Everybody think of Roald Amundsen when they’re asked who was first explorer to reach the North Pole. However, without the assistance of Helmer Julius Hanssen, Amundsen might not have succeeded. Here is a short presentation of the voyages of a modern Viking.
Helmer Julius Hanssen was born on 24 September 1870 in Bjørnskinn (now Andøya) in Vesterålen, and he participated in three of the polar expeditions led by Roald Amundsen, and was one of a five-man group that reached the South Pole as the first on 14 December 1911.
He earned his mate’s certificate at age 27
His father was a farmer and fisherman and from 11 years of age Helmer combined farm work with fishing in Lofoten and Finnmark in Northern Norway with his father.
While hunting small whales and seals around Spitsbergen he learned to become an experienced pilot. In 1877, when Hanssen was 27, he earned his mate’s certificate and joined Briton Henry J. Pearson’s Arctic Ocean expedition aboard the SS Laura to Novaya Zemlya (islands to the southeast of Svalbard). In the same year Hanssen married Kristine Berg, they had three children.
Hanssen meets Amundsen
While SS Laura was in Sandefjord prior to start, Hanssen met Roald Amundsen, who was preparing for the Belgian expedition with the Belgicato Antarctica. The following year Hanssen was the skipper of the sealer Elida. Before he had sailed for five years on coastal and overseas routes, amongst others for the Vesterålen Steamship Company (Vesteraalens Dampskibsselskab).
Related: A Norwegian Heritage
From 1903-6, Hanssen was second mate among a crew of just six onboard the herring boat Gjøa on Roald Amundsen’s successful search for the Northwest passage. The link between the Pacific and the Atlantic had long been sought as a trade route and Amundsen’s expedition made the journey from Oslo to Alaska. For two years they were stranded on King William Island, where Hanssen learned from the Inuit how to drive sled dogs.
Heading south to conquer the South Pole
In 1910 he headed south with Amundsen to conquer the South Pole, this time as an expert dog driver. He was also in charge of navigation, carrying the master compass on his sledge. In 1915 he gained his skipper’s license.
Because of his previous good work, Amundsen hired Hanssen to serve as captain on the s/s Maud through the Northeast Passage in 1918-20. His sledding expertise came in handy during this expedition, after the s/s Maud was stuck in the Arctic sea ice. Hanssen led the dogs on a 1500 km journey in order to send telegrams for Amundsen. The return journey to s/s Maud took Hanssen approximately 6½ months’ time, and 4000 km. Historians estimate that at the time, Hanssen’s trip was a dog sledding record.
Related: Welcome Back to Norway, Maud
The Voyages of a Modern Viking
From 1928 until his retirement in 1940, Hanssen worked as a ship surveyor in Tromsø. He published his autobiography The Voyages of a Modern Viking, in 1936. He died in Tromsø on 2 August 1956.
Feature image (on top): THe Helmer Hansen Monument in Tromsø.
The Voyages of a Modern Viking, written by Tor Kjolberg