Fridtjof Nansen: Modern Explorers Retrace His Steps

Caked in snow and ice, team members of Fridtjof Nansen’s 1894 Arctic expedition brave the elements above deck. Photo by Fridtjof Nansen

“Thomas Ulrich and I left home 12th of April. We started from the North Pole 1st of May and headed south towards Frans Josef Land with a weight of 170 kilos in our kayaks. (We used plastic kayaks instead of sleds, to be able to paddle when the ice melted later in the season, they worked extremely well).”

Thus began explorer Børge Ousland’s report back to the National Geographic Society of his 2007 expedition. Not only did he and Thomas Ulrich navigate by their own power from the North Pole across sea ice to Frans Josef Land, they also retraced the steps of 19th century explorer and fellow Norwegian, Fridtjof Nansen. (Fridtjof Nansen’s 156th birthday is being commemorated today with a Google Doodle.)

This was supported by Ousland’s fourth grant from the Socitey. Since then, he’s had two more, the most recent in 2015, to cross the three largest icecaps in Alaska: the St. Elias Mountains, Western Chugach Mountains, and the Stikine Ice Field, among the fastest retreating icecaps in the world.

Ousland reading Nansen’s book while on expedition. Photo by Thomas Ulrich

“We had a hard time reaching the northern islands of Frans Josef land,” Ousland’s report continued. “The ice was thin and breaking up all around us. Sometimes we jumped from ice floe to ice floe and frequently had to use our dry suits to swim from one ice edge to the other. The drift was also extremely strong, we almost drifted past the island and in the end just had to go for it! The last day before land we worked constantly for 25 hours before we finally reached the relative safety of Eva-Liv Island, 14th of June, in the northeast of the archipelago. By then we had skied for one and a half month on the polar drift ice.”

Ulrich striding the barely-not-frozen waters of the Arctic. Photo by Børge Ousland

“From this position we paddled and skied southwest through the archipelago, from one island to the other, following the route of Fridtjof Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen. We came to their wintering hut at Jackson Island, which was a touching and very special moment. Here the two explorers spent the winter in 1895-96 with very little equipment, not really knowing where they were. That they survived is a feat second to none in Arctic history.”

In 2009, two stories ran in National Geographic Magazine about polar exploration: the first, a historical look back at Fridtjof Nansen’s adventures; the second, the saga of Børge Ousland and Thomas Ulrich’s journey. Two stories, spanning three centuries, and one spectacular, challenging, and ever-changing landscape.



Meet the Author
Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. In 2018 he became Communications Director at Adventure Scientists, founded by Nat Geo Explorer Gregg Treinish. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley.