Pictures and Text from Nansen's Farthest North

"This'll tell us everything we want to know." – Dick Callum

Nansen's account of his Polar expedition of 1893-6 was published in 1897, in two substantial volumes totalling over 1,000 pages. I was fortunate enough to pick up a second-hand copy for fifteen shillings (75p) in the early 1960's. Readers of Arthur Ransome's Winter Holiday will need no reminding of the significance of Farthest North: together with Nansen's First Crossing of Greenland it formed the favourite reading, and provided the imaginative landscape, of the children aboard Captain Flint's frozen-in houseboat (renamed the Fram in Nansen's honour). The books had also a more practical use, as Dick used the pictures and descriptions of sailing sledges in rigging the sail of the sledge that was to carry the D.'s headlong through the blizzard to the 'North Pole'.

To see the picture, click on the title.

I Portrait of Dr. NansenFrontispiece engraving
200Sleepy and Cross. 12 September, 1893Pastel Sketch by Nansen
377Experiment in Sledge SailingFrom a photograph
422Homesickness. 16 June, 1894From a photograph.
II54The "Fram" in the IceEtching
82The Fram in the Ice. 1895From a photograph
134Northwards through the Drift Snow. April, 1895By H. Egidius, from a photograph
284This Incessant ToilBy A. Eiebakke
286"You must look Sharp"By H. Egidius (See text below)
440A Sail with Sledges. 6 June, 1895By A. Eiebakke, from a photograph

If you can get hold of a copy of Farthest North you'll find it is still an excellent read. It opens in in a style that is pure Dorothea Callum:

Unseen and untrodden under their spotless mantle of ice the rigid polar regions slept the profound sleep of death from the earliest dawn of time. Wrapped in his white shroud, the mighty giant stretched his clammy ice-limbs abroad and dreamed his age-long dreams.

Thereafter things pick up as Nansen sketches the history of polar exploration, and explains the theory that if the Fram were frozen into the polar ice, oceanic drift would automatically carry her close to the North Pole. I found the technical details particularly interesting. The Fram had to be constructed in such a way that she could withstand the tremendous pressure of the ice, while among their equipment they had Primus stoves (at that time still a novelty) and even a generator, powered by a windmill on deck, for electric light.

The expedition itself is marvellously described, largely in extracts from Nansen's diary. His personality comes across strongly, with its Nordic mixture of humour and stoicism, and also the extraordinary courage he and his colleague Johansen showed during their 15-month sledge journey that attempted to reach the North Pole. Here is a brief excerpt to give some impression of Nansen's - and Johansen's - impeccable sang-froid in the face of hardship and danger (Vol. II, pp. 285-7):

We set off about 7 o'clock yesterday morning and got on to ice as bad as it could be. It was as if some giant had hurled down enormous blocks pell-mell, and had strewn wet snow in between them with water beneath; and into this we sank above our knees. There were also numbers of deep pools in between the blocks. It was like toiling over hill and dale, up and down over block after block, and ridge after ridge, with deep clefts in between; not a a clear space big enough to pitch a tent on even, and thus it went on the whole time. To put a coping-stone to our misery, there was such a mist that we could not see a hundred yards in front of us. After an exhausting march we at last reached a lane where we had to ferry over in the kayaks. After having cleared the side of the lane from young ice and brash, I drew my sledge to the edge of the ice, and was holding it to prevent it slipping in, when I heard a scuffle behind me, and Johansen, who had just turned round to pull his sledge flush with mine, cried: 'Take the gun!' I turned round and saw an enormous bear throwing itself at him, and Johansen on his back. I tried to seize my gun, which was in its case on the fore-deck,. but at the same moment the kayak slipped into the water. My first thought was to throw myself into the water over the kayak and fire from there, but I recognised how risky it would be. I began to pull the kayak, with its heavy cargo, on to the high edge of the ice again as quickly as I could, and was on my knees pulling and tugging to get at my gun. I had no time to look round and see what was going on behind me, when I heard Johansen quietly say: 'You must look sharp if you want to be in time.'

"Look sharp?" I should think so! At last I got hold of the butt-end, dragged the gun out, turned round in a sitting posture, and cocked the shot-barrel. The bear was standing not two yards off, ready to make an end of my dog, 'Kaifas.' There was no time to lose in cocking the other barrel, so I gave it a charge of shot behind the ear and it fell down dead between us.

To which I can imagine Roger responding with a heartfelt "Gosh!"

If they had been able to cruise the Web on Captain Flint's laptop, the Walkers Callums and Blacketts might well have enjoyed also Voyage of the Fram, Bold Endeavours: Fridtjof Nansen , Fridtjof Nansen - Scientist Diplomatist and Humanist, and Fridtjof Nansen - Man of Many Parts
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