The race to the poles in the early 20th century was as competitive as space travel in the '60s, which is what makes Roald Amundsen so remarkable. The Norwegian sailor spent his entire mid-life zigzagging the globe, from one frozen wasteland to another in search of glory. In 1906, after three grueling winters at sea, Amundsen became the first person to navigate the maze of frozen islands in the Northwest Passage, spending his downtime learning Arctic survival skills from the Inuit, and eventually skiing 400 miles to Eagle City, Alaska, just to send a telegraph to Norway to say he'd made it. Next up, the North Pole: In 1909 Amundsen had his ship’s prow headed straight for the earth’s northernmost point, when he learned that Robert Peary had likely beaten him to the punch. Undeterred, Amundsen simply pivoted 180 degrees and headed straight for Antarctica instead. And even with rival explorers Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton gunning to be the first to touch the South Pole, Amundsen was the one who made it happen in 1911.
• In 1906 he was the first to navigate through frozen islands to the Northwest Passage. It took three years and was accomplished in a 70-foot fishing boat.
• In 1911, he was the first to reach the South Pole.
• In 1926 he was the first to fly over the North Pole — in a dirigible.
The Last Word: With so many Arctic explorers trying for the same objectives, one would think that he who had the most luck won. But it’s often forgotten that for Amundsen to actually reach the South Pole, he spent six months sailing to Antarctica, a month establishing base camp, and nearly two months dogsledding 700 miles to glory. While Amundsen lost 41 dogs during the journey, all of his men survived.