April 7, 1895: Fridtjof Nansen Reaches Farthest North

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On this date, 129 years ago (also a Sunday), Fridtjof Nansen (Odd Nansen’s father), along with Nansen’s companion, Hjalmar Johansen, reached a point, in Johansen’s words, “most northerly that any human foot had ever trod.”  They had arrived at 86°14’ north latitude, besting the previous record, set 13 years earlier, by almost 200 miles.  Nansen had originally hoped, when he left the safety of his ship, the Fram, on March 14, 1895, to be able to ski and sledge his way to the North Pole, but that dream now seemed out of reach.  As Johansen confided to his journal just one day earlier, they were experiencing “the very worst ice we had as yet encountered—nothing but ridge after ridge and long stretches of old ice rubble with very deep snow and [open water] lanes here and there.”

With no change in these surface conditions discernable as far as the eye could see, mindful of their finite food supply, and of the short window—less than five months—before the onset of the long polar night, and finally, uncertain as to exactly where and how he would meet up with civilization again, Nansen elected to turn south.  Thus began the 600-mile trek over ice and open water to Franz Josef Land, an uninhabited and largely unmapped archipelago east of Svalbard.

Fridtjof Nansen

In my lectures on the polar adventures of Fridtjof Nansen, I like to emphasize his sheer bravado, his disdain for caution, his headstrong will.  After all, wasn’t he the one who famously explained that the lack of a Plan B/line of retreat was actually a positive: “Then one loses no time in looking behind, when one should have quite enough to do in looking ahead—then there is no chance for you or your men but forward.  You have to do or die!”

And yet.

In an endeavor fraught with danger, Fridtjof Nansen managed to lead not one, but two, polar expeditions,* setting records in both cases, and yet (as I also recognize in my lectures) brought both crews home without serious mishap.  Through some mysterious alchemy of careful planning, extensive preparation, will, and luck, Fridtjof Nansen succeeded where many other capable men (and they were all men) had failed.  Here is but a small, random sampling of the fates of other polar expeditions:

  • Franklin Expedition (1845): all 129 crew members perished;
  • Jeannette Expedition (1879—1881): 20 of the initial crew of 33 died;
  • Greely Expedition (1881—1884): 20 of the initial crew of 27 died; another perished on the rescue voyage home;
  • Terra Nova Expedition (1910—1913): 5 killed, including the leader, Robert Falcon Scott;
  • Brusilov Expedition (1912—1914): only 2 survivors remaining from initial crew of 24.

By contrast, not only did all of Nansen’s crews arrive home safely, in the case of his assault on the North Pole, all crew members (including, amazingly, even Nansen and Johansen) actually gained weight in the Arctic!

Fridtjof Nansen in Greenland

I think the best, and most accurate, summation of Nansen’s skillset may be found in a recently published book dealing with polar exploration, Darrell Hartman’s Battle of Ink and Ice: “Nansen represented a rare combination of ingenuity, athleticism, courage, and scholarship.”

Now, I will readily admit that I probably would not have fared well with Fridtjof Nansen as my father.  He was a stern taskmaster.  In my Introduction to From Day to Day I observe that home life with the Nansens may have “resembled nothing so much as a training camp for future polar expeditions.”

On the other hand, if I knew I would be subjected to three and a half years of sometimes brutal incarceration at the hands of the Nazis, perhaps life in the Nansen household would be the best “tough-love” upbringing possible.

And so perhaps Fridtjof Nansen’s greatest legacy is not his cross-Greenland trip, or his quest for the North Pole, but rather his preparing his son to meet—and surmount—the rigors of war and captivity.

And for that we should be always grateful.

* In addition to his record setting attempt to reach the North Pole, in 1888 Nansen and his crew became the first persons to cross Greenland from coast to coast.

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