Chasing Nansen's Ghost

Two adventurers set out across the Arctic in the footsteps of Norway's pioneering polar explorer.

This story appears in the January 2009 issue of National Geographic magazine.

"I think I see land," he said to Børge Ousland, with whom he had spent the past six weeks chasing the memory of two famous explorers across the Arctic. Beginning at the North Pole, the pair had skied 600 miles to this spot off the northern coast of Franz Josef Land, the remote Siberian archipelago where Fridtjof Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen had sought refuge after their own attempt to reach the Pole in 1895.

Like many Norwegian boys, Ousland was raised on bedtime stories about Nansen's exploits. Years later these tales inspired him to make the first unsupported solo ski trek to the Pole, one of 14 visits as a professional adventurer and guide. Now he and Ulrich, a mountaineer and photographer, were following the same harrowing route Nansen and Johansen had taken 112 years before—something no one else had done.

"We had Nansen's book with us, so we knew we were experiencing many of the same things," Ulrich said. "Just like them, we had skis and kayaks, but," Ousland added, "we used parasails instead of dogs to help us go faster. And, of course, we had communication and navigation equipment, while they didn't know for sure where they were. Their old map wasn't correct at all."

The land Ulrich had spotted was the distant coast of Eva-Liv Island, named by Nansen after his wife and daughter. But just because Ulrich and Ousland could see the island didn't mean they could reach it. When Nansen and Johansen first glimpsed Eva-Liv, they figured it would take them only a day or two to get there. In the end it took 13, and they barely made it to land.

In June 2007 Ulrich and Ousland faced the same obstacles. The smooth sea ice they'd raced over for days, pulling their rugged plastic kayaks filled with food and gear, had given way to a chaos of icy rubble that looked "as if some giant had hurled down enormous blocks pell-mell," as Nansen described the same scene. Even worse, the whole jumble was drifting northwest, away from Eva-Liv, one floe grinding against another as currents shoved them from below.

With no choice but to forge ahead, the adventurers took their chances in the drifting ice. Still nearly ten miles from land, they jumped from floe to floe, pulling their heavy kayaks behind them with 40-foot ropes. It was exhausting and nerve-racking. Ousland had already fallen through the ice, weeks earlier, sinking to his waist in the frigid water. Now Ulrich was having flashbacks to a terrifying experience in 2006, when a storm had trapped him on a disintegrating floe off Siberia's Cape Arkticheskiy (see National Geographic, January 2007). Finding himself again at the mercy of unstable ice, he said, "I have to tell you, I was scared."

At night they struggled to sleep as the ice shifted beneath them, "like someone kicking you in the back," Ousland said. The strange thing was the silence. In winter, sea ice makes a terrible racket as it cracks and grinds together, but in the mild spring weather, approaching 32 degrees Farenheit, floes as thick as three feet crushed together soundlessly. At four o'clock one morning, Ulrich woke Ousland to tell him they were drifting away from the coast at about half a mile an hour, according to their GPS device. When they opened the tent, they saw that a huge channel of black water had opened up a hundred yards away.

At that moment they decided to push as hard as possible to reach land. "We agreed not to stop until we got there," Ousland said, "because if we didn't make it to the island today, we wouldn't reach Eva-Liv at all." Heading southeast, they trudged and paddled through heavy fog until they reached a solid ice edge. They'd been on the go for more than 24 hours. Ulrich checked the GPS device for drift. There was none. This ice was firmly attached to land. They had made it.

For the next eight weeks they followed Nan­sen and Johansen's trail southwest through the archipelago, moving from island to island. Once a Soviet military zone and still largely off-limits to outsiders, Franz Josef Land remains virtually as unspoiled as it was during Nan­sen's day.

At Cape Norvegiya on Jackson Island, Ousland and Ulrich found the ruins of the miserable stone hut with a walrus-hide roof where the earlier explorers had wintered over, hunting polar bear and walrus for food. Nansen had picked up crucial skills from Inuit villagers on Greenland, where he had spent the winter of 1888-89. When he and Johansen ran out of fuel for their stove, they used blubber lamps to cook. "I'm surprised they didn't just shoot themselves," Ulrich said, looking at the low circle of stones from the cramped shelter. "The only reason they survived," Ousland said, "was that they refused to give up."

By the time Ousland and Ulrich reached Cape Flora on Northbrook Island, where Nansen and Johansen were rescued by British explorer Frederick George Jackson, they too were eager to make their departure. A friend from Oslo had agreed to pick them up by sailboat but had been delayed by several weeks. "It was a very peaceful place with a small lake, the perfect place to wait three weeks," Ulrich said. "The other islands were just rocks and stones and ice, but Cape Flora was green, with moss and flowers." The only other residents were thousands of seabirds nesting on cliffs and a hungry polar bear and cub, stranded by the lack of sea ice—a consequence of recent climate change. Night after night the bears returned to camp to try their luck, tripping the last of the flares set up to scare them off. In the end the men had to shoo the bears away by dousing them with pepper spray, shooting rifles in the air, banging on pots and pans, and screaming at the top of their lungs.

"We chased them right into the water," Ousland said. "After that we reached an understanding."

On August 13, as promised, the ketch Athene appeared off the coast of Cape Flora, and Ousland and Ulrich paddled their kayaks out to meet their ride back to Norway. After 15 weeks in the far north, the time had come to follow Nansen's ghost home.

"Nansen was way ahead of his time in how he thought about the Arctic and how to travel in it," Ousland said. "For us it was like a holiday compared to Nansen," Ulrich added. "We knew what we had in front of us. He didn't even know where he was and how far he had to go."