The Explorer as Hero
by Roland Huntford

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Duckworth, London; 1997
5 maps, 43 photos
610 pages

March 2006

This biography completes a cycle of modern polar exploration, the other parts of which are Scott and Amundsen and Shackleton. Nansen belonged to the Scandinavian ascendancy in high latitudes. He launched the process which culminated in the race for the South Pole, and founded the technique of modern polar travel. Behind the polar explorers of our time, his figure looms. He was the mentor of them all. He came close to that semi-mythical figure, the archetype.

Worthy of any Heroic Age

Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930) had an unusual variety of careers. Nansen: The Explorer as Hero, by Roland Huntford, rightly concentrates on two expeditions — across the Greenland ice cap and among the Arctic pack ice — which are worthy of any Heroic Age as well as of our own. But Huntford does not neglect Nansen's interests and achievements before and after, nor his personal life.

Indicative of his future life, as a young man Nansen was a skiing pioneer and skiing promoter in Norway. Nansen grew up with the knowledge that Norwegian skiing skill could open pathways that could not be taken by other means. And skiing alone cross-country through Norwegian forests in winter was an early sign of his later polar explorations. The urge to push himself beyond a frontier, and to endure where all is clean, hard, and straightforward, was very strong in him.

Modern explorers often proclaim the scientific value of their explorations, or their scientific motivation. Nansen really was a scientist, in neurology and marine microbiology, largely self-taught at the Bergen Museum where he worked. (This reminds me of Michael Faraday at the Royal Institution in London.) Nansen had opportunities to visit leading biologists in England, Germany, and Italy, some of whom became lifelong correspondents.

Across the Greenland Ice Cap

Huntford devotes about 75 pages to Nansen's expedition across the Greenland Ice Cap in 1888. In terms of terrain and challenges, Greenland is more like the Antarctic expeditions to follow in the next generation, than like the North Polar expeditions before and since.

The pack ice around the North Pole is something else again. It is rough, difficult to traverse by foot or ski or dog-sledge, and subject to leads of water that open and close unpredictably, so that boats must also be carried. All the over-snow gear including sledges must fit in boats or kayaks; and vice-versa, the boats must be not too big to be brought over snow and ice.

Toward the North Pole in mythic Fram

For the second great adventure, Huntford has about 250 pages on Nansen's epic trip toward the North Pole in 1893-1896. Aside from all the preparations, from fund-raising to specialized foods, this expedition consists of two major ordeals: the voyage of Fram toward the pack ice and then stuck within it, drifting; and Nansen's setting off with just one companion toward the Pole, and their journey back.

Most ships built of any materials, when caught in pack ice, will be trapped and likely crushed by the immense forces, like Erebus and Terror of the Franklin expedition in 1845-1848, and the Jeanette expedition in 1879-1881. Whether a ship survives the ice often determines whether a polar expedition is at least a moderate success; else the shipwreck abandons everyone to frozen disaster. Nansen's purpose-built ship Fram, carefully designed for over-wintering in high Arctic latitudes, becomes a character in its own right in Huntford's narrative; and later a mythic monument to successful endeavor. Fram belongs in the beyond-the-horizon heroic flotilla inaugurated by Argo that sailed for the Golden Fleece.

Nonchalance and competent planning

One aspect of these multi-year polar expeditions is the resigned nonchalance toward the seasons: it's Fall already, we can't get back before Winter makes it impossible; so we'll prepare for an over-wintering (or another one) among the ice or icy islands, and hope to return home the following Summer. Brrrr. Many months eating seal and walrus, and maybe polar bear; and glad to get it.

Fridtjof Nansen's expeditions are models of competent planning, preparation, and leadership. Huntford brings out the careful technique and operations of these expeditions, all the parts: on foot, skiing, dog-sledge, kayak, and ship. For success, even for survival, all these must work. Even scurvy was not correctly understood in the Nineteenth Century; Nansen didn't have the scientific rationale of Vitamin C, but he had an ancient Viking solution that worked. Huntford brings all these details to satisfying life.

Plenty of raw materials and semi-finished equipment were abroad Fram for the North Pole expedition. For a while Nansen was "working stoically in the ship's hold at a temperature of -20C" refashioning skis; the crew also built a forge out on the ice, with an igloo around it, for reshaping sledge runners. Subtle technical problems must be solved to traverse pack ice:

Most of the sledges stuck at even modest bumps in the ice. Adapted to the smooth sweep of the ice cap, their clearance was too low. Nor were they robust enough to survive the hideously broken terrain of the pack ice at its worst. Moreover, none was long enough to carry the kayaks. So Nansen was forced to have new sledges built. They were to have much higher clearance. Also the runners, although still broad, were to be slightly convex in cross-section. Various experiments had showed that this made for easier sliding, and turning too.

A great deal of hard work and endurance. A lot of thoughtful experimentation, and ingenious solutions applied with painstaking labor. Far more than pointing North and trusting to pluck and luck.

The beautiful polar night

Of course all preparation possible must be done before setting out, so the expedition will be ready when the ice closes in, north of Siberia:

The days passed. Fram had to stay where she was. The silence was broken only by the periodic yelping of the dogs. No one formally announced on such-and-such a date that now Fram had been committed to the ice, but at some point it was tacitly accepted: perhaps already on 22 September, when fires were drawn; perhaps a few days later when the slush around the waterline began to congeal. 'The sun is beginning to sink now, 9 degrees above the horizon at midday,' Nansen observed on 26 September. '8 degrees of frost this evening at eight o'clock.' And, he continued, with an abrupt and characteristic change of mood after a walk out on the ice:

Anything more wonderfully beautiful than the polar night does not exist. It is a dream-like sight. It is a light poem of all the finest and most delicate tones of the soul.

With the best of the Heroes

Nansen is perhaps no longer as close to being a household name as his contemporaries: the ill-fated Scott, or Amundsen or Shackleton or Mawson; or the North Pole rival pretenders Cook and Peary. Nansen's public careers including eventually becoming a diplomat and working for Russian famine relief. His personal life was sometimes a tangled ordeal that would have shipwrecked lesser men. In Nansen he is portrayed vividly as a struggling man, a Faustian unsatisfied man, always most comfortable striving against great natural obstacles. Huntford tells Nansen's heroic and archetypal life wonderfully well.

One of the great, simple, competent strengths of Fridtjof Nansen, as of Amundsen and Shackleton but unlike many other explorers, is that he brought his team members through truly awful cold; despite privation and near-starvation; in entire isolation beyond reach and communication — he brought them back alive.


© 2006 Robert Wilfred Franson

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