Antarctica is really friggin' cold. According to that link, at the time of this posting the current temperature there is -74 degrees Fahrenheit (-59 C), with 14mph winds blowing in from the East at a wind chill of negative 113.
Negative one hundred and thirteen degrees.
Given this ridiculousness, you can probably imagine that it would be kind of an heroic feat of human endurance to survive on this godforsaken chunk of frozen misery for over a year and a half, especially at a time in history when the most advanced piece of warm clothing available on the open market was a pelt of fur-covered animal skin hand-carved from the carcass of a dead beast.
Well Norwegian explorer Roald Engebreth Gravning Amundsen not only survived year-long stays on Antarctica in the early 20th-century – he did it twice. Oh yeah, and then, to prove that just wasn't enough for him, he then also managed to cross the length of the continent on dog sleds in 1911, traversing frozen glaciers and snow-packed mountain passes despite temperatures so cold it broke his compasses and froze his sled dogs to death. Despite entering a part of the Earth so insanely frigid that it cannot support animal or plant life of any kind, this hardcore Viking descendent somehow withstood the most hellacious freezing temperatures the Planet has to offer, overcame every obstacle in his path, and become the first human being ever to successfully reach the South Pole.
The "Last of the Vikings" was born in 1872 to a family of wealthy Norwegian ship owners near Oslo. Even as a kid, this guy knew he wanted to be a badass polar explorer, so in order to prep himself for a lifetime of ball-freezing misery he slept with the windows open every single night, letting the hellacious Norwegian arctic breezes fill his room with temperatures so cold it turned his breath into icicles. Then, of course, he'd get up, brush the frost off him, go for a nice ski down a treacherous ice-packed mountain, then cool off with a nice swim through the goddamned North Sea.
At 17, Amundsen went to see one of his heroes, Fritjof Nansen, return home from his famously/ridiculously-dangerous Greenland crossing, and when Amundsen saw the crowds assembled to welcome their countryman home as a hero Amundsen knew that his insane dreams of being a polar explorer were exactly what he wanted. He signed up to become a deck hand on a seal-hunting ship when he was 21, crossed the Arctic Ocean a couple times whacking seals, and got used to the idea of being on a boat with ocean spray and wind chills in the negative triple-digits pounding him in the face like he was standing inside a Slurpee machine.
In 1897, Amundsen heard that a Belgian dude named Adrien de Gerlache was putting together a trip to go check out what the hell the big deal was with Antarctica, and of course the 25-year-old Amundsen wanted in. He sent a letter to Gerlache offering to join the crew for free, and when the Belgica departed for Antartcia on August 16, 1897, Amundsen was already second mate on the 19-man crew.
The trip didn't go so well.
First, there were nasty storms, one of which ended up knocking the first mate overboard and sending him to his death. Then, after making nearly 20 separate landings along the continent and the islands surrounding it, Gerlache accidentally got his ship lodged into a solid chunk of ice that froze around the ship, locking it into place so that it became a permanent fixture of the Antarctic landscape.
The Belgica would be lodged in the ice, drifting aimlessly with the tides for 13 months.
Thirteen months. In the winter. In Antarctica. On a frozen boat that only brought enough supplies to get there and back.
During this year of frozen wintery misery, another guy froze to death and the rest of the crew got scurvy, but Amundsen and the ship's doctor were able to cure them by hunting seals and penguins and feeding the Vitamin C-rich blubber to the men. They continued to drift, killing the time with cards and hockey games and skiing and god knows whatever the hell else it is Norwegians do for fun, and they were only able to make it through by waiting out the Antarctic winter, dragging their ship cross the ice, and hand-carving a channel by hacking away ice with saws and pickaxes in sub-zero temperatures. Which I imagine sucked balls. Shackleton would have a similar experience a few years later, but Belgica was the first ship to ever survive a winter stuck in the ice in Antarctica. Of the three Norwegians on the 19-man crew, one of them went insane, one froze to death on the way home, and only Amundsen returned home intact, having spent the last two years on a massive, extended Antarctic expedition from hell.
Naturally, this horrific experience stuck in a frozen wasteland with no escape and no hope of rescue only got Roald Amundsen pumped up to go out and do it all over again a year later.
In 1900, Amundsen bought a 70-foot fishing boat, outfitted it with a crew of six and a couple tons of supplies, and set out to sail around Greenland, through the Canadian Arctic, reach the Magnetic North Pole, then become the first person to traverse the Northwest Passage, a semi-mythical waterway linking Greenland to Alaska through the Canadian arctic that had cost literally hundreds of explorers their lives ever since some dumbass first tried to navigate it in 1497. Amundsen, undeterred by the fact that he was attempting something that was basically impossible, sailed to King William Island, spent two years there building two more boats, taking observations and measurements, and learning survival skills from the Netsilik Inuit Indians like how to build an igloo and how to not die of frostbite every time you walk outside your igloo. Once he was happy with his boats/skills/pump-up training, Amundsen and his little boat reached the Magnetic North Pole (which, incidentally, was 30 miles away from where it had been a few years ago, marking the first time in recorded scientific history that we observed a shift in the Earth's Magnetic North), lodged his ship in the ice-pack of the Canadian arctic, then survived a year (!!) drifting with the tides until the ice pack thawed enough that he could sail away. He landed in Nome, Alaska, in 1906, then went 500 miles on skis across the Alaskan countryside to find a telegraph station so he could inform the King of Norway that he was officially the first human being to navigate the Northwest Passage. Then he skied another 500 miles back to his ship and went home.
Of the six men on the trip, only one died, and that was when he ruptured his appendix and didn’t Leonid Rogozov himself. Amundsen returned home a hero.
But he wasn't done yet. He still needed to conquer Antarctica and the South Pole.
This is the boat he crossed the Arctic in.
Dude was hardcore.
Four years after returning from the Northwest Passage Expedition, Roald Amundsen loaded up Nansen's old boat Fram with nine hand-selected men, 97 Siberian Huskies, 10 tons of supplies, and set out on the four-month voyage to Antarctica's Ross Ice Shelf. Once he got there he set up Framheim, a base camp for his Antarctic expedition, and directed his crew to spend the next four months setting up a series of supply depots along the way so that when it was showtime the team could travel light and re-equip during their push for the Pole.
Then they spent the next six or seven months camping out in Antarctica waiting for winter to pass. No bigs, it's just living in friggin' Antarctica in the damned winter in the year 1911, so who cares.
On October 18th, 1911, Roald Amundsen departed Framheim with five men, three sledges, and 52 sled dogs on his charge towards the South Pole. Temperatures were negative-71 Fahrenheit – so cold it cracked some of the expedition's compasses.
For the next two months (!) Amundsen and his men blitzed through the frozen wasteland of Antarctica, braving horrific blizzards, looming crevasses, treacherous glaciers, and extreme cold temperatures in their single-minded quest to accomplish badass things. They climbed a mountain range with an altitude above 10,000 feet. They traversed ice-packed glaciers and plateaus. Some of the dogs froze to death, and the men ate them for food. Most of the guys got frostbite on their faces, fingers, and toes, and some crew would end up losing the appendages.
On skis, sleds, and foot, the daring men of Roald Amundsen's expedition pushed on, fighting the elements, pushing their bodies to the limits of human endurance in the most inhospitable terrain on the planet. They refused to slow down or turn back for anything, crossing 20 miles a day with just 5 hours of sunlight, and then, finally, after months of constant struggle, the team reached the Earth's South Pole at 3pm on December 14, 1911.
Not exactly the MTV Astronaut, but you get the idea.
Amundsen stayed at the South Pole for 9 days, chilling (literally) at the bottom of the world making observations and doing other science stuff. They then made the equally-arduous journey back, arriving at their base camp on January 25, 1912, 99 days and 1,860 miles after their initial departure.
After the expedition, Amundsen made a bunch of money shipping supplies during World War I, and then after the war he bought an airplane, received Norway's first civilian pilot's license, and then flew over the North Pole in this blimp in 1926:
It would be the first Trans-Arctic flight of any kind made while traversing the North Pole, and Roald Amundsen would become the first person on earth to ever cross over both the North and South Poles. Then, as if that wasn't enough, he became just the third person to ever travel the Northeast Passage, sailing a ship through the Arctic Ocean by way of Siberia, but that seems like small potatoes at this point because jeez it's like he was the third person so whatever.
Roald Amundsen, one of the greatest heroes of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, died in 1928, when he was flying a rescue mission to save the crew of a downed blimp and his plane crashed into the Arctic Ocean. Nowadays the primary research station on Antarctica bears his name and he is renowned as one of the greatest non-Viking-marauder heroes of Norwegian history.
Amundsen, Roald. The South Pole. J. Murray, 1913.
Riffenburgh, Beau. Encyclopedia of the Antarctic. CRC Press, 2007.
Turney, Chris. 1912. Counterpoint, 2012.