Written by Jo Woolf, the RSGS Writer-in-Residence and author of The Great Horizon.
“When I first put forth my plan to cross Greenland most people said I was either mad or tired of my life.” (SGM, 1889)
On the evening of 17th July 1888, about nine miles from the mouth of the Sermilik fjord on the east coast of Greenland, two small rowing boats were lowered from the deck of a Norwegian sealing vessel. Six men, among them a tall, blond-haired man with piercing blue eyes, shook hands heartily with the ship’s captain and crew before descending a ladder and settling themselves in the boats bobbing below. Three cheers rang out from the deck and a cannon salute boomed eerily around the ice floes as the ropes were cast off and the oars began to slice rhythmically through the water, propelling the intrepid little band into an unknown world.
It was six years earlier, in 1882, that Fridtjof Nansen glimpsed the coast of Greenland for the first time. Aged 20, he was a zoology student engaged in marine research on board a whaling vessel, but at the sight of an unexplored coastline his study was temporarily forgotten as he pleaded – unsuccessfully – to be allowed to go ashore. The captain no doubt thought that Nansen was a young hot-head with romantic dreams. He was right, but only in part. Dreams Nansen had in abundance; but he also had the determination and the skills to put them into practice. If anyone was capable of plunging into the interior of Greenland’s ice cap and emerging safely to tell the tale, it was this extraordinary young man from Christiania(1).
“My opinion was that if you fitted out an expedition in a proper way it was not at all an impossibility to cross Greenland, and the very men for such an expedition would be Norwegian ‘ski-runners’.” (SGM, 1889)
By the time Nansen was able to put together his own expedition, the crossing of Greenland had been attempted several times. The Finnish explorer Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld had tried twice, and an American naval officer named Robert Peary had pushed inland for 100 miles before being forced back. All previous attempts had started from the west, and headed east; all had been unsuccessful. Nansen had clear opinions about why they had failed. “If we started from the west coast of Greenland,” he declared, “I was quite sure we should not be able to cross, for then we should leave ‘the flesh-pots of Egypt’ behind us, and in front of us would be the ice-desert and the east coast…” (SGM, 1889)
Nansen’s ‘flesh-pots of Egypt’ were the scattered settlements up and down the west coast which offered shelter and hospitality to hopeful explorers about to make their way across the interior. Quite what their inhabitants would have made of such a comparison remains unknown, but Nansen was not going to put his men in the way of temptation. He would start from the uninhabited east coast, and strike west. This way, his team would be heading towards civilisation, and the incentive would drive them forward. Nansen had a slightly more forceful way of putting it: “Our order was, Death or the west coast of Greenland.”
In the spring of 1888, as Nansen’s university studies were drawing to a close, he saw his opportunity. A lot of concentrated planning, negotiating and decision-making were packed into the last few months before departure. Nansen consulted Nordenskiöld and another veteran explorer, Gustav Holm, for advice about equipment and supplies. Knowing that he would need a strong and dependable team, he put out word in the newspapers that he was looking for recruits, and waited to see who would apply. Oluf Christian Dietrichson, a Norwegian military officer with considerable experience of long-distance skiing, was among the first. Otto Sverdrup, who had grown up in northern Norway on a farm ‘between mountain and fjord’, and was both a skiier and a seaman, was another. Sverdrup recommended Kristian Kristiansen, a neighbouring farmer and a tough skiier; the team now numbered four.
Nansen needed two more men, and they turned out to be wild cards. Nordenskiöld had assured him that men from Lapland were adept at finding their way in a featureless landscape, and Nansen immediately telegraphed a contact in that country, asking him to find two suitable candidates. Just three weeks before departure, in Christiania, he met Samuel Balto and Ole Ravna for the first time. Nansen had specified young, unmarried men from the nomadic families who lived in the mountains. With a secret sense of shock, he discovered that Ravna was 46 and had a wife and five children, while 27-year-old Balto came from the more settled families who lived in the river valleys. Neither man had ever left his homeland, and both were already feeling homesick. Balto looked at Nansen and saw a saviour:
“He was a stranger to us, but his face beamed at us like the faces of the parents we left behind.” (‘Nansen’ by R Huntford)
Nansen swallowed his doubts. It was too late to send them back. As it turned out, Balto and Ravna would supply most of the emotional drama of the expedition. Underneath, however, like the rest of Nansen’s team, they were survivors.
Above all the anxieties and the unknown factors, one thing stood firmly in Nansen’s favour. He was a superb athlete, one who had honed his fitness since childhood in the forests around his home. Cross-country skiing was his passion, and he would take himself off for weeks at a time, camping alone and living off fish and game. He had the strength of mind to survive Greenland’s harsh conditions. It remained to be seen whether he was also a leader of men.
The details of the adventure fascinated him just as much as the overall concept. In the late 1800s there was really no such thing as specialist equipment for polar conditions; Nansen had to investigate everything, and he did it with the acute analytical brain of a scientist. Skis, boots, reindeer-skin sleeping bags, tent, cooking stove… all were specially designed or adapted from the most efficient versions available. Nansen was a pioneer of the layering system of clothing, preferring light woollen garments to cumbersome furs. Food was another important consideration. In addition to the ‘pemmican’ of dried meat pressed into fat, he took supplies of dried bread and biscuit, sugar, pea soup, tea and coffee. (It was partly the promise of coffee that would persuade Balto and Ravna to keep going when their hearts and minds were telling them to give up.)
Initially, Nansen had considered taking a dog-team to pull the sledges, but being inexperienced in dog-driving he was forced to dismiss the idea. He even considered reindeer, but soon realised that the animals would need vegetation to graze on, and there would be precious little of that where he was going. The men would have to pull the sledges themselves.
Instead of having one large sledge, he chose to take five smaller ones, allowing two men to pull the first. He re-designed the traditional Norwegian sledge or ‘skikjaelke’, built of ash for lightness and strength, and attached thin steel plates to the runners of elm and maple. No nails or pegs were used; instead, the pieces were lashed together with leather for flexibility.
Another important aspect of the expedition was the funding. To Nansen’s annoyance, both the Norwegian government and Christiania University, where he was in the final year of his doctorate, refused to sponsor it. At the last minute a Danish businessman, Augustin Gamél, donated the requested 5,000 kroner (approximately £12,000 today). On 28th April 1888, as the last pieces of his plan fell into place, Nansen faced a daunting panel of university academics and was cross-examined on his thesis, which was a controversial paper about the central nervous system. He was accused of bending reality to suit his own theory; Nansen retaliated that any theory that is credible will benefit science. Time has proved him to be a visionary(2), but Nansen suspected that he was given his doctorate out of charity, because they believed he was going to his death. Four days later, the new Dr Nansen set sail for Greenland.
The little party called briefly at Leith docks in Edinburgh, where Balto and Ravna, in their traditional Lapland dress and ‘caps of the four winds’, became minor celebrities; they then boarded a Danish mail boat bound for Iceland, where they embarked on the Norwegian sealer that would deposit them into the ice-choked waters of Sermilik fjord.
As the grey bulk of the ship retreated gradually into the twilight, the two small boats nosed their way between icebergs in search of land. It was raining steadily. That evening they pitched camp on an ice floe, promising themselves that, next morning, they would set foot on dry land – but the task proved much harder than they ever imagined. For nearly two weeks, strong currents swept them inexorably south, so that on 29th July, when they eventually landed on a rocky island called Kekertarsuak, they were too close to the tip of Greenland to attempt a plausible crossing. The only option was to row northwards again.
On 10th August, exhausted, they finally made landfall at Umivik. They rested for a few days to gather their strength, and shot birds for food to conserve their rations. Finally, on 15th August, leaving their boats upturned on the shore, they prepared the sledges and donned their skis. The much-anticipated crossing had begun.
“…we advanced rather rapidly for two days; then we were stopped by a storm from the north, with heavy rain, and we had to stay in our tent lying down in our sleeping-bags for three days, while the ice melted rapidly under us, and the rain poured down above.” (SGM, 1889)
When they got going again, the landscape proved to consist of soft snow interspersed with crevasses, which made skiing difficult and dangerous. More snowstorms hampered their progress, as did the effort of pulling sledges while trying to maintain a grip on the surface. Some of them swapped skis for Canadian snow shoes, shaped much like tennis racquets; but Balto protested that no one could teach him or Ravna anything about snow, and he swore that he would never put such contraptions on his feet. Balto’s capacity for swearing took them all by surprise.
After a few arduous days they progressed from the fissured edge of the ice cap onto the smoother, harder ice of the interior. Here, the surface was sculpted into waves like the sea. The going was slightly easier, but they were plagued with thirst: for drinking water, they relied on collecting snow and melting it on the stove, but this apparatus proved to be slow and inefficient. Nansen had the idea of adding lemon juice to crushed ice, which slaked their thirst a little, and gave him the fleeting illusion that he was sitting on a sunlit pavement in Naples, eating granita.
At an estimated altitude of 2,000 metres, they appeared to be approaching the summit of the dome-like ice-cap, and Nansen felt that he could try out another means of transport: sailing. He had designed his tent so that it came apart in several pieces, and when the sledges were lashed together in twos and threes these pieces could be hoisted like sails. The only problem was the direction of the wind: their original destination of Kristianshaab on Disko Bay lay to the north-west, but they were struggling against a bitter north-westerly gale. It was impossible. Nansen had no intention of overwintering on the ice-cap, and time was running out. Eventually, to the relief of his team, he conceded that they would aim instead for Godthaab (Nuuk), further down the west coast, but some 80 miles closer to their present location. With a more westerly bearing, the sails filled with wind and they breathed a sigh of relief.
Ski-sailing was an art in itself. The skiier could either harness himself to the front of the wind-driven sledge and try to guide it, making sure that he wasn’t overtaken and mown down; or he could hang onto the back and hitch a lift or he could simply ski alongside, and go to the assistance of the others if needed. Sverdrup, who understood sailing better than the others, got the knack quite quickly, while Balto expressed his deep suspicion in the most colourful terms.
“To give a description of the scenery during the day in this region is easy. We saw only three things: that was snow, sun, and ourselves…” (Nansen, SGM, 1889)
Sun-blindness was an ever-present danger, and Nansen had brought several types of eye-protectors. These included wooden goggles with a narrow horizontal slit for each eye, based on a traditional Inuit design. He found these very serviceable, but could not see the ground at his feet while skiing. An improvement, he decided, would be to cut a vertical slit as well as a horizontal one.
On the night of 6th September a severe gale swept down the plateau, making it impossible to see where the ice ended and the sky began. Heroically, they pitched the tent and hoarded enough food supplies inside to last several days. Cooking was impossible, so they ate dry pemmican and sheltered in their sleeping bags as the wind tore at the canvas, forcing snow through the smallest gaps so that it swirled inside like a miniature blizzard. By morning the storm had passed; as they dug out the sledges, the air glittered with crystals and the sun was ringed with haloes, arcs and sundogs.
“We didn’t even have time to eat. It was such fun to ski.” (Samuel Balto, from ‘Nansen’ by R Huntford)
There were many more trials to endure, but from then onwards the men’s spirits began to lift. While they were struggling, their differences in character had been marked, and the Norwegians had found it difficult to cope with the freely emotional Lapps. Now, they were united in their joy of skiing. They travelled at night, as the northern lights played overhead, and the moon lit the snowfields with a silvery gleam. It was only when Nansen was stopped dead in his tracks by the sudden appearance of a deep crevasse at his feet that they realised the smooth ice was giving way to more fractured terrain. They were nearing the coast.
On 26th September they reached the sea at Ameralik fjord. “I shall never forget,” wrote Nansen, “what pleasure and enjoyment it was to get water again… and what a comfort it was to have any quantity of fuel, willow, and heather, so that we could make an open fire in the night and cook as much as we liked!”
There was, however, one more hurdle to cross. Godthaab, the nearest settlement, was still 50 miles away across a mountainous landscape. Nansen decided that it would be quicker and easier to go by sea, and he and his companions set about building a boat out of willow boughs and tent canvas. He and Sverdrup carried this vessel over the mud of the fjord into open water, and then rowed it around to Godthaab, where they received a warm welcome.
On being ushered into the Danish Governor’s house, Nansen caught a glimpse of his reflection in a mirror, and was startled to see his face blackened with two months’ worth of filth and grease, his hair long and unkempt. But he was alive, and so were his men. A search party was immediately despatched to collect Dietrichson, Kristiansen, Balto and Ravna, and on 12th October all of them were reunited in Godthaab.
“The expedition was finished, and Greenland was crossed for the first time.” (SGM, 1889)
Having arrived at Godthaab so late in the season, there was no chance of making it to Ivigtut (Ivittuut) 240 miles further down the coast, where the last Danish vessel was just about to depart for Copenhagen. There would be no more ships until next year. Nansen managed to send news of his success to the ship’s captain, via an Inuit man who kayaked speedily down the coast to deliver it, and then had to settle down and wait for the return of the ship in the spring. Over-wintering in Greenland, Nansen admitted, was “not very disagreeable.” They spent a lot of time shooting wildfowl, and Nansen learned how to use a kayak, which he described as “the best one-man vessel in the world.”
A glorious reception awaited the men in their home countries, but when the time came for them to leave, Nansen found himself unexpectedly wistful. The words of a new Inuit friend struck a deep chord:
“We enjoyed ourselves, we lived together like brothers; but now you will travel to the unknown world out there, you will possibly forget us among all the people, but we will never forget you.” (‘Nansen’ by R Huntford)
Nansen later wrote that he and his companions “…left Greenland almost sorry to part from its happy people – those children of nature, who have no experience of the miseries of civilisation, and who do not know real poverty.” (SGM, 1889)
Surprisingly, the greatest sorrow was probably felt by Samuel Balto, who throughout the journey had never hesitated to voice his misgivings of imminent death. During the winter he had fallen in love with an Inuit girl, and she with him; but she was engaged to another man. Even though he knew he was returning to a hero’s welcome, he was fighting back tears as he watched the shore of Greenland from the departing ship.
Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930) lectured to the RSGS about his Greenland crossing in July 1889, and presented a paper to the Scottish Geographical Magazine. He received the Gold (Scottish Geographical) Medal of the RSGS in 1897.
- Christiana is the old name for Oslo.
- Nansen’s university thesis was extremely significant. He discovered that nerve fibres, on entering the spinal cord, divide into ascending and descending branches. These are known today as ‘Nansen’s fibres’.
Reference and further reading:
‘Nansen’ by Roland Huntford; ‘The First Crossing of Greenland’ by Fridtjof Nansen; ‘Fridtjof Nansen – Scientist and Explorer’ by J Arthur Bain; Dr Fridtjof Nansen (1889): ‘Journey across the inland ice of Greenland from East to West’, Scottish Geographical Magazine (SGM), 5:8; The Fram Museum