Fridtjof Nansen and his Arctic mission impossible

In 1893, Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen and his crew set out on a three-year expedition; aboard a ship locked in by the slow-moving Arctic Ocean ice.
Fridtjof Nansen in 1896: Norwegian polar explorer, humanitarian, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate. | L. Szacinski - Oslo Museum - cc pdm. | © Artwork LA Dahlmann.

Image: Fridtjof Nansen in 1896. | L. Szacinski – Oslo Museum – cc pdm. | © Artwork LA Dahlmann.

No land mass under the ice

Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930) was a Norwegian zoologist, Arctic explorer, great humanitarian, diplomat, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

He was fascinated by the then theory, that there was no continental land mass under the North Pole and the Arctic Ocean ice – and that strong ocean currents pushed the ice from Siberia in the east, north and westwards, towards the North Pole and Greenland.

Still in his early thirties, Nansen set out to plan, organise, finance, and lead an expedition that would prove these theories right. Possibly also allowing him to be the first man to reach the North Pole.

Together with the renowned Scottish-Norwegian naval engineer and shipbuilder Colin Archer, Nansen designed the steamship Fram. It was a new type of ship, which the Arctic pack ice would push upwards, allowing it to float on the ice, rather than being dragged down into the deep.

Locked in by the ice

In late September 1893, west of the Russian New Siberian Islands, the Arctic pack ice closed in around Fram and the thirteen people onboard. They were now voluntarily trapped, and there was no turning back.

For the next three years, Fram and the crew slowly drifted with the ice, north and westwards. Below, see a map showing the entire journey.

Two years into the expedition, Nansen realised that the ocean currents and the slow-moving ice would not lead them as far north as he had hoped.

In March 1895, he and Hjalmar Johansen left Fram and the rest of the crew, in an attempt to reach the North Pole, moving across the ice. With them, they had dogs, sledges, skis, and kayaks. To their great regret, bad ice conditions forced them to abandon the plan, and to turn south.

Luck or divine intervention

Rather than attempting to locate Fram in the vast ocean of ice, Nansen and Johansen set course for the Russian Franz Josef Land archipelago. It took them four months to reach solid ground, for the first time in more than two years. All the dogs perished.

The two men spent the following winter alone on one of the Franz Josef Land islands, living in a makeshift shelter.

In May 1896, they set off down the Franz Josef Land archipelago, hoping to cross the ocean ice and reach an inhabited outpost on the neighbouring and Norwegian islands of Svalbard (Spitsbergen).

A month later, before leaving the archipelago, as if by divine intervention, they stumbled upon a British expedition ship that brought them back to Norway. Equally mind-blowing was the fact that Fram and the entire remaining crew of eleven also arrived in Norway shortly thereafter, after finally having reached ice-free waters near Svalbard.

Norway and the world greeted Nansen and his men like heroes, having survived a three-year adventure almost impossible to understand.

Details of the 1893-96 trip

Nansen's 1893-1896 trip through and across the Arctic Ocean ice. | Wikimedia.org - Fremantleboy, NormanEinstein, Ruhrfisch - cc by-sa.
Nansen’s 1893-1896 trip through and across the Arctic Ocean ice. | Fremantleboy, NormanEinstein, Ruhrfisch – Wikimedia – cc by-sa.

The map above shows the totality of the Fram-expedition:

  1. The red line indicates Fram’s route eastwards from Vardø, where it left Norway, towards the New Siberian Islands where it was locked in by the ice.
  2. The blue line indicates Fram’s drift with the ice westwards towards Svalbard.
  3. The green line shows Nansen’s and Johansen’s march across the ice, their most northern point, and the later retreat to Franz Josef Land.
  4. The purple line shows Nansen’s and Johansen’s boat trip back to Norway.
  5. The yellow line indicates Fram’s trip from Svalbard back to Norway.

The Fram 1893-96 crew list

  1. Fridtjof Nansen, expedition leader
  2. Otto Sverdrup, captain
  3. Sigurd Scott Hansen
  4. Henrik Greve Blessing
  5. Theodor Claudius Jacobsen
  6. Anton Amundsen
  7. Adolf Juell
  8. Lars Pettersen
  9. Hjalmar Johansen
  10. Peder Leonard Hendriksen
  11. Bernhard Nordahl
  12. Ivar Otto Irgens Mogstad
  13. Bernt Bentsen
Category: People

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