Fram Museum Oslo


The Maud Expedition (1918-1925)

In 1918, with a newly-built polar ship, the Maud, Roald Amundsen started on a new expedition which was to drift over the Arctic Ocean and maybe over the North Pole. With him were nine men, including scientific leader H.U. Sverdrup. It took two years for them to sail through the ice-filled Northeast Passage, and one more year stuck in the ice north of the Bering Strait before Amundsen gave up and tried instead to fly over the Arctic Ocean. Meanwhile the Maud continued with a reduced crew until 1925 without managing to get into the east-west current. The main result of the Maud expedition was the important scientific data which Sverdrup collected and analysed during the entire expedition.

The Maud Expedition (1918-1925)

After his “diversion” to the South Pole, it was Roald Amundsen’s intention to carry out the plan to repeat Fridtjof Nansen’s drift over the Arctic Ocean and maybe get nearer or all the way to the North Pole. The expedition was to have a scientific basis and meteorologist and oceanographer Harald Ulrik Sverdrup agreed to lead the scientific work. 

The Fram was now in poor condition after the months in tropical waters on the way back from the Antarctic, and Amundsen used money that he gained from speculations during the First World War to have a new polar ship built at Chr. Jensen’s shipyard at Vollen in Asker, just south of Oslo. The ship was christened the Maud, after the English-born Norwegian Queen. Amundsen was allowed to take some equipment and fittings from the Fram to use on the Maud.

In addition to Sverdrup, Amundsen took with him from the Antarctic expedition Helmer Hanssen, Oscar Wisting, Knut Sundbeck and Martin Rønne. The rest of the crew on the first part of the Maud expedition were Paul Knudsen, Peter Tessem and Emmanuel Tønnesen, making a total of nine.

Into the Northeast Passage

Roald Amundsen’s postponed North Pole expedition finally started in July 1918. The plan was to enter the pack ice north of the Bering Strait and drift with the ice as near to the North Pole as possible, if necessary walking the last part over the ice, and to carry out scientific collections and observations during the entire expedition. As the war was still in progress, not least at sea, the Maud had to take the northern route to the eastern part of the Arctic Ocean through the Northeast Passage. This was easier said than done.

The Maud left Oslo at 4 am on mid-summer day, took some equipment on board at Horten, and the scientific instruments in Bergen where Sverdrup had started his scientific career. Amundsen met the ship in Tromsø, where five tons of dried fish were taken on board, together with a load of reindeer-skin clothing. The final departure from Norway was in Vardø 18 July where the inhabitants gave them a memorable farewell. On the 22nd they met the first ice. The ice conditions this year turned out to be far more difficult than during the first Fram expedition and the Maud was also delayed by stormy weather and a grounding in the uncharted waters.

On 6 August they arrived at Khabarovo where there was a telegraph station and where they were to take new magnetic measurements at Scott-Hansen’s measuring point from the Fram expedition. Here Amundsen met the 21 year old telegraphist Gennadij Olonkin, who had a Norwegian mother and Russian father. Olonkin was interested in joining the expedition, and as he knew both Norwegian and Russian, he became the 10th member on board.

It was now the middle of August and the arctic summer was rapidly drawing to a close. As their progress through the ice was slow anyway, Sverdrup started on the oceanographic work. On 31 August, more than six weeks after leaving Vardø, they reached Dickson, the last telegraph station at the west end of the Passage. Ten dogs and a supply of oil were taken on board before they sailed on and rounded Cape Chelyuskin on 9 September, thus matching Nansen’s schedule in 1893. However, the ice conditions now were not as they were then and the Maud got stuck just beyond the Cape. A small and sheltered bay became their winter harbour.

The first winter

Neither Amundsen nor Sverdrup felt that the wintering would be wasted. The area around them was relatively unexplored and Sverdrup started by establishing a magnetic observatory and setting up meteorological instruments. 

Amundsen suffered several accidents during this winter. He fell through the sea ice and was saved by Hanssen. He then had a bad fall on the ice beside the ship and damaged his shoulder and broke his upper arm in two places. After six weeks, just before the arm could finally be released from the sling, he was attacked by a polar bear and was saved at the last minute, but sprained a wrist and was clawed on the backside.

The winter passed with the usual daily tasks in which Amundsen joined very little owing to his broken arm. His faithful companion Wisting had the job of doctor/nurse. On 22 November, despite having little use of his right arm, Amundsen began helping in the magnetic observatory. However, on 10 December he was seriously poisoned there by carbon monoxide and his health was permanently damaged. For the remainder of the expedition he mostly stayed on the ship and he took no part in the sledge expeditions which were carried out from the winter quarters.

Tessem and Knudsen

The summer arrived late in 1919 and at the beginning of August Maud was still stuck in the ice in the bay. Peter Tessem, the expedition carpenter, now wished to leave the expedition, apparently owing to headaches and sleeplessness. Amundsen wrote in his account that he had the idea of sending all the scientific results they had gathered so far back to Norway via Dickson and that Tessem and Paul Knudsen were willing to take on the task.

The plan was that they would stay in a small cabin they erected on shore until the conditions were good enough for them to travel along the Taymyr coast to Dickson. On 12 September the ice finally released the Maud to continue the voyage eastwards and the eight men on board waved to Tessem and Knudsen as they stood beside the cabin on shore. That was the last anyone saw of the two. Their fate is one of the “arctic mysteries”, but from remains that were found it was thought that one of them – probably Knudsen – died by some accident first and that the other continued as far as to the mainland point opposite Dickson Island. With the lights from the station visible on the horizon he probably slid on the ice and knocked himself out and then froze to death. The skeleton which was later found there was buried on the spot and a memorial stone was erected over the grave.

The second winter

After only 11 days the Maud was again stopped by the ice and a new winter harbour was found by Ajon Island. This time they had a Chukchi tent site nearby and the two groups met with each other. Sverdrup spent the seven winter months together with the Chukchi on their seasonal travel, which resulted in a detailed ethnographical description of these nomads and their way of life.

Again the meteorological and other instruments were set up and Hanssen, Olonkin and Tønnesen were sent off by dog sledge to Nischne-Kolymsk to report to the authorities that the expedition was at Ajon Island and had contact with the natives. Amundsen was nervous that there might be some unpleasantness in the spring if they did not have any permission or accept for their presence there, since the internal conditions in Russia at that time were still unsettled. The three were back again after three weeks.

On 1 December Amundsen sent Hanssen off on a 1500 km long sledging expedition to the telegraph station at Nome in Alaska where he was to deliver post and a 700 word long telegram to the newspapers. Wisting and Tønnesen went with him as well as one of their new Chukchi friends who would be the guide. The trip was expected to take five months.

Once they had gone there was only one dog left on the Maud, which Olonkin used for fetching driftwood from the shores around. They later bought some dogs from the steady stream of Russians and Chukchi who visited the ship. Amundsen now took charge of the galley and enjoyed the cooking, and otherwise spent much time reading from the extensive library they had on board.

Sverdrup returned from his travels with the Chukchi on 17 May 1920 and started at once to write his account which was first published as a chapter in Amundsen’s book, and then as a separate book: “Hos tundra-folket” [With the Tundra People] in 1938. Three days later they took a polar bear cub on board, gave her the name Marie, and Amundsen looked after her until she a month later grew too large and dangerous and had to be put down. Amundsen took the skin back to Norway for stuffing and Marie can still be seen at his house in Svartskog outside Oslo. 

Hanssen and Wisting returned on 15 June from their long and strenuous sledging trip. Tønnesen had given the Maud-expedition up on the way and was making his own way back to Norway. Hanssen had not crossed the Bering Strait to Nome, but had managed to send the telegrams from Anadyr. Wisting had stayed with Australian trader Charley Carpendale and his Chukchi wife at East Cape (now Cape Dezjnjov) while Hanssen drove the last stretch to Anadyr and back.

Through the Northeast Passage to Nome

Amundsen had now decided that the expedition would go straight to Nome when they got out of the ice, and that any of the crew could leave the ship there if they wanted to. The atmosphere on board was not too good after these two years without the planned expedition really having started. On 8 July they were released from the ice by Ajon Island and on the 15th Amundsen noted that the Northeast Passage had been sailed through for the third time ever. Together with Helmer Hanssen he was now the first to sail through both the Northwest and the Northeast Passages. On 25 July 1920 they arrived off Nome.

By the Bering Strait 1920-21

Only Wisting, Sverdrup and Olonkin wished to follow Amundsen on the Maud again. After a short stop at Nome, where they hired a native woman, Mary, as cook, they sailed north on a new attempt to start the drift over the Arctic Ocean. They got no further north than 76° before the ship was forced towards the Siberian coast and a new wintering by Cape Serdze Kamen. Again this winter they had the company of Chukchi who had a campsite nearby. Again the Maud functioned almost as a “roadside café” with numerous visitors, and one of the Chukchi, Kakot, volunteered to join the crew on the next attempt to reach the east-west current in the Arctic Ocean.

Early in 1921 Sverdrup and Wisting carried out a marathon 10-week, 2000 km, sledging expedition round the Chukchi Peninsula.

During the struggles with the ice summer 1920 the Maud’s main and reserve propellers had been damaged and it was clear that they would have to sail to Seattle for repairs. In May Wisting drove Amundsen by dog sledge to the Carpendales at East Cape, from where Amundsen could get a ship to Seattle to prepare for the Maud to arrive for repairs. Wisting hired five more Chukchi in addition to Kakot, to help the three remaining Norwegians sail the Maud to Seattle.

A winter in Seattle

They struggled out of the ice at the end of June, and on to East Cape where they were towed 400 km further south by an American inspection ship. From the Aleutian Islands they sailed on alone and arrived at Seattle 30 August. The Maud was repaired and stayed here for her fourth winter in Wisting’s and Olonkin’s care. During the winter Sverdrup went to Washington where he worked as an assistant at the Carnegie Institution’s section for earth-magnetism. He was able to work on the observations that had been done so far during the Maud expedition.

Amundsen went on to Norway to take care of various matters, not least the expedition economy. With him he took Kakonita, Kakot’s four-year old daughter, and Camilla, the Carpendales’ nine-year old daughter. Kakonita’s mother was dead and Kakot was not a very capable father for his little daughter, while Camilla was to go along as a companion for her. Amundsen’s plan was to give them a better start in life with some education in Norway. The girls went to school near to Amundsen’s home in Svartskog for two years before they were sent back to Siberia. They both went back to Camilla’s family, and later moved with them to Seattle.

A dream of flying

In May 1922 Amundsen and Sverdrup arrived back at the Maud and a new attempt was to be made to drift over the Arctic Ocean. Amundsen had meanwhile changed his plans. He would now try to fly over the ocean from Alaska to Svalbard. He had been lent a small Curtiss plane from the American aircraft company and it was to be taken on the Maud and used for observation flights over the ice. He also brought new expedition members with him: Swedish meteorologist Finn Malmgren, pilots Oscar Omdahl and Odd Dahl, machinist S. Syvertsen (died on board summer 1923) and general assistant Karl Hansen. Wisting would now be Maud’s captain during the drift, while Sverdrup was to continue as scientific leader. Kakot would also stay in the crew.

In May 1922 Amundsen had bought a Junker plane that he and Omdal attempted to fly from New York to Seattle. The attempt was unsuccessful and they crashed in Pennsylvania. A new plane was hurriedly found and sent by train to Seattle and loaded on to the Maud. In June they set off northwards again, firstly to put Amundsen, Omdal and the Junker on shore near to Wainwright on Alaska’s north coast 28 July. Film photographer Reidar Lund from Bio-Films also participated on this stretch with the Maud and secured many good motifs. This resulted in an almost 2-hour long film entitled Med Roald Amundsens Nordpolsekspedition til det første vinterkvarter [With Roald Amundsen's North Pole expedition to the first wintering place. 1923]

Amundsen and Omdal did not manage to fly that summer, apparently because of stormy weather. Instead they had a small house built where Omdal stayed for the winter while Amundsen went south, still with economy as the reason. In May 1923 they made the first test flight, but the undercarriage broke on landing and the plane was so damaged that it was not possible to repair it.

The Maud had continued northwards in 1922 under Wisting’s leadership and into the pack ice, but the current took them only as far west as to the New Siberian Islands and they were nowhere near the goal of crossing the Arctic Ocean. In May 1923 two flights were made from the Maud with the Curtis plane, with Dahl at the controls and Wisting as observer. The plane crashed on the second landing and was a write-off. These were among the very first flights in polar areas and the first ever from a ship. The flights had given some experience of landing and take-off possibilities in the pack ice and shown that flying in polar regions posed serious problems.

Wisting now received a message from Amundsen to return and they struggled back to the Bering Strait, which they reached in August 1925, after having spent three new years in the ice.

Even though Roald Amundsen was unsuccessful at reaching the North Pole on the Maud expedition, an extensive and successful scientific programme was carried out under Harald U. Sverdrup’s leadership, which has given the Maud expedition status as one of the most important of its time.