Skiing’s Original Hard Man — Fridtjof Nansen

Post by blogger | September 10, 2014      
Fridtjof Nansen 1896, after his attempt to ski to the North Pole and subsequent survival march across the arctic.

Fridtjof Nansen 1896, after his attempt to ski to the North Pole and subsequent survival march across the arctic.

Digging through the archives, I ran across this image from an 1896 “illustrated newspaper” cover. For many of you, Dr. Nansen needs no introduction. The Norwegian hard-ass explorer set the world abuzz with his exploits more than a century ago. Since then we’ve been enjoying the adventure ski culture he helped create. More, he’s probably the only pioneer backcountry skier to win the Nobel Peace Prize!

I’ve heard a lot of statements over the years about who has been the “most influential skier ever.” Shane McConkey gets the latest honors, but names such as Glen Plake, Bill Briggs, Franz Klammer and others have also fit the bill. My vote is still for Nansen. He’s not a household word here in North America and he doesn’t Instagram, but from what I’ve gleaned in my research he and his Norwegian friends are definitely an early and direct root for much of today’s “adventure skiing” culture. As for Shane, he is certainly huge but we’ll see how it all shakes out in another hundred years.

I find the Nansen newspaper caption to be rather interesting and amusing. After leaving his boat (Fram) and attempting to ski to the North Pole, Nansen had been living for more than a year in the same clothing, subsisting on a diet of mostly animal fat, probably seal blubber. Perhaps the skis are the most interesting. Designed more for overland travel than turns, they nonetheless have plenty of rocker.

Nansen was assisted (perhaps a better term is “rescued”) by British explorer Frederick Jackson at the end of 15 months of ski and foot travel while trying to be the first to reach the North Pole. It was a chance encounter that possibly saved Nansen and his companion’s life, as they were having a difficult time. By then, most of the world considered them to be lost and deceased.

Newspaper caption: Mr. Harry Fisher, the botanist of the Jackson Expedition, who has returned home in the Windward [a sailing vessel of the time], describes Dr. Nansen’s appearance when met by Mr. Jackson on the ice near Cape Flora. “Now we had time to look at Nansen, and it is certain his nearest relation would not have recognized him. He was absolutely black from head to toe. His light hair and mustache were jet black and there was not a speck of white about his face or hands. He looked for all the world like a black man [non PC term was used in original caption], and the brightness of his eyes was accentuated by the grime on his face, which had been blackened by the blubber-smoke. His cloths — the one suit he had worn for 15 months — were stiff with blood and oil with which his face and hands were also covered. Dr. Nansen and Lieutenant Johansson enjoyed what was to them a great luxury, namely, a good wash.

Interesting that the artist of the time still made Nansen’s face white. Perhaps due to prejudices, are perhaps just tougher to draw. I’ve seen some of this same dark patina on expedition clothing when we’ve been provisioned with significant quantities of bacon, but never to the extent it would develop over 15 months of eating meat you hunted and butchered yourself!

Nansen went on to write a famous book, Farthest North, which is said to have helped finance his further endeavors. He also was the first to ski across Greenland, resulting in another famous read. His adventures were amazing by any standard, modern or historic.

The Wikipedia article is quite comprehensive.


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10 Responses to “Skiing’s Original Hard Man — Fridtjof Nansen”

  1. Eric V September 10th, 2014 11:39 am

    I vote for Nansen too. Farthest North is a fascinating read.

  2. ptor September 10th, 2014 1:13 pm

    Check out the rocker on his skiis!!! The way it always was until pistes screwed everything up.

  3. Eric Steig September 10th, 2014 1:29 pm

    And of course Amundsen — probably better known — learned from Nansen.

    And did you know that the sleds we tow behind snowmobiles for research in Greenland and Antarctica still use Nansen’s design, and are still called “Nansen sleds”? Photo here:

    for example.

  4. JonM September 10th, 2014 1:39 pm

    Hmm, nice rocker shovel design of his skis.

  5. Nick Lewis September 11th, 2014 9:17 am

    For those interested in learning more about the great man himself, two great reads are Roland Huntford’s biography of Nansen as well as his history of the development of skiing “Two Planks and a Passion’.

  6. Ken Holmes September 23rd, 2014 5:54 pm

    Hi Lou,

    There’s no doubt that Nansen was one of skiing’s original hard men, certainly in the field of exploration.

    However, in the field of ski touring / ski mountaineering, more credit should be given to a hard man “closer to home”.

    Orland Bartholomew is virtually unheard of and yet he skied SOLO, for about 100 days and about 300 miles from Mount Whitney to Yosemite in the winter of 1928 / 29.

    ‘En-route’, he did the first winter ascent of Mount Whitney and other big peaks in the Sierras.

    He was ahead of his time and had skis custom made that were 2 feet shorter and one inch wider than the ski of the day. From the pictures, they too had a lot of tip rocker like Nansen’s but I think this was probably a function of the bend that could be achieved with solid wooden skis in those days.

    His outstanding feat is described in the book “High Odyssey” written from his diaries. (ISBN #0-8310-7108-7). It is a good read and has some great photographs.

  7. Lou Dawson 2 September 23rd, 2014 6:39 pm

    Thanks Ken! Orland is also covered in a mysterious book called Wild Snow (grin). Lou

  8. Idar Martinsen January 1st, 2015 3:08 am

    Great picture 🙂 Although to see Nansen being fronted for his skiing, of all the things he accomplished, is quite unusual. He was certainly a proper hard ass on skis too of course.

    We will never know the original hard man of skis. Here in Norway there are carvings of skis going thousands of years back.

    In situations of war or crises there have been people succeeding in extreme journeys on skis. And many more who have died trying. Not for recreation, but for forced necessity – my guess is many of those were more extreme than anyone would voluntarily undertake.

    As for today’s equipment and style I think it would be hard to pass by Sondre Norheim (born 1825). He is the originator of the Telemark style and many of his equipment adaptions and designs are still used today. (

    Maybe more important here, he was a crazy recreational skier going down hills and jumping off cliffs when such things were unheard for sane people.

  9. Gulf Stream July 25th, 2015 3:09 am

    Great article! Just that the photo you chose isn’t after the crossing of Greenland in 1881, rather it was after his rescue at Cape Flora at the end of the Fram expedition in 1897.

  10. Lou Dawson 2 July 25th, 2015 5:48 am

    Good catch, I’ll accurize. Thanks, Lou

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