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  • Farthest North
  • Written by Fridjtof Nansen
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Written by Fridjtof NansenAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Fridjtof Nansen
Introduction by Roland HuntfordAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Roland Huntford

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On Sale: May 12, 2000
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-375-50533-1
Published by : Modern Library Random House Group
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Synopsis

In 1893 Nansen set sail in the Fram, a ship specially designed and built to be frozen into the polar ice cap, withstand its crushing pressures, and travel with the sea's drift closer to the North Pole than anyone had ever gone before. Experts said such a ship couldn't be built and that the voyage was tantamount to suicide.

This brilliant first-person account, originally published in 1897, marks the beginning of the modern age of exploration. Nansen vividly describes the dangerous voyage and his 15-month-long dash to the North Pole by sledge. An unforgettable tale and a must-read for any armchair explorer.

Excerpt

Roland Huntford

By the end of the nineteenth century, most of the world had been explored. After the scramble for Africa, the polar regions were the last great blanks upon the map. They saw the last act of terrestrial discovery before the leap into space. Farthest North is part of that record. Its author was a hero of his times.

Like Henrik Ibsen and Edvard Grieg, Fridtjof Nansen was one of the celebrated Norwegians who emerged from northern mists and helped to mold the age. Born on October 10, 1861, he belonged to the extraordinary Norwegian renaissance of the nineteenth century. He was an example of a great man from a small country. He was the father of modern polar exploration. Farthest North is the tale of his revolutionary attempt to reach the North Pole.

Instead of fighting Nature, like most of his predecessors, Nansen proposed working with her. His idea was to freeze a vessel into the Arctic pack ice and drift with the pack toward the Pole. He had a wooden ship specially designed, with round, smooth bilges, the purpose of which was to allow the ship to rise when squeezed, thus escaping the pressure of the pack rather than trying to resist it. He called her Fram—"Forward." On June 24, 1893, she sailed. Three months later, north of the New Siberian Islands, she was committed to the ice.
In our age of instant communication and the view from space, it is hard to conceive of what that meant. It was the era of the telegraph and telephone, but not yet of radio. Then, isolation descended once the shore had disappeared astern. Conversely, when voyagers vanished out of sight, they were swallowed by oblivion. The first men on the Moon, in constant touch with Earth and a quarter of a million miles away, were less alone. For all its technical advances, the world that Nansen knew, like that of Stone Age man, was still bounded by the horizon.

On that account, when Nansen reappeared on the Arctic coast of Norway on August 13, 1896, it was a sensation of the very finest vintage. He was like someone returning from the dead. Nansen mania broke out. Overnight, he became one of the most famous living men. Kings and emperors and, in Washington, William McKinley, president of the United States, were all glad to receive him. The great public devoured him. As an English journalist put it, "Nansen is for the moment our popular gladiator."

The fact that he had failed in his objective, to reach the North Pole, seemed strangely not to count. Nansen was a hero for whom the world had been waiting. He had set a new record for farthest north. He had reached a latitude of 86814óN, still 226 nautical miles from the Pole but breaking the previous record by 170 miles. It was the biggest single advance for nearly four hundred years.
It was, however, not the deed that mattered so much, but the manner of its doing. At a certain point during his voyage, it became clear that the Arctic drift would not lead directly to the Pole. So Nansen, with one companion, Hjalmar Johansen, left Fram in the spring of 1895 and headed out across the frozen sea. Having reached their northernmost latitude, they were unable to find their way back to the ship because it was moving with the ice. They made for land, as originally intended. After traveling for seven hundred miles over the pack ice, they were trapped for the winter on an Arctic desert island in the Franz Josef Land archipelago. There they lived a Robinson Crusoe existence in a squalid hut. The following summer, in another part of the archipelago, they met Frederick Jackson, an English explorer, and were rescued. It is this journey that lies at the heart of Farthest North.

The book was quickly written and as quickly translated into most civilized languages. Within little more than two months, the Norwegian original was ready, the first English edition appearing in early 1897. It became an instant bestseller. One explanation for its success was the sheer romantic nature of it all. Nansen's meeting with Jackson was reminiscent of Stanley's legendary one with Livingstone in Africa a quarter of a century before. Also there was the evergreen appeal of authority defied. Received wisdom had roundly condemned Nansen's plan of drifting with the pack ice. Disaster had been freely predicted.
In the same way that explorers on their travels were beyond human ken, what was out of sight lay in the realm of fantasy. More was known about the surface of Mars than about the unexplored regions of the globe. The Arctic was hidden as securely as the dark side of the Moon. It was a place of speculation. Nansen's plan of drifting with the pack ice to the Pole depended on the theory of a current flowing from Siberia to Greenland. It was only one of many postulates in this instance admittedly based on reasonable though scanty evidence in the form of artifacts recovered from the ice. Fram did, in fact, safely return to Norway a week after Nansen, drifting more or less as he had foreseen—and incidentally having reached a latitude barely twenty miles short of what Nansen himself managed on his epic journey across the pack. He had shown an awesome faith in himself and proved the experts wrong.

All these facts were imposing, but Nansen possessed the mysterious power of transmuting them into the elements of greatness. What might have been merely a nine-day wonder turned into a saga of the age. Nansen had the kind of personality to which journalists responded.

He was photogenic at a time when use of the half-tone process of reproducing photographs was coming into general use. From many a printed page his mesmeric eyes gleamed out. Through what were the beginnings of mass media, he became a universal hero. He was a creation of the press.

He was also something more. In his own language, he was a master of prose. Through all the vagaries of translation, somehow that came across. Most of his predecessors had returned from their travels with catalogs of horror, enhanced in the telling with an effusion of rodomontade. Nansen was the first of the Pole seekers to bring everyone back alive. He did not suffer unduly. He underplayed his difficulties. He used an economy of means. He had adventure but no disaster. "A modern Viking," the London Daily Mail called him—appropriately, as it happened. The old Norse sagas also had dealt in understatement. Moreover, with Nansen's tall form, blond hair, and Nordic good looks, he unquestionably looked the part. A figure from the frozen outlands, he was an inspiration for a world in which the fear of decadence was rampant.

His elusive appeal had an unlikely span. From the start, the popular press was at his feet. Then Sir Leslie Stephen, father of Virginia Woolf, and an intellectual mountaineer, praised Nansen's achievement as "a king of play [which] includes . . . the most valuable . . . human activities." "I present my homage to . . . the hero of the North Pole," Jules Verne wrote to Nansen. The very different figure of Sigmund Freud observed that his womenfolk were "mad about Nansen," and that he himself could "make good use of Nansen's dreams," of which some were recorded in Farthest North.

"We are no more than human beings with human failings," Nansen wrote to a friend, summing up the expedition. Hjalmar Johansen, his companion on their journey across the pack ice, got to the heart of the matter when he observed in his diary that they had challenged the power of Nature and learned that "mankind is a miserable insect—and yet it is wonderful to be a human being!" And therein lay the instructive paradox. With proper humility before Nature, instead of trying to conquer her, Nansen had demythologized the polar environment.

In practical terms, Nansen had accomplished a technological revolution in polar travel. To cross the pack ice, he had used dogs, sledges, kayaks, and, above all, skis. He made the momentous discovery that the natural pace of a nordic skier coincided with that of a dog team hauling a loaded sledge. He had established the distinctive method that consolidated the Scandinavian supremacy in high latitudes and finally gave his compatriot Roald Amundsen victory in the race for the South Pole.

Even before he embarked on Fram, Nansen had changed the face of polar exploration. In 1888, he made the first crossing of Greenland. This was the first of the great geographical goals reached since Stanley had discovered the sources of the Congo and the Nile eleven years before. And the Greenland crossing had depended on the use of skis.

Norwegian, and hence modern polar exploration, is bound up with the development of skiing. They shared some of the same pioneers. Nansen, for one, had a hand in both. At home, he had been a leading Nordic competition skier in both jumping and cross-country while those disciplines were still being formalized. He was also one of the early mountain skiers. On the first crossing of Greenland, his achievement had been to apply skis to polar travel.

It was the use of skis that lay at the heart of the Nansen revolution. In its modern form, skiing is a Norwegian invention. Nansen's book about his Greenland expedition—published in English as The First Crossing of Greenland—and, later, Farthest North were not only textbooks of polar exploration but also crucial in the spread of skiing as a universal sport.

He accomplished other technical innovations. Among them was a new type of sledge with broad ski-like runners, based on a traditional model found in Scandinavia and Siberia. Bearing his name, it is still
in use.

Nansen abandoned the well-entrenched doctrine of keeping safe lines of retreat. Instead he cut them off, thus harnessing his instinct for self-preservation to drive him on. This approach, however, was highly personal, adapted to the peculiar circumstances of his own expeditions. More generally, he discredited the old system of big, cumbrous campaigns, espousing instead the small, cohesive enterprise. He had five companions on his crossing of Greenland; twelve on the drift of the Fram. He put his faith in speed and mobility. He had launched the process that led to the race for the Poles.

Trained as a marine biologist, Nansen was a pioneer of the modern view of the nervous system and hence one of the founders of neurology. And he managed all this before he even set out for Greenland at the age of twenty-six. It was enough for an entire career, but to Nansen it was just a fraction of his being. In an age beginning to glimpse the approaching domination of the specialist, he personified the universal man. This was much of the reason for his fame and the appeal of Farthest North.

So, too, did Nansen's honesty of purpose. When he returned from Greenland, one newspaper followed a trend by trying to invest his expedition with a scientific sheen. Nansen protested that he had merely returned from a ski tour. When he sailed on Fram, it was frankly to attain the North Pole.

Nansen did, however, have the subsidiary aim of investigating the unexplored quadrant above Siberia. This interest naturally followed from his training as a scientist. He arranged a continuous series of observations, notably a line of soundings taken as Fram drifted with the ice. In the process, he scotched the reigning theory that the Arctic was a shallow sea, and proved it to be a deep oceanic basin, with little likelihood that it concealed any undiscovered land mass. Thus, as a by-product of his Pole-seeking, he returned with one of the scientific discoveries of the age. Given the mystery shrouding the unknown quarters of the world, this was as sensational as anything later sent back by a space probe from the masked vistas of another planet.

Even after the event, Nansen did not pretend that his chief aim had been anything but reaching the Pole. On the other hand, his work on Fram set him on the path to yet another career, that of a pioneer of modern oceanography.
His striving did not end there. All too human, Nansen was driven by a complex variety of motives. Among other things, he had also conceived both his expeditions as patriotic enterprises. Norway was then subject to Sweden, and Nansen exploited his polar achievements in his country's campaign for independence. He was an early exponent of the use of nonpolitical activities to gain political ends. When Norwegian independence finally arrived in 1905, Nansen had a hand in the political process, too.

Although by then he had lost his record for the farthest north, the patina of the Fram expedition still somehow clung to him. It lasted the rest of his life. It lingered through his later career as a diplomat and as an international civil servant. Between 1906 and 1908 he was the first ambassador of an independent Norway in London. Starting in 1921, he was the first high commissioner for refugees under the League of Nations.

He died in 1930. By then both the North and South poles had already been attained, either over land or by air. The age of terrestrial discovery was over. Nonetheless, for all his other achievements, it was the snows that always loomed largest for Nansen. Decades after the event, it was only when recounting the saga recorded in Farthest North that he still came to life. "The history of polar exploration," he once wrote, "is simply the expression of the power that the unknown exerts on the human spirit."


Roland Huntford is the former Scandinavian correspondent for The Observer and the author of bestselling biographies of Fridtjof Nansen and Ernest Shackleton.
Roland Huntford
By the end of the nineteenth century, most of the world had been explored. After the scramble for Africa, the polar regions were the last great blanks upon the map. They saw the last act of terrestrial discovery before the leap into space. Farthest North is part of that record. Its author was a hero of his times.
Like Henrik Ibsen and Edvard Grieg, Fridtjof Nansen was one of the celebrated Norwegians who emerged from northern mists and helped to mold the age. Born on October 10, 1861, he belonged to the extraordinary Norwegian renaissance of the nineteenth century. He was an example of a great man from a small country. He was the father of modern polar exploration. Farthest North is the tale of his revolutionary attempt to reach the North Pole.
Instead of fighting Nature, like most of his predecessors, Nansen proposed working with her. His idea was to freeze a vessel into the Arctic pack ice and drift with the pack toward the Pole. He had a wooden ship specially designed, with round, smooth bilges, the purpose of which was to allow the ship to rise when squeezed, thus escaping the pressure of the pack rather than trying to resist it. He called her Fram—"Forward." On June 24, 1893, she sailed. Three months later, north of the New Siberian Islands, she was committed to the ice.
In our age of instant communication and the view from space, it is hard to conceive of what that meant. It was the era of the telegraph and telephone, but not yet of radio. Then, isolation descended once the shore had disappeared astern. Conversely, when voyagers vanished out of sight, they were swallowed by oblivion. The first men on the Moon, in constant touch with Earth and a quarter of a million miles away, were less alone. For all its technical advances, the world that Nansen knew, like that of Stone Age man, was still bounded by the horizon.
On that account, when Nansen reappeared on the Arctic coast of Norway on August 13, 1896, it was a sensation of the very finest vintage. He was like someone returning from the dead. Nansen mania broke out. Overnight, he became one of the most famous living men. Kings and emperors and, in Washington, William McKinley, president of the United States, were all glad to receive him. The great public devoured him. As an English journalist put it, "Nansen is for the moment our popular gladiator."
The fact that he had failed in his objective, to reach the North Pole, seemed strangely not to count. Nansen was a hero for whom the world had been waiting. He had set a new record for farthest north. He had reached a latitude of 86        14óN, still 226 nautical miles from the Pole but breaking the previous record by 170 miles. It was the biggest single advance for nearly four hundred years.
It was, however, not the deed that mattered so much, but the manner of its doing. At a certain point during his voyage, it became clear that the Arctic drift would not lead directly to the Pole. So Nansen, with one companion, Hjalmar Johansen, left Fram in the spring of 1895 and headed out across the frozen sea. Having reached their northernmost latitude, they were unable to find their way back to the ship because it was moving with the ice. They made for land, as originally intended. After traveling for seven hundred miles over the pack ice, they were trapped for the winter on an Arctic desert island in the Franz Josef Land archipelago. There they lived a Robinson Crusoe existence in a squalid hut. The following summer, in another part of the archipelago, they met Frederick Jackson, an English explorer, and were rescued. It is this journey that lies at the heart of Farthest North.
The book was quickly written and as quickly translated into most civilized languages. Within little more than two months, the Norwegian original was ready, the first English edition appearing in early 1897. It became an instant bestseller. One explanation for its success was the sheer romantic nature of it all. Nansen's meeting with Jackson was reminiscent of Stanley's legendary one with Livingstone in Africa a quarter of a century before. Also there was the evergreen appeal of authority defied. Received wisdom had roundly condemned Nansen's plan of drifting with the pack ice. Disaster had been freely predicted.
In the same way that explorers on their travels were beyond human ken, what was out of sight lay in the realm of fantasy. More was known about the surface of Mars than about the unexplored regions of the globe. The Arctic was hidden as securely as the dark side of the Moon. It was a place of speculation. Nansen's plan of drifting with the pack ice to the Pole depended on the theory of a current flowing from Siberia to Greenland. It was only one of many postulates in this instance admittedly based on reasonable though scanty evidence in the form of artifacts recovered from the ice. Fram did, in fact, safely return to Norway a week after Nansen, drifting more or less as he had foreseen—and incidentally having reached a latitude barely twenty miles short of what Nansen himself managed on his epic journey across the pack. He had shown an awesome faith in himself and proved the experts wrong.
All these facts were imposing, but Nansen possessed the mysterious power of transmuting them into the elements of greatness. What might have been merely a nine-day wonder turned into a saga of the age. Nansen had the kind of personality to which journalists responded.
He was photogenic at a time when use of the half-tone process of reproducing photographs was coming into general use. From many a printed page his mesmeric eyes gleamed out. Through what were the beginnings of mass media, he became a universal hero. He was a creation of the press.
He was also something more. In his own language, he was a master of prose. Through all the vagaries of translation, somehow that came across. Most of his predecessors had returned from their travels with catalogs of horror, enhanced in the telling with an effusion of rodomontade. Nansen was the first of the Pole seekers to bring everyone back alive. He did not suffer unduly. He underplayed his difficulties. He used an economy of means. He had adventure but no disaster. "A modern Viking," the London Daily Mail called him—appropriately, as it happened. The old Norse sagas also had dealt in understatement. Moreover, with Nansen's tall form, blond hair, and Nordic good looks, he unquestionably looked the part. A figure from the frozen outlands, he was an inspiration for a world in which the fear of decadence was rampant.
His elusive appeal had an unlikely span. From the start, the popular press was at his feet. Then Sir Leslie Stephen, father of Virginia Woolf, and an intellectual mountaineer, praised Nansen's achievement as "a king of play [which] includes . . . the most valuable . . . human activities." "I present my homage to . . . the hero of the North Pole," Jules Verne wrote to Nansen. The very different figure of Sigmund Freud observed that his womenfolk were "mad about Nansen," and that he himself could "make good use of Nansen's dreams," of which some were recorded in Farthest North.
"We are no more than human beings with human failings," Nansen wrote to a friend, summing up the expedition. Hjalmar Johansen, his companion on their journey across the pack ice, got to the heart of the matter when he observed in his diary that they had challenged the power of Nature and learned that "mankind is a miserable insect—and yet it is wonderful to be a human being!" And therein lay the instructive paradox. With proper humility before Nature, instead of trying to conquer her, Nansen had demythologized the polar environment.
In practical terms, Nansen had accomplished a technological revolution in polar travel. To cross the pack ice, he had used dogs, sledges, kayaks, and, above all, skis. He made the momentous discovery that the natural pace of a nordic skier coincided with that of a dog team hauling a loaded sledge. He had established the distinctive method that consolidated the Scandinavian supremacy in high latitudes and finally gave his compatriot Roald Amundsen victory in the race for the South Pole.
Even before he embarked on Fram, Nansen had changed the face of polar exploration. In 1888, he made the first crossing of Greenland. This was the first of the great geographical goals reached since Stanley had discovered the sources of the Congo and the Nile eleven years before. And the Greenland crossing had depended on the use of skis.
Norwegian, and hence modern polar exploration, is bound up with the development of skiing. They shared some of the same pioneers. Nansen, for one, had a hand in both. At home, he had been a leading Nordic competition skier in both jumping and cross-country while those disciplines were still being formalized. He was also one of the early mountain skiers. On the first crossing of Greenland, his achievement had been to apply skis to polar travel.
It was the use of skis that lay at the heart of the Nansen revolution. In its modern form, skiing is a Norwegian invention. Nansen's book about his Greenland expedition—published in English as The First Crossing of Greenland—and, later, Farthest North were not only textbooks of polar exploration but also crucial in the spread of skiing as a universal sport.
He accomplished other technical innovations. Among them was a new type of sledge with broad ski-like runners, based on a traditional model found in Scandinavia and Siberia. Bearing his name, it is still
in use.
Nansen abandoned the well-entrenched doctrine of keeping safe lines of retreat. Instead he cut them off, thus harnessing his instinct for self-preservation to drive him on. This approach, however, was highly personal, adapted to the peculiar circumstances of his own expeditions. More generally, he discredited the old system of big, cumbrous campaigns, espousing instead the small, cohesive enterprise. He had five companions on his crossing of Greenland; twelve on the drift of the Fram. He put his faith in speed and mobility. He had launched the process that led to the race for the Poles.
Trained as a marine biologist, Nansen was a pioneer of the modern view of the nervous system and hence one of the founders of neurology. And he managed all this before he even set out for Greenland at the age of twenty-six. It was enough for an entire career, but to Nansen it was just a fraction of his being. In an age beginning to glimpse the approaching domination of the specialist, he personified the universal man. This was much of the reason for his fame and the appeal of Farthest North.
So, too, did Nansen's honesty of purpose. When he returned from Greenland, one newspaper followed a trend by trying to invest his expedition with a scientific sheen. Nansen protested that he had merely returned from a ski tour. When he sailed on Fram, it was frankly to attain the North Pole.
Nansen did, however, have the subsidiary aim of investigating the unexplored quadrant above Siberia. This interest naturally followed from his training as a scientist. He arranged a continuous series of observations, notably a line of soundings taken as Fram drifted with the ice. In the process, he scotched the reigning theory that the Arctic was a shallow sea, and proved it to be a deep oceanic basin, with little likelihood that it concealed any undiscovered land mass. Thus, as a by-product of his Pole-seeking, he returned with one of the scientific discoveries of the age. Given the mystery shrouding the unknown quarters of the world, this was as sensational as anything later sent back by a space probe from the masked vistas of another planet.
Even after the event, Nansen did not pretend that his chief aim had been anything but reaching the Pole. On the other hand, his work on Fram set him on the path to yet another career, that of a pioneer of modern oceanography.
His striving did not end there. All too human, Nansen was driven by a complex variety of motives. Among other things, he had also conceived both his expeditions as patriotic enterprises. Norway was then subject to Sweden, and Nansen exploited his polar achievements in his country's campaign for independence. He was an early exponent of the use of nonpolitical activities to gain political ends. When Norwegian independence finally arrived in 1905, Nansen had a hand in the political process, too.
Although by then he had lost his record for the farthest north, the patina of the Fram expedition still somehow clung to him. It lasted the rest of his life. It lingered through his later career as a diplomat and as an international civil servant. Between 1906 and 1908 he was the first ambassador of an independent Norway in London. Starting in 1921, he was the first high commissioner for refugees under the League of Nations.

He died in 1930. By then both the North and South poles had already been attained, either over land or by air. The age of terrestrial discovery was over. Nonetheless, for all his other achievements, it was the snows that always loomed largest for Nansen. Decades after the event, it was only when recounting the saga recorded in Farthest North that he still came to life. "The history of polar exploration," he once wrote, "is simply the expression of the power that the unknown exerts on the human spirit."


Roland Huntford is the former Scandinavian correspondent for The Observer and the author of bestselling biographies of Fridtjof Nansen and Ernest Shackleton.
Praise

Praise

"Nansen was the Chuck Yeager of polar exploration."
—The New York Times Book Review

In 1893 Fridtjof Nansen set sail for the North Pole in the Fram, a ship specially designed to be frozen into the polar ice cap, withstand its crush-ing pressures, and travel north with the sea's drift. Experts said that such a ship couldn't be built and that the mission was tantamount to suicide. Farthest North, first published in 1897 to great popular appeal, is the stirring first-person account of the Fram and her historic voyage. Nansen tells of his expedition's struggle against snowdrifts, ice floes, polar bears, scurvy, gnawing hunger, and the seemingly endless polar night that transformed the Fram into a "cold prison of loneliness." Once it became clear that the Fram could drift no farther, Nansen and crew member Hjalmar Johansen set out on a harrowing fifteen-month sledge journey to reach their destination by foot, which required them to share a sleeping bag of rotting reindeer fur and to feed the weaker sled dogs to the stronger ones. In the end, they traveled 146 miles farther north than any Westerner had gone before, representing the greatest single gain in polar exploration in four centuries. Farthest North is an unforgettable story that marks the beginning of the modern age of exploration and is a must-read for the armchair adventurer.

Born in Norway in 1861, Fridtjof Nansen was a renowned explorer, author, artist, athlete, oceanographer, and statesman. In 1922 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He died, a national hero, in 1930.

Jon Krakauer is the author of Into Thin Air, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and Into the Wild. His work has appeared in many magazines, including Outside, Smithsonian, and National Geographic. He chose the books in the Modern Library Exploration series for their literary merit and historical significance—-and because he found them such a pleasure to read.

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