Fridtjof Nansen’s first flight off the Huseby Hill ski jump near Christiania (as Oslo was then called) was inauspicious for the man who would prove the virtues of skis in exploration across Greenland and on the pack ice of the North Pole. Forbidden by his parents from using the big jump, he nonetheless flew off it at age ten, landing head first in soft snow, to the laughter of his friends. He improved with practice, becoming one of the best all-around skiers in Norway.
…those wonderful, long, steep mountainsides, where the snow lies soft as eiderdown, where one can ski as fast as one desires…From the tips of the skis…the snow sprays knee-high, to swirl up in white clouds behind; but ahead all is clear. You cleave the snow like an arrow…you just have to tense your muscles, keep your body under control, and let yourself wing down-wards like an avalanche.
— Fridtjof Nansen, En Skitur fra Voss til Kristiania, 1884
A century ago Nansen, a zoologist, pioneering neurologist and oceanographer, best-selling author and Norwegian national hero, earned worldwide fame for his epic ski journeys.
A true Renaissance man in a simpler age — before airplanes, telephones and even radio — Nansen embodied a romantic image of athleticism, endurance and can-do spirit, symbolizing Norway’s emerging national identity as his country moved toward independence from Sweden. His exploits popularized nordic skiing (the only kind at the time) and carried him into a political career that culminated in winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922 for his work with refugees after World War I.
Born in 1861, Nansen grew up on the outskirts of Christiania, on the edge of the forest. Inspired by his athletic mother, he started skiing early, at age two. He could see the nordic ski jump at Huseby Hill (the predecessor of the modern Holmenkollen ski jump) from his house. Although a pudgy kid, according to his biographer Roland Huntford, he was gifted athletically with excellent balance and a love of skiing. Nansen matured into a tall, strong, lean, handsome, blond athlete obsessed with sports — hunting and fishing as well as skiing.
One of the best skiers in the capital as a young man, Nansen played no small part in the city folks developing ski parity with the country folk of Telemark. Marveling at the possibilities for balance and control, he quickly adopted Sondre Norheim’s techniques, which had astonished crowds in Christiania during the second national ski competition, and abandoned the old-fashioned reliance on a single long stave for braking and steering. Wrote Nansen:
“…When one has really learned to control one’s ski without having continual recourse to one’s staff, one obtains a mastery over them which is quite impossible in the other case, and can with ease and speed clear obstacles and difficulties before considered insurmountable.”
Youthful adventures with his brother Alexander skiing in the nearby woods and fields of Nordmarka outside Oslo evolved into mountain hiking, skiing and travel. In his 20s Nansen lived in rainy Bergen on the west coast of Norway, where he worked as a museum curator and zoology researcher studying nerves in simple marine animals. Eager for good snow for skiing, he often traveled by ski over the mountainous Jotunheimen, Hardangervidda, Hallingdal and Hemsedal regions between Bergen and Oslo to visit his lawyer father, compete in the annual skiing competition, and see his girlfriends.According to Nansen’s story in the Bergen newspaper in 1884, his fast descents and jumps frightened and awed mountain farmers. Skiing skills had fallen into neglect in the Norwegian backcountry. Norwegians all over the country read his account of these adventurous ski journeys, inspiring a rebirth of skiing in Norway.
Nansen embodied the “idraet” ideal of Norwegian skiing, an almost mystical belief that skiing perfected not just the physical body but the individual spirit as well. The mountains were filled with sun, energy and joy for Nansen, a shining nirvana far from the constraints and “corruptive frills” of society. A manic depressive given to intense moodiness, he felt release and joy in the mountains.
According to historian John B. Allen, “idraet” meant outdoor physical exercise in which strength, manliness and toughness were the goal. By 1834 it included the idea of striving to perfect the individual soul as well as the body, and ideally would develop the physical and moral strength of nations.
Skiing was not merely a sport; it was the means to commune most closely with the essence of winter. And to Norwegians skiing was the foundation of the physical and moral strength of the country. Nansen wrote:
I know of 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 vigor and exhilaration to mind and body alike.
Where can one find a healthier and purer delight than when on a brilliant winter day one binds one’s ski to one’s feet and takes one’s way out into the forest? … Civilization is, as it were, washed clean from the mind and left far behind with the city atmosphere and city life; one’s whole being is, so to say, wrapped in one’s ski and the surrounding nature. There is something in the whole which develops soul and not body alone, and the sport is perhaps of far greater national importance than is generally supposed.
The dean of polar exploration, Nansen inspired later polar explorers such as Roald Amundsen, the first to the South Pole, who used Nansen’s boat the Fram. Adventurous Scandinavians still seek to repeat Nansen’s epic journeys, skiing across Greenland — as former World Cup Nordic ski star Vegard Ulvang did a decade ago — and to the North Pole — as Swede Ola Skinnarmo accomplished this spring. Even with modern equipment and rescue capabilities, these are arduous, hazardous, lonely journeys attempted by few, with rare successes.
The central revolutionary element of Nansen’s adventures was skiing. His successes owed much to the speed and efficiency of ski travel in polar climates, even on the comparatively crude equipment of the day — heavy wood skis and leather bindings.
“All our prospects of success were based upon the superiority of skis in comparison with all other means of locomotion when large tracts of snow have to be traversed,” Nansen wrote in The First Crossing of Greenland.
After his traverse, skis and the Nansen sledge, a light but stout wooden sled equipped with ski runners, became standard equipment for polar travelers. He also proved the merits of using sled dogs and kayaks in polar exploration.
In 1888, immediately after earning his Ph.D. in marine zoology, Nansen led five men, three Norwegians and two Sami (as the Lapps call themselves) on the difficult traverse of Greenland, a 300-mile ski and sledging journey from east to west. Nansen’s book, The First Crossing of Greenland, published in 1890, was an international best seller, and he lectured all over Europe. The journey made Nansen the foremost symbol and spokesman of “ski idraet,” the ski sport ideal. Ski clubs in the United States, largely composed of Norwegian immigrants, even named themselves after Nansen.
In the summer of 1893, seeking to be the first to reach the North Pole, Nansen sailed with a crew of a dozen carefully chosen men aboard the specially built Fram (Norwegian for “forward”). According to Nansen’s plan, the triple-hulled, round-bottomed Fram was frozen into the polar ice north of the New Siberian Islands and slowly drifted north and west over the next three years.
Locked in the Arctic pack ice, drifting fitfully according to the whims of sea currents and wind, Fridtjof Nansen and his men enjoyed the security and warmth of the Fram. Skiing across the polar ice and snow provided a pleasurable escape from the tedium of inactivity, as well as much needed training for the possibility that their ship might be crushed, forcing them to travel on foot south to safety. Nansen wrote in his journal of one such outing:
A delightful snowshoe (i.e. ski) run in the light of the full moon.
Is life a vale of tears? Is it such a deplorable fate to dash off like the wind,
with all the dogs skipping around one, over the boundless expanse of
ice, through a night like this, in the fresh, crackling frost, while the snowshoes
glide over the smooth surface, so that you scarcely know you are touching
the earth, and the stars hang high in the blue vault above? This is more,
indeed, than one has any right to expect of life; it is a fairy tale from
another world, from a life to come.
When it became clear that the Fram’s erratic drift would miss the pole, Nansen skied north with one companion, the stalwart Hjalmar Johansen, starting in March 1895. After two months of arduous travel north on skis with dogs hauling heavy sledges, they encountered impassibly jumbled ice extending north as far as they could see. Nonetheless, they reached farther north than any previous attempt.
Forced to admit defeat, the two men turned south toward the ice-bound islands of Franz Joseph Land. When food supplies ran out, they relied on polar bear and seal meat through a long winter in a crude hut roofed with walrus hide in the Arctic desert. In the spring of 1896 Nansen and Johansen continued south to the island camp of an English gentleman explorer, Frederick Jackson. The two Norwegians were so soot-blackened and greasy that Jackson didn’t recognize them at first. Most people assumed that the Fram had been crushed, that Nansen and his men were dead.
Eventually picked up by a whaling ship, Nansen arrived in Norway exactly one week before the Fram itself arrived, having completed its drift through the Arctic Ocean and escaped from the ice pack northwest of Spitzbergen, as Nansen had predicted based on his study of available evidence.The Fram’s journey provided the first scientific evidence of Arctic weather, currents and icepack drift patterns. Nansen’s crew took regular depth soundings proving the Arctic Ocean to be very deep. Previous discovery of the many islands in the polar sea created expectations of a shallow sea and more land, perhaps even a continent.
Nansen’s book Farthest North made him even more of a celebrity than his ski traverse of Greenland. An international bestseller, it cemented his status as the foremost Norwegian hero, the embodiment of modern Viking virtues. Nansen played an important role in Norway’s independence from Sweden in 1905, and served as Norway’s first ambassador to England from 1906 to 1908.
Nansen’s inquisitive, scientific mind drove him to improve his ski technique and gear. The same initiative that impelled him to travel to Italy to learn cell-staining techniques from the master, Camillo Golgi, drove Nansen to perfect his gear. He invented new equipment or improved older versions for his polar explorations — conceiving the essential design of the Fram, using the first portable cook stove — the Swedish Primus, designing a reindeer fur sleeping bag and better clothes, such as the first true wind shell and the use of woolen layers. Nansen scientifically chose new foodstuffs to combat scurvy and to fuel arduous travel in very cold weather. From living with the Inuit of Greenland, he appreciated the virtues of Inuit adaptations such as sled dogs, the kayak and a diet long on meat and fat, incorporating them into his methods.
Truly at home in the mountains, calm in the face of risk, Nansen boldly adopted a light and fast philosophy of unsupported travel. The pleasures and challenges of wilderness skiing excited this brooding, melancholy man, bringing him fully alive.
Awakening to a winter sunrise alone after an ill-equipped, forced bivouac in a snow hole in the high mountains of Norway east of Bergen, he described the scene:
Truly this is a breathtaking sight; one seems to lose one’s identity, and melt into the surroundings, to sense other Powers, to be lifted towards unknown worlds, as it were to have a glimpse of eternity. And if one has ever felt a moment such as this, one never forgets it…the spirit of the mountains has put its stamp on one’s mind, and afterwards one often longs to go back again.
This story was first published in Couloir magazine, Vol. XIII-3, December 2000.
Allen, E. John B. From Skisport to Skiing. 1993; University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, Mass.
Huntford, Roland. Nansen. 1997; Duckworth and Co., London, England.
Lund, Morten, Robert Gillen and Michael Bartlett, The Ski Book. 1982; Arbor House, NewYork, NY.
Nansen, Fridtjof. Paa Ski Over Gronland (The First Crossing of Greenland). 1890; Aschehoug, Oslo, Norway.
Farthest North. 1897. Reprinted 1999; Random House, New York, NY.