How one man conquered the impossible
A Norwegian explorer in a tiny boat, took on one of nature's greatest challenges, and became the first to cross the Northwest Passage.
5 min read
Stretching 1,450 kilometres from Canada’s Baffin Island in the east to Alaska’s Beaufort Sea in the west, the Northwest Passage is a remote, icy frontier entirely above the Arctic Circle.
For 400 years, discovering this passage across the roof of the world was the holy grail for European explorers. Mapping it would lead to quicker trading routes with Asia, and all the riches that would follow. But this is treacherous territory, with extreme weather, giant icebergs and vast expanses of drifting sea ice that can trap ships for years. Many tried, and all except one failed, some disappearing without a trace.
To start with, there was the England-based Venetian navigator, John Cabot, who in 1497 became the first European to explore the entrance to the Northwest Passage. He disappeared with his crew a year later. In the 1530s, French explorer Jacques Cartier mapped the Gulf of St Lawrence – but not the Northwest Passage. Then, in the early 1600s, the English explorer Henry Hudson was hired by the Dutch East India Company to find the elusive Atlantic entrance. He discovered the Hudson River, the mouth of which later became New Amsterdam – today known as New York City – and sailed into Canada’s Hudson Bay where his ship was trapped in the ice. His crew mutinied and set him adrift in a small boat, never to be seen again.
The next two centuries brought more attempts, at both ends of the Passage. English Explorer William Baffin got close when he scouted the ice-bound entrance to Lancaster Sound in 1616. Danish explorer Vitus Bering probed the other end of the Northwest Passage. He sailed into the Arctic Ocean from the North Pacific but met his end in 1741 after his ship was wrecked on what is now known as Bering Island. In his first Northwest Passage expedition of 1819-20, Anglo-Welsh explorer William Edward Parry found a way through Lancaster Sound, only to be trapped by the freezing sea and forced to spend 10 months in Winter Harbour on Melville Island.
English Royal Navy officer Sir John Franklin didn't do much to counter the Passage’s reputation for disaster when, in 1845, he led the largest Northwest Passage expedition yet. He departed London commanding two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, laden with the latest technological inventions plus enormous amounts of food, books and 128 men. Years passed and the crew vanished, probably dying of starvation, hypothermia and disease after abandoning their icebound ships, which were too large and too heavy. Although the search parties sent to find Franklin’s expedition failed, they did much to map the Arctic waterways that would become known as the Northwest Passage.
Enter the Norwegian
In the end, it was a near penniless Norwegian Arctic explorer in a second-hand fishing boat who prevailed.
In 1905, shrouded in fog and surrounded by grinding ice floes, Roald Amundsen, dressed head-to-toe in Inuit reindeer skins and furs and, clinging grimly to the tiller of the Gjøa – a tiny, 21 metre sloop with a crew of only six – became the first to sail the Northwest Passage.
Amundsen and his crew left Oslo in June 1903 and spent two winters at Gjøa Haven on King William Island taking scientific measurements and proving that the magnetic north pole was moving. The crew set sail again in August 1905, heading west through the arduous straits south of Victoria Island. A few days later, they met a whaling ship from San Francisco heading in the opposite direction and Amundsen knew for sure he could complete the Northwest Passage. After waiting out one more winter in the frozen waters – and skiing nearly 500 miles to Eagle, Alaska to telegraph his triumph to the world – in August 1906 Amundsen and his crew sailed on to Nome on Alaska’s Pacific coast.
The key to success
How did Amundsen succeed when so many others had failed?
With a passion for Arctic exploration since childhood, Amundsen trained on a Belgian Antarctic expedition and then adapted his sloop for Arctic conditions on the advice of working seamen. He selected a tiny, specialised crew and, perhaps most significantly, he interacted with the local Inuit people. While moored at what is now called Gjøa Haven, he learned their language and acquired skills crucial for survival in the harsh Arctic conditions such as seal hunting, dog sledding, building igloos and wearing skins.
As it turns out, larger ships could never have taken Amundsen’s exact route since the water was barely three feet deep in some places, and a passage for commercial shipping remained out of reach for a long time. A century later, the European Space Agency reported the Northwest Passage was ice-free for the first time in 2007. So, as a bittersweet result of climate change, the first cruise ships carrying modern explorers sailed from Greenland to Alaska following in his remarkable wake.
Sailing into the future
Today, Hurtigruten Expeditions’ trailblazing MS Roald Amundsen is the world’s first hybrid, battery-supported, expedition cruise ship to sail the Northwest Passage. The MS Fram and MS Roald Amundsen not only offer adventurous itineraries across the Arctic, but also in Antarctica, following in the footsteps of the pioneers of yesteryear.
Roald Amundsen bested his Northwest Passage triumph by sailing to Antarctica in fellow Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen’s polar ship, Fram, where his party of five became the first to reach the South Pole on 14 December 1911. They were wearing wolf skin fur clothes of Inuit design.
Now, that’s a mighty hard path to follow.