If you thought arctic discovery was a carefully planned exercise, dominated by captains, beards and government prestige projects, think again! For centuries but in earnest since the beginning of the nineteenth century, no advance was made until twenty-two-year old Nansen thought in 1822 of the clever idea of using skis to cross the arctic ice fields. Skiing had only recently become popular in Norway, so he had a headstart on all the others trying to conquer the first bit of the arctic, Greenland. He was a complete unknown at the time and, though we now think of him as brilliant, people thought him a nutcase. But what really sets this beautiful book apart, is the crisp lyrical language in which he describes what the arctic area looked like. We are so used through television and photographs to what it looks like, but it was all completely new to him. Nowadays, Nansen would no doubt be up there with Jon Krakauer or Paul Theroux. Like them he spawned a raft of other writers and travellers: Shackleton, Scott, Amundsen, etc. Amazing when you think of it. I cannot recommend this book enough.
This is a fascinating book. Not one second passes when the reader is not excited by the amazing adventure Nansen undertook. It also reads very well for a book written by an explorer as opposed to a proffesional writer, possibly even better, and the descriptions in it are vivid and enchanting. The incorporation of photos of the expedition is also very interesting. However, it is let down slightly by the fact that there are so many spelling mistakes in the translation. But overall, an excellent read, and I would recommend anyone with a spirited sense of adventure to read it.
I got this because I am going to North East Greenland later this year and this is about the only book which is fairly relevant and available. Thoroughly enjoyed it. It is written more light-heartedly that Furthest North Farthest North Being the Record of a Voyage of Exploration of the Ship 'Fram' 1893-1896 Vol. I and the courage and dedication are glossed over but there beneath the surface. I could hardly put it down. (I could also see why Amundsen was bound to beat Scott to the South Pole when he decided on man-hauling)
This is an abridged version of Nansen's classic "Pa Ski Over Groenland", which was originally published in Norwegian in 1890 and was then soon translated into several other languages. It tells the story of how in 1888 the explorer, with a team of five, made the first complete traverse of Greenland.
The team's project was an audacious one. They would start from the uninhabited east coast and make for the inhabited west. Nansen's typically uncompromising rationale for doing the journey in that direction was that it would remove the temptation to turn back if they encountered problems. There would be no choice but to go forward.
Of central importance to Nansen was that the party should travel on skis, and in selecting his men he insisted that they were experienced skiers. Chapter two of the book is devoted to a history and description of skiing, "since so little is known about the sport outside the few countries where it is practised as such". It is a factual account, with information about ski construction and skiing technique. But it also contains some very enthusiastic promotion of the sport, as both a recreational and a competitive activity. For example:
"I know no form of sport which so evenly develops the muscles, which renders the body so strong and elastic, which teaches so well the qualities of dexterity and resource, which in an equal degree calls for decision and resolution, and which gives the same vigour and exhilaration to mind and body alike."
The eventual success of the expedition not only brought Nansen enormous publicity and honour but also contributed to a massive upsurge of interest in skiing throughout Europe and North America.
However, before the team members could show the effectiveness of their skis, they first had to make it to the east coast of Greenland, and this in itself was a major adventure that takes up almost half of the book.
The traverse of the island itself was hardly a pleasant journey. First came the ascent on to the Inland ice, negotiating treacherous snow-covered crevasses: "As a matter of fact, we fell through rarely, and then only to our armpits". During this period it poured continuously with rain. More bad weather befell them as they gained height, and at one point they were unable to leave camp for three days. Finally they reached more gently sloping ground, and calmer weather, and climbed to an eventual height of just under 8,000 feet.
With much effort and much danger they finally made it, on 26 September, after about six weeks on the Inland ice, to the shores of the west coast. It took more adventure, including the construction of a makeshift boat from their sledges and tarpaulins, before they reached the safety of the Danish settlement at Godthaab. Here they found they had missed the last steamer of the year, and would need to spend the winter at the settlement.
When Nansen and the team finally made it back to Norway on 30 May in the following year they were welcomed as heroes. A flotilla of sailing boats met them in Christiania (Oslo) Fjord, a crowd of 60,000 was waiting by the pier, and 50,000 followed them through the streets to their hotel.
Translated from the Norwegian, it takes a little while to get the hang of Nansen's rather dry style of writing - some of his chapters are really factual material about how they travelled on ski, the natural history of Greenland etc.
Once you get into the story of the Greenland expedition itself though, which is the bulk of the book, Nansen's wry humour and poetic descriptions really take hold of you, and I for one got very involved in the tale.
These guys ventured out into the totally unknown - no-one had ventured inland from the coastal areas of greenland (sparsely populated by nomadic eskimo/inuit) on to the vast and inhospitabloe ice cap itself. It's a great story, told with lots of detail about exactly what they ate, the obstacles they faced etc. Nansen is obviously a proud man and he rarely disclosed just how much suffering was involved - the "stiff upper lip" of the Brits doesn't come close! A real tale of endurance and a revealing description of the world view of a European explorer in the 1880s encountering the nomadic culture of the greenlanders as well as tackling an epic trip into a new world.
If you enjoyed tales of Scott, Amundsen and Shackleton, it's well worth looking into the groundbreaking journeys of their forerunner, Nansen - his accomplishments are truly extraordinary.