I recently read a great book: The Last Viking: The Life of Roald Amundsen.

Roald Amundsen grew up wanting to be an explorer. He always knew what he wanted to do with his life. He was the only man (at the time) to have stood at both poles of the earth during his career. As a youth, he slept with the window open in winter to condition himself. He told his Mother he liked fresh air when she thought it strange. He had a supreme physical body due to hiking and skiing and physical endurance training. When he saw a doctor as a young man. the doctor whooped and called in fellows to see such an example of muscularity.

He studied explorers and their texts his entire life and every dime went into expeditions. Early on he recognized that explorers always got entangled with the ship's captain–by that he meant there were two heads that often clashed, the explorer would have to defer to the captain–the expedition would be cut short, bold decisions would be muted, etc. He took the necessary time and hours working on ships sailing and studying and became a certified Captain in order to eliminate the friction factor–he also became more the expert in sailing than his contemporaries. In the same vein he decided to not take a medical doctor/scientific sailor candidate on one of his voyages even though from a previous experience a doctor came in critically important during a rough time in the arctic. The reason to omit the doctor is that men on an extended trip of isolation confuse a doctor as a leader–the doctor becomes a force that may override an explorer's leadership.

Amundsen always was a student of technology. He was an observer of indigenous peoples of the arctic and he used their techniques for survival and success where his rivals seemed more wooden and resistant to change. Using Inuit clothing, hut technology, ice house forms and dogs as transport over ice where others did not were key to his success. He had to leave a lot of the business part of his career to family and close friends–which eventually soured in the end. He was always at odds with money –never having enough, always fundraising and one step ahead of creditors. His famed persona (like a rock star of today) was always in the papers–his exploits somehow always paid off his debts but then the cycle would repeat itself. He had to go on the multi continent lecture and talk circuit (early 1900s) to make money–a grueling life worse than being at -minus 50F in an ice crevasse.

Bown, the author, did his homework. The bibliography is basically every book out there, plus he did a lot of his own work in extensive newspaper story research (NYT–predominantly). There is a lot of controversy about this man and his methods–a lot of bias that Bown seems to navigate around. 

If you haven't read about polar exploration it's a good book to read since it relates the entire history of man's search for the final fabled lost lands or undiscovered sea lanes that would make trade travel quicker and cheaper. The book came out to mark the 100 year anniversary of the south pole discovery by Amundsen in 1911. You also will get a good sense of the flavor of the times–airplane technology, dirigibles, engine design changes. Amundsen also designed his own polar ship with hull designed for ice, special auxilliary motor equipped for special maneuvers.

There is plenty for the spec to think about here in relation to goal setting, using tools that others ignore, attention to details, what areas of endeavor should and should not be "farmed out". Also, there's a lot of stuff on how to plan for all potential problems, how to size up talents, and how to pick a team.

Sometimes the tedium of trading can be thought of as waiting day after day in an ice house for the weather to turn favorable. Amundsen was a big proponent of routines, small incentive contests and the shunning of idleness during his arctic times with his men–much here to think of and use for your own purposes. In this day of constant communication the book acts like an escape of sorts to a time when years would go by between shoving off on an expedition and returning–where and when and in what condition was always a surprise.





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1 Comment so far

  1. Anders Amundson on November 28, 2012 10:20 am

    Excellent review, although "Amundsen" is spelled incorrectly in the sixth paragraph. I'm not sure why I noticed this. I guess I just have an eye for this sort of thing.

    [Ed.: Thank you! The error has been corrected.]


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