Nansen's First Crossing of Greenland

Sailing Sledges and Sledge-sailing: Text and Pictures

In Chapter XVI of Winter Holiday Ransome describes the importance of Nansen's two books of Arctic Exploration to the children on Captain Flint's frozen-in houseboat:

During those working days in the Fram before they had got into the habit of making Dorothea tell stories, Titty and she had been made to read aloud, for the good of the expedition, from the books on Arctic exploration that they had found in Captain Flint's cabin bookshelves. Nansen had been their favourite author. In his First Crossing of Greenland, his whole expedition had been even smaller than their own, six explorers, counting the Lapps, instead of their own seven, or rather eight as soon as Captain Nancy should recover.

Ransome goes on to describe how the explorers had found in The First Crossing, and in Farthest North, pictures of sledges under sail that gave them the idea of trying to do the same. However, all of Nansen's sledges were rigged with square sails, and 'though John could handle a little fore-and-aft sail like Swallow's, he knew square sails worked altogether differently. Besides, he had not got one.' Inspired by the ice-yachts skimming over the lake with their more familiar rig, he does carry out an experiment using Swallow's sail and her broken-off mast (see Swallowdale). As soon as they try to put about, however, the sledge turns over with a loud crash on the ice. "No damage done," John consoles himself, and "We can easily rig her again." but as far as he is concerned, the idea of the sailing-sledge is abandoned. It is left to Dick, without experience of, or preconceptions as to, proper sailing, to build a Nansen-style square-rigged sailing sledge, a sledge which in one of Ransome's most memorable episodes carries him and Dorothea through a blizzard to the 'North Pole'.

What, then, did John and Dick find in The First Crossing of Greenland? The possibility of sledge-sailing was foreseen in the planning of the expedition as described in Chapter II:

When we proposed to sail our sledges, as we had several opportunities of doing, we placed two or three of them side by side, laid some "ski" or long staffs across them, and lashed the whole fast. For masts we had bamboo poles brought for the purpose, and for sails the floor of our tent and two tarpaulins. With another bamboo out in front, somewhat after the fashion of a carriage-pole, we could hold a good course and make fair progress. Any one who should equip himself specially for sailing would of course be able to manage things much more easily and successfully than we did. Sailing as a mode of progression was first tried on the "Inland ice" of Greenland by the American traveller Peary, and I think that future expeditions will do well to give more attention to the subject than has hitherto been done. I feel sure, too, that this method of getting over the ground may be adopted with advantage on the great snowfields of the Antarctic continent.

When, with the expedition heading north-west towards Christianshaab, Nansen came to try out the technique for the first time, there were problems, both with the equipment and with the reaction of the two Lapps to the whole idea. The following extract is from Chapter XV:

There was no abatement in the wind when we woke next morning, but the tent was not so full of snow as it had been the day before. I was by this time tired of plodding along against the wind in this deep loose snow, and resolved this morning to rig the sledges and try a sail. The proposal, however, met with a good deal of opposition, especially from the Lapps. Ravna put on a most dejected look, and Balto simply unbridled his tongue. He had never seen such a lot of lunatics, he said. Wanting to sail on the snow, indeed! Very likely we could teach him sailing on the sea and one or two other things perhaps, but on land and on the snow, no, never. Such infernal nonsense he had never heard. He spoke more than plainly, but to little purpose, as he had to put up with the absurdity. The sledges were placed side by side and lashed together, two going to make one vessel, and three to the other. On the first the tent-floor did duty for a sail; on the latter, which was manned by Dietrichson, Ravna, and Balto, the two tarpaulins.

I had contemplated using the tent-walls too, but when it came to the point I dared not, as they seemed too thin, and to have our tent torn in pieces in a country like this would have been a good deal worse than unpleasant. When the tarpaulins were hoisted to the wind, they came apart at once and proved unmanageable, which made it necessary to sew them together. To sit and sew with bare fingers in the cold wind and drifting snow was miserable work, but by dint of keeping our hands well rubbed and knocked about, and after toils and tribulations of all kinds and six or seven hours' work, we eventually got under way in the course of the afternoon.

We soon found that there was no question of tacking up against the wind, as we could not get within less than eight or nine points of the wind at best. But I had not really been very hopeful on this score, and had, as a matter of fact, other ends in view.

Those ends were that the the expedition should head due west for Godthaab instead of Christianshaab. That decision taken, the initial experiment in sledge-sailing is postponed until the expedition meets its first west-coast snow-bunting, and the wind is at last in the right quarter for a serious trial of the technique. The following extract is from Chapter XVII:

Welcome, indeed, this little bird was. It gave us a friendly greeting from the land we were sure must now be near. The believers in good angels and their doings must inevitably have seen such in the forms of these two snow-buntings, the one which bid us farewell on the eastern side, and that which offered us a welcome to the western coast. We blessed it for its cheering song, and with warmer hearts and renewed strength we confidently went on our way, in spite of the uncomfortable knowledge that the ground was not falling by any means so rapidly as it should have done. In this way, however, things were much better next day, September 18; the cold consisterntly decreased, and life grew brighter and brighter. In the evening, too, the wind sprang up from the south-east, and I hoped we should really get a fair sailing breeze at last. We had waited for it long enough, and sighed for it, too, in spite of Balto's assurances that this sailing on the snow would never come to anything.

In the course of the night the wind freshened, and in the morning there was a full breeze blowing. Though, as usual, there was no great keenness to undertake the rigging and lashing together of the sledges in the cold wind, we determined, of course, to set about the business at once. Kristiansen joined Sverdrup and me with his sledge, and we rigged the two with the tent-floor, while the other three put their two sledges together.

All this work, especially the lashing, was anything but delightful, but the cruellest part of it all was that while we were in the middle of it the wind showed signs of dropping. It did not carry out its threat, however, and at last both vessels were ready to start. I was immensely excited to see how our boat would turn out, and whether the one sail was enough to move both the sledges. It was duly hoisted and made fast, and there followed a violent wrenching of the whole machine, but during the operations it had got somewhat buried in the snow and proved immovable. There was enough wrenching and straining of the mast and tackle to pull the whole to pieces, so we harnessed ourselves in front with all speed. We tugged with a will and got our boat off, but no sooner had she begun to move than the wind brought her right on to us, and over we all went into the snow. We were soon up again for another try, but with the same result; no sooner are we on our legs than we are carried off them again by the shock from behind.

(By A. Black.)

This process having been gone through a certain number of times, we saw plainly that all was not right. So we arranged that one of us should stand in front on his "ski" and steer by means of a staff fixed between the two sledges, like the pole of a carriage, leaving himself to be pushed along by his vessel, and only keeping it at a respectful distance from his heels. The other two members of the crew were to come behind on their "ski," either holding on to the sledges or following as best they could.

We now finally got under way, and Sverdrup, who was to take the first turn at steering, had no sooner got the pote under his arm than our vessel rushed furiously off before the wind. I attached myself behind at the side, riding on my "ski " and holding on by the back of one of the sledges as well as I could. Kristiansen thought this looked much too risky work, and came dragging along behind on his "ski " alone.

Our ship flew over the waves and drifts of snow with a speed that almost took one's breath away. The sledges struggled and groaned, and were strained in every joint as they were whirled over the rough surface, and often indeed they simply jumped from the crest of one wave on to another. I had quite enough to do to hang on behind and keep myself upright on the "ski." Then the ground began to fall at a sharper angle than any we had had yet. The pace grew hotter and hotter, and the sledges scarcely seemed to touch the snow. Right in front of me was sticking out the end of a "ski," which was lashed fast across the two sledges for the purpose of keeping them together. I could not do anything to get this "ski"-end out of the way, and it caused me a great deal of trouble, as it stuck out across the points of my own "ski," and was always coming into collision with them. It was worst of all when we ran along the edge of a drift, for my "ski" would then get completeIy jammed, and I lost all control over them. For a long time I went on thus in a continual struggle with this hopeless "ski "-end, while Sverdrup stood in front gaily steering and thinking we were both sitting comfortably on behind. Our ship rushed on faster and faster; the snow flew round us and behind us in a cloud, which gradually hid the others from our view.

Then an ice-axe which lay on the top of our cargo began to get loose and promised to fall off. So I worked myself carefully forward, and was just engaged in making the axe fast when we rode on to a nasty drift. This brought the projecting "ski" end just across my legs, and there I lay at once gazing after the ship and its sail, which were flying on down the slope, and already showing dimly through the drifting snow. It made one quite uncomfortable to see how quickly they diminished in size. I felt very foolish to be left lying there, but at last I recovered myself and set off bravely in the wake of the vessel, which was by this time all but out of sight. To my great delight I found that, thanks to the wind, I could get on at a very decent pace alone.

(By A. Black.)

I had not gone far before I found the ice-axe, in trying to secure which I had come to grief. A little way further on I caught sight of another dark object, this time something square, lying in the snow. This was a box which contained some of our precious meat-chocolate, and which of course was not to be abandoned in this way. After this I strode gaily on for a long time in the sledge-track, with the chocolate-box under one arm and the ice-axe and my staff under the other. Then I came upon several more dark objects Iying straight in my path. These proved to be a fur jacket belonging to me, and no less than three pemmican boxes. I had now much more than I could carry, so the only thing to be done was to sit down and wait for succour from the others who were following behind. All that could now be seen of our proud ship and its sail was a little square patch far away across the snowfield. She was going ahead in the same direction as before, but as I watched I suddenly saw her brought up to the wind, the tin boxes of her cargo glitter in the sun, and her sail fall. Just then Kristiansen came up with me, followed not long after by the other vessel. To them we handed over some of our loose boxes, but just as we were stowing them away Balto discovered that they had lost no less than three pemmican tins. These were much too valuable to be left behind, so the crew had to go back and look for them.

Meanwhile Kristiansen and I started off again, each with a tin box under his arm, and soon overtook Sverdrup. We now sat down to wait for the others, which was not an agreeable job in this bitter wind.

Sverdrup told us that he had sailed merrily off from the very start, had found the whole thing go admirably, and thought all the time that we two were sitting comfortably on behind. He could not see behind him for the sail, but after a long while he began to wonder why there was not more noise among the passengers in the stern. So he made an approach to a conversation, but got no answer. A little further on he tried again and louder, but with the same result. Then he called louder still, and lastly began to shout at the top of his voice, but still there was no response. This state of things needed further investigation; so he brought his boat up to the wind, went round behind the sail to see what was the matter, and was not a little concerned to find that both his passengers had disappeared. He tried to look back along his course through the drifting snow, and he thought he could see a black spot far away behind. This must have been my insignificant figure sitting upon the lost tin boxes. Then he lowered his sail, which was not an easy matter in the wind that was blowing, and contented himself to wait for us.

We had to sit a long time before the others caught us up again. We could just see the vessel through the snow, but her sail was evidently not up, and of her crew there was not a sign. At last we caught sight of three small specks far away up the slope and the glitter of the sun on the tins they were carrying. Presently the sail was hoisted. and it was not long before they joined us.

We now lashed the sledges better together and made thc cargo thoroughly fast, in order to escape a repetition of this performance. Then we rigged up some ropes behind, to which the crew could hold or tie themselves, and thus be towed comfortably along. In this way we got on splendidly, and never in my life have I had a more glorious run on "ski."

(By A. Black, from photographs.)

A while later Sverdrup declared that he had had enough of steering, and I therefore took his place. We had now one good slope after another and a strong wind behind us. We travelled as-we should on the best of "ski"-hills at home, and this for hour after hour. The steering is exciting work. One has to keep one's tongue straight in one's mouth, as we say at home, and, whatever one does, take care not to fall. If one did, the whole conveyance would be upon one, and once under the runners and driven along by the impetus, one would fare badly indeed, and be lucky to get off without a complete smash up. This was not to be thought of, so it was necessary to keep one's wits about one, to hold the "ski" well together, grip the pole tight, watch the ground incessantly, so as to steer clear of the worst drifts, and for the rest take things as they came, while one's "ski" flew on from the crest of one snow-wave to another.

Our meals were not pleasant intervals that day, and we therefore got through them as quickly as we could. We stopped and crept under shelter of the sails, which were only half lowered on purpose. The snow drifted over us as we sat there, but the wind at least was not so piercing as in the open. We scarcely halted for the usual chocolate distributions, and took our refreshment as we went along.

In the middle of the afternoon — this notable day by the way was September 19 — just as we were sailing our best and fastest, we heard a cry of joy from the party behind, Balto's voice being prominent as he shouted "Land ahead!"

And so there was; through the mist of snow, which was just now a little less dense, ue could see away to the west a long, dark mountain ridge, and to the south of it a smaller peak. Rejoicings were loud and general, for the goal towards which we had so long struggled was at last in sight.

Balto's own account of the occurrence runs as follows: "While we were sailing that afternoon I caught sight of a black spot a long way off to the west. I stared and stared at it till I saw that it really was bare ground. Then I called to Dietrichson, 'I can see land!' Dietrichson at once shouted to the others that Balto could see land away to the west. And then we rejoiced to see this sight, which we had so often longed to see, and new courage came into our hearts, and hope that we should now happily and without disaster cross over this ice-mountain, which is the greatest of all ice-mountains. If we had spent many more days upon the ice, I fear that some of us would have fared badly. As soon as Nansen heard this he stopped and gave us two pieces of meat-chocolate each. It was always our custom, when we reached a spot which we had long wished to reach, to treat ourselves to the best food we had. So when we came to land after drifting in the ice, when we reached Umivik, when we had climbed to the highest point of Greenland, when we now first saw land on the west side, and lastly, when we first set foot upon bare ground again, we were treated to our very best — which was jam, American biscuits, and butter."

Though this first land we saw lay a little to the north of the line we had hitherto been following, I steered for it nevertheless, because the ice in this direction seemed to fall away more rapidly. However, the point was soon hidden in the snow again, and we went on with the wind straight behind us for the rest of the afternoon without getting any further sight of land. The wind grew stronger and stronger, we flew down slope after slope, and everything went famously.

A while later both the gradient and the wind slackened od for a time, but as evening began the breeze freshened and the slope grew steeper, and ue rushed along through the dense driving snow more furiously than ever. It was already growing dusk, when I suddenly saw in the general obscurity something dark Iying right in our path. I took it for some ordinary irregularity in the snow, and unconcernedly steered straight ahead. The next moment, when I was within no more than a few yards, I found it to be something very different, and in an instant swung round sharp and brought the vessel up to the wind. It was high time, too, for we were on the very edge of a chasm broad enough to swallow comfortably sledges, steersman, and passengers. Another second and we should have disappeared for good and all. We now shouted with all our might to the others, who were coming gaily on behind, and they managed to luff in time.

Here also Balto has something to say: " The same evening while we were still sailing along-it may have been about halfpast seven and it was rather dark-we saw Nansen, who was in front on his 'ski,' signalling wildly to us, while he shouted 'Don't come here; it is dangerous!' 'We, who were tearing along at full speed, found it difficult to stop, and had to swing round and throw ourselves on our sides. At the same time we saw in front of us an awful crack in the ice, which was many hundred feet deep."

As to the rest of the day's sail my diary says: "This was the tlrst crevasse, but was not likely to be the only one, and we must now go warily. It was suggested that it was hardly advisable to sail any further that evening, but I thought it too early to stop yet, as we must take advantage of the wind. So I left the sledges and went on in front to reconnoitre, while Sverdrup undertook the steering of our boat, and the sails of both of them were taken in a bit. The wind was strong enough even to blow me along, and I could run long stretches without moving a muscle, and so covered the ground fast.


(By A. Black, from a sketch by the Author.)

"When the snow looked treacherous I had to go cautiously and use my staff to see whether I had solid ground under foot, and, if not, to signal to the others to wait till I had found a safer route. In spite of all precautions, Sverdrup and Kristiansen all but came to grief once, as the snow fell in behind them just as they had passed over an unsuspected crevasse. Meantime the ind was steadily increasing, and the sails had to be taken in more and more to prevent the sledges overrunning me. As we were all getting hungry biscuits were served out, but no halt was made to eat them.

"It was rapidly getting dark, but the full moon was now rising, and she gave us light enough to see and avoid the worst crevasses. It was a curious sight for me to see the two vessels coming rushing along behind me, with their square viking-like sails showing dark against the white snowfield and the big round disc of the moon behind.

" Faster and faster I go flying on, while the ice gets more and more difficult. There is worse still ahead, I can see, and in another moment I am into it. The ground is here seamed with crevasses, but they are full of snow and not dangerous. Every now and then I feel my staff go through into space, but the cracks are narrow and the sledges glide easily over. Presently I cross a broader one, and see just in front of me a huge black abyss. I creep cautiously to its edge on the slippery ice, which here is covered by scarcely any snow, and look down into the deep, dark chasm. Beyond it I can see crevasse after crevasse, running parallel with one another, and showing dark blue in the moonlight. I now tell the others to stop, as this is no ground to traverse in the dark, and we mnst halt for the night.

"In the west we could now see land again against the evening sky, which still shows a faint trace of day. They were the same mountains we had first seen, but they now tower high above the horizon, and to the south of these peaks again there is a long ridge of rock protruding from the snow.

"It was a difficult business to get the tent up in this strong wind, and on the hard, slippery ice, which gave no hold for our guy-ropes, and we had to cut deep holes before we could make our staffs do duty as pegs. At last, after having fared worse than usual with the cold, we got the tent up and were able to crawl into a partial shelter. No one was inclined to do any cooking that evening, as even inside the tent the wind was much too aggressive, and the little feast which was to do honour to the day, and which we had much looked forward to, was put off till next morning. So we were content to divide our last piece of Gruyère cheese, and then, well pleased with ourselves and our day's work, creep into our sleeping-bags. I now discovered for the first time that I had got the fingers of both my hands frozen during the afternoon's sail. It was too late now to rub them with snow, as they had begun to thaw on their own account, but that night the pain they gave me was almost unendurable, till I fell asleep in spite of it."

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