N O names are better known in the history of Arctic exploration than those of Nansen and the Fram, and although others have done work just as fine, the name of Nansen cannot be omitted from our Book of Discovery.
Sven Hedin had not long returned from his great travels through eastern Turkestan and Tibet when Nansen was preparing for his great journey northwards.
He had already crossed Greenland from east to west, a brilliant achievement only excelled by Peary, who a few years later, crossed it at a higher latitude and proved it to be an island.
Now the movement of ice drift in the Arctic seas was occupying the attention of explorers at this time. A ship, the Jeannette, had been wrecked in 1881 off the coast of Siberia, and three years later the debris from the wreck had been washed up on the south-west coast of Greenland. So it occurred to Nansen that a current must flow across the North Pole from Behring Sea on one side to the Atlantic Ocean on the other. His idea was therefore to build a ship as strong as possible to enable it to withstand the pressure of the ice, to allow it to become frozen in, and then to drift as the articles from the Jeannette had drifted. He reckoned that it would take three years for the drift of ice to carry him to the North Pole.
Foolhardy and impossible as the scheme seemed to some, King Oscar came forward with £1000 toward expenses. The Fram was then designed. The whole success of the expedition lay in her strength to withstand the pressure of the ice. At last she was ready, even fitted with electric light. A library, scientifically prepared food, and instruments of the most modern type were on board. The members of the expedition numbered thirteen, and on Midsummer Day, 1893, "in calm summer weather, while the setting sun shed his beams over the land, the Fram stood out towards the blue sea to get its first roll in the long, heaving swell." Along the coast of Norway, past Bergen, past Trondhjem, past Tromso, they steamed, until in a north-westerly gale and driving snow they lost sight of land. It was 25th July when they sighted Nova Zembla plunged in a world of fog. They landed at Khabarova and visited the little old church seen fifteen years before by Nordenskiöld, anxiously inquiring about the state of the ice in the Kara Sea. Here, amid the greatest noise and confusion, some thirty-four dogs were brought on board for the sledges. On 5th August the explorer successfully passed through the Yugor Strait into the Kara Sea, which was fairly free from ice, and five weeks later sailed past Cape Chelyuskin, the northernmost point of the Old World.
"The land was low and desolate," says Nansen. "The sun had long since gone down behind the sea; only one star was to be seen. It stood straight above Cape Chelyuskin, shining clearly and sadly in the pale sky. Exactly at four o'clock our flags were hoisted and our last three cartridges sent out a thundering salute over the sea."
The Fram was then turned north to the west of the New Siberian Islands. "It was a strange thing to be sailing away north," says Nansen, "to unknown lands, over an open rolling sea where no ship had been before. On to the north, steadily north with a good wind, as fast as steam and sail can take us through unknown regions."
They had almost reached 78 degrees north when they saw ice shining through the fog, and a few days later the Fram was frozen in. "Autumn was well advanced, the long night of winter was approaching, there was nothing to be done except prepare ourselves for it, and we converted our ship as well as we could into comfortable winter quarters."
By October the ice was pressing round the Fram with a noise like thunder. "It is piling itself up into long walls and heaps high enough to reach a good way up the Fram's rigging: in fact, it is trying its very utmost to grind the Fram into powder."
Christmas came and went. The New Year of 1894 dawned with the thermometer 36 degrees below zero. By February the Fram had drifted to the 80th degree of latitude. "High festival in honour of the 80th degree," writes Nansen. "Hurrah! Well sailed! The wind is whistling among the hummocks, the snow flies rustling through the air, ice and sky are melted into one, but we are going north at full speed, and are in the wildest of gay spirits. If we go on at this rate we shall be at the Pole in fifty months."
On 17th May the 81st degree of latitude was reached. Five months passed away. By 31st October they had drifted to the 82nd. "A grand banquet to-day," says Nansen, "to celebrate the 82nd degree of latitude. We are progressing merrily towards our goal; we are already half-way between the New Siberian Islands and Franz Josef Land, and there is not a soul on board who doubts that we shall accomplish what we came out to do; so long live merriment."
Now Nansen planned the great sledge journey, which has been called "the most daring ever undertaken." The winter was passed in peaceful preparation for a start in the spring. When the New Year of 1895 dawned the Fram had been firmly frozen in for fifteen months. A few days later, the ship was nearly crushed by a fresh ice pressure and all prepared to abandon her if necessary, but after an anxious day of ice roaring and crackling—"an ice pressure with a vengeance, as if Doomsday had come," remarked Nansen—it quieted down. They had now beaten all records, for they had reached 83 degrees latitude.
And now preparations for the great sledge journey were complete. They had built kayaks or light boats to sail in open water, and these were placed on the sledges and drawn by dogs. Nansen decided only to take one companion, Johansen, and to leave the others with the Fram.
"At last the great day has arrived. The chief aim of the expedition is to push through the unknown Polar sea from the region around the New Siberian Islands, north of Franz Josef Land and onward to the Atlantic Ocean near Spitzbergen or Greenland." Farewells were said, and then the two men bravely started off over the unknown desert sea with their sledges and twenty-eight dogs. For the first week they travelled well and soon reached 85 degrees latitude. "The only disagreeable thing to face now is the cold," says Nansen. "Our clothes are transformed more and more into complete suits of ice armour. The sleeve of my coat actually rubbed deep sores in my wrists, one of which got frostbitten; the wound grew deeper and deeper and nearly reached the bone. At night we packed ourselves into our sleeping-bags and lay with our teeth chattering for an hour before we became aware of a little warmth in our bodies."
Steadily, with faces to the north, they pressed on over the blocks of rough ice, stretching as far as the horizon, till on 8th April further progress became impossible. Nansen strode on ahead and mounted one of the highest hummocks to look around. He saw "a veritable chaos of ice-blocks, ridge after ridge, and nothing but rubble to travel over." He therefore determined to turn and make for Franz Josef Land some four hundred and fifty miles distant. They had already reached 86 degrees of latitude, farther north than any expedition had reached before.
As they travelled south, they rejoiced in the warmth of the sun, but their food was growing scarce, and they had to kill a dog every other day to feed the others, till by May they had only thirteen dogs left. June found them having experienced tremendous snowstorms with only seven dogs left. Although they were in the latitude of Franz Josef Land, no welcome shores appeared. It was now three months since they had left the Fram; the food for the dogs was quite finished and the poor creatures were beginning to eat their harness of sailcloth. Mercifully before the month ended they managed to shoot a seal which provided them with food for a month. "It is a pleasing change," says Nansen, "to be able to eat as much and as often as we like. Blubber is excellent, both raw and fried. For dinner I fried a highly successful steak, for supper I made blood-pancakes fried in blubber with sugar, unsurpassed in flavour. And here we lie up in the far north, two grim, black, soot-stained barbarians, stirring a mess of soup in a kettle, surrounded on all sides by ice—ice covered with impassable snow."
A bear and two cubs were shot and the explorers stayed on at "Longing Camp" as they named this dreary spot, unable to go on, but amply fed.
On 24th July we get the first cheerful entry for many a long day: "Land! land! after nearly two years we again see something rising above that never-ending white line on the horizon yonder—a new life is beginning for us!"
Only two dogs were now left to drag the sledges, so the two explorers were obliged to help with the dragging. For thirteen days they proceeded in the direction of land, dragging and pushing their burdens over the ridges of ice with thawing snow. At last on 7th August they stood at the edge of the ice. Behind lay their troubles; before was the waterway home. Then they launched their little kayaks, which danced over the open waters, the little waves splashing against their sides. When the mist cleared they found themselves on the west coast of Franz Josef Land, discovered by an Austro-Hungarian expedition in 1874.
They were full of hope, when a cruel disappointment damped their joy. They had landed and were camping on the shore, when a great storm arose and the wind blew the drift ice down till it lay packed along the coast. The little ships were frozen in, and there was no hope of reaching home that winter. Here they were doomed to stay. Fortunately there were bears and walrus, so they could not starve, and with magnificent pluck they set to work to prepare for the winter. For many a long day they toiled at the necessary task of skinning and cutting up walrus till they were saturated with the blood, but soon they had two great heaps of blubber and meat on shore well covered over with walrus hides.
The ship that went the farthest north: the Fram.
September was occupied in building a hut amid the frost and snow with walrus hides and tusks, warmed inside with train-oil lamps. Here under bear skins they slept and passed the long months of winter. In October the sun disappeared, the days grew darker. Life grew very monotonous, for it was the third Polar winter the explorers had been called on to spend. They celebrated Christmas Day, Nansen by washing himself in a "quarter of a cup of warm water," Johansen by turning his shirt. The weather outside was stormy and almost took their breath away with its icy coldness. They longed for a book, but they wiled away the hours by trying to calculate how far the Fram could have drifted and when she was likely to reach home. They were distressed at the dirt of their clothes, and longed to be able to throw away the heavy oily rags that seemed glued to their bodies. They had no soap, and water had no effect on the horrible grease. It was May before the weather allowed them to leave the hut at last. Hopefully they dragged their kayaks over the snow, the sledge runners fastened on to their feet, and so made their way southwards down Franz Josef Land.
Once Nansen was very nearly drowned. The explorers had reached the south of the Islands, and, having moored their little boats together, they ascended a hummock close by, when to their horror they saw the kayaks were adrift. Nansen rushed down, threw off some clothes, and sprang into the water after them. He was none too soon, for already the boats were drifting rapidly away. The water was icy cold, but it was a case of life or death. Without the boats they were lost men. "All we possessed was on board," says Nansen, "so I exerted myself to the utmost. I redoubled my exertions though I felt my limbs gradually stiffening; at last I was able to stretch out my hand to the edge of the kayak. I tried to pull myself up, but the whole of my body was stiff with cold. After a time I managed to swing one leg up on to the edge and to tumble up. Nor was it easy to paddle in the double vessel; the gusts of wind seemed to go right through me as I stood there in my wet woollen shirt. I shivered, my teeth chattered, and I was numb all over. At last I managed to reach the edge of the ice. I shook and trembled all over, while Johansen pulled off the wet things and packed me into the sleeping-bag. The critical situation was saved."
And now came one of those rare historic days in the history of exploration. It was 17th June 1896. Nansen was surveying the lonely line of coast, when suddenly the barking of a dog fell on his ear, and soon in front he saw the fresh tracks of some animal. "It was with a strange mixture of feelings," he says, "that I made my way among the numerous hummocks towards land. Suddenly I thought I heard a human voice—the first for three years. How my heart beat and the blood rushed to my brain as I halloed with all the strength of my lungs. Soon I heard another shout and saw a dark form moving among the hummocks. It was a man. We approached one another quickly. I waved my hat; he did the same. As I drew nearer I thought I recognised Mr. Jackson, whom I remembered once to have seen. I raised my hat; we extended a hand to one another with a hearty 'How do you do?' Above us a roof of mist, beneath our feet the rugged packed drift ice."
"Ar'n't you Nansen?" he said.
"Yes, I am," was the answer.
And, seizing the grimy hand of the Arctic explorer, he shook it warmly, congratulating him on his successful trip. Jackson and his companions had wintered at Cape Flora, the southern point of Franz Josef Land, and they were expecting a ship, the Windward, to take them home. On 26th July the Windward steamed slowly in, and by 13th August she reached Norway, and the news of Nansen's safe arrival was made known to the whole world. A week later the little Fram, "strong and broad and weather-beaten," also returned in safety. And on 9th September 1896, Nansen and his brave companions on board the Fram sailed up Christiania Fjiord in triumph.
He had reached a point farthest North, and been nearer to the North Pole than had any explorer before.