By the first years of the 1900’s, most of the earth had been explored. One exception, however, were the polar regions. In the equivalent of the Apollo moonshots, large organized expeditions raced each other to be the first at the poles, and these adventures were breathlessly reported by the press of the day to an eager public.
One of these explorers was Roald Amundsen, from Norway.
The Fram, on display in Oslo, Norway.
As a boy, Amundsen had been inspired by the exploits of fellow Norwegian Fritjof Nansen, who had trekked across Greenland in 1888 and led an unsuccessful attempt to reach the North Pole in 1893. (Nansen later became a statesman, was instrumental in winning Norway’s independence from Sweden, and won a Nobel Peace Prize for his work with World War One refugees.)
In 1907, after participating in explorations in the Arctic and the Antarctic, Amundsen organized his own expedition to become the first to reach the North Pole, using the same ship that Fritjof had–the Fram. The Fram was specially built to withstand polar conditions–her heavily-braced sides were made from extra-thick oak, and were specially rounded to allow the ship to pop upwards above the sheet ice instead of becoming trapped and crushed. Amundsen was too late, however–in 1909, while he was still planning his expedition, the American explorer Robert Peary reached the North Pole. (A year earlier, another American, Frederick Cook, had also claimed to have reached the Pole, but his claim was disputed by experts. Later, Peary’s own claim was disputed, and most historians today agree that Peary did not actually reach the Pole.)
In response, Amundsen secretly switched his goal. When the Fram expedition set sail in 1910, he told the surprised crew that they were not going north to the Arctic region, but instead would sail all the way to the Antarctic and attempt to reach the South Pole. At the same time, British explorer Robert F Scott was launching his own expedition to the South Pole. The race was on.
The two took very different approaches to their expeditions. The Scott expedition was very well-planned in minute detail and precise steps, with man-drawn sledges, tons of cached equipment and food, and the very latest cold-weather clothing and equipment. Amundsen, on the other hand, dressing in Inuit-style clothing and eating his sled dogs along the way (supplementing his small supply caches), would simply make a mad dash for the Pole.
The Fram arrived at the Ross Ice Shelf in January 1911. After one attempt to cross the Antarctic ice to the Pole ran into bad weather and aborted, another attempt set out in October 1911, with Amundsen himself leading 4 sleds, 52 dogs, and 4 other men. They reached the South Pole on December 14, 1911. When they returned to the Fram on January 25, 1912, they had only 11 sled dogs left–they had eaten the rest. Amundsen became an international hero.
There was a tragic postcript to the expedition, however. When Scott arrived in Antarctica in 1911, he knew that Amundsen was already camped at the Ross Ice Shelf, but did not know how far along Amundsen was towards the Pole. Scott’s group of 5 men reached the South Pole on January 17, 1912–only to find an abandoned tent with the Norwegian flag still flying over it. Amundsen had already been there five weeks before. On the trip back from the Pole, Scott’s group ran into severe weather, and all five died. (A further historical footnote: the unusually extreme cold of early 1912 that killed Scott’s expedition also allowed icebergs to drift much further south in the Atlantic Ocean than usual, into the Atlantic shipping lanes–producing a collision in April 1912 between an iceberg and the new passenger liner RMS Titanic.)
Amundsen continued his polar explorations, and in 1926, he became the first person to unambiguously reach the North Pole, flying over it in an airship named the Norge (the American Richard Byrd had claimed to have flown over the North Pole in an airplane just a few days before Amundsen, but his claim has since been disputed as inaccurate and perhaps fraudulent). Two years later, Amundsen disappeared when his search airplane, looking for the crew of a downed exploration balloon in the Barents Sea, never returned and was presumed to have crashed.
Upon her return to Norway after the South Pole expedition, the Fram sat in storage for a few years before being restored. In 1936, the Fram Museum was opened in Oslo, where the complete ship is preserved, and visitors can walk her decks and explore her interior. There are also exhibits depicting polar exploration and the lives of Fritjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen.