I loved the Polar Museum in Tromso. Mainly because I have a childish fascination with old-school heroes, and also in a small way because it is the sort of museum that simply could not exist in Britain. Located in Tromso’s old customs house, the upstairs is full of excellent exhibits on Polar aviation, Roald Amundsen, Fridtjof Nansen, Henry Rudi, Wanny Woldstad and other characters to stir your heart. There are a lot of guns and diaries. More of this later.
The ground floor however is devoted almost entirely to the murderation of Arctic wildlife, presented in startling detail and curated by someone with a singular sense of humour and a love of exclamation marks. Whaling is missing, but there are life-size models of a deer sicking up blood, an arctic fox caught in a snap trap (plaque reads ‘This one didn’t get away!’), and an unconvincingly-bearded mannequin in a parka sneaking up on a baby seal with a pickaxe (‘This method is extremely humane!’).
Most horrifyingly, if you venture anywhere near the diorama of a polar bear trap (I don’t know if anyone is familiar with these, but the polar bear reaches into a box to get at a piece of meat, and in removing it pulls on a length of taut wire attached to the trigger of a sawn-off rifle or shotgun, thus shooting itself in the head), you trip a little sound sensor which plays the bear’s death screams on loop very loudly for a number of minutes, until you eventually give up and leave the room. It is not savoury, but it is history all the same.
It is the upstairs, though, where I spent the better part of an afternoon, drifting through old expedition kit, black-and-white photos and models of flimsy-looking crafts which set out to conquer the unknown with various degrees of success. I read a month or so back that the Norwegians are planning to mount yet another search for Amundsen’s plane this summer with a special sub. There is something to ponder in a search expedition for an expedition which was, in turn, in search of yet another expedition. Of course, rescue is not the object this time, as it was for Amundsen when he was lost in pursuit of the Italia, and such an ambitious search for his old Latham flying boat can only really be termed an exploration in itself.
I wonder when it was that the explorers themselves became the subject of exploration. Does it go back as far as the multiple rescue expeditions for Franklin and his lost crews, or did it stem from a time when almost all of the peaks and ends of the world had been conquered – when the mysteries of landscape began to unravel, leaving would-be adventurers with human enigmas instead? Bellot falling into a crevasse as he searched for Franklin in the 19th century; Chauncey Loomis in the 60s digging up Charles Francis Hall’s body to see if his own crew had poisoned him; or Benedict Allen in Borneo, searching for the bones of Colonel Fawcett.
I’d read the story of Amundsen’s disappearance before. Nobile’s disastrous attempt on the North Pole in the airship Italia. The engineer who saved them by cutting the envelope loose while he was still on it, throwing down supplies as he floated away into oblivion; the doomed meteorologist who set out into the wastes to try and walk to help; Amundsen and his five-man crew taking off in a borrowed French plane on a rescue mission, to vanish forever a few hours later. Bare facts heavy with fear, bravery and a clear streak of obsession.
We forget the kind of celebrity these people had in their time, because our modern heroes are of a different breed, and because even when they display similar characteristics to the golden age explorers (I am thinking here mainly of figures in the world of sport), our media, for all its faults, gives them rather more humanity than it did back in the day. The old guys were untouchable and Olympian, embodiments of national spirit. But for all that, many of the great adventurers were complicated men. Think of Shackleton – magnificent in desperate times yet a slightly rudderless drinker in the calm of the everyday to which they all had to return. Scott has had a lot of bad press in more recent times, some of it likely justified, and Peary, (whose record of being the first man to reach the North Pole by land is still disputed), is a can of worms. As for Hall, Chauncey Loomis wrote, ‘Independence is often loneliness, and Hall was a lonely man… Will power, energy and independence were the qualities which made him, and perhaps broke him.’
I like to think of Tom Crean, the modest Irishman who distinguished himself on the expeditions of both Scott and Shackleton and once walked through the night with a blizzard on his tail to save a friend. He reportedly cried when Scott decided he would not be included in the group to make the final assault on the South Pole, but this disappointment gave him his life. Perhaps the least flawed of all of them, he wound up running a pub in obscurity, his sword and medals hidden away in a box, and his adventures in another life rarely spoken of.
The pictures in the Polar Museum are iconic too. Fridtjof Nansen in rags on Jackson island, his soft, kind face blackened and covered in a filthy matted beard after a year on the ice; Lincoln Ellsworth, the American millionaire adventurer, with his film-star looks and impeccably cut suits like a Gatsby of the Arctic; and Amundsen with his unsmiling, steely glare, his beaky profile as distinctive as Hitchcock’s.
Amundsen’s determination is fearsome. You can see it even in pictures of him as a child. The kind of man who would discover, half way to the North Pole, that Peary had beaten him to it, and there and then turn his ship about and sail for the South Pole instead. The kind of man who would coolly plan to kill half his dogs in order to feed the other half on the return journey, his crushing note left for poor Scott at the pole brief and unemotional. When he crashed and nearly died on his first attempt to fly to the North Pole, he and Ellsworth simply started again. There was no defeat for Amundsen but his last.
And even then, there are signs of a struggle. A float from the Latham 47 flying boat in which he vanished was found adrift, and some time later, one of the fuel tanks was washed up on shore. I saw it in the museum. In the side, someone has cut three rectangular holes, each one about the size of a tea tray. Some think this is an attempt to adapt the spare fuel tank into a makeshift float, to replace the one torn off in the crash. Such an attempt in the face of hopelessness is thought-provoking.
It all makes me think of something that Pen Hadow was once quoted as saying. ‘As you well know, a ship in harbour is safe. But that’s not what ships are built for…’