The long walk northwards

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Nansen: The Explorer as Hero

Duckworth: 1997. Pp. 598. £25
Nansen and his wife Eva, pictured soon after their marriage, not in the Arctic but in a studio pose.

“Strange there is always sadness on departure. It is as if I cannot after all bear to leave this bleak waste of ice, glacier, cold and toil.” Fridtjof Nansen's sentiments when he returned in 1896 from his journey across the Arctic Ocean reveal something of the restless melancholic nature of this outstanding explorer and statesman, the subject of Roland Huntford's latest work in a series that has so far included Roald Amundsen, Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton.

Nansen had already made the first crossing of Greenland in 1888, and began his rise from being a moderately successful career scientist, researching into the central nervous system, to becoming one of the great innovators who changed the face of polar exploration. He was at his best when he elected to strike across Greenland from the virtually unknown east coast, thereby eliminating any temptation to turn back, with “Death or the west coast” as his motto.

Suspended between snow and sky in the unknown white heart of Greenland, his expedition marked a revolution in the concept of exploration. The Victorian romantic ideal of enduring suffering as accomplishment was superseded by what Nansen called merely “a ski trip”. In Norway he was borne along on a wave of national fervour, and within 18 months he had married, undertaken several lecture tours, written The First Crossing of Greenland, and begun to plan his next expedition.

In the summer of 1894, Nansen's vessel Fram is still heading north, destined to fall short of the pole.

The North Pole was the next objective, and Nansen stood a reigning concept on its head by planning to deliberately freeze a specially designed boat, the Fram, into the ice north of Siberia and then be carried by the transpolar drift over the North Pole. He felt he would thus “take note of the forces of nature and work with them”.

This was a dangerous and lengthy project, and Huntford meticulously shows how Nansen's turbulent, unpredictable nature seriously threatened harmony on board Fram, but was balanced by the steadfastness of Otto Sverdrup, his companion from Greenland and the ship's master. They were characters defined by the distinction between personality and leadership. Nansen was the man with drive, Sverdrup with the talent for command.

When it became clear that Fram would not drift over the North Pole, Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen left the ice-locked vessel at latitude 84° 14′, having established a new farthest-north record, and began a hairraising, hazardous journey of nearly 400 miles across the shifting, breaking ice of the Arctic Ocean towards Franz Josef Land, the position of which had not yet been precisely established.

With no idea where they were when they found land, Nansen and Johansen built a windowless stone hut in which a hibernatory third polar winter was spent, still sharing the same sleeping-bag and still not on first-name terms. In the spring of 1896 some basic instinct drove them south rather than to the west where they thought Spitsbergen and salvation lay.

Dogs were heard, a man was seen, and Nansen met Frederick Jackson, leader of the North Pole expedition sponsored by the English newspaper magnate Albert Harmsworth, in an Arctic version of the encounter between Stanley and Livingstone. Against all odds, Nansen had turned defeat into victory. Since leaving Fram, he and Johansen had travelled 700 miles across the polar ice and had met Jackson just before attempting the crossing to Spitsbergen which they might well not have survived.

Regarding his farthest-north record as under threat, Nansen was anxious to capitalize on it as quickly as possible, and lecture tour followed lecture tour. His absences, following his three years in the Arctic, did nothing to re-establish relations with his wife.

Then in 1900 came the news he had dreaded, that the Italian explorer Amadeo had reached 86° 33′ north. Nansen's farthest-north record had stood for only five years. He suffered a further blow when Amundsen reached the South Pole — the objective Amundsen had set himself — for, despite the acclaim Nansen received, he had not reached his own objective, the North Pole. At the age of 40 he needed a role.

He left the world of his Arctic triumphs and, in between various romantic affairs, entered a tumbling kaleidoscope of diplomacy and statesmanship of ever-increasing complexity. Norwegian independence, the League of Nations food and refugee relief and repatriation of prisoners of war all fell into the hands of this great Viking statesman. Despite all the international machinations associated with this work, and the accompanying encounters with Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin, Nansen's integrity and stature enabled him to achieve much and brought him the Nobel peace prize in 1922.

A few years before his death in 1930 he was elected rector of St Andrew's University in Scotland. In his inaugural address he fondly reminisced about his Arctic days and quoted Henrik Ibsen's dictum “that man is strongest who stands alone”. Huntford brings vividly to life the enigma of a man who stood alone in so many ways as a giant among men but was unsure enough of himself to describe his nature as “a chaos of disharmony”.

Nansen was not a leader of men but he could, when he chose, inspire them. Having made an Arctic journey without equal, he opened the age of modern polar exploration and inspired his successors. He was the stuff of Columbus, Magellan and the Vikings of old. His tragedy was that he was born out of place and out of time.

Nansen emerges, as have so many of the great explorers, as a very complex character. He was much more than the “explorer as hero” of the subtitle. Of Nansen it could surely be more accurately said “the elements so mixed in him that nature might stand up to all the world and say, ‘This was a man!’ ”.

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