Did you know that Helmer Hanssen accompanied Roald Amundsen on three expeditions?

Helmer Hanssen (1870–1956) from Vesterålen in northern Norway accompanied Roald Amundsen on three of his expeditions.
Helmer HanssenHelmer Hanssen. Photo: Chr. Hansen, Tromsø Skippers’ Association

Helmer Julius Hanssen was born in Bjørnskinn in Vesterålen in 1870. At the tender age of 12 he went to sea as a fisherman in Lofoten and Finnmark. A few years later he moved to Tromsø and started sailing in Arctic waters. From 1894 to 1897 he hunted the polar seas for bottlenose, white whale and seal. Hanssen earned his first mate’s certificate in 1897 and served as first mate aboard the SS Laura, the ship that bore the Englishman Pearson to Novaya Zemlya the same year.

At the recommendation of the legendary Tromsø apothecary Fritz Zappfe, Hanssen was taken on as second mate and jack of all trades for Amundsen’s expedition through the Northwest Passage with Gjøa in 1903-06. Hanssen’s son had just been born, but now he set forth on a journey that was expected to last two or three years – and ended up lasting four. During the expedition’s winters among the Inuit, Hanssen became an accomplished dogsledder. After returning home, he worked as a customs official in Tromsø.

Hanssen was hand-picked to serve as ice pilot on Roald Amundsen’s South Pole expedition in 1910-11. He laboured manfully in laying out depots, and drove the lead dogsled on the entire journey to the South Pole – all except the last leg, when he let Amundsen lead the way, so that it was Roald Amundsen himself who reached the Pole first on 14 December 1911.

Hanssen was Amundsen’s companion through 18 years and three expeditions. During the Maud expedition (1918-25) Amundsen sacked him and sent him home, but they made up later on. In 1926 Hanssen worked with the major German film company UFA as their polar expert aboard Våland when they went to Svalbard and Greenland. During this expedition he met the American Richard Byrd, who invited Hanssen to accompany him on his trip to the South Pole, but Hanssen declined.

Hanssen retired in 1940 and resided in Tromsø to the age of 86 years. Among other things, he was an honorary member of the Arctic Society, an organisation engaged in polar issues.