The Great Arctic Explorer

Question: Who was the first person to cross Greenland on skis?
Answer: Fridtjof Nansen

Who?

Norwegian-born Fridtjof Wedel-Jarlsberg Nansen was a polymath and Nobel Peace Prize laureate who led the first crossing of Greenland in 1888. Although he gained fame in his home country for achieving the feat, Nansen also had a reputation in the fields of science, diplomacy and humanitarianism. Yet today, Nansen is fairly unknown, and his achievements no longer celebrated.

Nansen was born in Store Frøen, near Norway’s capital city, Christiania (now Oslo), on 10th October 1861. He was the second child of lawyer Baldur Fridtjof Nansen and Adelaide Johanne Thekla Isidore Bølling Wedel-Jarlsberg, although his older sibling died in infancy. Despite living in Norway, his father’s family originated in Denmark, where his ancestor Hans Nansen (1598-1667) was a burgomaster and had close dealings with the Danish royal family.

Nansen in 1865 (age 4)

Store Frøen, despite being near the capital city, was a rural area and Nansen spent much of his early life swimming in the summer and skiing in the winter. He enjoyed exploring the forests where he pretended to be the castaway Robinson Crusoe from the novel by Daniel Defoe (1660-1731). Through these activities, Nansen became self-reliant, as well as a proficient skier and ice skater. Sadly, at the age of 15, Nansen had to leave his idyllic countryside for the city following the death of his mother. Fortunately, he continued participating in sports at school and broke the world one-mile skating record at 18.

The following year, Nansen took “…the first fatal step that led me astray from the quiet life of science.” The zoology department at the university proposed a five-month voyage aboard the seal-hunting boat Viking to study Arctic animals. Nansen jumped at the chance to travel and spent the trip searching for seals in Greenland and Spitsbergen, Norway. Before returning home, Viking became trapped in the ice near the unexplored territories of Greenland. Whilst he could not go ashore, Nansen envisaged a potential exploration journey across the Greenland icecap.

On returning to Norway, Nansen left university and started working as a curator in the zoological department of the University Museum of Bergen. He worked there for six years, except during 1886 when Nansen spent a 6-month sabbatical touring Europe. During this trip, Nansen met Gerhard Armauer Hansen (1841-1912), the physician who discovered a leprosy-causing bacteria. This meeting encouraged Nansen to continue the research he had recently begun on the neuroanatomy of marine creatures. Nansen published a paper of his findings at the end of his sabbatical and, the following year, he completed his doctoral thesis, The Structure and Combination of Histological Elements of the Central Nervous System.

While working on his thesis, two men attempted to cross the Greenland icecap: Finland-Swedish aristocrat Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld (1832-1901) in 1883 and American explorer Robert Peary (1856-1920) in 1886. Both set out from the western coast and traversed approximately 100 miles before turning back. Nansen, who had planned to return to Greenland since his university trip, analysed these previous attempts. He believed he could do better by starting the trek on the opposite side of the land. There were a few settlements on the west coast, and Nansen thought it safer to travel towards them rather than away from them into the unknown.

Unlike the previous explorers who brought a large team and heavy equipment with them, Nansen planned his expedition for a small party of six and purchased lightweight sledges to carry their belongings. The team needed suitable clothing, sleeping bags and cooking facilities, many of which were hand made to suit the Arctic climate. Norwegian critics expressed negative views about Nansen’s plans and claimed he only had a one in ten chance of surviving the trip. The Norwegian government refused to support Nansen financially, but Danish explorer, Augustin Gamél (1839-1904), came to his rescue with a considerable donation.

Ravna, Sverdrup, Nansen, Kristiansen, Dietrichson, Balto

As for his team, Nansen needed experienced skiers and began advertising in newspapers. The first to respond was Oluf Christian Dietrichson (1856-1942), a military officer skilled in plotting maps and determining distances. Soon after, Otto Sverdrup (1854-1930), a proficient skier and sailor, was recruited as the ship commander. No one else came forward, but Sverdrup recommended his friend, Kristian Kristiansen (1865-1943), a cross-country skier.

Nansen still needed another two recruits and consulted Nordenskiöld, one of the previous explorers to attempt the crossing, about who he should ask. Nordenskiöld suggested contacting the Sami people in Lapland, Finland because they were generally reliable skiers and familiar with frozen landscapes. After sending a telegraph to the country, Nansen found two suitable candidates, Samuel Balto (1861-1921) and Ole Nilsen Ravna (1841-1906). Finally, Nansen’s team was assembled.

Postcard featuring of the members of Nansen’s Trans-Greenland Expedition

Nansen initially considered using dogs or reindeer to pull the sledges but rejected the idea because neither he nor his team had used animals before. By redesigning the Norwegian skikjaelke (low hand sledge), Nansen made several sledges from ash wood, which is both lightweight and strong. The six explorers boarded a boat with their sledges, skis, reindeer-skin sleeping bags, tents, woollen clothing, cooking stove, pemmican (dried meat), biscuits, tea and coffee, and sailed to Edinburgh in Scotland. They then boarded a Danish mail boat to Iceland, where they awaited their ship to carry them to Greenland.

On 3rd June 1888, the Norwegian whaling vessel Jason picked up the team and their equipment from the Icelandic port of Ísafjörður. After a week of sailing, they finally spotted Greenland in the distance, but the number of icebergs made it impossible for the Jason to sail to the coast. Using several small boats, the men set out to traverse the remaining 12 miles. Unfortunately, severe weather conditions made it difficult to navigate, and they spent more time sitting out storms on icebergs rather than sailing. After two weeks of battling the waves, Nansen and his team eventually reached Greenland on 29th July, having travelled approximately 240 miles, 20 times further than intended. Too far south to begin their expedition, Nansen ordered his men to rest then return to the boats. Over the following 12 days, they fought their way north up the coastline, stopping to rest at an Eskimo encampment along the way. They eventually reached their intended destination, Umivik, on 10th August.

After resting for a few days and making their final preparations, Nansen and his team set off in a north-westerly direction on 15th August. They aimed to traverse 370 miles of frozen land, eventually reaching the town of Christianhaab on the other side of the island.

“…we advanced rather rapidly for two days; then we were stopped by a storm from the north, with heavy rain, and we had to stay in our tent lying down in our sleeping-bags for three days, while the ice melted rapidly under us, and the rain poured down above.”

The last ship was due to leave Christianhaab by mid-October, and Nansen feared they would not make it in time. Crevasses made skiing dangerous, and progress was slow. Several snowstorms also delayed the teams and made pulling the sledges difficult. Eventually, Nansen proposed taking a shorter route to the capital Godthaab, now known as Nuuk, on the western coast. The team readily agreed to the new plan, which shortened their journey by 93 miles.

Nansen was the first explorer to bring a camera on an expedition. He managed to take about 150 photographs, which documented their journey across Greenland. These images reveal the size of the sledges the men dragged along with them and the types of clothing they wore. They harnessed themselves to the front of the sledges and allowed the wind to help push them in the right direction. Going uphill was always difficult, but downhill was just as dangerous. They had to be careful they were not mown down by the falling sledges.

Despite the snowy weather, the men were blinded by the sun, which reflected off the white ground. Nansen devised some snow goggles with a narrow slit for each eye. Whilst this prevented direct sunlight and reflections from obscuring their sight, it stopped the men from seeing their feet. When wearing the goggles, the men needed to be extra careful to avoid crevices and uneven ground.

The men faced many trials during the journey, including snowstorms that buried them inside their tents. Fortunately, on 11th September, they reached the highest part of their journey, approximately 8,921 ft above sea level. From here on, the route was downhill, and the team were able to put their skiing skills to good use. They still needed to cope with freezing temperatures, which reached as low as −45 °C, but the quicker pace helped keep them warm, and they enjoyed skiing while the northern lights shone overhead. This leg of the trip was by no means less dangerous. They still had crevices to navigate and fresh snowfalls to dig through, but their spirits rose as they neared their destination.

On 26th September, Nansen and his team reached the Ameralik fjord, 50 miles away from Godthaab. The men rejoiced at seeing water again, but they looked warily at the mountains separating themselves from the capital. Nansen decided the remaining journey would be easier by sea, alongside the edge of the fjord. Using the sledges, the men built a boat, using a tent as sails. Unfortunately, it could only carry two people, so Nansen and Sverdrup left the others sheltering in the remaining tents and set off on 29th September, navigating around ice flows and other obstructions. Finally, on 3rd October, the two men reached Godthaab, thus ending their 49-day journey across the land.

Nansen and Sverdrup were warmly welcomed by the Danish town representative who invited them into his home. They were overjoyed to wash off the two months worth of black grease and dirt from their bodies whilst some of the natives set off to rescue the remaining four explorers. Dietrichson, Kristiansen, Balto and Ravna finally reached the city on 12th October. “The expedition was finished, and Greenland was crossed for the first time.” Unfortunately, they were still 240 miles away from their original destination and had no way of making it to the final ship home. A skilled kayaker managed to send news of their success to the ship before it embarked, along with letters from the men to their families and friends. With no more ships due until the spring, the team spent the next seven months living with the Inuits. Eventually, on 15th April 1889, the Danish ship, Hvidbjørnen arrived to take them to Copenhagen. “It was not without sorrow that we left this place and these people, among whom we had enjoyed ourselves so well.”

Nansen reached Copenhagen on 21st May 1889, where crowds greeted him and his companions as heroes. News of their landing spread quickly, and by the time they reached Christiania a week later, almost forty thousand people lined the streets. This was approximately one-third of the city’s population. The university offered Nansen the position of curator of the Royal Frederick University’s zoology collection, which he accepted, but spent the majority of his working hours writing up an account of his expedition. In the summer, the Royal Geographical Society invited Nansen to London, where he met the future King Edward VII (1841-1910). The society awarded him with the Founders Medal “for having been first to cross the inland ice of Greenland … as well as for his qualities as a scientific geographer”.

Fridtjof Nansen and Eva Nansen in autumn 1889

On 11th August 1889, Nansen announced his engagement to Eva Sars (1858-1907), a mezzo-soprano singer and pioneer of women’s skiing. They married the following month, on 6th September. Eva, like her husband, was a competent skier and became the first woman to cross the Hardangervidda mountain plateau in Norway on skis in 1892. She also campaigned for the right for women to participate in winter sports on equal terms with men.

Nansen had not been home for long before he started planning his next expedition, this time to the North Pole. He presented his ideas to the Norwegian Geographical Society in 1890, arguing that recent failed attempts were due to starting the trips from the west rather than the east. His proposition received similar reactions to his plans for crossing Greenland. Many members of the society were involved in the search for the missing Franklin expedition and viewed the potential trip as “an illogical scheme of self-destruction”. Nonetheless, Nansen’s fame worked in his favour, and he secured a grant from the Norwegian parliament.

For the journey, Nansen needed a suitable ship to navigate the icy waters. He commissioned the Norwegian naval shipbuilder Colin Archer (1832-1921) to construct a fast and manoeuvrable vessel, which he christened Fram, the Norwegian word for “forward”. Nansen advertised for people to join his expedition team and received over 1000 applications. From these, he selected a party of twelve, including Otto Sverdrup, who Nansen appointed as second-in-command.

Thousands lined the harbour to watch the Fram launch on 24th June 1893. The plan was to sail the ship as close to the North Pole as possible, after which they would complete the rest of the journey with dog sledges. They stopped for some time on the Norwegian island of Vardøya, which they eventually left on 21st July. Unfortunately, fog and ice made sailing difficult, and occasionally they came to a complete standstill. It was not until 10th September that they passed the most northerly point of the Eurasian continent, Cape Chelyuskin.

Despite their determination, the journey became tediously slow. The Fram began to drift in the wrong direction, and it took four months to turn the ship back on course. By 22nd March 1894, Nansen had predicted it would take the ship five years to reach the North Pole. The Fram barely travelled more than a kilometre per day, so Nansen felt compelled to devise a new plan. Using the dogs to help pull the sledges, Nansen suggested travelling over the icy sections on foot and use kayaks to navigate the stretches of water. Over the next few months, the men practised dog-driving on the patches of ice they passed while the ship made her painstakingly slow journey through the icy water. By November, Nansen was sure of his plans, and the crew spent the remaining winter months building kayaks and preparing clothing and equipment. Only Nansen and dog-driving expert Hjalmar Johansen (1867-1913) planned to travel overland. The rest of the team were to stay on board until the ship broke through the ice into the North Atlantic Sea.

Preparations for Nansen and Johansen’s polar trek, 14 March 1895

Nansen and Johansen began their journey on 14th March 1895. They had a 410-mile trip ahead of them, which Nansen predicted would take 50 days. Unfortunately, uneven surfaces made progress slow, and Nansen considered turning back. On 4th April, they decided to turn south and travel to Franz Josef Land, a Russian archipelago, instead of the pole. Progress was still slow, but they felt safer travelling towards civilisation rather than into the unknown.

After several stops and starts to repair equipment, they reached the edge of the pack ice on 6th August. By then, all their dogs had died, either from injury or necessity (i.e. food). “At last the marvel has come to pass—land, land, and after we had almost given up our belief in it!” To reach the distant land, Nansen and Johansen needed to travel over water in their kayaks. As they approached, Nansen identified it as Cape Felder on the western edge of Franz Josef Land, but they were still many miles off. The weather gradually turned colder, and Nansen decided to make camp on an uninhabited, small island for the rest of the winter. They erected a small hut from stones and moss, where they lived on bear, walrus and seal meat for the following eight months. Finally, the weather conditions began to improve, and they resumed their journey on 19th May 1896.

Staged photo of the Nansen–Jackson meeting near Cape Flora, 17 June 1896

The two men had to stop again on 17th June after being attacked by a walrus, an event that turned out to be serendipitous. They hauled their kayaks onto an island and were shocked to hear voices. They were surprised to come across British explorer Frederick Jackson (1860-1938), the leader of an expedition to Franz Josef Land, who revealed Nansen and Johansen were reported lost, presumed dead.

After taking a few days to recuperate at Jackson’s camp on the nearby island of Cape Flora, Nansen and Johansen boarded Jackson’s supply ship Windward and sailed to Vardøya. They hoped to hear about the safe return of the Fram but there was no news. Crestfallen, they began to make their way south, eventually reaching Hammerfest, the most northerly town on the Norwegian mainland on 18th August. Whilst they were there, they finally heard some news about the Fram. She was sighted heading towards Tromsø in north Norway, having failed to reach the pole. Nansen and Johansen immediately set out to reunite with their crew.

Despite failing to reach the North Pole, Nansen and his men were hailed as heroes at every port they stopped at on their homeward journey to Christiania. When they arrived in the capital, the harbour was packed with the largest crowd they had ever seen, and they were greeted by King Oscar II (1829-1907), who invited the men and their families to stay at the palace for several days as special guests. Although they had not achieved what they set out to do, the Fram expedition was deemed a success. No one had died during the journey, and Nansen had made “almost as great an advance as has been accomplished by all other voyages in the nineteenth century put together.” (Edward Whymper, 1840-1911)

During the months after his return, Nansen wrote 300,000 words about his journey, which was translated into English and published as Farthest North in January 1897. After this, he started accepted a professorship in zoology at the Royal Frederick University and became the director of the International Laboratory for North Sea Research. He also helped to found the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea and his recently published book helped some Italian explorers reach the North Pole.

Fridtjof Nansen Institute at Polhøgda

Before Nansen set out on the Fram expedition, his eldest daughter Liv was born. In the years after his return, Nansen and his wife had three more children, Kåre (1897), Irmelin (1900) and Odd (1901-73). To accommodate his growing family, Nansen used the profits from his expedition to buy a plot of land on the outskirts of the capital and designed a large house. The building, which Nansen christened Polhøgda (“polar heights”), featured a mix of styles, including Italian renaissance and English manor house. The family began living there in 1902, and Nansen’s fifth and final child, Asmund (1903-1913), was born the following year. The house is now the location of the Fridtjof Nansen Institute (FNI).

Although he was not a politician, the Norwegian government respected Nansen’s opinions. In 1905, Norway voted to become independent from Sweden, which was ruled by King Oscar II. Subsequently, Norway needed a new king and ally, so Nansen was sent to Copenhagen to persuade a Danish prince to take up the seat. Nansen’s quest was successful, and on 22nd June 1906, Prince Charles of Denmark became Haakon VII (1872-1957) of Norway.

Due to his success, the government appointed Nansen Norway’s first Minister in London. This involved spending considerable time in England, where he was popular with the people and the king. His main task concerned the Integrity Treaty, which would guarantee Norway’s position among the major European powers. The Treaty was passed on 2nd November 1907, and believing his work was complete, Nansen resigned from his post. At the invitation of King Edward VII, Nansen stayed in the country for a couple more weeks, but after receiving news that his wife was seriously ill with pneumonia, he rushed back to Norway. Sadly, Eva had passed away before he reached home.

Following a period of mourning, Nansen resumed working at the university but decided to focus on oceanology rather than zoology. Nansen participated in several oceanographic voyages, exploring the north Atlantic ocean, the North Polar Basin and the Kara Sea. He continued these trips until the outbreak of World War One when he declared his neutrality and became the president of the Norwegian Union of Defence. After the war, Nansen arranged for the repatriation of around half a million prisoners, of which 300,000 were in Russia, where civil war was rife. When seeing the physical and mental state of these people, Nansen said, “Never in my life have I been brought into touch with so formidable an amount of suffering.”

The Nansen passport allowed stateless persons to legally cross borders

Horrified by the suffering of Norwegian prisoners of war, Nansen determined to help other people in similar situations, particularly Russian refugees. Many of these people had no documents or passports, so Nansen devised the “Nansen passport”, which permitted refugees to cross borders. The passport was a success and adopted by more than 50 governments. He also helped to repatriate hundreds of thousands of refugees after the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922. In 1922, Nansen won the Nobel Peace Prize for “his work for the repatriation of the prisoners of war, his work for the Russian refugees, his work to bring succour to the millions of Russians afflicted by famine, and finally his present work for the refugees in Asia Minor and Thrace”. He donated all the prize money to international relief organisations.

Before winning the prize, Nansen married his life-long friend Sigrun Munthe in 1919. Unfortunately, his children resented this, and the marriage became strained. Throughout the 1920s, Nansen spent most of his time abroad, partly avoiding his wife but mostly helping victims of the Armenian genocide. Nansen also hoped to travel to the North Pole by airship, but the war resulted in a severe lack of funding. Instead, he kept his hand in politics, becoming a member of the anti-communist Fatherland League. This also involved many trips away from his hometown, speaking at rallies around the country.

In 1925, Nansen was elected Rector of the University of St Andrews in Scotland, the first foreigner to hold the honorary position. The students chose him from a list of candidates to replace the previous Rector, Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936). Rectors were invited to serve for three years, so Nansen held the position until 1928. At his inaugural address, Nansen encouraged the students to go out into the world. “We all have a Land of Beyond to seek in our life—what more can we ask? Our part is to find the trail that leads to it. A long trail, a hard trail, maybe; but the call comes to us, and we have to go. Rooted deep in the nature of every one of us is the spirit of adventure, the call of the wild—vibrating under all our actions, making life deeper and higher and nobler.”

Nansen remained a keen skier for the rest of his life and took several trips into the mountains in between his various duties and events. In February 1930, at the age of 68, he struggled to keep up with his friends on the slopes and tired easily. He returned home and spent several weeks in bed battling influenza. He had many visitors during this time, including King Haakon VII.

The illness left Nansen weak, and he never fully recovered. On 13th May 1930, he suffered a fatal heart attack, resulting in numerous tributes across the world. British lawyer Lord Robert Cecil (1864-1958) remarked that Nansen rarely put his interests and health first. “Every good cause had his support. He was a fearless peacemaker, a friend of justice, an advocate always for the weak and suffering.” Nansen received a non-religious state funeral, and his children spread his ashes under a tree in the garden of their childhood home, Polhøgda.

Nansen’s trips to Greenland and the Arctic helped shape future expeditions. He devised new methods of travel, for instance, the “Nansen sledge” and new cooking methods, the “Nansen Cooker”. His experience on the ice led to improved clothing and lightweight equipment, which made it easier for explorers to travel. Nansen also influenced the science world and is recognised as one of the founders of modern neurology and oceanographical science.

Due to Nansen’s work with refugees, he repatriated and found homes for around 1 million people. Those who continued with his work under the “Nansen Office” received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1938. Since 1954, the Nansen Refugee Award is given by the United Nations to an individual or group “for outstanding work on behalf of the forcibly displaced.” Winners include Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962), the “people of Canada”, Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007), and Greek Volunteers of the Hellenic Rescue Team.

Many organisations have honoured Nansen by giving his name to several geographical features, including the Nansen Basin and the Nansen-Gakkel Ridge in the Arctic Ocean, Nansen Island in the Kara Sea, Nansen Land in Greenland and Nansen Island in Franz Josef Land. Unfortunately, outside his home country and Arctic areas, Fridtjof Nansen is not a well-known name, and his achievements are largely unrecognised. Yet, he is certainly a man worth learning about; not only was he the first man to cross Greenland, but he also helped save so many refugees. Nansen did not set out to become famous, his actions were usually selfless, and that is what makes him such a commendable individual.


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2 thoughts on “The Great Arctic Explorer

  1. Unbelievable, what an amazing man, and such a life lived to the fullest. Explorer adventurer but humanitarian saving and transforming the lives of countless. Today our cult of celebrity means some “worship” people who have done very little with their lives but here is a man worthy to be known and act as an inspiration. Hazel once again you educate us. Thank you

  2. How does someone pack so much into their life. I never cease to be amazed. Well done Hazel for giving him the recognition he deserves and bringing him to life for us. It’s good to know that his influence still goes on.

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