Pick from the Past

May/June 1927

North to 88 and the First Crossing of The Polar Sea

“When one goes forth a-voyaging He has a tale to tell.”

IT had always been Capt. Roald Amundsen’s wish to fly to the North Pole, and there if possible, abandon one plane in order to refuel the other from her, and with the remaining plane go on to Point Barrow, Alaska. Because the interest of us both lay, not in the attainment of the Pole—Peary having already been there—but the exploration of that great million square miles of unknown Polar Basin beyond, we took this into consideration in planning our 1925 flight from Spitzbergen with two aëroplanes.

The story of our flight over the Polar Sea to within 120 nautical miles of the Pole has already been told. Although we didn’t reach the Pole, the flight had shown that the meteorological conditions prevailing over the Polar Basin offered no hindrance to its successful exploration by means of the proper kind of aircraft.

Our only implements,—3 wooden shovels, sheath knives tied to skii sticks, and a two-pound belt ax.

After our experience with airplanes we decided to buy an airship, and we went to Italy because Mussolini had one that appeared to fit both our needs and the size of our purse.

The N. 1, built to the designs of Col. Umberto Nobile in the Italian State Airship Factory, and christened by us the "Norge," was of semi-rigid construction, 349 feet long and of 20 tons displacement. Her fuel capacity of 7 tons, to run her three 250 horse-power Myback motors, gave her a range of 3500 miles, or about 70 hours, at a speed of 50 miles per hour. Her gas capacity of 660,000 cubic feet was about 1/3 that of R.33.

The “Norge” was equipped with a Marconi wireless direction finder, the tuning-circuit for which was designed to cover a wide band of wave lengths; those used ranged from 900 to 1400 meters. The energy for the specially constructed valve transmitter was delivered from a windmill-driven generator supplying 3000 volts.

There was a delay of several days after the long flight from Italy to Spitzbergen, before the “Norge” was able to proceed on her journey across the Polar Sea. Favorable weather conditions were essential. We needed a clear sky with good visibility, and a favorable wind; also a high barometric pressure and a low temperature. These last two elements influenced greatly the lifting capacity of the dirigible. For each degree Fahrenheit that the temperature went down, the airship gained 80 pounds in lifting capacity, which was increased by 140 pounds for each tenth of an inch added to the barometric pressure.

The keel of the “Norge” looked like a flying storehouse when all was ready for the start at 8.55 o’clock on the morning of May 11, 1926. The equipment included tents, sleeping-bags, skiis, snow-shoes for those who couldn’t ski, rifles, shot-guns, ammunition, a handsledge—the finest piece of workmanship I ever saw—made by Oskar Wisting on the “Maud,” and a canvas boat. Two men among the personnel, Amundsen and Wisting, had the distinction of having been at the South Pole, and now both were en route for the North Pole.

Provisions consisted of pemmican, chocolate, oat biscuits, and dry milk, sufficient to last 16 men two months, with a daily ration of 500 grams for each man.

Return of Expedition to King’s Bay, June 19, 1925, 1:30 a.m. Left to right—Riiser-Larsen, Undal, Dietrichsen, Amundsen, Ellsworth, Feucht

On the walls of the cabin hung the pictures of Norway’s King and Queen, presented to the “Fram” on the expedition to the South Pole in 1910; an image of the Madonna which the Italians had brought with them; and a four-leaf clover given to the ship by Major Scott, who piloted the British airship R. 34 across the Atlantic. In the keel hung the flags of Norway, the United States, and Italy, to be dropped on the North Pole.

To those who made the first crossing of the Polar Sea it will ever be “life’s great adventure,” for in all human experience never before has man traveled so fast and so far into the realm of the unknown. There is an indefinable something about such an experience, where illusion and reality are so hauntingly intermingled, that ever after it may well color one’s whole sentiment of existence.

Two hours after leaving King’s Bay we found ourselves over the “pack-ice.” What weather! The sun shone brilliantly out of a sky of pure turquoise, and the whalelike shadow that our airship cast beneath us trailed monotonously across a glittering snowfield, unbroken, save where wind and tide had rift the icy surface into cracks and leads of open water. Three white whales darted under the protecting shelf of an ice-floe, and polar bear, frightened at the sight and noise of the weird monster that took to the air instead of the sea, dived into the sheltering leads, sending up columns of spray that reflected the bright sunshine.

As we approached latitude 83½ the snow-crowned peaks of Spitzbergen merged into the deepening blue of the southern sky, losing their identity, and all signs of life vanished. Intermittent fogs rolling beneath us like a great woolen ocean, hid the ice from our view. Approaching 88 we had to rise from 1800 feet to more than 3000 in order to get over it. Latitude 87.44—what memories! The motors were slowed down in commemoration of our, sojourn there the year previous, although we were passing the exact spot 50 miles to the eastward.

Mystery, silence, desolation

In this latitude, during the summer months, it is difficult to separate days and nights, for the sun swings around the horizon at practically the same altitude during the entire twenty-four hours. But our Greenwich chronometer told us we had been out 16½ hours, so the time was really 1.30 a.m., May 12. The fog had completely cleared away and there was no wind. The navigator who had been on his knees at one of the starboard windows since 1.10 with his sextant set on the height and declination the sun should have at the Pole, corresponding to the given date, suddenly announced, "Here we are!" as the sun’s image started to cover his sextant bubble. We were over the North Pole! With motors throttled and heads uncovered we descended to within 300 feet of the ice and dropped three flags.

“There is no more evanescent quality in an accomplished fact,” says Conrad, “than its wonderfulness.” Solicited incessantly by the considerations affecting its fears and desires, the human mind turns naturally away from the marvelous side of events. And it was in the most natural way possible that, after crossing the Pole, we filled our mugs with meat-balls immersed in a liquid of hot grease, from a large thermos cask, and, squatting down anywhere out of the way of trampling feet, devoured the first and only hot meal of our entire voyage from Spitzbergen to Alaska.

With full speed ahead we settled down to the monotony of routine again, heading southward instead of north, with the sun-compass settled for Point Barrow, Alaska, 1500 miles away. Ahead lay the world’s biggest unexplored area. What would it reveal, a lost continent, islands, or what? Would we cross safely to tell the world what we had seen? Hour after hour passed, but only the same glittering surface rift by wind and tide into cracks and leads of open water, was here as before crossing our route, in a west-east direction. We reached the “Ice-Pole” at 7 a.m., five and one-half hours later.

First land after 2000 miles—the coast of Alaska

This “Ice-Pole,” so called because it is the center of the Arctic ice-mass and therefore the most nearly inaccessible spot in the Arctic regions, lies in latitude 86 N. and longitude 157 W. But its inaccessibility was now conquered.

We had covered one half the distance between King’s Bay and Point Barrow. Of the seven tons of fuel the ship carried, only about two tons had been consumed. Here, strange to say, we picked up the first sign of life since leaving 83½ (almost 700 miles), one lone Polar bear track. What a challenge! What a mockery to our egotism! Yet there it was, plainly crossing a large ice-floe. Only a Polar bear, but something alive and like ourselves seeking—but what, away out here? Anyway, it was something tangible again. The sense of utter solitude—the illusion of disembodiment—that had taken possession of me, as I seemed to float through the void like a lost soul, beyond the confines of a three-dimensional world, vanished, and in its place sprang eternal hope and the desire to achieve.

Just ahead, so it seemed, lay Alaska, the goal of our dreams. “A little more, yet how far it was; a little less, but what worlds away.” But as we approached its coast, fears assailed us; for we ran into the only storm during our entire voyage—fog, wind, and sleet—and for thirty-one hours we battled. Ice coated the aërial wire and froze the windmill driver of our generator, which supplied the electrical energy to operate the transmitter and charge the storage batteries, and all efforts to establish communication with Alaska were of no avail.

Ice-crust formed on the bow of the ship. This was alarming, not only because it loaded her down, but also because it spoiled her trimming. We tried to counteract the effect by moving the fuel from the bow tanks and sending the crew aft. Needless to say, our greatest danger lay in the ice that was torn loose from the sides of the ship by the whirling propellers and thrown against the gas bags. An iceblock of the most fantastic shape settled on the sun compass, stopping the clockwork and putting it out of action for the rest of the flight.

It was a surprise, therefore, to find by observation at 4 a.m., on May 13, that we were in a nearly north-south position on a line striking the Alaskan coast and passing only twenty-one nautical miles west of Point Barrow, because it had been nearly twelve hours since the last longitude observation. At 6.45 a.m., land was sighted ahead on the port bow, and at 7.25 after a voyage lasting 48 hours, we reached the coast. Flat and snow-covered, it was the most desolate looking coast line imaginable, but it was land and that was enough.

Her work finished—the Norge deflated at Teller

As we passed over the coast line the fog became denser and denser, obliging us to go lower and lower in order to be able to see far enough ahead so that we would not run against obstacles. At last, abreast of Cape Beaufort, it became impossible to see any longer, and we rose through fog and cloud into bright sunshine. Heavy layers of fog drifted beneath us, and only now and then through openings in it could we glimpse the barren peaks of the Endicott range, over which we were passing—far too little to enable us to make out our whereabouts.

When we believed ourselves as far south as we could go, we tried to get down underneath the fog and do our best to find the way. We had to nose down to an elevation of only three hundred feet before we could see what lay beneath. We were over drift-ice again. Where were we? Unreal as it may seem, our wireless picked up a strong signal at this moment, which we thought might be Nome but we could not tell for certain, because it was a communication with another station and we couldn’t get the signature. But it gave us a position north of Diomede Island and enabled us to set a course for Cape Prince of Wales.

Very soon we were over open water which aroused our suspicions, for we might just as well be on the outside of Bering Strait and, with our course, heading straight for the Aleutian Islands. Getting into sunshine again we were obliged to take our observation from the top of the ship, as the sun at this latitude was so high that it was hidden by the envelope in whichever direction the ship pointed. The observation gave our latitude as 67.30. We then went down through the clouds and found ourselves over land, having passed over the whole of Kotzebue Bay, driven by a northerly gale of more than 70 miles per hour. Heading west to get to the sea again, we heard the Nome wireless, which together with the identification of the coast line, gave us our exact position.

At 3.30 on the morning of May 14, we rounded Cape Prince of Wales, and, tired but happy, brought our airship, coated with a ton of ice, safely to rest at the little trading post of Teller, 91 miles northwest of Nome, after a journey of 3393 miles, lasting seventy-two hours, across the Polar Sea from Europe to America.

Amundsen was the first to navigate the Northwest Passage by ship. He did that in 1903–06, about a decade before the flight described here. In 1969, following the discovery of oil in northern Alaska, the S.S. Manhattan, an American ice-breaking tanker, became the first commercial ship to sail the Northwest Passage.

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