In which we congratulate Mr. Nansen on his safe return

When last we checked in with Norwegian uber-explorer Fridtjof Nansen he had mercifully decided that he and Hjalmar Johansen had to turn back, or else face starvation. As they head south he writes in one diary entry after another of his disbelief that they remain encircled by pack ice and out of sight of land. They walk and camp on freezing slush, constantly impeded by open channels of water, yet unable to take the sea because these fissures lead nowhere, petering out into more solid ice, or funneling into narrow channels that will not permit travel by skin-boat. June 9th is typical: "we came across a number of lanes, and they were dificult to cross, with their complicated net-work of cracks and ridges in all directions. Some of them were broad and full of brash, which rendered it impossible to use the kayaks. In some places, however, the brash was pressed so tightly together that we could walk on it. But many journeys to and fro are nearly always necessary before any reasonable opportunity of advance is to be found." A month and two days later and not much has changed: "a monotonous life this on the whole...day after day, week after week, month after month...over ice which is sometimes a little better, sometimes a little worse...we do not know where we are, and we do not know when this will end...it is hard to go on hoping in such circumstances, but still we do so; though sometimes, perhaps, our hearts fail us when se see the ice lying before us like an impenetrable maze of ridges, lanes, brash, and huge blocks thrown together pell-mell.... There are moments when it seems impossible that any creature not possessed of wings can get farther, and one longingly follows the flight of a passing gull." (Farthest North pp. 316-317.)

Day after day they went on, from time to time killing their weakest dog, in order to feed the other dogs, so that their human share of the sledging burden became larger and larger. Nansen paints a vivid picture of the drudgery of the days, the endless slogging through knee-deep sludge and the horror and guilt he felt at killing their trusty canine companions. He talks less of the nights, which, after my one night of sleeping on the ice, I believe must have been even more dreadful. He and Johansen shared a reindeer-pelt sleeping bag, both to conserve on weight and to combine their body heat at rest, and it must have been sodden with perspiration and exhalation after the first night out, only to immediately freeze solid in the morning until the two crawled into it and shivered it back into comparative usefulness each evening. What boggles my mind is the thought that never in all their time did they have a chance to relax while warm. Only while trudging, shoveling, paddling or otherwise toiling would the two of them have been able to keep warm at all.

Antarctica, not the Arctic

Finally, at the end of July, they did sight land, but upon reaching it almost two weeks later they found a new set of problems. They had no idea where they were and found the area dotted with islands and rocky promontories which promoted the permanence of more clumps and fields of travel-inhibiting ice. In their kayaks they were attacked by walrus, from below, and at night polar bears pawed outside the tent. (Many of these they successfully shot for food, and eventually to sew together a new bear-skin sleeping bag). "Where we are is becoming more and more incomprehensible," he writes. The end of August at that latitude, of course, is not too early for the duo to become worried about the onset of the next winter. "Our situation was not an attractive one;" Nansen writes, with typical understatement, on about August 24th, "in front of us massive broken sea-ice close by land, and the gods alone know if it will open again this year; a good way behind us land which looked anything but inviting to spend the winter on, and our provender very much on the decline." Nansen does not write anything of significance again for months, recommencing his diary in earnest on December 6th, by which time they have shot and killed enough seal, bear and walrus to live on for the winter, and constructed a small stone house in which to live. His apologies are identical to those I have already heard from winterovers here, and his symptoms are now thought to have a medical cause, a diminishment of the thyroid's activity in extended periods of darkness.

"I had hoped to get so much done this winter--work up my observations and notes, and write some of the account of our journey" writes Nansen, (but Phil used almost the same words). "But very little was done. It was not only the poor, flickering light of the oil-lamp which hindered me, nor yet the uncomfortable position--either lying on one's back, or sitting up and fidgeting about on the hard stones, while the part of the body thus exposed to pressure ached; but altogether these surroundings did not predispose one to work. The brain worked dully, and I never felt inclined to write anything."

It was not until June 17th of the following year, farther south on the craggy coast, after having abandoned their winter shelter, that Nansen heard dogs barking somewhere inland. Their meeting later that day with Frederick Jackson and his British arctic expedition is comparable only to the encounter between Livingstone and Stanley. In its joy and improbability it far outshines it. In the purest documentary spirit their encounter was retroactively recaptured for posterity.

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