Saturday, October 17, 2009

My hero / Fridtjof Nansen by Sara Wheeler

Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen

My hero Fridtjof Nansen

Sara Wheeler
Saturday 17 October 2009 00.07 BST

olar exploration tends to attract more testosterone than talent, and in the Arctic department expeditions have generally concluded with an inglorious bout of shoe-eating. One man towers over the other ice-encrusted sledgers: Fridtjof Nansen, colossus of the glaciers. In August 1895, he and stoker Hjalmar Johansen battled to 86 degrees north on maple-wood skis, just 230 miles short of the pole. Theirs was the biggest single advance in polar travel for four centuries.

A long-faced Norseman with a touch of the archetypal brooding Scandinavian (as well as a hint of the Sphinx), Nansen was born near Christiania, the former name of Oslo, in 1861, and in the course of a tumultuous life became an outstanding scientist, diplomat and humanitarian as well as an explorer. He was a founder of neurology, discovering that nerve fibres, on entering the spinal cord, bifurcate into ascending and descending branches. They are still known as Nansen's fibres. A Nobel peace prize was among many laurels bestowed for his work as a League of Nations high commissioner, in the course of which he had originated the Nansen passport for refugees.

Following independence in 1905, he became his country's first ambassador to the Court of St James's, and at one point almost rose to the position of Norwegian prime minister. Perhaps that is why he was a better explorer (and writer) than the rest: he did other things – a man for all seasons. Nansen sensed at a profound level the "yearning after light and knowledge", and, almost uniquely, was able to marry that understanding to physical capability and snowcraft.
When I camped on the Greenland icecap, I sensed the ghostly presence of Nansen. (It was he, along with five companions, who made the first crossing of that huge country). Of all the frozen beards who had been there before me, only Nansen communicated a sense of the true subjugation of the ego that endeavour can bring. Failure, he acknowledged, would mean "only disappointed human hopes, nothing more". This great poet of northern latitudes concluded: "If we perish, what will it matter in the endless cycle of eternity?"


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