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Great European Lives: Fridtjof Nansen

A portrait of Norwegian explorer, diplomat, scientist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Fridtjof Nansen, Norway, circa 1900. (Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

CHARLIE CONNELLY looks into the life of a brave Norwegian explorer.

If it hadn’t been for a bad-tempered walrus Fridtjof Nansen might never have made it out of the Arctic.

In 1896 the Norwegian explorer was facing a third winter in the polar ice north of Russia, having failed in his attempt to become the first person to reach the North Pole but succeeded in making it farther north than any explorer to date.

Three years earlier he’d set out on his specially-commissioned ship, the Fram, hoping to prove his theory supporting the existence of an ocean current in the polar seas. If the current didn’t actually pass over the Pole itself, he surmised, it at least facilitated an assault from the Arctic north of Russia, a better bet than the route via Greenland favoured by previous polar aspirants.

Two years into the voyage, on March 14, 1895, Nansen felt he was close enough to the Pole to strike out on foot. He took with him 100 days’ worth of provisions and a stoker named Hjalmar Johansen, a former prison warder who had represented Norway in gymnastics at the 1889 world championships.

Within two weeks of leaving the ship the two men had reached 85°09′ north, bowling along at an astonishing rate of around 20 miles a day. With only about 300 miles between him and the Pole, Nansen was confident to the point of exhilaration. But by early April the icy terrain had become far more challenging, jagged peaks and deep crevasses stretching as far as he could see. Nansen also realised the ice pack on which they were travelling was drifting south at a significant rate, one that would have slowed them dramatically, even if they were still on smooth terrain.

After a few days of struggle it became clear Nansen and Johanssen had insufficient provisions for the plan to make the Pole then head the 370 miles south-west to Spitsbergen, where they hoped to hitch a ride home from a passing ship. Conceding that pressing on meant an inevitable and futile death, Nansen was forced to turn around. Reaching 86°13′ north, three degrees farther than any previous explorer, was small consolation.

When both men’s chronometers were rendered practically useless by their failure to keep them wound, taking accurate bearings became impossible. In early August 1895, having travelled more than 600 miles since leaving the Fram, they reached an islet they hoped was an outlier of the ill-mapped Franz Josef Land archipelago and made camp for the winter.

There were enough seal, walrus and polar bears in the vicinity to feed them until spring and the shelter they built for themselves was sturdy enough. But eight months with nothing to do beyond reading Nansen’s book of tide tables demoralised them both.

“The sight of the printed letters gave one the feeling that there was, after all, a little bit of the civilised man left,” Nansen recorded, hoping to convince himself, while Johansen did not exactly relish his leader’s company through another long, dark winter. “It is silent in the tent, no fun, not a single joke,” he wrote in his journal. “The fellow is unsociable and clumsy in the smallest things and egotistical to the highest degree.”

It was May 1896, eight months after they struck camp, before conditions improved enough for the pair to make for Spitsbergen, skiing across the ice and kayaking across stretches of open water. Within a fortnight, however, when they’d climbed to the top of a ridge to check the route ahead, the kayaks slipped from their moorings and began to drift away, an almost certainly fatal turn of events.

Nansen threw off his coat, ran down to the shore and dived into the icy water, reaching the craft just in time to avoid freezing to death. Shortly afterwards, as Nansen recovered from his ordeal, a pack of walruses appeared in the water, one of which attacked the kayaks and bit clean through both hulls. The repairs delayed their journey by several days.

On June 17, 1896, as they were about to set off again, Nansen and Johanssen heard what they thought were dogs barking and men’s voices on the breeze. Skiing off to investigate they happened upon an English exploration party led by Frederick Jackson, whom Nansen had met at the Royal Geographical Society in London a few years earlier. As the Norwegians approached, their bearded faces darkened by months of dirt and weather, a startled Jackson squinted at the lead figure and stammered, “Are… aren’t you Nansen?”

If it hadn’t been for the walrus, Nansen and Johanssen would have been four days’ travel away and the chance meeting would never have happened. Jackson and his party were the only people and only real hope of rescue for thousands of miles around.

Having hitched a ride on Jackson’s supply ship Nansen arrived back in Oslo to a tumultuous welcome. “There were flags high and low,” he wrote, “salutes, hurrahs, waving of hats and handkerchiefs, radiant faces everywhere.” There were even calls for him to become prime minister in the event of an independent Norway and mocked-up illustrations of Nansen as a potential Norwegian monarch appeared.

While the contrast with spending months with just Johansen for company was profound, Nansen was well-used to the attention. In 1887, having just become the first non-Inuit to traverse the Greenland ice sheet, he had received a letter from his brother-in-law Axel Huitfeldt that read: “Nansen here and Nansen there, Nansen, Nansen, nothing else but Nansen. Nansen caps, Nansen cakes, Nansen cigars, Nansen pens, a Nansen March and so on ad infinitum. The only things I haven’t seen are Nansen handkerchiefs.”

The Greenland expedition hadn’t been an earth-shattering achievement, with both poles remaining unconquered, but it made Nansen’s name and had implications beyond an outstanding feat of endurance.

Scandinavia at the end of the 19th century was at a low ebb. Sweden, once a major European power, was in decline, with Norway its poor relation bound to their neighbours by a dual monarchy treaty.

Nansen’s Greenland odyssey was an achievement behind which Norwegians could rally and was a huge boost for their growing independence movement. His epic journey was also one in the eye for Denmark, whom Norwegians felt had a flimsy territorial claim to Greenland when it had been ‘discovered’ originally by Norwegians in the 10th century.

Tall and blond with piercing blue eyes, not to mention being a champion skier and brilliant neuroscientist, Nansen was the perfect poster boy for a resurgent Norway. Always passionate about the outdoors – a trait inherited from his mother – he could, by his early teens, comfortably ski 30 miles in a day, broke the world mile speed-skating record at 18 and in 1880 won the national cross-country skiing title, something he would repeat a further 11 times.

His zest for exploration had been fired as a zoology student at the University of Christiana, now Oslo, in 1882 when he joined the sealing ship Viking on a four-month cruise to the Arctic. What struck him most was not the range of fauna he was there to study but the tantalising glimpses of Greenland’s misty east coast between vast banks of drifting sea ice.

While the west of the island was well-charted and colonised by the Danes, the interior had never been explored successfully by anyone except the Inuit and Nansen thought he knew why. Setting out from the safety of the west made it too easy to turn back when faced with challenging conditions, he felt. His expedition would arrive on the east coast knowing that safety lay only at the end of the journey. Failure meant death.

The Fram expedition proved to be Nansen’s last major venture. He became a noted scientist at the university in Oslo as well as a passionate advocate of Norwegian independence. “Any union in which one people is restrained in exercising its freedom is and will remain a danger,” he said, and when in 1906 Norway won the right to self-determination Nansen was its first minister to London. So impressive were his diplomatic skills in fact that after the First World War the League of Nations put him in charge of the repatriation of more than 400,000 German and Austro-Hungarian prisoners-of-war from Russia, where he also oversaw a huge and successful international famine-relief programme.

In 1922 he was the driving force behind what became known as the ‘Nansen passport’, an internationally recognised identity card for refugees and the same year, Nansen was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Whether that atoned in any way for missing out on being the first man to reach the North Pole is a secret he took to his grave.

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