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Fridtjof Nansen: The Remarkable Life and Legacy of a Polar Explorer

Fridtjof Nansen, born on October 10, 1861, on a farm near Christiania (now Oslo), had a deep connection with the outdoors since his early years. At just four, he began skiing and showed remarkable prowess in various sports like ski jumping, skating, sailing, swimming, and rowing. Nansen's athletic achievements included winning the Norwegian Championship in cross-country skiing eleven times. Remarkably, at the age of seventeen, he even set a world record in the 1500-meter speed skating event.

Nansen found inspiration in nature, relishing its tranquility and solitude. He had access to a small lakeside cabin, which he often retreated to in order to experience self-sufficiency, relying on hunting and fishing for sustenance while relishing the role of being his own master.

“I disliked having an outfit for my excursions. I managed with a crust of bread, and broiled my fish on the embers. I loved to live like Robinson Crusoe up there in the solitudes”

— Fridtjof Nansen

Nansen also loved to read. From the old folktales and norse mythology to stories from travellers who had seen the world. Nansen learned English at an early age, and discovered a book written in English about the great explorer Sir John Franklin, who died during an expedition trying to find the Northwest Passage. The story of Franklin made Nansen curious about the vast unexplored arctic areas, and made him dream and fantasize about heading out on his own expeditions into these areas.

After serving a year in the King’s Guard, Nansen studied zoology at the University of Oslo.

In 1882 Nansen was 20 years old, and joined a ship named Viking, which was headed for The North Sea to hunt for seals. He came along to study the seals in this area and gather information about life in the sea.

During this journey, the vessel was ice-bound for twenty four days off the mysterious and fascinating east coast of Greenland. In Nansen’s book The First Crossing of Greenland, the young explorer states:

“Many times a day from the maintop were my glasses turned westward, and it is not to be wondered at that a young man’s fancy was drawn irresistibly to the charms and mysteries of this unknown world. ”

— Fridtjof Nansen

This first journey into the Arctic, definitely put Nansen on a path to becoming a polar explorer. Here’s a summary of his two biggest achievements as an expedition leader:

1888 – Crossing the inland ice of Greenland on skis

Already in 1882, Nansen got the idea of crossing the inland ice of Greenland. Many explorers had tried already, but none successful. At that time nobody really knew what was hiding inside that massive area of ice.

The previous attempts had started from a safe camp in settled areas on the west coast of Greenland. Nansen however, wanted to do it his own way, by starting from the east and skiing west. This meant that there was no option to return back, and in order to make it alive the expedition had to reach the west coast to be picked up. The motto became “The West Coast or Death”.

The expedition crew consisted of six men, among them two men from the Sámi people in Northern Norway. Nansen knew they were good at skiing and navigating, and thought they would be a good asset to bring along.

On the 17th of July 1888, the ship they sailed with to Greenland, hit the drifting ice on the outside off the east coast. Due to all the ice, sailing to the mainland was not an option, and they decided to leave the ship and row towards land. The ice, drifting towards the south, was too dense, and in the end, they had to put their gear and themselves on a large ice floe. After a fair share of drama, they eventually managed to reach the mainland of Greenland, and the crossing could start.

They had brought with them five sleds loaded mostly with food and fuel. The weight was almost 100 kilo (220 pounds) each, and it took a great amount of struggle to pull them up the sometimes steep mountainsides. When the landscape was flat, they would put up sails in between two sleds, and use the power of the wind to progress towards their goal, the village of Godthaab.

At night the temperatures could go down to -45 celsius (-49 F), and even though they slept together in the same sleeping bag in groups of three, they would freeze. They also soon realized that they did not have enough food, and that their pemmican lacked sufficient amounts of fat. On these kind of expeditions getting enough fat is crucial, and their craving for fat was so strong that they would eat pure butter.

After about fifty days of great hardships and some setbacks, they finally reached the west side of Greenland. First to the small settlement at Ny Herrnhut, and then on to Godthaab. The news of the expedition making it across Greenland created a lot of media attention in both the US and Europe, and it made Nansen into a celebrity.

During their time on Greenland, Nansen was fortunate to spend a lot of time with the inuits, and he learned many of their techniques when it came to mastering the arctic climate. This should prove very valuable on his next expedition with the ship FRAM towards the North Pole.

1893 – 1896 The FRAM Expedition towards the North Pole

“Forward! I will never retreat; I will go through to the other side”

— Fridtjof Nansen

Already when Nansen was crossing Greenland he had started to think about the North Pole, and as soon as he got home he started planning a North Pole expedition. Some said he should rather go to the South Pole, but Nansen meant that since the North Pole was closer to Norway, it felt more natural to go there.

Nansen supported the theory that there was a strong current in the Arctics going from the east to the west. Parts of the reason for this theory had to do with the American polar ship Jeanette. In the fall of 1879, Jeanette sailed up the Behring sea and into the polar ice. From there the ship drifted westward with the ice for several hundred kilometers along the north coast of Sibir. After two years the ship was crushed by the ice and the crew had to abandon ship. The big surprise was that three years later parts from the Jeanette was found all the way on the east coast of Greenland.

Nansen’s idea was to build a strong ship that could withstand the force of the ice. Sail it into the ice, and let it drift with the polar ice towards, or nearby, the North Pole. This could take several years, and most scientists and experts at that time claimed that this plan was absolute madness and an almost certain death.

Nansen was firm in his beliefs though, and convinced that the exploration of the polar areas was necessary in order to make further progress on various scientific areas.

“It is now hardly possible to study physical geography, geology, meteorology and many other branches of science, without being stopped by important questions which can only be answered in the Arctic and Antarctic regions.”

— Fridtjof Nansen

The bow and anchors of the Fram ship, as displayed in the Fram Museum in Oslo

A big challenge with this expedition was to build a ship that was strong enough to withstand the force of the ice. It was the already renowned shipbuilder Colin Archer that got the assignment of building the ship. The Norwegian Government decided to grant a considerable sum, and the remaining amount was contributed by private individuals, one of them being King Oscar of Norway and Sweden. Nansen was happy to see that the project could be funded by his countrymen, and therefore could be a National Expedition.

The Ship, who got the name Fram (Forward), became the strongest ship ever built for a polar expedition. Colin Archer had given the shape a round hull, so that the forces of the ice would not be able to grip the hull, but instead lift the ship up. In Nansen’s own words, the vessel would “slip like an eel out of the embraces of the ice.”

The Journey into the ice

In June 1893 they left Kristiania (Oslo) with a crew of twelve men. The sailing route went via Vardø in the north, eastward along the north coast of Russia, and to the New Siberian islands. According to Nansen, this was the best starting point for drifting with the ice towards the North Pole.

At the end of September, they were frozen into the massive ice belt of the Arctic. Scientifically it was already a great triumph for Nansen. He was able to discover species that had never been seen before, and also make new scientific discoveries of the Polar Sea.

During their time on the ice, Nansen made sure to keep the men occupied with various tasks to keep their morale high. He made sure they ate plenty of vitamin C to avoid scurvy, and despite the dark and cold climate, the crew thrived and even gained some weight. They were also busy hunting for meet, and would hunt for both walrus and polar bears. In their free time, they would read, and write in their diaries, and the FRAM ship was arranged so that they could have some privacy in their own cabins.

FRAM did a great job keeping the ice from pulling her down, and despite a few minor incidents, she felt like a strong and safe ship. However, the drift through the ice was slower than expected, and there were days when they did not move at all. On the 28th of August 1894, they discovered that they had drifted back to the same latitude as on the 8th of May.

After about a year and a half in the ice, Nansen started to realise that the ship was moving too slowlyon and not enough north to reach the North Pole in time. He had been hoping for a shallow sea with a steady current, but his research discovered depths down to 4000 meters (12000 feet), and what seemed to be a very unsteady current.

In the end, Nansen got impatient and took a serious decision of leaving the ship to reach the North Pole on skis. With him he took Hjalmar Johansen, a strong and capable man, but without any experience from the polar regions. In the photo below you can see preparations for Nansen’s and Johansen’s polar trek.

Towards the North Pole

With three dog teams and more than 700 kilos (1400 pounds) of gear, including two kayaks, Nansen and Johansen began their journey towards the North Pole on the 14th of March 1895.

The temperatures were down to below -40 Celsius (-40 F), and the difficult and constantly moving ice forced them to make detours and also push and haul the sledges themselves. They could advance towards the north, just to find out later that the drift of the ice had taken them further south. It was almost an impossible task, and on 86 degrees and 14 minutes north they gave up. At that time, the 8th of April, nobody had ever been closer to the North Pole.

Turning back to the ship was not an option, so they set their course south towards Franz Josef Land. As they came further south the ice opened, and they had to use their kayaks to cross open stretches of water. One day as they were doing this, Johansen was attacked by a polar bear. He managed to hold it off while Nansen was reaching for his rifle. This took a while, and Johansen fighting for his life politely uttered the famous words:

“I believe you will have to hurry up Nansen, if not I’m afraid it might be too late.”

— Hjalmar Johansen

They both survived the incident without any serious injury and on the 6th of August they reached the open sea. With their kayaks and a cloth used as sail, they made it to Franz Josef Land, and arrived just in time before winter.

At Franz Josef Land they dug out a small stone hut and made a roof of walrus skin. They had a small fish oil lamp to provide some light in the dark polar winter, and most of the time was spent together in the same sleeping bag trying to keep warm. At the end of February, the sun came back, and on the 8th of March they shot their first polar bear that year, providing fresh meat.

On the 19th of May they left their winter hut, and after a long and strenuous journey heading south, on the 17th of June they heard the sound of dogs. And with them they found an English expedition who was planning their return in August(!). An extreme case of luck, and well deserved after what they had been through since leaving the FRAM ship. The image below is of Nansen and Johansen after they were found in 1896.

A Diplomat and a Humanitarian

After the FRAM expedition, Fridtjof Nansen had become a big name internationally. There was no lack of invitations from both politicians and royalty who wanted to hear his stories from the north. For Nansen, holding these presentations was an important source of income, but he was clear that he was longing for another expedition.

However, life took another turn for Nansen, and he was to become a key player to ending Norway’s union with Sweden at that time.

Nansen as a national hero

In the late 1800s, after a 500 year long union with Denmark and then with Sweden, Norway was ready to become an independent country. Nansen’s achievements as a scientist and explorer, and his strong connection to skiing and Norwegian culture, made him into a prototype of something Norwegian. A personality that inspired the Norwegian people, and someone they viewed as something true Norwegian. Kind of like a new Viking King, conquering new land on skis.

Thanks to Nansen and his many articles on Norwegian independence in big newspapers around the world, the international society became aware of a Norway that longed to become independent from the Swedes. He also managed to convince the King of Sweden, and eventually the Swedish parliament that the days of the Union was coming to an end.

On the 9th of October 1905 the union with Sweden ended. Nansen was now 44 years old.

After the union ended, many wanted Nansen to become the new King of Norway. Nansen never saw this as an option, but initiated meetings with Prince Carl of Denmark, and gave his approval to making him the new King. Prince Carl took the name Haakon (Carl sounds too Swedish), and became King Haakon VII of Norway.

This process led to a lifelong friendship between Nansen and Norway’s new King, and Nansen even gave skiing lessons to the Royal family in an attempt to make them appear like real Norwegians.

When World War 1 started Nansen became increasingly interested in international political affairs. He used his time to deliver speeches, urging for international cooperation, and he supported President Woodrow Wilson’s idea of a League of Nations (today known as the UN). During the war Nansen held the following positions:

  • 1917-1918, Head of a Norwegian delegation in Washington, D.C

  • 1919, President of the Norwegian Union for the League of Nations

  • 1920-30, First High Commissioner for Refugees for the League of Nations

After the war was over, it was the League of Nations that addressed the difficult refugee situation in Europe. Millions of people had fled their homes, and hundreds of thousands of prisoners, many of them in Russia, was spread all over the continent. It was a formidable job to help people return back to a normal life, and in the spring of 1920 Nansen was asked to lead this operation.

The revolution in Russia had led to a hostile attitude towards any aid from the West, and the Russians did not want to know off the League of Nations. However, Nansen had such a strong position, even in Russia, that the aid would be accepted if it came from Nansen’s own organization.

Nansen and the Nobel Peace Price

“If nations could overcome the mutual fear and distrust whose sombre shadow is now thrown over the world, and could meet with confidence and good will to settle their possible differences, they would easily be able to establish a lasting peace.”

— Fridtjof Nansen

In 1921 the first so called Nansen-Passport was issued. This was a travel document recognized by 51 countries. By holding this pass, it was possible for the refugees to travel to where they could find work, or where they had relatives they could stay with. At the same time, it gave the refugees the possibility to travel to a new country, without losing the right to return to the original country of refuge. During the next year and a half, 450,000 prisoners were repatriated through Nansen’s system.

In 1921 in the Soviet Union, a famine forced Soviet to ask for help from the international community. Still they did not want to deal with the West, but Fridtjof Nansen was asked if he could do something for these 35 million people about to starve to death. Despite reluctance among the members of the League of Nations, Nansen with his persuasive character managed to organize one of the biggest aid campaigns in the history of mankind at that time.

The aid ended in 1922, and in December later that year Nansen won the Nobel Peace Price.

On the 13th of May 1930 Nansen passed away while drinking tea with his daughter. By then he was 68 years old. The funeral found place on the 17th of May and became a National ceremony. King Haakon decided that all over the country, the flag was to be flown on half-mast.


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