Norwegian polar pioneers


For those of us who are only armchair adventurers, reading about the daring snow-and-ice exploits of Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen is enough to make us shiver (even in the summer) and reach for the nearest warm sweater. Almost unimaginably tough and resourceful, Nansen and Amundsen exemplified the Viking spirit in the early 20th century. But these two, whose anniversaries are celebrated this year in a joint jubilee as the “Nansen-Amundsen Year,” were more than just daring polar explorers who saw and did what no man had ever seen or done before. They were brilliant men of science, men of letters, and men principle – leaders who changed forever (and for the good) the world in which they lived.

By Melinda Bargreen

Norwegian American Weekly

The year 2011 marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Nansen, and the 100th anniversary of Amundsen’s first arrival (with four of his men) at the South Pole. This joint coincidence prompted the Norwegian Government to establish the Nansen–Amundsen Year 2011, a celebration designed to “spread knowledge and arouse enthusiasm about the lives and work of Nansen and Amundsen.” The two polar heroes will also be celebrated for their roles as nation-builders, human-rights advocates, scientists and (in Nansen’s case) diplomat and politician.

The first order of business for anyone interested in the Jubilee is a visit to the website, which also is available in English: Informative articles, news about exhibitions and events, and even the chance to “Like” this site on Facebook will await you there. There’s still more at the Fram Museum’s website (also in English):

Fridtjof Nansen

Fridtjof Nansen

The older of the two explorers, Fridtjof Nansen (1861 – 1930), was a man of such breadth of talent that he seemed to live several lifetimes in one lifespan. First, there was Nansen the brilliant scientist, who wrote (and illustrated) his doctoral dissertation on the central nervous system of the hagfish, and worked as a curator in the Bergen Museum. Then, there was Nansen the bold explorer, who was the first to traverse Greenland from coast to coast on skis, proving that the entire island was covered by a thick sheet of ice (and also getting to know the indigenous Inuit people). Then, we have Nansen the seafarer, whose discoveries aboard the ship Fram essentially established the fact that the North Pole was not situated on a landmass, but on water. Nansen’s scientific findings were published following his journey home to Norway.

There’s also Nansen the diplomat, who was a prime mover in securing Norway’s independence and hiring her first monarch, the Danish Prince Carl – as well as becoming Norway’s first ambassador to England (1906 – 08). And Nansen the author/historian, penning several books including “The Norwegian Sea” (an important reference work in ocean research), and “In Northern Mists,” a history of Arctic travel and exploration in the years preceding the 16th century.

Finally, Nansen the humanitarian rounds out our picture of this many-faceted and seminal figure. He was a member of the Norwegian League of Nations delegation (1920-30), at whose behest he organized the repatriation of more than 450,000 prisoners of war from 26 countries. One historian, Carl Emil Vogt, estimates that approximately a million Russians received help through the relief work Nansen initiated in Soviet Russia. He also aided Greek, Turkish, and Armenian refugees. In 1922 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his humanitarian efforts.

Readers of the Norwegian American Weekly may already feel they know Nansen’s fellow explorer Roald Amundsen (1872 – 1928) personally, after following the ongoing journal entries (courtesy of Oslo’s Fram Museum) in the newspaper.

Amundsen’s strong but benevolent leadership and his air of calm optimism (“Here there is only enjoyment of life and work,” he wrote, while the mercury plummeted to -13.6°C) suggest why he succeeded where others failed.

Roald Amundsen.

Roald Amundsen.

This famous explorer seemed almost destined to be the first man to reach the South Pole; even as a youth, he slept with the windows open to the frosty Nordic winter in order to harden himself for his future adventures. His early fascination with the Arctic and Antarctica first led him to the former region, when in 1903 (at the age of 31) he set off in the ship Gjøa to become the first to traverse the famous Northwest Passage between the north Canadian mainland and a series of Canadian arctic islands. The ice-bound journey took three years, while Amundsen and his crew waited for the frozen waterways to thaw enough for them to proceed.

This trip was not only an adventure; it also was a scientific expedition. Amundsen measured the earth’s magnetic field, and made observations near the magnetic North Pole to determine its precise location. He and his party also extensively studied the lives of the indigenous Inuit people. Later, in his trek to the South Pole, Amundsen also pushed forward the scientific frontier, taking meteorological and oceanographic data.

Initially, Amundsen planned to become the first to reach the North Pole, a logical goal given his familiarity with the far North from the Northwest Passage voyage. But two factors changed his mind: first, the news that the English explorer Ernest Shackleton had attempted and failed to reach the South Pole, and second, that both Frederick A. Cook and Robert E. Peary already claimed to have reached the North Pole (in 1908 and 1909, respectively).

Amundsen launched his own South Pole expedition in August 1910, keeping the destination secret from his own crew and from the Norwegian government until the voyage south – in Nansen’s ship, the Fram – was well underway. Much has been written about this epic journey, planned by Amundsen with meticulous care (and research into Shackleton’s failed attempt). His success was due in large part to his attention to detail, not only in selecting his crew, but also in outfitting them with fuel and provisions and – most critically – the Greenland sled dogs that were a major factor in his success. He and four of his men reached the South Pole in the afternoon of Dec. 14, 1911, and were back at their base camp on Jan. 25, 1912.

The North Pole continued to tempt Amundsen, and he flew over the North Pole in a dirigible (the Norge) and crossed the Arctic Ocean in 1926. It was there, too, that he met his death two years later; while flying on a rescue mission, Amundsen was killed when his plane crashed into the Arctic Ocean. Earlier that year, he had told one interviewer of his fascination for the Arctic, saying: “If only you knew how splendid it is up there, that’s where I want to die.”

Nansen, who would outlive his younger fellow explorer by two years, hailed Amundsen with the following lines: “He found an unknown grave under the clear sky of the icy world, with the whirring of the wings of eternity through space.”

This article was originally published in the July 1, 2011 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. For more information about the Norwegian American Weekly or to subscribe, call us toll free (800) 305-0217 or email

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Melinda Bargreen

Melinda Bargreen is a Seattle-based writer and composer whose career at The Seattle Times began in 1977. Her choral works include the “Norwegian Folksong Suite.” Melinda contributes to many publications and is the author of Seattle Opera’s forthcoming 50-year history book. She holds B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Washington in Seattle, and a doctorate in English from the University of California, Irvine.