The Quest for the North Pole, Episode 3: The Turning Point

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It’s June 17, 1896, and Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen is waking up after another frigid night spent on Franz Josef Land. It’s an uninhabited archipelago north of Siberia in the Arctic Ocean. With his assistant Hjalmar Johansen still snoozing nearby, Nansen starts a fire, tosses some meat into a pot to make soup, and climbs atop a rocky hill to admire the view.

That’s when he hears it—the unmistakable sound of dogs barking. He’s shocked, because their last sled dog died months ago.

The two explorers haven’t laid eyes on another human since they abandoned their ice-bound ship, the Fram, on March 14, 1895. They had left Norway in 1893, and soon after, the Fram was stuck in ice. This was by design: Nansen wanted to drift to the North Pole on ocean currents. But after a year and a half adrift, Nansen realized they weren’t going to make it. He and Johansen tried, unsuccessfully, to ski to the Pole. Now, they’d retreated hundreds of miles over ice and open water to this spot, and they had many more to go before rescue could be contemplated. 

So, when Nansen hears far-off barks, he tells himself it’s probably just birds. Then, he hears the noise again. Now he’s almost certain that dogs—and their human handlers—must be close by. He wakes Johansen, but his companion doubts the news. Nansen locates what he thinks are dog tracks, and then hears an even more thrilling sound: a human shout, which he returns with a mighty cry of his own.

He hurries toward the noise and sees a figure he later describes as a “civilized European in an English check suit and high rubber water-boots, well shaved, well groomed, bringing with him a perfume of scented soap.” It’s Frederick Jackson, a British explorer tasked with charting a land route to the North Pole. Nansen, shaggy-haired and caked in soot and walrus grease, is much less identifiable. Halfway through their conversation, Jackson finally places the face.

“Aren’t you Nansen?” he exclaims, and Nansen confirms it. “I congratulate you most heartily,” Jackson says, amid lots of beaming and hand-shaking. “You have made a good trip of it, and I am awfully glad to be the first person to congratulate you on your return."

A surprise encounter with any long-lost explorer is cause for celebration, but Nansen’s safe return was extra thrilling. Until then, the quest for the North Pole had been mostly a procession of massive expeditions. Government and private investors had funneled their money into ships that carried over a hundred crew and luxuries like libraries and printing presses

Nansen’s expedition was the opposite: a custom-engineered vessel with a small crew and equipment he designed for polar travel. His success not only astonished people, it also ushered in a new era of polar exploration that favored tested theories over wishful thinking, self-organization over government sponsorship, and minimalism over the idea that bigger was better.

But before Nansen’s triumph, British explorers were still trying to reach the North Pole the old-fashioned way. In the 1870s, polar explorers were professionals backed by world powers, and independent adventurers with big dreams but little experience. Some failed, and some died. But others got closer to the mythical point on the map than ever before, and lived to tell about it. The international competition to be the first at the Pole was on.

From Mental Floss and iHeartRadio, this is The Quest for the North Pole. I’m your host, Kat Long, science editor at Mental Floss, and this is Episode Three: The Turning Point.

By the second half of the 19th century, many of Britain’s esteemed pioneers were no longer leading the Arctic charge. Admiralty second secretary Sir John Barrow, who had spearheaded Britain’s polar exploration campaign for decades, had passed away in 1848. The fate of Sir John Franklin, who became the most famous explorer on Earth because he and all of his men perished in the Arctic, had come to light in 1859. For all the British effort put toward navigating the Northwest Passage, the discoveries of the last several decades had proven what William Scoresby asserted back in 1817: that it just wasn’t worth it, commercially speaking. 

But the country’s huge emotional and financial investment in polar discovery made throwing in the towel now seem almost disgraceful. As nations like Russia, the U.S., and what is now Norway set their sights on the region, Britain started viewing the North Pole as a symbol of its continuing dominance.

As Arctic veteran and British army general Edward Sabine wrote in the 1860s, “To reach the Pole is the greatest geographical achievement which can be attempted, and I own I should grieve if it should be first accomplished by any other than an Englishman; it will be the crowning enterprise of those Arctic researches in which our country has hitherto had the preeminence.”

The public easily latched onto this idea of a single, glamorous spot on the map.

Edward J. Larson: The North Pole was a fundamentally romantic goal, promising glory to anyone who could achieve it.

That’s Edward J. Larson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and the author of An Empire of Ice: Scott, Shackleton, and the Heroic Age of Antarctic Science.

Larson: Now the winner might cash in through publishing contracts and speaking fees. And his country, I guess, would gain prestige in an ever more imperialistic and nationalistic age, but no one... And this is important to remember, as distinguishing Arctic exploration with Antarctic or with African or with South Pacific exploration, but no one expected a conquest of concrete value. Because the North Pole was merely a point on shifting ice with no appreciable scientific value.

Maybe that last part is a bit mean. In 1875 Sir Clements Robert Markham, then-secretary and future president of the Royal Geographical Society, gave a long list of scientific advancements that could only be accomplished by trying for the Pole. But British citizens and key officials were pushing for a government-sponsored expedition to plant the Union Jack at 90° North, and scientific value ranked much lower on the list of priorities. While earlier Arctic exploration was all about charting the entire Northwest Passage, this latest phase focused on simply getting to the North Pole.

Here’s Larson again.

Larson: Once reached, some ask, even at the time, "Who would ever want to go again?" But it was that sort of a romantic goal, at a time when machines were replacing men as the engines of production, and faceless bureaucrats seemed to be taking the place of principled leaders. Here was an objective, a goal requiring invincible will, indefatigable drive and indomitable courage. In short, attaining the goal was a fundamentally human achievement.

The British Admiralty would need a dauntless, dashing leader to be the face of that uniquely human spirit for the new mission. They found it in Sir George Strong Nares.

Sir George Strong Nares's flagship, HMS Alert, lies surrounded by ice in Robeson Channel.
Sir George Strong Nares's flagship, HMS Alert, lies surrounded by ice in Robeson Channel. / George Strong Nares, Narrative of a Voyage to the Polar Sea During 1875-1876 in H.M. Ships Alert and Discovery, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Nares was a 44-year-old career naval officer with a dynamite résumé and limitless ambition. After enlisting in the Royal Navy at the ripe old age of 14 [PDF], he embarked on a series of voyages that whisked him through the Mediterranean, South Pacific, Red Sea, Australian waters, and beyond. He was captain of the HMS Challenger on its mission to study the ocean. He served in the Crimean War. He even authored a bestselling naval manual titled Seamanship. Nares was no stranger to the Arctic, either. In 1852, he joined an expedition to find Sir John Franklin and his missing ships. They didn’t, of course, but they ended up saving a previous rescue expedition, which was marooned in ice.

As the Admiralty prepared to send Nares north again, the British public was swept up in a nationalistic fervor much like the feeling in the U.S. during the 20th-century space race. The North Pole was the moon, George Nares was a hopeful Neil Armstrong, and newspapers like the Illustrated London News and The Graphic reported faithfully on every emerging detail.

It soon became clear that while the government had updated its primary goal, it hadn’t updated the strategy or structure of the expedition ... at all. This wasn’t surprising—most expeditions from the era followed a certain predictable pattern.

P.J. Capelotti: It was a series of absolutely catastrophic mismanaged and or fatal expeditions to the North Pole or attempts on the North Pole.

That’s P.J. Capelotti, a professor of anthropology at Penn State Abingdon and the author of The Greatest Show in the Arctic

Capelotti: The U.S. Army had one, the U.S. Navy had one, the British, the Nares expedition in the middle of the 1870s had been pretty much of a disaster. These big national expeditions were turning out to be complete flops because they were big, they were unwieldy, over-planned, staffed with these dozens and dozens of crew members and so forth.

Nares’s expedition, which was formally christened the “British Arctic Expedition,” would consist of two similarly-sized ships. Nares would command the flagship, a 160-foot steam sloop named the HMS Alert. And Henry F. Stephenson would captain the HMS Discovery, a 166-foot steam whaler. Anticipating ice floes battering the ships, builders had outfitted their hulls with sturdy wooden beams and iron plating.

Each ship would house 13 officers, which comprised captains, lieutenants, surgeons, and scientific leaders—basically, anyone allowed to give orders. The rest of the men on board followed those orders. In addition to able seamen, stewards, and cooks, this group also included carpenters, coopers, furnace stokers, and ice quartermasters. There was even a ropemaker. Altogether, 120 people would set sail for the Pole—just slightly smaller than the number that perished with John Franklin a few decades earlier. With that catastrophe still fresh in memory, the Admiralty might have tried to risk fewer lives this time around. But people were reluctant to entertain the idea that the Nares expedition would be anything besides a smashing success.

Nares downplayed the hazards in a lecture at the Winchester Guildhall weeks before departure. According to The Pall Mall Gazette, he claimed that “the danger of the present expedition became mere child’s play when compared with what previous explorers had undergone.”

Nares may have had enough experience to feel like he could speak so confidently, but the same couldn’t be said for his officers, who had limited Arctic experience at best. This might have been OK if they had taken the advice of previous explorers and/or studied the time-tested techniques of Inuit in the North. They didn’t do either.

For example, Inuit favored loose-fitting, fur-lined sealskin for apparel, complete with hooded parkas that prevented heat from escaping around their necks. Nares and his crew donned form-fitting flannel and woolen clothing that was a huge pain to strip off when it got wet and froze—which happened often. There wasn’t a hood in sight.

Hudson’s Bay Company surveyor John Rae, who had spent years exploring the Canadian Arctic, tried again and again to share Inuit wisdom with the explorers before their departure. He told them that sheltering in snow instead of in tents would better insulate them from the cold and also keep them from having to lug tents and heavy bedding around. They didn’t listen. 

Rae even shared his Inuit-inspired design for a lighter, more streamlined sledge that was less likely to sink or get stuck in deep snow. Nares’s expedition still opted for the heavy, clumsy sledges used on past Navy trips.

One person did act on at least one of Rae’s recommendations and brought snowshoes, even though other so-called experts had assured everyone that they wouldn’t be necessary. When the other crew members spotted the snowshoes on the ship, they burst into laughter.

On a side note, back in the 1850s, Rae had learned from the Inuit the fate of the doomed Franklin crew: it seemed they had even resorted to cannibalism. While true, that offended Victorian sensibilities so much that Rae became a pariah. That may have played in to Nares’s reluctance to heed his advice.

On May 29, 1875, the Alert and the Discovery set sail from Portsmouth Harbor with great fanfare, and the public prepared to follow what they expected to be the greatest adventure story ever told. Beneath its confident surface, however, the expedition was a disaster in the making.

As the Canadian historian Pierre Berton writes in his book The Arctic Grail, “Badly and hastily organized with a smugness and an arrogance that in hindsight seem almost criminal, this band of amateurs set off blithely, as so many had before it, without any real idea of what they were facing.”

Albert Hastings Markham's farthest north is illustrated in this 19th-century painting.
Albert Hastings Markham's farthest north is illustrated in this 19th-century painting. / Richard Brydges Beechey, Captain Markham's Most Northerly Encampment, National Maritime Museum // Public Domain

It wouldn’t take long for them to find out. The two ships sailed up Kennedy Channel, with Canada’s Ellesmere Island to the west and Greenland to the east. They followed the path blazed by American explorer Charles Francis Hall in 1871, and hoped to put the question of an open polar sea to rest once and for all. As we’ve discussed in previous episodes, this was the theory that a warm ocean circled by a ring of ice surrounded the North Pole. If a ship could break through the ice, they’d find a navigable sea to take them to the Pole.

Nares was smart enough to doubt this theory, and once the ships were through the Kennedy Channel, he saw massive ice floes over 30 feet tall and a maze of craggy ice that seemed to reach the horizon. The commander realized immediately that no ship could sail to the Pole.

Stephenson stationed the Discovery in Lady Franklin Bay and started preparing to spend the winter there. Nares, farther north in Robeson Channel, needed to find somewhere safe to pass the winter—and fast, before the ice froze around them. They sailed northwest, and ended up anchoring in an inlet near the northern edge of Ellesmere Island, about 500 miles from the Pole as the puffin flies. Just beyond their insulated refuge, 30,000-ton ice chunks formed a 50-foot wall. Nares’s first mate, Albert Hastings Markham, later described the vista as “a solid, impenetrable mass that no amount of imagination or theoretical belief could ever twist into an ‘Open Polar Sea.’”

They spent the long winter reading and playing parlor games. They constructed an observatory for skygazing, and even staged plays in “The Royal Arctic Theatre,” an English polar tradition started by William Edward Parry in 1819. Nares recalled, “Owing to the large size of the lower deck we are enabled to erect the stage there with the temperature of 50°, an advantage appreciated by both actors and audience. A representation held on the upper deck, with a temperature of about 20° below zero leads everyone to long for the finale at an early hour.”

In spring 1876, two dog sled teams from the Alert tried and failed to reunite with the Discovery. Nares felt like the dogs couldn’t handle all the ice hummocks. In reality, the untrained men and bulky sledges were probably more at fault than the animals.

How hard is it to drive a dogsled, anyway? Here’s Russell Potter, an expert on Arctic history at Rhode Island College and the author of Finding Franklin: The Untold Story of a 165-Year Search. 

Russell Potter: I worked some years ago up in the Arctic with a guide. He was actually the safety officer on the NOVA show we did about the Franklin expedition, and he is a dog driver and a guide. And I said, "Well, what do you do to train dogs to pull?" And he said, "You don't. You just hook them up and they pull, but having them pull in an organized way." The traditional Inuit way has leads that are made out of softened seal skin, making sure the leads don't get tangled, figuring out who the lead dog is going to be, keeping your dogs in order while you travel, that takes a fair amount of practice. You can't just learn it like riding a bicycle or something. You would have to spend some months, if not longer, apprenticing to people who know what they're doing, and eventually you'll get the hang of it.

But most explorers were in the Arctic to get someplace or discover something, not to learn the art of dogsledding, so few did. And, their preference for manpower over dog power was baked into British polar culture.

Potter: I think there is an aspect to it that is particularly British. The idea that somehow if you were to use any labor, other than human labor, you would be cheating, right? And certainly going native as some people would have regarded it at the time would be regarded as a failing of some kind. So they did, on some of the Franklin searches, and Franklin himself brought some sleds, but the idea of pulling them was to have men pull them instead of dogs, which was of course a much worse way of traveling.

On April 3, Albert Markham and another officer named Pelham Aldrich led two more teams—without dogs—to explore the region. They promptly fell victim to just about everything John Rae had tried to help them avoid. Without snowshoes, they slogged through waist-high snow, which soaked their clothes and gear. Their sleeping bags froze into solid slabs. Their supplies were saturated with water and ice, adding weight to their already-heavy loads.

Miserable, yes, but those issues were nothing compared to scurvy. Scurvy is caused by a lack of vitamin C, which humans can’t produce on their own. As long as you occasionally eat fresh fruits and vegetables, you’re probably consuming enough vitamin C that you never have to worry about developing it. 

Physicians in the 19th century didn’t yet understand that scurvy is caused by a vitamin C deficiency, since vitamin C was only discovered in the 20th century. But they did know that eating fresh fruits and veggies seemed to cure it. Unfortunately for polar explorers, fresh produce was almost impossible to come by on long journeys, so the Admiralty issued lemon or lime juice rations to all sailors. 

The Nares expedition did have lime juice on board, but the sledging parties didn’t bring any with them, since it would freeze and break its glass containers. Instead, each man only had about 12 ounces of salted meat per day to see him through all that grueling labor, and nothing to prevent scurvy.

Just as naval officials had reassured Nares’s men that the snug clothing, heavy sledges, and lack of snowshoes would all be fine, so too did they wave away worries about the potential for scurvy. When several members of the sledging teams started to feel under the weather, Markham and Aldrich chalked it up to fatigue.

But fatigue is an early symptom of scurvy. Others are joint pain, bruising, and irritability, which could all be explained by their general situation. Severe symptoms are a little more telling: spongy, blackened gums, teeth that loosen or fall out, and healed wounds that start to bleed again.

Markham headed north, and Aldrich continued westward. As their men became more debilitated, each officer faced a grave emergency. If they didn’t turn around and get some lime juice into their men, they would die. On May 12, Markham stuck the British flag into the ice at 83° 20’—still 460 statute miles from the Pole—and high-tailed it back to the Alert. Aldrich traveled almost 200 statute miles west before turning back.

Most of the men survived, thanks to the heroic efforts of Lieutenant A.A.C. Parr and some quick thinking on Nares’s part. On June 7, Parr left Markham’s party and traveled alone for 40 miles in 23 hours to get help. Nares deployed men and dogsleds to rescue them, and soon sent a party to Aldrich’s crew, assuming they were in a similar bind. They were—four men were lying on the sledges, and the others were dragging them through the snow. The rescuers delivered everyone back to the Alert, where scurvy was ripping through the remaining men. Nares realized it was time to pack it in, lest he lose the whole crew. He used gunpowder to break up the ice around the ship and set sail toward the Discovery in mid-summer. 

Hans Henrik, his wife, and their son pose for Thomas Mitchell's photograph aboard the HMS Discovery.
Hans Henrik, his wife, and their son pose for Thomas Mitchell's photograph aboard the HMS Discovery. / Thomas Mitchell, in Memoirs of Hans Hendrik, The Arctic Traveller, Serving under Kane, Hayes, Hall and Nares, 1853-1876, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Discovery was also battling scurvy, and two men had died on a sledging trip. Fortunately, the Inuit hunter, interpreter, and dog driver Hans Hendrik—a veteran of several British and American polar expeditions—was a part of the Discovery’s crew. He had rescued the others by hunting seals and doling out raw meat, which contains some vitamin C. This was another helpful hint that white explorers could have picked up from Inuit, who staved off scurvy despite having few greens in their diet. Their traditional foods include raw meat, and they sometimes ate pre-digested plant matter from the stomachs of caribou they killed.

The crews of the Alert and Discovery were too depleted to do much beyond staying alive long enough to get home—and Nares knew it. Without reaching their goal, the two ships charted a course toward England.

They arrived there on November 2, 1876, to a mixed reception. Banquets were held, medals were awarded, and Queen Victoria even sent a congratulatory message. But the media lambasted the expedition for falling short of its single goal and embarrassing the nation on a global stage. The Admiralty agreed, and actually launched an investigation to find out why scurvy was such an issue. They eventually came to the conclusion that in future expeditions, there should be less rum and more lime juice.

Objectively, the expedition wasn’t a complete disaster. It had surveyed land and recorded new scientific data; established that Ellesmere Island was part of Canada, and thus part of the British Commonwealth; and set a new record for northern progress. If the government and the press had both set different expectations from the beginning, it could have been considered a victory. Alas, Nares’s failure to achieve his one-note goal of reaching the North Pole made the whole effort seem like a failure overall.

The Royal Navy relinquished its hope, articulated by Edward Sabine, that British adventurers would stand atop the world. In fact, Britain did a complete 180 and focused its attention on conquering the South Pole. That left a door open for other nations to succeed in the North.

We’ll be right back.

While Britain was busy dealing with the fallout from Nares’s expedition, a teenaged Fridtjof Nansen was honing his skiing skills in Norway.

Nansen was born outside Oslo—then called Christiania—in 1861 to a successful lawyer father and a mother who raised capable, outdoorsy kids. By the time Nansen enrolled in the University of Oslo in 1881, he was sort of an Übermensch, physically and mentally. He could skate, swim, sketch, and ski better than most, and he showed a special aptitude for learning science. While studying zoology in college, he spent months on a sealing ship in Greenland, embarked on long ski trips, and served as the Bergen Museum’s zoological curator.

Here’s a portrait of Nansen in Capelotti’s words.

Capelotti: Very cultured, educated, well-read, multiple languages, all of that on the one hand. And on the other hand, this almost primitive human which again is the other half of the Norwegian character. Living outdoors, playing outdoors, surviving out of doors in all seasons at all ages. This is somebody who's strapped on his first pair of skis when he was two and later in life would laugh at people who were trying to learn how to ski. I think he won the combined Norwegian cross country, skiing, skating competition a dozen years in a row or something. Just a phenomenal—what today would be, he would be one of these people you would absolutely hate his guts. And a lot of people did hate his guts in his day. He was almost impossible to work with because he was so smart, he was so athletic, he was so good-looking. But he being Norwegian had had his very dark moods where he loathed himself and didn't think he was nearly accomplished as much as he should be. Thought he was scattering his talents too far and wide, not doing what the great men of history did, which is finding a single furrow and plowing it over and over again until they reached their goal.

In retrospect, it seems like Nansen was destined for greatness. At the time, however, some of his ideas were considered off the wall. After finishing his Ph.D. in 1888, Nansen hatched a plan to traverse the entire Greenland ice cap, which no white person had ever done before. If the trip itself seemed daunting, Nansen’s strategy was even more so. A ship deposited him and his five companions off the uninhabited east coast of Greenland and then departed, leaving them no choice but to make it to the populated west coast or die trying. In fact, that was Nansen’s slogan: “Death or the west coast!"

Fridtjof Nansen: You just want to hate his guts.
Fridtjof Nansen: You just want to hate his guts. / Bliss Brothers, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In August 1888, Nansen and the others put on their snowshoes and started their uphill climb, dragging more than 200 pounds of supplies on their sledges. Overnight temperatures plunged to -40°F or even colder. Nansen’s men realized that their pemmican, their main source of nourishment, had accidentally been made without fat, an essential ingredient for energy. They were ravenous throughout the trip.

About three weeks later, they reached the peak of the ice cap at 8924 feet above sea level. They switched to skis and headed downhill, hungry and exhausted. They even had to build a boat from stunted Arctic willow trees to carry them across a fjord. By October, all six men had landed in Godthaab, a Danish settlement on the west coast. (It’s now Nuuk, the capital of Greenland.) They had done it—but now they had to spend the winter in Greenland, since it was too late in the season to hitch a ride back to Norway.

Nansen practiced hunting and kayaking, and tried to learn as much as he could from Native people in Greenland. When he returned to Norway the following May, he was well-equipped for his next great adventure.

The idea for the expedition started with the USS Jeannette, a ship carrying an American expedition to the North Pole via the Bering Strait. In June 1881, ice floes had crushed and sunk the Jeannette in the East Siberian Sea. Yet, three years later, wreckage thought to be from that very ship washed up in southwest Greenland. 

Here’s Capelotti.

Capelotti: When he read about this wreckage washing ashore, coming down in the ice, and heard that it was from the Jeannette. He also read that there was a Norwegian professor, a guy named Henrik Mohn, speculating that it had gotten from the North of Siberia, where the Jeannette was wrecked, all the way to the west coast of Greenland. Very strange. Because there was a current carrying it that way. Nansen looked at these disastrous expeditions, overwrought, over personneled and all the rest of it. And looked at the Jeannette of course, and said, "I'd like to do a Jeannette expedition. I just don't want my ship crushed like the Jeannette." Because if there is a current that goes from Siberia over to Greenland, if I can figure out a way to design and build a ship that will go with the ice instead of being crushed by the ice, then all I have to do is do exactly what the Jeannette did. Go to the north coast of Siberia, stick the bow of my ship in the ice and let it get frozen in and let the ice just carry me across the North Pole.

In February 1890, Nansen presented this far-out notion to the Christiania Geographical Society. “I believe,” he said, “that if we pay attention to the actually existent forces of nature, and seek to work with them and not against them, we shall thus find the safest and easiest method of reaching the Pole." 

Ships always ran the risk of being crushed by the shifting ice floes. Nansen had an answer for this, too: he’d design a small, strong ship with a rounded hull, so it would be pushed above the ice instead of below it. Plenty of experts still considered this plan “sheer madness,” in Nansen’s own words, but there was also enough hopeful curiosity to finance it. In 1892, with funds from the Norwegian Parliament and a mix of private sponsors, Nansen commissioned a Norwegian shipbuilder named Colin Archer to construct a highly unconventional wooden schooner. Nansen’s wife, Eva, named it the Fram—Norwegian for forward.  

Capelotti: It was designed to do exactly what the Jeannette could not do. It was designed like no other ship. It was designed this rounded stern, rounded bow, rounded sides, two foot thick halls of the strongest wood on the planet and at the bow that increased to four feet. And on top of that four feet of very hard wood was some iron and an iron stem. It had a rudder and a propeller, a mechanism at the stern for propulsion that could be lifted out of the water so the ice couldn't damage the rudder and the propeller. Nansen, I think referred to it as it was going to be like an eel that would slip out of your hands. And some other people have referred to it as like what happens when you pinch a watermelon seed between your fingers. And that's what he wanted the ship to do in the ice. That when the ice came to crush it, it would squeeze it but it would never get a grip on it because the sides were all rounded and would just ride up on the ice.

The Fram’s design also had some features to keep the crew in comfort, especially during the long polar night. It had what was likely the first electric lighting system on an Arctic voyage, powered by a windmill.

Capelotti: When it worked and the lights came on, it was by all accounts a spectacular sight. Because here you are in the middle of polar darkness on a frozen sea. You're absolutely out the back end of nowhere. There's nobody coming for you if anything goes wrong and the natural depression that sets in with 24 hours of darkness. And here you have this creaking windmills starting to turn and these lights coming on. It must have been a spectacular thing to see. And you had the Northern lights, you had the stars, the moon and so forth.

Even with the light show, Nansen’s crew would need almost superhuman patience during their years in the polar desert. He thought Norwegians were uniquely suited for the task. According to Berton, Nansen thought only Norwegians “could sit face to face on a cake of ice for three years without hating each other."

Otto Sverdrup had proven himself a worthy companion during the Greenland expedition, and Nansen chose him to captain the Fram. With 11 other mettlesome Norwegians, they set sail from Christiania on June 24, 1893, and headed east along the Siberian coast. They stopped in August to pick up 34 sled dogs, and by September 25, the Fram was successfully lodged in ice around where the Jeannette had perished near the New Siberian Islands.

For more than a year, the Fram slowly progressed northwest, and the crew passed the time making scientific observations of air and water temperatures, marine life, ice thickness, and electricity in the air. “Our object,” he said, “is to investigate the great unknown region that surrounds the Pole, and these investigations will be equally important from a scientific point of view whether the expedition passes over the polar point itself or at some distance from it.” 

He considered reaching the North Pole “intrinsically of small moment.”

Fridtjof Nansen chills in front of the Fram during its drift across the Arctic seas.
Fridtjof Nansen chills in front of the Fram during its drift across the Arctic seas. / National Museum of Norway, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In their free time, the men played games, performed songs on the organ and accordion, and feasted on fresh bread, chocolate, and gourmet cheeses. Nansen said, “we looked like fatted pigs; one or two even began to cultivate a double chin.”

With potatoes and vegetables in abundance, no man showed signs of scurvy, and the overall health of the crew was so good that the ship’s doctor started to get bored. According to Nansen, “he looked long and vainly for patients, and at last had to give it up and in despair take to doctoring the dogs.”

The Fram proved slight and sturdy enough to perform as Nansen had intended, but it wasn’t without issues. 

Here’s Capelloti.

Capelotti: They weren't going nearly as fast as they thought they needed to. And secondarily, Nansen designed Fram to be a shallow water vessel. Apparently it was just a motion sickness machine.   And they were stuck. They had no ability to get messages out to the world. They really were not going anywhere fast enough. He thought that this drift might go on for five years and then still maybe not even get to the pole. And that's when, within a few months really, he took Otto Sverdrup, the captain of the Fram aside and said, "We're going to have to use our dogs and make a dash for the pole." After a year in the ice, they said, "Yeah, we're going to have to do that."

Let’s take a break here. We'll be right back.

Nansen was a scientist, but he was still an adventurer at heart. On March 14, 1895, he and Hjalmar Johansen left the Fram with three sledges, two kayaks, three months of provisions, and 28 dogs. The ship continued drifting slowly toward Spitsbergen on the Norwegian archipelago Svalbard, and the two intrepid travelers trekked north alone.

Here’s Capelotti.

Capelotti: They were going great guns for a couple of weeks. They had the supplies, Johansen was an expert dog driver. Nansen had taught himself to be an adequate dog driver and they were on their way. There is no question he would have reached the North Pole, because the first hundred miles or so, the ice was perfectly smooth. When they left the Fram, they were still about 400 miles from the Pole. But then about in about 100, 120 miles, they just ran into absolute chaos, hummocks, bad ice, and all the rest of it. And they were basically stopped in their tracks. Their speed went from about 10 miles a day down to about nothing to four or five, six miles a day. And of course their supplies were dwindling and by April 7th or 8th, Nansen realizes that if they don't turn around, they're going to run out of food.

It wasn’t just the landscape that made for slow progress. Like William Edward Parry had discovered back in 1827, Nansen realized that the ice floes were floating south. This was a useful revelation in his study of oceanic currents, but a disappointment for their North Pole quest. Nansen and Johansen were essentially trying to walk up a down escalator.

On April 8, Nansen wrote in his journal, “There is not much sense in keeping on longer; we are sacrificing valuable time and doing little.” That same day, they reached 86° 13.6’ North—besting Markham’s record by 200 miles—and then decided to turn around.

Since the Fram had long since drifted away, their only choice was to head for the nearest land. That was 400 miles southwest: the islands of Franz Josef Land. They set off on what ended up being the most difficult portion of the expedition. The Fram had shielded its passengers from the ceaseless movement of the ice floes. Now, Nansen and Johansen experienced the worst of it. They paddled through deep lanes of water when the floes separated, and scrambled over icy hummocks when they collided. As their food stocks dwindled, they killed and ate the dogs. On June 14, Nansen wrote: “A quarter of a year have we been wandering in this desert of ice, and here we are still. When we shall see the end of it I can no longer form any idea.”

In late August, they finally came upon a small unoccupied island just north of Franz Josef Land and resigned themselves to settling in for the winter, since it would be too dangerous to continue traveling in the cold and darkness. Here they constructed a shelter they called The Hole.

Capelotti: They cleared away some fairly significant stones and scraped along the ground and carved out a place, it's about 12 feet long by about three or four feet wide. And then with the stones on the side, over the stones longitudinally, they laid an enormous piece of Siberian driftwood. And this log is as thick as a telephone pole and almost as big. Dragging this thing up to this shelf where they constructed this literally like a little slit trench in the ground. And then they dragged up this log, which for two men to have done that at the end of what was a very challenging expedition to the attempt on the pole, was a feat of Herculean strength. Over that, they drape some walrus hides and that way they make a lean to, into which the two of them shared a sleeping bag for just about the next six months.

They took walks for exercise. They slept as much as possible simply to pass the time. Nansen wrote little beyond basic meteorological data. As he later said, “The very emptiness of the journal really gives the best representation of our life during the nine months we lived there.”

Capelotti: They hunted a lot of food in the form of polar bears and walrus. There was an attack by a polar bear and even as one was being mauled by a polar bear, they were speaking to each other in formal Norwegian, they didn't use the familiar form of du or even use their ... It was always Dr. Nansen, Lieutenant Johansen. They never referred to each other by their first names.   And in that way, they survived the winter and in fact emerge in the spring as, in Nansen's words, fat as seals.

On May 19, 1896, the companions deemed it safe enough to set off again. Despite heavy storms they made it to Franz Josef Land’s southern islands within a month. That’s where they were on June 17, when they were found by English explorer Frederick Jackson, who was on his own attempt at the North Pole.

A 19th-century map shows the route taken by the Fram across the Arctic Ocean.
A 19th-century map shows the route taken by the Fram across the Arctic Ocean. / Popular Science, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Nansen accompanied Jackson back to his hut, and some of the others went to fetch Johansen. Soon, they were clean, well-fed, and catching up with the Englishmen as if they had known them for years. As Nansen later wrote, “We could not have fallen into better hands, and it is impossible to describe the unequaled hospitality and kindness we met with on all hands, and the comfort we feel.”

Nansen and Johansen hitched a ride to Vardø, Norway, aboard Jackson’s ship, the SS Windward. At last, on August 13, 1896, the two explorers who had been given up for dead stepped onto Norwegian soil.

Meanwhile, back at the Fram, the rest of the crew was in good health. The ship happened to break free from the ice near Spitsbergen on the very same day that Nansen and Johansen alighted in Vardø. Just a week later, the Fram docked near Tromsø, Norway.

Though Nansen was never in it for fame or glory, he earned quite a bit of both upon his return. His small ship literally didn’t crack under pressure. He found evidence to support his theories about oceanic currents. He reached farther north than anyone had before. And he did it all without sacrificing a single human life. In short, his mad plan had worked—and the world was in awe.

Norway had very high expectations of its new national hero. Nationalism was already on the rise, and Nansen was the perfect rallying point. He joined the movement for Norwegian independence from Sweden, which was secured in 1905. He then served as the nation’s ambassador to Great Britain until 1908, and became a professor of oceanography at the Royal Frederik’s University, now the University of Oslo. And that was just the tip of the iceberg. 

During World War I, Nansen negotiated humanitarian agreements as Norway’s delegate to the League of Nations in Washington, D.C. After the war, he created an international ID called the “Nansen passport” that stateless refugees could use to immigrate and reestablish themselves. He also oversaw the process of helping about half a million prisoners of war get back home. 

In the early 1920s, the Red Cross enlisted Nansen to manage relief efforts for 22 million Russians suffering in that country’s devastating famine. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922 for his ceaseless humanitarian actions. Eight years later, he died at age 68 at his estate in Oslo, which is now the Fridtjof Nansen Institute for environmental policy, law, and research.

Nansen’s extraordinary achievements might make George Nares look like an underachiever—but that’s not exactly accurate. Queen Victoria knighted him, he was promoted to Vice Admiral, and he received honors from the Geological Society of London and the Geographical Society of Paris. Though he didn’t return to the Arctic, he surveyed the Strait of Magellan and spent his later life as the appointed conservator of the River Mersey near Liverpool. He died in 1915 and was buried in Surrey, England.

Nares’s earlier exploration in the Challenger also laid the foundation for the science of oceanography. The data collected on temperature, currents, depths, and more filled 50 published volumes, and modern oceanographers still use them today. In fact, it’s likely that this research influenced Nansen’s theories on polar currents and helped inspire his own journey north. 

However, with the end of Nares’s disastrous voyage, British Arctic exploration also ended. Most of the northern regions had been fully explored and charted. The real challenge now lay to the south. Nares’s defeat laid the groundwork for the next great phase of British exploration, with Robert Falcon Scott, Ernest Shackleton, and their Norwegian nemesis Roald Amundsen all vying to be first at the South Pole.

Nares failed at his one goal so spectacularly that he ended an entire era of polar exploration, while Nansen succeeded to such a stunning degree that he launched a whole new one.

Nansen’s innovations in ship design, clothing, and transportation totally transformed the race to the North Pole. From now on, adventurers would plan small expeditions, travel light (usually with dogsleds), harness the power of nature, and take cues from Indigenous ways to achieve their goals.

Capelotti: After Nansen, if you didn't know how to drive dogs and you didn't know how to cross country ski, then you were really wasting everybody's time in exploration.  You had to be doing biology, physical recordings, geomagnetism, atmospherics and so forth. I'm trying to understand what caused the Aurora, all of these kinds of things. If you weren't doing something like that, then you weren't going to get the financial backing of the newly created serious scientific societies. All of that is really a legacy of Nansen being this, this kind of towering figure that straddled both science and exploration and had enormous clout with scientific societies and governments and corporations.

Nansen was even savvy to the possibilities of corporate sponsorship and product endorsement.

Capelotti: People talk about Americans being brand conscious and selling their souls to advertise this, that, and the other but Nansen was one of the pioneers of that. There was nothing he wouldn't endorse if it would provide a few bucks for his employees. All of those things were the way exploration was going to be done in the first half of the 20th century.

Nansen was a born innovator, never settling for the conventional way of doing things and driven by curiosity, courage, and conscience.

As we shall see, Nansen’s stature as a polar hero spurred American explorer Robert E. Peary to aim higher. He would use some of the polar traveling techniques that Nansen invented and rely on his senior assistant, Matthew Henson, to attempt the one thing Nansen failed to do: reach the North Pole.

The Quest for the North Pole is hosted by me, Kat Long.

This episode was researched by me and written by Ellen Gutoskey, with fact-checking by Austin Thompson. The Executive  Producers are Erin McCarthy and Tyler Klang. The Supervising Producer is Dylan Fagan. The show is edited by Dylan Fagan.

For transcripts, a glossary, and to learn more about this episode, visit

The Quest for the North Pole is a production of iHeartRadio and Mental Floss. For more podcasts from iHeartRadio, check out the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.