully, hunted seals, I don't think these poor dogs would have made it through their first winter on their own.

Once they get back to the ship they want to leave as soon as they can; they want to get to infrastructure and send telegrams to people such as the King of Norway. They get back to base on January 26; sail on January 30; and get to Hobart on March 7. There they let the world know what they have done. And there the book pretty much ends; a report of the rest of the trip is not given. But I suppose the interesting bit is over by then. They get back to Oslo in June.

One thing worth mentioning, I suppose, is that the book is absolutely festooned with pictures. Photography already existed and they sure made use of it! It is quite amazing to see actual images taken there and then. It was quite the trip! And it is not difficult to see why Amundsen is such a prominent Norwegian hero. And he didn't stop there, of course; in the end he died trying to rescue some unfortunate other polar explorers. A hero's death, ending a hero's life! And more heroes should keep diaries…

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