One of Norway’s most famous sons, Fridtjof Nansen was an explorer, zoologist and diplomat. In 1888, he led the first expedition across the Greenland icecap. Five years later he made an attempt to reach the geographical north pole aboard the Fram, a ship designed to withstand being imprisoned in ice through the Arctic winter as it was carried towards its destination by ocean currents. Beyond exploration, Nansen was an advocate for Norwegian independence from Sweden. He was also the League of Nations’ high commissioner for refugees and the recipient of the 1922 Nobel peace prize for his work on behalf of those displaced by the First World War.
When did you first hear about Fridtjof Nansen?
It was in a book my geography teacher, Mr Gray, showed to me. It helped me to overcome my dislike of learning things from books. Nansen had a look, when he was 30 years old or so: fit as a butcher’s dog, massively committed – a ‘here I go’ sort of look. I thought that this man was going to be a guiding light. Before Nansen, quite a lot of people had attempted to cross Greenland, and they’d tried to go from the inhabited west coast to the east. Nansen realised it was better to go to the east coast, spend a winter and get yourself organised, and with full commitment travel to the west coast. It would be an easier mental process. There was something special in that simple story.
What kind of person was he?
He was, as I said, massively fit, a hugely talented skier, and he had vision. When he tried for the north pole, he had this audacious plan to let his ship, Fram, be taken by the currents and frozen in. Eventually, he would make it to the north pole, perhaps with a short ice-ski journey. Of course, it didn’t work. After an incredibly terrible winter stuck in the ice, he and Fredrik Hjalmar Johansen [1867–1913] got off, intending to make a run for the north pole with dogs and sledges. They didn’t make it. They had to spend the winter on a beach in [the Russian archipelago] Franz Josef Land. They built a shelter out of some driftwood, stones and animal skins, and huddled together in one sleeping bag. I’ve visited the beach and we had to swim there in heavy, ice-laden seas from a Russian icebreaker. It was really something, a proper pilgrimage.
What made Nansen a hero?
He was innovative and tough, and he knew adventure wasn’t just a personal, ego-driven thing.
What was his finest hour?
At the end of the First World War, there were lots of people who couldn’t get back to their home countries because they didn’t have proof of citizenship. So he came up with something called the Nansen passport, which meant people could be repatriated. That was really clever.
Is there anything about him you don’t admire?
He took advantage of opportunities with women, and was unfaithful.
Can you see any parallels between his life and your own?
I do have that sense of commitment. I do dearly love that moment of closing the door at home and going on an expedition with a real, genuine sense of accepting the risks.
If you could meet Nansen, what would you ask him?
I would ask him what he thinks of modern political leadership – and what could we do about it?
Paul Rose was talking to Jonathan Wright. Rose is a diver, mountain climber and explorer. He’s the presenter of The Dales, airing soon on BBC Two
LISTEN AGAIN: In Radio 4’s Great Lives, guests choose inspirational figures: bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qxsb
This article was first published in the June 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine