Fridtjof Nansen – The first modern Polar explorer

On November 24th 1887, a newspaper in Kristiania, as Oslo was called back then, publicised a daring plan, proposed by a young scientist, to cross the Island of Greenland from coast to coast the following year. The man’s name was Fridtjof Nansen and he would go on to become arguably the most influential figure in the history of Polar exploration. At this point in time, Nansen had accompanied the Norwegian sealer Viking to the Arctic at the beginning of his marine zoology career and was a known athlete, having published accounts of his ski journey from Bergen to Oslo and back, but had little to show in terms of Arctic overland expeditions.

Nansen in 1888

Arctic expeditions at the time usually followed the “siege mentality” established by the early Royal Navy expeditions, such as Franklin’s lost expedition and the British Arctic Expedition. Nansen did not have the support or experience to mount such a massive endeavour, so he was required to come up with a new way to explore. He followed modern scientific methods, and planned to travel light, and fast, with a small team and specially designed equipment. He succeeded where so many others had failed and his approach shapes the style of Polar expeditions to this day.

Means of Transport

Nansen developed his plan to cross Greenland after reading the accounts of Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld and Robert Peary, who had travelled eastwards from Disko Bay in 1883 and 86 respectively. Both had travelled by dog-sled. The interior of Greenland was still a blank spot on the maps, so expeditions did not even fully know what conditions they had to prepare for. Nansen was convinced by Peary’s report that Greenland was entirely covered by ice and snow. However, he did not have an experience with hauling animals, since dog-sleds were entirely unknown in Scandinavia. The Lapps used Reindeer, and Nansen briefly considered using those, but they would not find any food in Greenland, so he abandoned the idea, and instead chose to cater to his greatest strength: skiing.

Members of Nansen’s expedition dragging one of the sledges.

Skiing was a popular method of transportation in 19th century Norway and had already become a national sport with competitions held in major cities. Peary had pioneered using skis on polar expeditions, but Nansen’s super-human skiing ability was what set him apart. Since early childhood, he had spent his winters exploring the wilderness of Norway. In 1884 he had undertaken a ski tour from Bergen to Kristiania, covering over 300 km in only 6 days, to take part in a ski race two days after his arrival. Even with modern equipment that would be an outstanding feat, but with 19th-century skis, it becomes downright insane. As we all know, skiing is still the primary means of transport for Polar explorers today.

Your team matters

Nansen had only 6 months to prepare for his Greenland expedition, so he had to make the best of the skills he already had. He knew that he could not cross Greenland alone, so he had to recruit a small team to help him out, and he had to do it fast. Since skiing was his strength, his team could not slow him down and he focused his team composition efforts on getting accomplished skiers on board. This was probably the weakest area of Nansen’s planning for Greenland, and could well have sunk his whole expedition. 

Nansen’s Greenland expedition

At first, though, it seemed like he was off to a great start. On the same day the newspaper published his plans, he received an application to join the expedition from Henrik Angell. Angell was a ski pioneer himself and an army officer. In spring of 1884, he had made the first documented ski crossing of the Hardangervidda, a Norwegian plateau that is famous for its primordial landscapes offering hostile conditions similar to the ones encountered in the Arctic. Many Polar expeditions trained here, and many companies today still offer training courses on the plateau. Nansen, however, did not want educated Norwegians like Angell to join his expedition. Despite being the best example of the contrary himself, he was under the impression that simple countryfolk would be better suited to the extreme conditions posed by the Arctic. What he did not realise was that it was the educated Norwegians whose imagination was sparked by the idea of crossing Greenland. A simple farmer did not share Nansen’s desire to achieve the extraordinary.

Perhaps one of the gravest mistakes in terms of composing his team was to literally buy two Lapps via telegram from Northern Norway to join his expedition, without ever having met any of them. One did not even speak Norwegian. Unsurprisingly, the Lapps felt out of place during the expedition, with the older one even refusing to do his assigned tasks at times. 

But it wasn’t only the Lapps who contributed to friction within the team. Nansen did not trust the others enough to take on some tasks. He was the only one allowed to handle the stove to heat snow because he was afraid the others would try to drink the high-percentage alcohol used as fuel.

Today, team psychology is its own area of research and getting the right composition of personalities is emphasised. Dr Nathan Smith has an excellent introductory online course on the topic, that I recommend to everyone planning to work in extreme environments. Nansen soon learnt many of these lessons for himself though, and for his second expedition, he took much greater care to compose a functioning team.

Nansen was right, however, to realise that taking more people would not grant any advantage on the kind of expedition he had planned. A team can only move as fast as its weakest member. Travelling in small groups has become the norm in Polar exploration, with many historic firsts having been achieved by only two people working together.

Explorer and Inventor

A new style of expedition requires a new kind of equipment. Nansen knew that, and he was busy finding the best providers for items he required. As with the team, everything started with skiing. While Nansen could carry all his supplies for his tour from Bergen to Oslo on his back, crossing Greenland would require him to man-haul a sledge. The sledges of the time had very narrow runners, which sank deeply into soft snow, making them impossible to pull via skis which are designed to glide, not grip.

The Lapps used a boat-like form, the pulk, but that was designed for soft snow and hard ice would destroy a sledge very fast. Nansen finally found inspiration in the sledges used by Norwegian farmers, which had broad ski-like runners. He designed a new type of expedition sledge by himself and ordered a local carpenter to build a prototype. His design was tailored to minimise weight by using leather thongs instead of iron joints. Of course with modern plastic today, the pulk form has proven to be the most efficient shape for the snow conditions in the Arctic.

The Nansen Sledge

Nansen also was advised to use furs on the bottom of his skis, to increase the grip in the snow while dragging the sledge. Originally made from animal skin, these skins are today made of nylon, and can be found on the skis of every polar explorer dragging a pulk. 50 years before steel edges for skis were officially invented in Austria, a letter from a fellow mountain skiing pioneer tells him of skiers attaching iron strips to the edges of their skis, in order to preserve the edges and increase the grip in the snow, but for unknown reasons, Nansen chose not to modify his skies that way.

The sledge and skis were only one aspect of Nansen’s gear where he demonstrated innovative spirit. But explaining them all in detail would be an article in itself. But just to give you a quick idea: he invented a new type of sleeping bag made out of reindeer fur. He was the first to introduce the layer principle in outdoor clothing, separating wind protection from warmth. He had a tent specially assembled so the individual pieces could be used as sails for the sledges. He designed a new type of spirit stove, with improvements to the cooking vessel’s capability to retain heat. He also was the first explorer to plan the expedition’s food based on nutritional science, although it turned out later that the pemican he ordered did not contain fat as promised. This lead to a nutritional deficit over the whole expedition, so bad that Otto Sverdrup considering drinking the expedition’s shoe polish, old linseed oil.

In all his endeavours, Nansen always challenged the status quo and sought to improve every piece of equipment, ranging from a simple piece of clothing to the ship he had purpose-built for his second expedition, the Fram. He took nothing for granted and believed in experimenting and innovation. He was the original gear-head and his perfectionist approach and attention to detail are shared by many successful explorers throughout history.

Ever the learner

Nansen’s expedition in Greenland in winter 1888

Nansen was a scientist and all his adventures could not take that away from him. He always displayed a great attention to everything going on around him and took every opportunity to study. He first encountered the Inuit native to Greenland on the east coast of the island. His party spent several days in the company of an Inuit tribe and while several of the men, most notably the Lapps, were trying to stay separate from the supposed barbarians, Nansen realised their superior abilities to travel in the Arctic and tried to learn as much as possible from them. After arriving on the west coast, Nansen spent eight months among the natives, learning much about their clothing, how to train dogs for dog-sledding, and how to kayak. These lessons would later be invaluable to him on his North Pole attempt during the first Fram expedition. Roald Amundsen emulated Nansen by spending time with the Inuit as well and learned many skills he used during his successful South Pole expedition 1911.


Nansen originally estimated the costs of his expedition to be 5,000 Kroner, the equivalent of 12,000-20,000 USD today. He applied for government funds but was summarily rejected. The overwhelming public opinion was that his plan was utter madness. Nansen was prepared to cover the costs himself, but would rather not have to. So he was searching for private investors and found one in Augustin Gamél, a Copenhagen businessman, who was happy to fund the expedition. In the end, Nansen’s Greenland expedition cost almost four times his estimate, and Gamél paid about half of it. Searching for companies to sponsor their expeditions is a common theme for modern explorers. Gamél did not profit from association with Nansen directly, as modern brands do, but his motives were also different. Back when there were still white spots on the maps, there were other ways to honour expedition sponsors. Nansen, for example, did name a mountain in Greenland after his sponsor: Gamel Nunatak

Augustin Gamél

However, there are also indications that Nansen, who was a notorious womaniser, might have had an affair with Gamél’s wife after returning to Copenhagen. That’s a course of action I would not recommend for modern explorers.

The Nansen Brand

Nansen understood that publicity is everything as an explorer. He was keen to publish accounts of his ski tours in various newspapers before starting his planning for Greenland. Even in the chaotic six months leading up to his crossing, he found time to write an article about his plans for a children’s magazine. But all this was nothing to what came after his successful Greenland crossing. Nansen had reached the west coast just in time to send a message out on the last ship but was then cut off from the rest of the world for the duration of the winter. While he was learning from the Greenlanders, unknown to him, a Nansen fever broke out from New Zealand to America, but particularly in Norway. Products advertising with his name popped up all over the place. While this contributed to his popularity, he did not earn any money from this ongoing craze at first. However, after he was back, a public collection quickly covered his outstanding expedition debt of about 10,000 Kroner.

Various Nansen advertisements collected in the Fram Museum.

After his crossing, geographic societies all over the world lined up to request presentations from Nansen. His employer, the University of Bergen, gave him an annual allowance of 3,000 Kroner and time off to write a book about his endeavour. In the years between Greenland and the Fram expedition, he earned his money with lectures in Norway, Germany and Britain, and by selling his book Paa ski over Grønland. En skildring af Den norske Grønlands-ekspedition, which was translated into many languages. Public speaking and authoring have remained a reliable source of income for explorers today. He also got attention from several companies he mentioned in his talks, whose brands he had used in the crossing. I am especially jealous of a sponsorship deal he got from from Cadbury Chocolate, receiving free cocoa and chocolate for his next adventures. Of course they were keen to use his image in advertisements in return.

He was also soon back at planning his next coup. The two remaining big Polar goals were the North Pole, and the South Pole and Nansen planned to be the first to both of them. He deemed the North Pole to be the bigger challenge, judging Antarctica to be very similar to Greenland, and thus just another ski tour. He was offered leadership for an Antarctic expedition but turned it down to focus on his own North Pole plans instead.

Final Words

Reading the account of Nansen’s Greenland crossing, I can see him dealing with the same problems Polar explorers have today and using some of the same solutions. Fridtjof Nansen was a trailblazer in many ways, and I think he can rightfully be called the father of modern Polar exploration.

Most of this article is based on visits to the Fram Museum and the book Nansen by Roland Huntford