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"The history of polar exploration is simply the expression of the power that the unknown exerts on the human spirit" - Dr. Fridtjof Nansen

Farthest North: The Incredible Three-Year Voyage to the Frozen Latitudes of the North

by Dr. Fridtjof Nansen

Pain. Suffering. Struggle. Sacrifice.

Words that describe to some degree all human endeavors when exploring Earth's polar regions. However, in his book, Farthest North, Fridtjof Nansen describes a three year endeavor of Arctic exploration that is mostly free of these descriptors. And, in the end his story is one of great success in the face of widespread skepticism of his expedition's plans.

Who was Fridtjof Nansen?

Nansen's story is itself a remarkable one, for he truly was a Renaissance man, with many interests. Born in Froen, Norway on October 10, 1861 to an upper class family, Nansen's father was a doctor and his mother an avid skier. Nansen was educated as a marine biologist and as a scientist was a pioneer of the modern view of the human nervous system. He became curator of zoology at the Museum of Natural History in Bergen from 1882-1888. Growing up, his mother instilled in Fridtjof a passion for skiing; Nansen became excellent at ski jumping and cross country when these sports were still being formed.

With these accomplishments obtained by age 26, Nansen undertook the first successful crossing of the Greenland ice cap in 1888. Shortly after his return to Norway in 1890, Nansen first proposed the expedition to the Arctic that his book Farthest North describes.

Fridtjof Nansen wore many hats throughout his remarkable life - scientist, explorer, statesman, ambassador, and winner of Nobel Peace Prize. More information on his life can be found at these web resources: www.mnc.net/norway/nansen.htm and www.nrsc.no/nansen/fritjof-nansen.html.

After some careful study on Nansen's part, he believed that he could freeze a ship in the Arctic ice pack and drift towards the North Pole. Central to this plan was the design of a special ship with rounded hull and bilges. This would allow the ship to rise up above the pack when squeezed by the pressures the ice would inflict.

When Nansen proposed this plan in 1890, the community of polar explorers and experts met it with universal derision. American explorer Adolphus Greely, upon hearing this plan, said "Arctic exploration is sufficiently credited with rashness and danger in its legitimate and sanctioned methods, without bearing the burden of Dr. Nansen's illogical scheme of self-destruction." Tides and Arctic ocean currents were little known in the late 19th century and Nansen's lack of a safe path of retreat was thought foolhardy.

But Nansen was anything but foolhardy. Pierre Berton, in The Arctic Grail, describes Nansen correctly as "daring but never rash; bold but never impulsive; fatalistic but never foolhardy; poetic but never naïve…he believed in careful preparation. He watched every detail himself, leaving nothing to chance."

First published in 1897 to great acclaim, Farthest North is a monument to this description. In a first person narrative Nansen outlines in a vivid, learned and detailed style the plans, preparations and the undertaking of this truly incredible journey through the Arctic ice pack. His specially designed ship, christened "Fram" (Forward in English), proved capable of withstanding the pressures of the ice after being frozen into the pack in September 1893, north of the New Siberian islands.

As the Fram drifted in the pack, careful studies of the ocean and its currents were undertaken. Among the discoveries was the fact that the Arctic Ocean is a great deal deeper than most people had thought. As the drift continued, it became clear that the ship would not reach the Pole.

Nansen then decided to take a bold (but not implusive!) move. He and one other, Hjalmar Johansen left the ship on a sledge journey towards the Pole. With not much chance of reaching the drifting Fram again, Nansen carefully planned a return journey for Johansen and himself that would take them to the archipelago named Franz Josef Land. Here it was surmised they could make contact with known expeditions in the area.

Nansen's writing of the sledge journey is particularly alluring and compelling. With little bravado or chest-thumping, Nansen's successful tale seems exciting and goes at times to the heart of why men choose voluntarily to submit themselves to such harsh conditions.

There is much in this story that is heroic. The Norwegians skillful use of technology - sledges, dogs, skis and kayaks undoubtedly held the key to their survival…and success.

Nansen and Johansen did meet up with explorers in Franz Josef Land and returned to Norway to wild acclaim. And within a week, the Fram, admirably sailed under the direction of Captain Otto Sverdrup arrived in Norway safe and sound having broken free of the ice between Svalbard and Greenland.

While Nansen didn't reach the North Pole, he did advance the mark of "farthest north" by 170 miles, the biggest single advance in 400 years. He had proved his theories on polar currents. And, perhaps most importantly, Nansen had proved the usefulness of practical, hard nosed common sense and the use of proper technologies for success in the polar regions.

Farthest North is richly detailed with photographs, drawings and illustrations. It's written style keeps the reader turning each additional page with evermore excitement. A paperbound edition reprinted in 1999 as part of the Modern Library Exploration series, this book includes a note by Jon Krakauer (the Series Editor) and an introduction by Roland Huntford. For any serious historian of polar exploration, this book is a definite must for your shelves.

Copyright © 2001 John Kruse; about framheim; about the author