In our time of comfortable air-travel, it is hard to imagine that just 115 years ago neither the North or the South-pole had ever been set foot upon by mankind, but this is exactly what the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen set out to do in 1893, with a purpose-built ship, the “Fram”, and a team of hardened men all willing to risk their lives for this mission.
Nansen’s richly illustrated book, Farthest North; Being the Record of a Voyage of Exploration of the Ship “Fram” 1893-96 and of a Fifteen Months’ Sleigh Journey by Dr. Nansen and Lieut. Johansen, originally published in Norwegian in 1897, was translated into English the same year. In it, Nansen describes the inventiveness he used to organize such a mission with fairly limited means. The “Fram” had a number of interesting innovations. Its hull was specially designed to be lifted by the drifting ice, instead of being crushed; and the ship had a featured windmill, to provide electricity, and thus some bright electric light through the long polar night.
Volume I (Project Gutenberg ebook 30197) describes the planning phase, and how the “Fram” set out to sail as far North as it could, intentionally letting itself be captured by the ice, in an attempt to drift further North than any ship had reached before.
Volume II (Project Gutenberg ebook 34120) continues with the even more dare-devil attempt by Nansen and his companion Johanson to reach the North Pole on sledges pulled by dogs. During this trip, they killed their dogs one-by-one, feeding the weaker or exhausted ones to the remaining ones–the same, much criticized, method that brought Amundsen to the South Pole 16 years later. They reached the at that time record setting latitude of 86 degrees 15 minutes North before heading South again. During this trip South, they lost their remaining dogs, and were finally forced to build a hut and stop for the winter on Franz Josef Land, North of Spitsbergen. Here they survived by shooting over-curious ice-bears, and using them as food, until they were able to reach a small outpost built by the British explorer Jackson, just a few miles from where they survived the winter with so much hardship.
From here, the journey home proceeds smoothly, and the two explorers were rejoined with their crew who had survived another winter in the ice on the “Fram”, before being able to return home.
The book is a pleasant read, and is illustrated with hundreds of photographs and drawings; including a number of color plates from pencil sketches made during the trip.
Nansen went on to become an influential statesman, with an important role for Norwegian independence, and an even more important role in saving millions of lives in Russia, Armenia, and Turkey with the High Commission for Refugees, for which he was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 1922.
After being the ship that reached the Northern-most latitude, the “Fram” also became the ship to reach the Southern-most latitude during Amundsens expedition to reach the South-Pole in 1911. Today, the “Fram” can still be visited: it has been pulled ashore in Oslo, and a museum, the Frammuseet, has been build around it. The visit will be even more impressive after reading this book, when, after short inspection of the cabins where these men have been living for three years, you realize some of the hardships they must have gone through. (This visit can easily be combined with a visit to the Norwegian Maritime Museum, the Kon-Tiki Museum, and the Viking Ship Museum, all located at walking distance from each other.)