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FRIDTJOF NANSEN, a Norwegian scientist and explorer, had a wild idea. On June 24, 1893, he set sail to explore the Arctic and become the first to reach the North Pole. Others who attempted the same journey met with disaster, often fatal. But Nansen planned to get there by an unusual method. With a crew of twelve and a specially designed ship called the Fram, he planned to purposely lock his vessel into the frozen wasteland and “float” on the Arctic pack ice right over the top of the world and down the other side. Veterans of polar expeditions thought he was mad.
In the late nineteenth century, the North Pole was cloaked in mystery. No one had reached the northernmost place on the globe. People wondered if it might be a landmass covered with ice. Or perhaps an open ocean? Did the Arctic hold, as some believed, a lost civilization?
In September 1893, heading into the unknown, Nansen drove his ship into the ice floes of the Arctic Ocean above Siberia, the same ice that had crushed so many vessels in the past. He let powerful polar currents carry the Fram slowly northward toward the pole. Then after a year and a half of drifting a few miles a day, icebound and frustrated by the snail’s pace of being locked in ice, Nansen realized the ship might miss the North Pole by hundreds of miles. So he made a fateful decision: he and crew member Frederik Hjalmar Johansen would abandon the safety of the ship and cross the polar ice together with three sleds, twenty-eight sled dogs, and two small, canvas-covered kayaks. In the polar spring of 1895, they set off to do what no one on earth had done before—reach the top of the world.
Within a month, the ice became an impassable jumble of frozen slabs and slushy open water. A mere 232 nautical miles from their destination—and the farthest north any human had ever traveled—the men were forced to turn south in search of land. Aiming for a small group of islands three hundred miles away, they began the harrowing adventure of fourteen months racing the shrinking pack ice and trying to stay alive in an Arctic wasteland. This is their story.
BORN IN 1861, Fridtjof (fritch-off) Nansen grew up in a privileged family. Nansen’s father was a respected lawyer. He was strict and cautious. Not an athletic man, he was slight, unlike Nansen’s mother, who was robust and fierce. Despite the social customs of the day, which discouraged women from skiing in public, Nansen’s mother skied in trousers. She inspired him with a love of adventure, while his father taught him discipline.
Growing up among the spruce forests, marshes, lakes, and mountains that surround Kristiania (the capital of Norway, later named Oslo), Nansen loved the outdoors. He loved making bows and arrows. An older half brother taught him how to fish, hunt, and survive in the wilderness. Nansen was particularly good at individual sports: swimming, skating, and skiing, especially ski-jumping. He loved winter most. When he was just two, a seven-year-old neighbor taught him to ski, and from the ages of six to eighteen, Nansen skied two miles from his farm to school, and back again.
At fifteen, Nansen won a three-mile speed skating race and did well in ski-jumping and cross-country events. Physically a bit awkward and overweight when he was young, in his late teens he grew slim and muscular. By the time he went to the university in Kristiania, Nansen could walk into a room, and everyone—especially the ladies—would notice him. With striking deep blue eyes and a full head of blond hair, he had a distinct magnetism.
Copyright © 2019 by Peter Lourie