Alpenglow Ski Mountaineering History Project Home

Fridtjof Nansen - The First Crossing of Greenland


p. 2: Fridtjof Nansen's plan to cross Greenland in 1888 differed from previous attempts in two important respects: He would cross the "Inland Ice" on ski and he would travel from the desolate east coast to the inhabited west coast instead of the other way around. "The order would be: 'Death or the west coast of Greenland,'" he wrote.

p. 4: Nansen reckoned that his party should be able to cover 15 to 20 miles per day on average, which he regarded as "exceedingly little" for skiers.

Chapter 1 - The Equipment

p. 17: The party carried both Indian snowshoes and the smaller Norwegian "truger". Samuel Balto and Ole Ravna, the two Norwegian Sami in the party (called "Lapps" in this book) regarded snowshoes with contempt and would have nothing to do with them.

Chapter 2 - Ski and Skilobning

p. 31: On this page is a generic description of the skis of Nansen's day - wood, three to four inches wide, about eight feet long, with a loop to secure the toe of the boot and a band passing around the heel.

p. 32: Olaus Magnus wrote in 1555, "There is no mountain so high but that by cunning devices [a skier] is able to attain unto the summit thereof."

p. 33: The author of Kongespeilet, an old Norse treatise, described a skier as outstripping the birds in flight, and declared that nothing which runs upon the earth can escape his pursuit.

p. 35a: According to the author, ideal snow conditions for skiing occur when snow falls during a thaw, is subsequently frozen, and then is covered with an inch or so of newly fallen snow. If the snow is too warm it will stick to the bottom of the skis, especially if they are not covered with skin (p. 33).

p. 35b: The following paragraph contains the best-known passages in this book. Here it is in full:

"Of all the sports of Norway, 'skilobning' is the most national and characteristic, and I cannot think that I go too far when I claim for it, as practised in our country, a position in the very first rank of the sports of the world. I know no form of sport which so evenly develops the muscles, which renders the body so strong and elastic, which teaches so well the qualities of dexterity and resource, which in an equal degree calls for decision and resolution, and which gives the same vigour and exhilaration to mind and body alike. Where can one find a healthier and purer delight than when on a brilliant winter day one binds one's 'ski' to one's feet and takes one's way out into the forest? Can there be anything more beautiful than the northern winter landscape, when the snow lies foot-deep, spread as a soft white mantle over field and wood and hill? Where will one find more freedom and excitement than when one glides swiftly down the hillside through the trees, one's cheek brushed by the sharp cold air and frosted pine branches, and one's eye, brain, and muscles alert and prepared to meet every unknown obstacle and danger which the next instant may throw in one's path? Civilisation is, as it were, washed clean from the mind and left far behind with the city atmosphere and city life; one's whole being is, so to say, wrapped in one's 'ski' and the surrounding nature. There is something in the whole which develops soul and not body alone, and the sport is perhaps of far greater national importance than is generally supposed."

p. 37: In recent years skiing developed in Norway largely due to the annual competitions held at Christiania (later renamed Oslo). "Here at their first institution the Telemarken peasants appeared and completely eclipsed the athletes of the capital by their masterly skill." On p. 38 the author says the well-known skier from Telemarken, Sondre Auesen Nordheim, is reported to have jumped 99 feet "from a projecting rock and to have kept his balance when he alighted below."

p. 38: The author describes the old style of riding the staff like a witch's broomstick. The Telemarken peasants learned how to control their skis without having to rely on the staff. When they met their rivals in Christiania, the advantages of the new method were readily apparent.

p. 40: The author describes ski jumping and turning (slalom) contests as well as the "long race" (cross-country). In 1888, a 50km (31 mile) race at Christinia was won by a Telemarken peasant in 4 hours, 26 minutes. A 220km race held in Swedish Lapland in 1884 was won by a Swedish Lapp in 21 hours, 22 minutes, including rests. In recent years, the use of two poles instead of one has become common, and this practice was adopted by Nansen's Greenland party. "If the conditions be moderately favourable a good man should be able to cover from sixty to seventy miles in the cource of a day's run," he writes.

p. 43: During the Greenland crossing Nansen and Otto Sverdrup used oak skis with grooved bases. The other men, Samuel Balto, Oluf Dietrichsen, Kristian Kristiansen and Ole Ravna, used birch skis shod with thin steel plates in which there were openings under the foot for strips of elk skin to be inserted. The steel plates were intended to help the ski glide better on wet snow, while the skins were to prevent the steel-shod ski from slipping back during ascents and while pulling loads. In fact, the expedition encountered almost no wet snow and Nansen concluded that plain oak skis were completely satisfactory.

The skis were fastened using toe and heel straps of leather. Nansen believed that the stiff fastenings (made of withies or cane) commonly used in Norway were unsuited for a long exploratory trip because they tire and chafe the feet more than a flexible fastening like leather. "My experience tells me that the less one is conscious of the pressure of the fastenings in these long journeys, the less one draws upon one's stock of endurance," he wrote.

Chapter 14 - We Change Our Course For Godthaab

p. 179: After spending from July 17 through August 10 drifting in the ice southward along the east coast of Greenland then struggling northward back up the coast to a suitable landing, Nansen's party left their boats for good and began their ascent of the "Inland Ice." Around September 1 they began using skis and used them continuously through at least September 21 when they neared the west coast.

p. 181: Of crossing the "Inland Ice" the author writes:

"For days - I might almost say weeks - we toiled across an interminable flat desert of snow; one day began and ended like another, and all were characterised by nothing but a wearisome, wearing uniformity which no-one who has not experienced the like will easily realise. Flatness and whiteness were the two features of this ocean of snow; in the day we could see three things only - the sun, the snowfield, and ourselves. We looked like a diminutive black line feebly traced upon an infinite expanse of white. There was no break or change in our horizon, no object to rest the eye upon, and no point by which to direct the course. We had to steer by a diligent use of the compass, and keep our line as well as possible by careful watching of the sun and repeated glances back at the four men following and the long track which the caravan left in the snow. We passed from one horizon to another, but our advance brought us no change. We knew to a certain extent where we were, and that we must endure the monotony for a long time to come."

p. 183: The author describes the cold, wind-blown snow which is "sticky like cloth" and "no better than sand" for pulling the sledges through. But on the following page he writes:

"Lest any reader should be led to believe, by what I have here said about the state of the snow and the difficulties we met with, that our 'ski' were of little or no use to us, I ought perhaps to state once and for all that they were an absolute necessity, that without their help we should have advanced very little way, and even then died miserably or have been compelled to return. [...] For nineteen days continuously we used our 'ski' from early morning till late in the evening, and the distance we thus covered was not much less than 240 miles."

Chapter 16 - The First Sight of Land and First Drink of Water

p. 202: On September 19, after nearly three weeks seeing nothing but ice, the party spotted dry land for the first time, a dark ridge and small peak away to the west. On September 26 they reached sea level at Ameralikfjord on the west coast of Greenland.

Photo Plates

I: Photo of the six members of Nansen's Greenland expedition before departure.

XII: Photo of the caravan on the march - men pulling sledges through the snow on skis.

XIV: Photo of breaking camp. Balto, Ravna and Sverdrup are ready to begin with the sledges tied to their bodies with rope.

XVII: Photo of party members sailing the sledges on the ice.

Return to the Alpenglow Ski Mountaineering History Project home page

Copyright © 2009 Lowell Skoog. All Rights Reserved.
Last Updated: Wed Sep 2 22:46:27 PDT 2009