I'm going to Svalbard this summer. Not a lot of people can say that but I like the sound of it. "What did you do on your summer vacation?" "I went to Svalbard." The idea gets my Viking blood going.
My research into my famous Norwegian ancestor, Roald Amundsen, continues. After Antarctica, he began trying to reach the North Pole by air and eventually disappeared on a rescue mission on his way north from Tromso.
I felt a kind of relief when I published In Antarctica because a decades long project was finally between covers. I had needed to bring my own obsession and experience into the text I had been working on for years, and I did that by going to Antarctica. Later, as I traveled to book launches and gave lectures and readings about that work, I thought I would begin to tire of it and would want to put my polar library away for a while. Instead, I began to think that the project was really just beginning.
Amundsen arrived at the South Pole when he was thirty-nine years old. That success was his greatest achievement, and at the time was quite akin to Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. What does one do as a second act?
For me, what Amundsen did next is the reason I believe I am not yet finished with his story. Amundsen continued exploring, but his South Polar expedition marked the end of a heroic age of exploration and to some extent, he found himself in a world in which he no longer belonged. He adapted, however, and took to the air and, after a disastrous expedition across the North-east passage in a wooden sailing ship, he learned to fly and began exploring the north from the air from Svalbard, above the Arctic Circle. In 1926, he flew over the North Pole in an airship and became the first verified explorer to make it there. In 1928, his estranged comrade on the 1926 voyage, Umberto Nobile, crashed a second airship and Amundsen himself disappeared shortly after joining the search for Nobile.
The story of Roald Amundsen is filled with mystery, betrayal, and also romance, and I now believe that after my Antarctic journey, my work is only half-finished. I would like to continue to follow in his footsteps, and to visit Tromso, Norway (which was the staging ground for his final rescue mission), Bear Island (which is near where he is believed to have crashed), and Svalbard (from whence he mounted his northern air expeditions).
Thanks to some exceptional circumstances, I’m going to be setting sail this summer. Rather incredibly, the expedition ship Polar Pioneer (which is the vessel upon which I traveled to Antarctica) is making an expedition in July 2015 from Aberdeen, Scotland to Oslo, Norway, up the coast of Norway to Tromso, and then past Bear Island to Svalbard—exactly the route I feel I need to travel.
Perhaps more incredibly, I asked the expedition company, Aurora Expeditions, if they would sponsor me on the trip and they have agreed to give me passage in return for a lecture onboard the ship. I'm still pinching myself.
So I’m dusting off my expedition boots and scrambling to get everything I need in place before the end of June. This time I hope not to follow quite so closely in Amundsen’s footsteps (since they disappear in the ice) but I’ll haunt his Northern turf and take notes.