Fridtjof Nansen


Fridtjof Nansen : biography

10 October 1861 – 13 May 1930

To talk of the right of revolution in a society with full civil liberty, universal suffrage, equal treatment for everyone … [is] idiotic nonsense." Huntford, pp. 657–658

In between his various duties and responsibilities, Nansen had continued to take skiing holidays when he could. In February 1930, aged 68, he took a short break in the mountains with two old friends, who noted that Nansen was slower than usual and appeared to tire easily. On his return to Oslo he was laid up for several months, with influenza and later phlebitis, and was visited on his sickbed by H.M.K., Haakon VII of Norway.Scott, p. 255Huntford, p. 665

Crossing of Greenland


The idea of an expedition across the Greenland icecap grew in Nansen’s mind throughout his Bergen years. In 1887, after the submission of his doctoral thesis, he finally began organising this project. Before then, the two most significant penetrations of the Greenland interior had been those of Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld in 1883, and Robert Peary in 1886. Both had set out from Disko Bay on the western coast, and had travelled about eastward before turning back.Huntford, pp. 73–75 By contrast, Nansen proposed to travel from east to west, ending rather than beginning his trek at Disko Bay. A party setting out from the inhabited west coast would, he reasoned, have to make a return trip, as no ship could be certain of reaching the dangerous east coast and picking them up.Reynolds, pp. 44–45 By starting from the east—assuming that a landing could be made there—Nansen’s would be a one-way journey towards a populated area. The party would have no line of retreat to a safe base; the only way to go would be forward, a situation that fitted Nansen’s philosophy completely.Scott, pp. 44–46

Nansen rejected the complex organisation and heavy manpower of other Arctic ventures, and instead planned his expedition for a small party of six. Supplies would be manhauled on specially designed lightweight sledges. Much of the equipment, including sleeping bags, clothing and cooking stoves, also needed to be designed from scratch.Huntford, pp. 79–81 These plans received a generally poor reception in the press;Scott, p. 46 one critic had no doubt that "if [the] scheme be attempted in its present form … the chances are ten to one that he will … uselessly throw his own and perhaps others’ lives away".Nansen (1890), p. 8 The Norwegian parliament refused to provide financial support, believing that such a potentially risky undertaking should not be encouraged. The project was eventually launched with a donation from a Danish businessman, Augustin Gamél; the rest came mainly from small contributions from Nansen’s countrymen, through a fundraising effort organised by students at the university.Nansen (1890), p. vii

Despite the adverse publicity, Nansen received numerous applications from would-be adventurers. He wanted expert skiers, and attempted to recruit from the skiers of Telemark, but his approaches were rebuffed.Huntford, p. 78 Nordenskiöld had advised Nansen that Sami people, from Finnmark in the far north of Norway, were expert snow travellers, so Nansen recruited a pair. The remaining places went to Otto Sverdrup, a former sea-captain who had more recently worked as a forester; Oluf Christian Dietrichson, an army officer, and Kristian Kristiansen, an acquaintance of Sverdrup’s. All had experience of outdoor life in extreme conditions, and were experienced skiers. Just before the party’s departure, Nansen attended a formal examination at the university, which had agreed to receive his doctoral thesis. In accordance with custom he was required to defend his work before appointed examiners acting as "devil’s advocates". He left before knowing the outcome of this process.Huntford, pp. 87–92


On 3 June 1888 Nansen’s party was picked up from the north-western Icelandic port of Ísafjörður by the sealer Jason. A week later the Greenland coast was sighted, but progress was hindered by thick pack ice. On 17 July, with the coast still away, Nansen decided to launch the small boats; they were within sight of the Sermilik Fjord, which Nansen believed would offer a route up on to the icecap.Huntford, pp. 97–99