The first great polar expedition: Fridtjof Nansen’s 1888 traverse of the Greenland Ice Sheet

Jon Gertner tracks the 19th-century Norwegian polar pioneer's snowshoe prints across the vast white wilderness of the world's largest island

Fridtjof Nansen: Explorer, scientist, writer, humanitarian

Who was Fridtjof Nansen? Facts about the life of the explorer, scientist, writer and humanitarian…

Fridtjof Nansen (1861–1930) was born near Christiania (now Oslo), Norway. His early life was characterised by a love of winter sports – skiing and skating especially – and a fearless determination. From a young age, he aimed to become the first man to cross the Greenland Ice Sheet, which he accomplished in 1888, the same year he received a PhD in zoology.

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Nansen wrote a popular account of his Greenland trek in two volumes fusing adventure, science and memoir. As he would write of his travels: “I found [there] the great adventure of the ice, deep and pure as infinity, the silent, starry night, the depths of Nature herself.”

His fascination with northern latitudes led him to launch the daring Fram expedition five years later, in 1893. His goal was to reach the North Pole by allowing a sturdy ship, provisioned for a five-year mission, to become trapped in the sea-ice gyre swirling around the top of the Arctic Ocean.

Eventually leaving the Fram and travelling on foot, Nansen trekked further north than any explorer had before, but failed to reach the pole. Rescued from a remote island, he returned to a hero’s welcome in Norway three years after his departure. The Fram also returned safely, carrying a wealth of detailed scientific observations on the Arctic region.

Nansen moved into politics and diplomacy before working for the League of Nations, helping with the repatriation of First World War prisoners in 1920, with efforts to alleviate famine in Russia, and with displaced Armenians. In 1922 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Nansen later said: “Most people are satisfied too soon, and that is the reason why there is so little wisdom in the world.” He died of a heart attack on 13 May 1930.


Fridtjof Nansen’s 1888 traverse of Greenland

The vast sheet of ice cladding central Greenland spans some 660,000 square miles and is riven with treacherous crevasses
The vast sheet of ice cladding central Greenland spans some 660,000 square miles and is riven with treacherous crevasses. Crossing this icy mass was the long-held ambition of Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen (imageBROKER / Alamy)

On 17 July 1888, the young Norwegian scientist Fridtjof Nansen disembarked with five other men from the Jason, a seal-hunting ship, 10 miles from Greenland’s south-eastern coast. Boarding two small boats, the men began rowing through ice-choked waters toward land. Their goal, when they reached the shore, was to cross the ice sheet that cloaks much of Greenland. This remnant of ancient ice ages covers an expanse of 660,000 square miles and rises, in its centre, to an altitude of nearly two miles.

If Nansen’s expedition succeeded, he and his compatriots would become the first to cross the Greenland Ice Sheet. Since the early 18th century, explorers had made modest forays onto the ‘inland ice’ by foot, but all had turned back before completing the crossing, having encountered punishing cold and deadly crevasses.

Nansen believed he had devised a plan that could succeed where others had not. Once established on the shore, he and his colleagues intended to climb up the island’s rocky coast and onto the eastern edge of the island’s ice sheet. From there they would set out for the west, pulling sleds designed by Nansen that were laden with enough food and equipment to sustain the party for several months.

As they began their mission, Nansen’s team adopted a chest-thumping motto: 'Death, or the west coast of Greenland'

Because, despite its name, the ice sheet is a dome rather than a flat expanse, the expedition brought snowshoes (to climb the ice sheet’s eastern slope) and skis (to descend down the western side). By Nansen’s initial calculations, even at the narrower southern end of Greenland, this traverse would cover some 420 miles.

He knew there would be risks and enduring hardships. Though some explorers had hypothesised that a temperate oasis existed in the centre of the ice sheet, Nansen suspected – correctly, it turned out – that the interior was an unbroken swathe of ice and brutal cold. Therefore his strategy included an inbuilt incentive. The east coast of Greenland was beset by horrific weather and was mostly empty, with the exception of a few small native Inuit settlements. The west coast, however, had Danish villages and commercial harbours, and held the allure of a return passage home.

An expedition dropped off on the east side of Greenland would thus have every reason to strive to cross the ice sheet, simply in order to survive. And so, as they began, Nansen’s team adopted a chest-thumping motto: “Death, or the west coast of Greenland.”

Carried by currents

Rowing from the Jason to Greenland’s eastern shore proved far more difficult than Nansen had envisioned. He originally intended to land quickly near a coastal inlet called Sermilikfjord, but the expedition encountered tightly packed sea ice, and the men were forced to drag their boats over and around to find open water.

Then, when they got back to rowing, a strong current began to pull them away from the shore and eastward toward rougher waters. After a couple of days, in fact, they were twice as far from the shore – about 20 miles – as they had been when they had left the Jason. In a roiling sea, the men pulled their boats and gear onto a large ice floe for safety.

Nansen realised that the situation was becoming dire: if the men were pulled even farther out into the north Atlantic, they would not only lose their chance to cross Greenland’s ice but might even perish in the rough surf. “The breakers seem to be drawing nearer; their roar grows louder,” Nansen noted in his journal. “The situation promises before long to be critical.”

By luck, in the middle of that night the currents turned, and the following day the expedition could resume rowing toward the shore. Finally, after 12 days at sea, Nansen and his colleagues landed on a beach on Greenland’s eastern shore, just north of Cape Tordenskjold.

The extended time at sea, and diversions forced by the ice floes, had landed them much farther south than they had planned, however, so they began working their way north up the frozen coast by boat – a plodding, tiring effort that was brightened only by friendly encounters with native Inuit kayakers and a stay at an Inuit encampment at Cape Bille.

Greenland’s calving glaciers can drop an iceberg and trigger a massive wave that can swamp a boat and drown its people without warning

About a week later, they reached a point from where Nansen could see that the inland ice would be easily accessible from the coastal rocks. On 11 August, near a small mountain named Kiatak, he decided to stop rowing north, make a final camp on the shore, and ready his team for their journey west across the ice. Four days later, they departed inland.

On the coasts, Greenland’s calving glaciers can drop an iceberg and trigger a massive wave that can swamp a boat and drown its people without warning – a concern that had kept Nansen and his men in a constant state of worry as they rowed up the coast past icy tongues protruding from these thick frozen rivers. As the team journeyed into the inland ice, however, Nansen discovered the perils of crevasses – deep cracks formed as the massive ice sheet, pulled by gravity, flows over bumps and hills, causing strains that split the ice.

What makes crevasses particularly hazardous is that they are sometimes obscured by fresh snow. As Nansen moved up the eastern slope of the ice, his team encountered many narrow fissures that could be forded with a stride or a jump, but others were hidden from sight, leading the men to plunge up to their armpits, their legs dangling over an abyss. Other cracks were easy to spot but too wide to jump across.

For that reason, the expedition’s route up onto the ice sheet was not a straight line. They were forced to zig and zag around hazards until they reached a smoother, safer surface at a higher altitude.

Violent storms

The team faced other problems, too. Several times in late August the men were confined to their tent by violent storms lasting for days. But even on days of fair weather when they could move forward, they were beset by a thirst that seemed unquenchable. Originally, Nansen proposed that each man should fill a flask of snow each morning, allowing the heat from their bodies to melt it into drinking water. Yet this wasn’t nearly enough to hydrate the men, and their thirst persisted all day, every day. To frequently stop and use a cooking stove to melt snow was considered by Nansen to be impractical. Time was precious. They had to keep moving across the ice sheet before colder weather set in.

The men subsisted on pea soup, biscuits, hot chocolate and canned pemmican, a calorie-rich concoction of dried meat, berries and suet. But the arduous trek left them in a constant state of hunger, exacerbated by the heavy burden of their sleds. Packed with food and gear, the sleds’ weight – each at least 100kg – made them extraordinarily difficult to pull up the slope. The ropes with which they hauled the sleds burned into the men’s shoulders. Nansen felt that the task was akin to hauling dead weight through sand.

At the end of August, having reached an altitude of 1,800m, Nansen announced that the expedition would take a shorter route across the ice so that they would arrive at a town farther south on the west coast than originally intended. Their delays and the threat of colder weather had led him to think that it would be folly to pursue a longer course. The revised destination was Godthaab (now called Nuuk, Greenland’s capital), shaving a distance of nearly 100 miles off their journey. The rest of the party, in a state of near-exhaustion, cheered the news. “They seemed to have already had more than enough of the inland ice,” Nansen noted.

On 2 September, the team discerned an encouraging sign: the ice beneath their feet had begun to level out, and they were able to don their skis. What followed were days of satisfying progress interspersed with nights of bitter cold and snowstorms, sometimes leaving them tent-bound.

Huddled in reindeer sleeping bags, the men passed time by sleeping or reading books. In the evenings, temperatures usually dropped to around –20°C to –30°C. On 11 September, though, Nansen noted that the thermometer he kept under his pillow at night measured –35°F (–37°C) – but that was the lower limit of the instrument’s measurement scale; he surmised that the mercury had plummeted lower still that night, perhaps to –45°C, which would have been the lowest ever recorded for that time of year.

Illustration depicting footsteps of Fridtjof Nansen across the vast white wilderness of Greenland Ice Sheet
Footsteps of Fridtjof Nansen during his trek across the vast white wilderness of Greenland Ice Sheet (Illustration by Theresa Grieben)

At an altitude of around 2,400 metres, the men detected that the ice sheet, which had been level, began to slope slightly downhill: they had passed the midpoint. This allowed them to pick up speed on their skis. Fashioning a sail from tent canvas, on some days they could attach it to their sleds and harness the ice sheet’s downslope winds to make even quicker progress toward the west coast.

On 17 September, two months after disembarking from the Jason, the men stopped at 1pm for a quick meal. They were startled to hear birdsong – a snow bunting had alighted nearby. And just two days later, one of the men sighted land through a haze of mist. They could now perceive the western edge of the ice sheet, with a ring of mountains just beyond its terminus, and a network of rivers and bays.

Perilous last leg

Yet though the journey’s end seemed near, the final leg was to prove as difficult as the frozen trek over the centre of the ice. As they pushed toward the edge of the ice, the expedition arrived at another crevasse zone, and the men faced yet more deadly hazards as they attempted to find a safe passage to the shore. At one point, Nansen plunged into a gap and only barely caught himself by instinctively extending his arms. His skis dangled over a seemingly bottomless chasm, and it took every ounce of his strength to pull himself out and crawl to safety.

Like schoolboys released they ran wildly about the shore

Progress was slow but eventually, on 24 September, the men crossed the last of the ice fissures, forded a meltwater river and reached a slope descending to a bed of gravel.

“Like schoolboys released,” Nansen recounted, they “ran wildly about the shore.” The expedition had escaped the ice sheet.

Still, though, they weren’t nearly done. The party was dozens of miles south of Godthaab, separated from the settlement by mountainous terrain and a long, narrow body of water known as Ameralikfjord. While camped in a valley, Otto Sverdrup, a member of Nansen’s team with maritime experience, supervised the building of a small boat from willow branches and canvas. The idea was to use a small craft to reach their final destination.

As the men spent their days working on the project, they enjoyed the warmer weather, hunting hares that they cooked over an open fire. But the warmth of their location quickly proved to be a mixed blessing: armies of black flies descended on the men, swarming over their hands and faces. “They bit us villainously,” Nansen wrote in his journal.

On 29 September, they set out again. Nansen and Sverdrup left for Godthaab, paddling along the fjord in the compact, improvised boat they nicknamed “the tortoise shell”. Their plan was to reach the settlement and send a reconnaissance party back for the other men.

Paddling was tough going, and the two men had to constantly bail out the boat with a soup pot. But four days later, on 3 October, Nansen and Sverdrup landed on a beach at Godthaab. A group of Inuit women came out to welcome them, along with a Danish-speaking official.

“My name is Nansen, and we have just come from the interior,” the expedition’s leader explained.

The local official, Gustav Baumann, had been aware of the expedition. He had also been informed that, unbeknown to the explorer himself, Nansen’s PhD had been awarded in Norway during the crossing of the ice sheet. Baumann startled the young explorer by greeting him with the words: “Allow me to congratulate you on taking your doctor’s degree.”

It would take months before Nansen and his crew – the remainder of whom were brought safely to Godthaab from their camp at Ameralikfjord over the next few days – could return to Europe and a triumphant celebration. Nansen discovered that the last ship to depart Godthaab that season had sailed from this harbour two months previously. The only hope of conveying his success to the world before winter was to employ Inuit kayakers, who raced to carry a message to a ship, the Fox, which would shortly sail from a mining port 300 miles to the south.

The kayakers paddled furiously – and succeeded. On 9 November 1888, the Danish press published that brief note from Nansen, which was immediately relayed worldwide: “We reached Godthaab on 3 October, and are all in good health.” Fridtjof Nansen had successfully completed his first great polar expedition.

Jon Gertner is a journalist and historian. His latest book is The Ice at the End of the World (Icon, 2019)

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This article was taken from issue 21 of BBC World Histories magazine