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Success In Failure

Success In Failure

How the North’s greatest explorer escaped death at the pole
Sep 09
From the August/September 2016 Issue

Roald Amundsen got to the North Pole in 1926, becoming the first to undisputedly do so. But his first attempt, in 1925, almost killed him.

About 12 hours out of Spitsbergen, Norway on May 22, both engines on his two Dornier-Wal seaplanes sputtered out during a descent for a quick refuel and they were forced to land on a slushy ice pack. Realizing one plane’s engine was toast, they abandoned it and worked to hack out the ice quickly forming around what was now their lifeboat. They chiselled and axed out a smooth runway on the ice for two full days, but it sagged under the plane's weight and a first take-off was aborted. They eventually found a stable stretch of ice 1,000 feet away.

For more than a week, with rations and hope running low and the days getting longer and longer, the six men hacked a route there, pushed the plane over it and then smoothed out a runway on the stable stretch. “On the 14th of June as we laid down our tools I don’t think I exaggerate when I say that, all in all, we had removed 500 tons of ice and snow,” writes Amundsen.

The next evening, the men packed into the plane—stripped of all but the most necessary cargo. They bumped along the strip, launching over large cracks, and were finally, amazingly airborne.