“If only you knew how splendid it is up there... that’s where I want to die.”

Around 5 pm on 21st May 1925, six men squeezed themselves into the cockpits of two small aircraft that were waiting on the frozen expanse of King’s Bay, Spitsbergen.  The cockpits were open, so the aviators wore thick clothes beneath their flying gear.  One after another, the planes taxied across the ice.

Equipped with Rolls-Royce engines fore and aft, the Italian-built Dornier flying boats had been shipped in pieces to Spitsbergen and assembled on the ice.  It had been considered too risky to attempt any practice take-offs in case one of them was damaged, but none of the men seemed to be unduly concerned about the odds. 

In the first aircraft, which was numbered N24, were Lief Dietrichson, the pilot;  Oskar Omdal, the mechanic;  and Lincoln Ellsworth, an American millionaire.  The second, N25, was piloted by Riiser-Larsen and with him were Ludwig Feucht, a mechanic, and the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen.  They were aiming for the North Pole.

Both aircraft were heavily loaded, and once they were airborne the pilots had to pull back hard to lift them clear of the King’s Bay Glacier which lay in their path.     

Amundsen described how, looking round to find if the other ‘plane had succeeded in rising successfully, he saw its huge wings shining like gold in the bright sun…

Ever since he was a child, Roald Amundsen had known an urge to explore.  Having soaked up the daring tales of Franklin and Nansen, he was drawn instinctively towards the polar regions;  and he approached his dreams with supreme logic, with no doubt in his mind that they would become reality.  He even slept with his windows open during the Norwegian winter so that his body was prepared for the cold climate. 

Now, aged 52, he was a seasoned explorer, with four major expeditions under his belt.  He had succeeded in navigating the fabled North-west Passage, and in December 1911 he had been the first to stand at the South Pole.  The credit for reaching the North Pole, already claimed by some explorers but disputed by others, was still up for grabs, and Amundsen wanted it for himself.  He liked to think of himself as ‘the last Viking’, and he certainly looked the part, standing over six feet in height with an aquiline nose and a haughty stare. 

But while Amundsen was overflowing with ambition and confidence, he was lamentably lacking in funds.  This wasn’t a new thing - it had been a feature throughout his life.  When he embarked on his journey through the North-west Passage in 1903, he had set sail at midnight and by stealth, purely to escape the pressure from his creditors.  And this time, although he had visualised a successful flight to the North Pole, he had no money to buy the aircraft.  It must have been a godsend when Ellsworth stepped in, and offered to buy not only the aeroplanes but an airship, with which they could make a second attempt should the first one fail.   Ellsworth’s only condition was that he should be a part of the adventure.

To modern eyes, Amundsen’s attempt seems hare-brained in the extreme, but in fact he had worked out a clever strategy.   The planes were carrying extra fuel, but he had already realised that they would only have enough for one of them to return home.  Once they had landed on the ice, they would simply empty the tank of one plane into the other, and abandon the first one in the Arctic.  The men would then all return home together in one aircraft, admittedly rather cramped.  Also on board was a sled, a canvas boat and food rations including salted beef, chocolate, biscuits and dried milk. 

The aircraft were cruising 2,000 and 3,000 feet, and as the dazzling whiteness of the ice spread out beneath them the airmen donned snow goggles and fitted special blinders over their windscreens.  Early next morning, with the fuel tank of N25 showing half empty, her crew decided to land on the ice and fill up the tank from the fuel reserve.  They had travelled 600 miles from Spitsbergen, and they were at a latitude of 87 degrees 43 minutes north, 150 miles from the Pole. 

But as they started to descend, what looked like a smooth ice pack quickly revealed itself to be a field of pressure ridges which had buckled the ice into a mini-mountain range.  Just to make things worse, a few seconds later the aft engine spluttered and died.  Riiser-Larsen made a quick appraisal and chose a narrow channel of water, dotted with icebergs, which was dammed at one end by a wall of ice.   

They swept through yards of slush and broken ice, between high walls on either side, stopping just when the plane’s nose was up against the end of the opening – a matter of inches saved them from disaster.

Having watched the drama from the other plane, Dietrichson began to circle for landing, bringing it down about four and a half miles away.   With no means of communication, he and his crew now had to locate their companions.  Their mechanic, Omdahl, pronounced the N24 damaged beyond repair, so all their hopes rested on the N25 being in better shape.  

Once reunited, the six men were now faced with an urgent task.  They had to free the N25 from the channel that it sat in, because the water was already beginning to freeze around it, and it would soon be trapped.  They then had to raise it up onto the pack ice and create a makeshift runway for it to take off.  It was their only means of escape.

The tools with which they began to launch an attack on the polar pack consisted chiefly of knives.  “We had to work and work for our lives,” said Amundsen, “and we flew at the nearest hummock with tooth and nail.” 

To conserve supplies, they reduced their rations to three-quarters of a pound of food per day, and they slept in the plane at night.  The mechanics drained fuel from the abandoned plane, and the aft engine of N25 was repaired.  Amundsen and Riiser-Larson calculated that they would need at least 1,500 feet of smooth ice to get airborne, but shovelling that much snow was beyond the means of the exhausted men.  Amundsen appeared to have aged ten years in a few weeks, and his face was lined.  Suddenly Omdahl had a brilliant idea:

It was by accident on the 8th of June that they discovered a way out.  One of the party, walking to and fro in thought, tramping down the snow, suddenly said, “Look here, we can do this.”  The next day their great tramping work began.  Though it was still snowing, they realised that once the frost had set their tramping would have produced a beautiful track.

Roald Amundsen -RSGS archives

Roald Amundsen from RSGS archives

On 15th June Amundsen and his party warmed up the engines of N25 in preparation for lift-off.   In an almost superhuman effort they had created a track 1,500 feet long, but a few cracks were already developing in its surface, and they knew that within a matter of hours the summer temperatures, which were already destabilising the ice, would wreak havoc with their smooth runway.   As it was, their track was broken by a small pool and a mound of ice lay at the end, meaning that they couldn’t afford to over-run.

The aircraft rattled and shook as Riiser-Larsen nosed it across the icy plain and accelerated down the runway.   Then, miraculously, after some stomach-churning bumping and lurching, they were in the air.  Amundsen remembers:

“An enormous sense of relief swept over me, but it lasted only an instant.  There, dead ahead of us, and only a few yards away, loomed the twenty-foot hummock on the far side of the little pool.  We were headed straight toward it.   Five seconds would tell whether we should clear it...  Thoughts and sensations crowd fast at such a moment.  The seconds seemed terrible hours.  But we did clear it - we could not have had more than an inch to spare.

After 24 days, they were free.  Eight hours later they landed off the coast of Svalbard, and were taken on board a passing ship;  at first, the seamen failed to recognise them in their grimy, half-starved condition, and were only convinced when they saw Amundsen with his famous beaked nose. 

The rapturous welcome that awaited the explorers in Oslo was described by Amundsen as the happiest memory of his life.  Incredibly, during their mission they had also found time to make scientific observations and take soundings that proved there was no land beyond Spitsbergen on the European side of the North Pole.

Telegram from The Royal Scottish Geographical Society to Roald Amundsen, 26th June 1925: 

“The Council of the RSGS desire to assure you of their profound admiration of the magnificent courage and endurance shown by you and your party, and to congratulate you on the valuable scientific results of your work:  also to express their sincere gratification at your safe return.”

In September 1925 Roald Amundsen delivered a lecture at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, and was presented with the Livingstone Medal by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society.  The following year he successfully flew an airship over the North Pole from Spitsbergen to Alaska.  His crew of 15 included Ellsworth and Riiser-Larsen.

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Article by Jo Woolf for RSGS


Extracts from Scotsman newspaper report on Amundsen’s lecture to RSGS in September 1925, from RSGS Volume of Press Cuttings 1908-27

‘My Life as an Explorer’ by Roald Amundsen