Nansen Attempts to Reach the North Pole

Fridtjof Nansen was renowned for his east-to-west crossing of Greenland. During his quest to reach the North Pole, he and a companion traveled to the farthest point north ever accomplished. Launched with his crew from his ship the Fram, both expeditions contributed greatly to the scientific understanding of the Arctic region.

Summary of Event

Fridtjof Nansen, one of the fathers of nineteenth century Polar exploration, was one of the most capable and confident explorers of his day and was able to combine his intellectual ideas with their practical application. He kept valuable diaries and scientific notes and published books of his Arctic experiences and observations. His interest in the Arctic began in 1882, when he took passage on the Norwegian sealing Sealing industry vessel Viking, which sailed to the Arctic Ocean. North Pole
Nansen, Fridtjof
Arctic exploration
[kw]Nansen Attempts to Reach the North Pole (1893-1896)
[kw]Attempts to Reach the North Pole, Nansen (1893-1896)
[kw]Reach the North Pole, Nansen Attempts to (1893-1896)
[kw]North Pole, Nansen Attempts to Reach the (1893-1896)
[kw]Pole, Nansen Attempts to Reach the North (1893-1896)
North Pole
Nansen, Fridtjof
Arctic exploration
[g]Arctic;1893-1896: Nansen Attempts to Reach the North Pole[5850]
[g]Norway;1893-1896: Nansen Attempts to Reach the North Pole[5850]
[c]Exploration and discovery;1893-1896: Nansen Attempts to Reach the North Pole[5850]
[c]Environment and ecology;1893-1896: Nansen Attempts to Reach the North Pole[5850]
Archer, Colin
Sverdrup, Otto
Johansen, Fredrik Hjalmar
Jackson, Frederick George

During the Arctic journey on the Viking, Nansen made valuable scientific notes and sketches, recording his observations of winds, currents, ice movements, and fauna. He also began formulating his plans for crossing Greenland and the theories that would influence his later Arctic explorations. After the Viking voyage, he served as curator of the natural history collection at the Bergen Museum and gained his doctorate from the University of Christiania in 1887.

In 1887, at the age of twenty-seven, Nansen began meticulous preparations for his expedition to cross the Greenland icecap. His planned route involved landing on the largely uninhabited east coast and going west, the route opposite that chosen by earlier explorers. An east-to-west route would allow Nansen to go straight home after the expedition, rather than having to retrace his steps to gain ship’s passage. The route also forced the expedition to move forward regardless of the circumstances, because there were no settlements to which he could return. The University of Christiania recommended the project, but Norway’s Norway national assembly, the Stortinget, or Storting, was hesitant to fund such a potentially hazardous expedition. Nansen instead relied on the donation of a wealthy Copenhagen merchant for the needed funds.

Fridtjof Nansen.

(R. S. Peale/J. A. Hill)

Six men set forth on Nansen’s expedition in June of 1888 and spent the next month trying to reach the shore of Greenland to begin their trek across the continent’s icy interior. Nansen’s expedition finally reached the eastern shore and set off, reaching the west coast in September. The men endured the common Arctic hardships of near disasters on the ice, insufficient food, and temperatures well below freezing. Along the way, expedition members kept records of meteorological conditions and other phenomena. The expedition wintered at the west coast settlement of Godthaab, where Nansen studied the Inuit. Nansen had learned to speak the Inuit language prior to leaving Norway and would later publish a book entitled Eskimo Life (1958). The men returned to Norway the following spring and were greeted as national heroes. Nansen had achieved renown as a premier Arctic explorer and scientist.

Nansen’s Arctic experiences and his study of earlier, ill-fated expeditions, such as the expedition (1879-1881) launched by the United States aboard the Jeannette, helped him formulate theories about Arctic Ocean currents. These speculations would drive his famous attempt to reach the North Pole. The Arctic Ocean had remained largely an enigma. By studying driftwood that had traveled from Siberia Siberia to Greenland, including remnants of the Jeannette, Nansen became convinced that an Arctic current flowed from Siberia “up” to the North Pole and back “down” to Greenland.

Nansen devised a plan to build a sturdy ship that could withstand the pressure of the ocean’s pack ice and then drift, frozen into the ice, to the North Pole. Scholars from the Royal Geographical Royal Geographical Society Society of London were skeptical of Nansen’s proposed plan. Some doubted a ship could survive in the ice and others doubted his polar-drift theory. Nansen received more support from his home country: The Sorting, the Norwegian king, and private individuals all helped to fund his venture.

Nansen’s Polar Expedition

Nansen spent three years preparing for the expedition to the North Pole and working with renowned Scottish shipbuilder Colin Archer Archer, Colin to design what became known as the Fram (“forward”). The Fram was a uniquely designed ship with a three-layered hull that was more than two feet thick, braced with heavy beams, and rounded, which enabled it to rise up out of the ice rather than be crushed within it, as had been the fate of many other ships. The Fram, with an ironclad front and back, weighed four hundred tons and had the equipment necessary to make needed tools and supplies. A windmill and dynamo provided sporadic electric light and the “Nansen cooker” allowed the preparation of hot foods. Nansen even kept games and books on board to prevent boredom during the long voyage and dark Arctic winters.

Twelve men accompanied Nansen on his expedition, which left Norway in June of 1893, carrying provisions for six years and fuel oil for eight years. Otto Sverdrup, Sverdrup, Otto chosen to be the Fram’s captain, had already accompanied Nansen across Greenland. The thirty-five-year-old Nansen left behind a wife named Eva and a six-month-old daughter named Liv.

The Fram, disproving the skeptics at home, froze into the pack ice in September of 1893, successfully remaining watertight and secure. The ship’s unique design proved successful, and it survived being frozen within the heavy pack ice. During the three years in which the expedition was frozen in the ice, Nansen and his crew made more scientific notes, including descriptions of the wonders of the aurora borealis (northern lights) and the Arctic flora and fauna.

By March of 1895, it had become clear to Nansen that the ship would not drift over the North Pole as he had hoped. With Hjalmar Johansen Johansen, Fredrik Hjalmar , Nansen would make an attempt to reach the North Pole using skis and dog sleds. Sverdrup Sverdrup, Otto would remain in charge of the frozen-in Fram and its crew. Nansen and Johansen took dogs, kayaks, and sleds and set out for the North Pole on March 14, but they were forced to turn for Franz Josef Land after reaching 86 degrees 12 minutes north latitude on April 8, only 224 nautical miles from the pole. The three-hundred-mile journey took five months and marked the farthest anyone had reached north during the nineteenth century.

Nansen and Johansen wintered in a stone hut on an island Nansen later would name Jackson Island. The following May, they encountered British explorer Frederick Jackson Jackson, Frederick George , part of the Jackson-Harmsworth Arctic expedition of 1894-1897. The three returned to Jackson’s headquarters and later sailed to a port in northern Norway. Also in 1896, shortly after Nansen arrived in Norway, the Fram finally broke free of the pack ice and made its way home, having drifted west with the currents as Nansen had predicted. Nansen and his partner rejoined the Fram as it made its way down the Norwegian coast to Christiania (now Oslo), reaching the city on September 9, 1896, after a voyage of more than thirty-five months. Once again, Nansen had added to his renown as an Arctic scientist and explorer, and once again he received a hero’s welcome.


Fridtjof Nansen’s expedition was the first voyage to reach the heart of the Arctic, and it compiled critical information on ocean currents, winds, and temperatures. The expedition proved that the Arctic Ocean was a deep, ice-covered ocean and that a current of warm water flowed below the polar ice. Nansen’s theory of the drift of the polar currents was also proved correct. The crew’s observations greatly benefited the new science of oceanography, which would become the focus of Nansen’s future work.

In the years following his return, Nansen planned a major expedition to the South Pole, but his trip was forever derailed by his academic studies and statesmanship. Fellow Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen would be the one to take the reins of the Fram on future explorations. Finally, Nansen won the 1922 Nobel Nobel Prizes;peace Peace Prize for his efforts on behalf of World War I prisoners of war and refugees and his work with famine victims in various parts of the world.

Further Reading

  • Huntford, Roland. Nansen: The Explorer as Hero. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1998. A 610-page work that focuses on the Fram expedition and Nansen’s attempt to reach the North Pole, with frequent quotations from Nansen’s own diaries, letters, and writings.
  • Markham, Clements R. The Lands of Silence: A History of Arctic and Antarctic Exploration. Mansfield Centre, Conn.: Martino, 2005. Good overview of exploration in the Arctic and Antarctic regions. Originally published 1921.
  • Mills, William J., ed. Exploring Polar Frontiers: A Historical Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2003. Useful overview of key figures and polar expeditions.
  • Nansen, Fridtjof. The Farthest North. Northampton, Mass.: Interlink Books, 2003. Nansen’s 832-page account of his journey on the Fram and his attempt to reach the North Pole. Originally published in 1898.

Search for the Northwest Passage

Europeans Explore the Antarctic

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i><br />

Sir John Franklin; Sir James Clark Ross; David Thompson. North Pole
Nansen, Fridtjof
Arctic exploration