Cover image for Nansen : the explorer as hero
Nansen : the explorer as hero
Huntford, Roland, 1927-
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New York : Barnes & Noble, 1998.

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xiv, 610 pages, 24 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm
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G635.N3 H86 1998 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
G635.N3 H86 1998 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Chapter One A Boy and his Skis Fridtjof Nansen was born in Christiania, as Oslo, the capital of Norway was then called, on 10 October 1861. His father, Baldur Nansen, was a lawyer; a short, thin man, with a reddish complexion, tiny pinpoint blue eyes, and an air of perpetual worry. His mother, Adelaide Johanne Thekla Isidore, was the opposite of her husband in both background and appearance. She belonged to the Wedel-Jarlsbergs, one of the few Norwegian aristocratic families. Taller than Baldur by a good half a head, she was dark-haired, big-boned; a Valkyrie-like figure with a long nose, broad nostrils, high cheekbones, eyes which, though blue like her husband's, were slanting and large, and a mouth turned down at the corners. She had views of her own and was free-spoken to a fault.     For both parties, this was their second marriage. In 1844, at the age of twenty-three, Adelaide had married an army lieutenant called Jacob Bølling, a union that scandalised her well-born family, for Bølling was the son of a baker. Bølling died in 1853, during a cholera epidemic in Christiania. A year later, Baldur Nansen's first wife also died, of puerperal fever, a week after giving birth to their only child, a son called Moltke. The future couple were already on terms, Baldur happening to be Adelaide's lawyer, and in March 1858 they became husband and wife. Baldur was forty-one, four years older than Adelaide.     Again, Adelaide's family protested that she had married beneath her. But, left a widow with five children to care for, she was looking for security. For his part, Baldur wanted someone to give Moltke a mother's attention. Together with all their children, the couple moved into a house which Baldur had bought on behalf of his new wife when they were still only lawyer and client.     This house was Nansen's childhood home. Built of wood, it was large and comfortable, surrounded by outbuildings, and stood in its own grounds, on the outskirts of Christiania. It was called Lille Frøen ; by derivation, probably `The little fertile meadow'. Not long since, it had been a working farm. To the south, glinted the quiet waters of the fjord. Close by, the forest began; the `deep, sombre pine forest', as Nansen once called it in a moment of harkback: `you were the only confidante of my lonely childhood ... From you I learned all [the] wildness and ... heavy melancholy of Nature ... You gave my spirit its colour for life.'     The city meanwhile was stealthily encroaching. It still numbered fewer than 60,000 souls. Paris then had 1,700,000 inhabitants; roughly the same as that of all Norway at the time.     A second son, Alexander, was born to the Nansens in 1862. He was in fact their third child. In 1859, Adelaide had given birth to another son, also baptised Fridtjof, but he died after little more than a year.     At about the age of two, Fridtjof Nansen was taught to ski by a spirited seven-year-old girl called Inga Schjøtt, who lived nearby. A few years later a kindly but reputedly acerbic neighbour gave him his first `proper' pair of skis. The memory of this gift remained vivid throughout his life. His very first pair, as he later recalled, were `dismal and decrepit, made out of old skis ... not even the same length'. But as for the new ones: I can still see [the] long long parcel ... It [contained] a pair of red enamelled ash skis with black stripes. And then there was a long stick, with shiny, blue enamelled shaft and basket.     Nansen used those skis for years. He was wearing them still when, at the age of ten or eleven, he made his first big jump. That was on the Huseby jumping hill, very much an adult installation, although freely used by daring boys. Nansen's parents, however, declared it out of bounds to him. From his home, Nansen could see the forbidden slope. In his own words, it `tempted me for so long, until [one day I] couldn't resist any more'. I started down, took off at a tremendous speed, swooped through the air for an eternity, and then my skis dug into a snowdrift. [They] remained standing in the drift, and I described a long curve in the air, head first ... When I landed, I bored my way into the snow right up to my waist ... The other boys [broke into] an endless peal of mocking laughter.     In the late summer of 1868, just before his seventh birthday, Nansen started school. From the outset, with his blotted and irregular attempts at copperplate handwriting, he mildly exasperated his teachers. He had an irritating capacity to manage without much apparent effort. He followed the curriculum, from mathematics through to drawing, and taking in English, French and German. He acquitted himself adequately, without any particular leaning. He seemed to care for sport alone.     To Nansen, as he grew up, the seasons were delimited by sport. Summer was the time for fishing and swimming in the sharp, cold waters of the fjord on which Christiania lay. (Nansen was unusual in his enthusiasm for this.) Autumn, with the conifers interlaced by yellowing birches, meant hunting. As a child (so the story runs) Nansen made bows and arrows, hopefully dipping the arrowheads in fly agaric, supposedly the most poisonous of fungi, with squirrels as his quarry. In time, he graduated to guns, game pouches, and the real thing.     But winter was the climax of the year, bringing snow, and skiing in its wake. During Nansen's childhood occurred the technical revolution which gave rise to skiing as we know it.     In Norway, skiing was historically a part of life, and an instrument of national consciousness, although to the outside world it still remained a curiosity of travellers' tales. Not that the ski was exactly a Norwegian invention. Its origins are prehistoric, with traces along a crescent running from Central Asia across Siberia to Scandinavia. Norway, however, was the home of modern skiing. There it evolved from what was a means of winter travel into a universal sport. It was in Norway too that the ancient form of skiing, cross-country, or Nordic, had evolved into the downhill kind as well.     By a complex interplay of men and mountains, the province of Telemark, to the west of Christiania, was pre-eminent in the development of downhill skiing. In Telemark, according to one contemporary writer, It was a terrible disgrace to take a tumble ... Anyone who had too many falls couldn't dance with the girls on Sunday evening, and if he asked them, they just laughed. Out of Telemark came Sondre Nordheim, a poor farmer's son, arguably one of the greatest of the skiing pioneers. He is credited with introducing the two fundamental turns: one elegant, balanced and adapted to deep snow, soon appropriately called the Telemark, the other based on side-slipping, eventually dubbed the Christiania or `Christie', after the city, and the foundation of all downhill technique. Nordheim also devised a new form of binding, the vital link between the skier and his skis. It was a rigid model made of thin birch root threaded over the toe and round the heel of the boot. It was the first device to give proper lateral control of the skis, and hence the first modern binding.     Although Nordheim may not exactly have invented all this, he perfected it. He was one of those historic individuals who appear opportunely to encapsulate a trend. A turbulent character, he may decently be called the father of skiing as we know it, and his native valley of Morgedal the crucible of the sport.     By contrast, when Nansen was a child, Christiania was a backwater, where skiers still practised stick riding--a clumsy method using a single stick both for balancing and as a brake. Nordheim, with his beautiful sense of balance, disdained this. On Sunday 9 February 1868, invited by those concerned by the state of the sport, he demonstrated in a ski race his technique to the inhabitants of Christiania. He was a sensation; the stuff of encomiastic journalism. The event may be called the birth of modern skiing. It took place within sight of Nansen's home.     Adelaide Nansen was herself an impassioned skier. She defied convention which at that time decreed, in the cities at least, that females, once past childhood, should leave this sport to the men. Baldur took no interest in any sport at all. But finally he grasped what sport and the open air meant to his sons, and helped them to the extent of paying for their equipment.     One of Nansen's playmates observed in later years that Nansen did not feel close to his father, who was `an old maid', and that `Old Madame Nansen was ugly to look at, strict, but kind. Fridtjof loved her.' This is borne out by a letter he wrote to his parents in March 1870, when he was eight and a half years old and they were away on a foreign trip. `I think it's sad to be alone at home,' he told them. `I and Alexander miss you a lot.'     Whether Adelaide returned his affection, was another matter altogether. She was preoccupied with running the household which, in the early years, with all the children at home, numbered ten, not counting servants. Nansen in later years seldom referred to her. She remains a distant, shadowy figure; a prisoner of circumstance perhaps, trapped in a marriage of convenience, with enigmatic feelings towards her second family.     `I did not get on with my father, and I had no mother,' was her son's own bleak summing up. For mother love, he turned in the first place to the housekeeper, Marthe Larsen; then to his half-sister Ida Bølling, twelve years his senior. It was the beginning of a lifelong quest.     There was in Nansen a persistent strain of melancholy. On his own admission, he was `a bit of a lone wolf'. `I had ... companions with whom I played--but no friends.' Alexander remembered his brother as `the boss', adding: `I used to tease him, and we kept on quarrelling and fighting.' Both boys were moody, a trait they are said to have inherited from their mother.     In 1867 Moltke died, at the age of thirteen, having been sickly all his life. By the time Nansen was ten or so Adelaide's three oldest sons had all left home, so that from her first marriage there remained behind only her two daughters. But even with four fewer mouths to feed, money was tight. Baldur was plagued by financial difficulties. Besides, whatever his circumstances, he believed in Spartan principles. Food stayed simple; pocket money, low. Adelaide was forced to continue economising. Amongst other things, she made clothes for Fridtjof and Alexander by altering Baldur's cast-off suits.     All this did not bode well for Nansen when he began the usual adolescent pursuit of girls. He was tall for his age and flaxen-haired, with a fierce glint behind frank, childlike eyes. Unfortunately, he was also fat and gauche. To the knowing young female, it was not a figure that appealed.     He himself seemed to alternate between fits of brooding and spasms of exuberance. He could appear hard and unfeeling. But underneath the shell were glimpses of something softer and more emotional.     Poetry of a certain kind gripped him, notably the work which had inspired his own christian name. This was an epic called Frithiof's Saga ; an early nineteenth-century Swedish work romanticising the Norwegian Vikings. Translated into various languages, it was much admired at the time. As a schoolboy, Nansen knew long passages by heart, which he insisted on reciting. One stirring stanza runs: But Frithiof laugh'd: `I count my race From foes I conquered in the chase: I slew the forest monarch grim; My glories all descend from him.' Chapter Two `That Strange City' Nansen grew up in `that strange city'--to quote a classic characterisation of nineteenth-century Christiania--`which nobody leaves before he has been marked by it.' The words are those of Nansen's exact contemporary Knut Hamsun, the greatest of the Norwegian nineteenth-century novelists, and a pioneer of the stream of consciousness, influencing James Joyce.     Christiania was a small town trying to be a capital. Its one metropolitan touch was the short, newly completed boulevard that formed its main thoroughfare and, since the middle of the century, had been called Karl Johansgate, `Karl Johan Street' -- in honour of a Swedish king.     Norway was one of the subject nations of Europe. After the distant glories of the Viking age, she had steadily declined. For over four hundred years she belonged to Denmark and was ruled from Copenhagen. In consequence, many Norwegians, including both Nansen's parents, had Danish blood in their veins. Indeed the founder of the Nansen family, Hans Nansen, was a celebrated Dane of the seventeenth century. As a young man he made some audacious journeys through Arctic Russia, eventually becoming Mayor of Copenhagen and stalwart defender of the burgesses against the King.     During the Napoleonic Wars, Norway was caught up in the whirlwind. In 1814, the year before Waterloo, she found herself summarily transferred to Sweden. `Your fate is sealed,' the Swedish regent bluffly told the Norwegians. `Small countries,' he cheerfully proclaimed, `are always the pawns of stronger ones.'     The Norwegians begged to disagree. They immediately asserted their independence. The Swedish regent, however, was not to be trifled with. He was in fact a Frenchman: the celebrated Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, one of Napoleon's wiliest marshals. Bizarre political convolutions had brought him to Sweden, technically as Crown Prince to an ineffectual sovereign, in reality to rule. He founded the present Swedish reigning house.     By declaring independence, the Norwegians had set a sinister example for nationalist ambitions elsewhere. They threatened to torpedo the looming post-Napoleonic settlement. In July 1814 Bernadotte marched on Norway. After a war lasting eleven days the Norwegians sued for peace. As wars go, it was not much, but for Bernadotte it was enough. He was faced with pressing foreign military and diplomatic complications. So, in August, he galloped through negotiations for peace. As part of the price for speed he accepted the Constitution adopted by a Norwegian national convention on 17 May that year -- the anniversary of which became the Norwegian national day and which, much revered, with few amendments, still remains in force.     Instead of a conquered province, Norway became an autonomous, constitutional monarchy joined to Sweden in a personal union under one king. She had her own national Parliament and Cabinet, with sovereign power to raise taxes. Only in foreign affairs was she really subject to the Swedes.     Thus by an ironic twist of history, union with Sweden had brought self-determination to Norway. She was pitchforked from absolutism to representative democracy, with a unicameral parliament on the best modern lines. Because of the profound centralisation of the Danish state, Norway had long had no separate existence; no capital city even. Faute de mieux, Christiania now became the capital.     In 1818, Bernadotte formally ascended the throne of Sweden-Norway with the dynastic name of Karl XIV Johan, always shortened to Karl Johan, hence the Christiania street name. He was everybody's favourite fairy tale come to life. The son of a lawyer, he had started as a humble private soldier, became one of the military leaders of the French revolution, and ended as a king.     This resembled the national Askeladden myth, in which Norwegians see themselves. Askeladden is an Aladdin-like figure; the archetypal hero, or rather anti-hero, of many a Norwegian folk tale. He is a happy-go-lucky scapegrace of a boy, often a younger brother, who, by the exercise of cunning and a quick tongue but, above all, by good luck, overtakes his worthy betters to rise from rags to riches and get the girl as well. As a result Karl Johan, although he had defeated them in war, was hugely popular among the Norwegians.     Nonetheless, they chafed under Swedish overlordship. Yet from a certain point of view, Norway got the best of the bargain. She was given peace and stability while she underwent the disturbing change from a backward, isolated country of farmers and fishermen to a modern state.     It was an abiding irony that Karl Johan, who subjugated the Norwegians, presided over the gestation of their extraordinary renaissance of the nineteenth century which produced, among its geniuses, Nils Henrik Abel, one of the founders of modern mathematics, Ibsen, Grieg, and Nansen too. Like the Italian original, from which it was lineally descended, this latter-day version was devoted to the cultivation of individuality and the universal man. It was overlaid by a Romantic veneration for the man of action and conspicuous achievement.     When Karl Johan died, in 1844, at the age of 81, the Norwegians were grappling with the transition from an inchoate national feeling to romantic, self-conscious and militant nationalism. It was a metamorphosis of the times. Nonetheless, in 1848, the year of nationalist insurrections, an English visitor to Norway observed that, `of all the states of Christendom', it appeared to be `almost the only one exempt from the desire or the apprehension of change'. From another point of view, a Norwegian writer observed darkly that `the great European wave is not yet running up here, but we can hear the murmur of the swell'.     Intellectual ferment and the power of nationalism had, after all, been at work. `The rebirth of springtime' was, tellingly enough, an image used by Norwegians themselves to evoke their exhilarating sense of a country waking up.     The same forces of unrest produced in a small nation like Norway a suffocating sense of claustrophobia that drove original spirits to escape. Ibsen was a notable example. He lived abroad for most of his productive life, and in all seriousness considered one of his tasks `to awaken the people and make them think big'. Yet because the population was thinly spread in an untamed landscape there was an internal path to freedom. Nansen had his within view of his very own doorstep in the form of the wild, undulating upland called Nordmarka.     Swathed in pine forest, in winter mantled with snow, Nordmarka was threaded with lake, moor, marsh, and stream. Here and there were lonely mountain farms. So far, it had been left to the few foresters, hunters, and others whose business took them there. Now, it was beginning to be explored for pleasure by city dwellers driven to flee brickbound streets, especially grim when the fog rolled in from the fjord. Nor did they have to flee far. This tract of country began only a few miles to the north of the capital.     Nansen was introduced to Nordmarka by Einar Bølling, one of his half-brothers; fifteen years older than himself, and an army officer. Einar taught him how to hunt, how to fish, and how to survive in the wilderness.     In their teens, when winter came, Nansen and his brother took to Nordmarka on their skis, year by year penetrating deeper into the hinterland. In this they were pioneers. There were no prepared tracks. They had to find their own way alone through the forest, usually on virgin snow; on memorable occasions, light and powdery, hissing beneath the skis, like the spume of a yacht driving before the wind. When they set out, they never knew exactly where they would finish. It was exploration on their doorstep.     Year in and year out, in all weather, Nansen walked to school and home again; into Christiania and back to where the rough country roads began; three kilometres each way. Perhaps this helped him, early in 1877, at the age of 15, to win a boys' speed skating race over five kilometres. It was held before a large crowd on a frozen inlet of the Christiania Fjord. In the same season he came 14th in the boys' class of a combined ski jumping and cross-country competition--a classic Nordic event -- just outside Christiania.     That summer, Nansen's mother died. She had been ailing for some time. For what remained of the once large family the Nansen property was now patently too big. Baldur quickly sold up and moved to a flat in Christiania itself. Sadly, clumsily, without complaint, this conscientious provider tried to be both father and mother to the two sons still in his care. He had, in his quiet way, come to expect great things from Fridtjof, though sensitively trying to hide these feelings from Alexander.     During the summer of 1878, when Nansen was almost seventeen, Baldur sent both him and Alexander on their first walking tour to Jotunheimen, in the charge of another half-brother, Harald Bølling.     Jotunheimen is the mountain range of western Norway; the highest in the country, and the summit of Scandinavia. It was another paradigm of escape. In Norway, because the sun is so low for much of the year, the valleys, although the seats of habitation, have always been associated with darkness and a sense of being trapped. By contrast, the mountains have come to mean light and liberty. It is an antithesis that happens to mirror, and perhaps help explain, the moody streak and violent contrasts in the Norwegian psyche. It lay behind a poem by Ibsen that in time greatly influenced Nansen. This was På Viddene ; roughly, `On the Heights'. An eerie evocation of the Norwegian mountain atmosphere, the poem ends with the telling lines: Up here on the heights, God and freedom reign, Down below the others flounder on.     Up in Jotunheimen Nansen, in his adolescent way, responded to this sentiment. `One day we saw a big reindeer stag crossing a glacier ... The loveliest experience we have yet had,' he reported back to Baldur. Whatever his true opinion of his father, he was a dutiful correspondent, and absence brought pity to the surface: `But we are enjoying ourselves, and poor you, who pay for our pleasure, are sitting at home and slaving away.'     Still, summer was only the interval between two winters, and skiing was the Nansen brothers' passion. They joined the Christiania Ski Club, the first of its kind in the capital, soon after its foundation in 1877. To Alexander, skiing was a pastime, and in other respects he showed all the signs of following a conventional career. Fridtjof, on the other hand, caused Baldur considerable misgivings. Approaching adulthood, the youth still seemed obsessed by sport. Like most of his fellow-countrymen, he was too much of an untamed individualist to take kindly to team games; but he was devoted to skiing, swimming and gymnastics.     Meanwhile, there was the looming prospect of the Examen Artium ; Artium for short, the university entrance examination still exclusively reserved for males, which marked the culmination of every young man's school career and his entrée into adulthood.     Nansen took it in 1880 (two years before the first woman was admitted) and found that he had passed within 1 mark of distinction. Most students celebrated the end of this ordeal with a hefty bout of organised drinking. Nansen chose instead to recuperate from his exertions with an extended visit to the country estates of two wealthy familes. The gossip drifting down to Christiania did not reassure Baldur, who admonished his son in a letter: That extravagant life is not healthy for you ... To live only for pleasure will do for a little while, but not for long. You will acquire a taste for a way of life very far from that you are accustomed to ... and from what I wish you to lead ... To amuse yourself with the ladies can be pleasant for you, so long as the ladies agree ... But beware, and watch your behaviour, so that you do not give any cause for comment ... I find it unworthy of a young person to let himself be used as a plaything by the ladies, because they lack other playthings ... But--the game goes on just so long as they have nobody better. It was his wish, he concluded, that Nansen should come home soon. `See that you are back by the 16th or 17th of this month.'     Nansen was by now within a few days of his nineteenth birthday. He had lost his puppy fat. He had grown up tall, slim, well-proportioned and undeniably attractive to women, especially those older than himself. But he was not yet free of his father's legal tutelage and had still to decide on a career.     It was not Baldur's wish to influence his son's choice; he only wanted him to make up his mind -- an attitude astonishingly tolerant for the times. Nansen himself first thought of engineering: Baldur concurred. Then he felt that the prospects were poor and decided instead to be an army officer. Baldur entered him in the cadet school. Then he switched to forestry and then, finally and somewhat surprisingly, settled on zoology, with the aim of specialising in the lower marine creatures. He was, he wrote later, a passionate hunter and angler and man of the forest, and in my youthful inexperience believed that such a subject meant a life constantly in the open air.     Baldur was pleased, but for different reasons. In his own words: As by this choice he will have work of consuming interest for his whole life, I raised no objections, but spoke to scientists at the University ... They very much wanted someone to devote himself completely to that subject, but also explained that it would not bring in much money. However, I do not think that so important, as long as Fridtjof is interested in his career.     Nansen began university early in 1881. Meanwhile there was more skiing. On 7 February 1881, in the course of a winter marked by phenomenally abundant snowfalls, Nansen entered a competition arranged by the Christiania Ski Club at Huseby, where he had once so notably come to grief.     The event was conceived as the microcosm of a ski tour. The course opened with a jump, followed immediately by a cross country sprint of about three kilometres over violently undulating terrain. Starting was consecutive, at intervals of one minute. The intention was to reward the complete skier; he who could jump, climb, run downhill, and ski well on level ground. It was a fusion of what later separated into Nordic and alpine skiing. To ensure a proper standard for the Huseby race of 1881, competitors had been invited from Telemark.     To modern eyes, it would all have seemed inexpressibly quaint. The jumping hill was not an artificial structure, but a natural slope, the lip built up with blocks of snow. Jumps were only about 18 metres, against the 80-90 metres that is usual today at the top. The style was with body bolt upright, not lunged aerodynamically forward. `Of falls there were plenty,' so one journalist reported, and not only minor prophets bit the dust ... only 12 or 13 [of 47] managed the big jump, and of these 2 were stick-riders, but of the remainder of those who did not fall, only [a handful] set off with full speed in the approach run without braking, including ... F. Nansen.     Nansen finished seventh, winning a pair of skis, beating ten of the fifteen Telemark skiers and also winning a cup for the best skier from Christiania. Since this cup had been donated by his father, he felt he could hardly accept it. He returned it to the organisers, for use on another occasion.     By his performance, Nansen had proved himself one of the best skiers in the country, and incidentally secured a place among the skiing pioneers. But in the public debate that ensued, he was far from content. The question was: should competitive skiing become specialised and artificial, or should it keep its roots as a way of travelling over natural terrain? Nansen unequivocally took the view that skiing was `a means of travel' and should not run the risk of being `turned into a performing art'. It is not the jump that plays the leading rôle [he went on to say], but the unexpected obstacles that arise in moving through unknown country; and there generally it is a question of instantly avoiding a jump, instead of carrying it out.     An unexpected obstacle of a different sort was provoked by his passion for hunting, when, in the autumn of 1881, his kinsman, Harald Wedel Jarlsberg, accused him of illicitly shooting on his estate. Jarlsberg threatened to take him to law, and only after strenuous efforts on the part of Nansen's father did he agree to drop proceedings.     Meanwhile there was his first year at university to be got through. In December 1881, he sat and passed with distinction the so-called `second examination' required of all students before they were allowed to specialise, then answered a call from the department of zoology (the only person to do so) which wanted someone to visit the Arctic to collect specimens of marine life. Once more Baldur agreed. `It is a little hard', he wrote to a relative, `to have him away for so long without news ... and people are surprised that I immediately gave permission. But I decided it was a sensible first step on his chosen career.'     Nansen had to arrange his own passage. Through his father's contacts, he found a comfortable berth on the sealer Viking , of Arendal, a port on the south coast of Norway, and sailed on 11 March 1882. We steamed out [he wrote in his newly begun diary] exactly as the sun rose majestically over the islands ... It was with a strange feeling I departed from islands and ... forests and hills, to be consigned to the sea and its waves ... it was the first Spring I would not be able to wander about in the conifer forests of my birthplace, and absorb the air of springtime; and with it the wonderful, invincible sense of life returning. Copyright © 1997 Roland Huntford. All rights reserved.