SNOWSHOE MAGAZINE FEATURED ARTICLE:

The Use of Snowshoes in the First Crossing of Greenland

The Norwegian legend, Fridtjof Nansen, together with five companions, became the first people in history to cross the interior of Greenland in 1888.

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The Greenland expedition members with their equipment: (seated left to right) Fridtjof Nansen, Oluf Dietrichson, (standing left to right) Ole Ravna, Otto Sverdrup, Kristian Kristiansen  and Samuel Balto. Photo courtesy: National Library of Norway

Nansen began planning the expedition after seeing the mountains of Greenland whilst working as a scientist aboard a research ship and after learning of earlier attempts to travel across the island’s ice-bound interior. He gradually formulated a plan to cross Greenland from the east coast to the west. It was a daring and controversial route offering no line of retreat (previous attempts had begun on the west coast where waters were more navigable and where there were a number of settlements). Nansen was meticulous in his planning for this intrepid journey taking great care to use the most suitable equipment and provisions of the time (the sleeping bags, clothing, skis, footwear and cooking stove he modified himself). He was also careful to select a strong team to accompany him. Hey chose Otto Sverdrup (a sea captain and skier), Oluf Dietrichson (a soldier), Kristian Kristiansen (a sailor and skier), Samuel Balto (a Sami farmer) and Ole Ravna (a Sami reindeer owner) as his expedition members.

Getting started

In June 1888, they were all aboard a sealing ship on their way to Greenland. Numerous attempts were made to find a way through the drift ice flowing south down the east coast before they could begin their overland journey. After many weeks of trying to make land, Nansen realized that navigating the ship through the mass of ice flows was proving to be too problematic. Therefore he decided the expedition members would have to chance navigating through the ice in two rowing boats. They were subjected to strong currents and thick ice. To avoid being crushed, they resorted to pulling their boats up onto ice flows. After a great deal of effort and facing considerable danger, they eventually landed on the east coast but unfortunately found themselves many miles south of their intended landing site.

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The two expedition row boats travelling northwards along the east coast. Photo courtesy: National Library of Norway 

There was no alternative but to row northwards close to the coast until they arrived many days later at Umivik, on August 10th, which would be their starting point across the interior.

The heavy work begins

Their aim was to drag five sledges upwards across heavily crevassed glaciers onto the ice-cap of Greenland. It proved to be hard work pulling the laden loads over such steep, heavily crevassed and icy terrain in appalling weather conditions. At an elevation of around 870 metres (2,800 feet), the gradient eased and the hauling became less exhausting and they began making better headway.  By August 27th they had reached a height of 1880 metres (6000 feet). However, with a continual headwind and difficult snow conditions, progress still remained slow.

At the end of a day’s hauling, each member of the expedition had a particular chore to complete for their overnight camp: their tent was erected, food was cooked and snow melted on a stove. They ate the best, long lasting food available that would provide the necessary calories for heavy labour and would maintain their good health. They slept in two large reindeer skin sleeping bags, each one large enough for three people.

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Their journey across the interior. Photo courtesy: National Library of Norway                                                                    

The expedition’s original idea was to cross Greenland from Umivik on the east to Christianhaab on the west coast. However, due to their taking so long to begin the trip, Nansen was worried they would not have enough time for this planned route. So he made a decision to change course and head further to the south towards Godthaab (now Nuuk), which was a shorter distance for them to travel.

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An overnight camp on the ice. Photo courtesy: National Library of Norway                                                                        

Get the snowshoes out!

However, the expedition continued to make slow progress. Kristiansen injured his knee when he was hauling with skis and the two Sami members, Ravna and Balto, suffered from snow blindness. They then encountered deep and loose snow, making any progress very difficult. At this point Nansen, Sverdrup and Dietrichson decided to use Canadian snowshoes that they had brought along. Initially they struggled and there was a great deal of tripping and catching of legs whilst attempting to pull their loads. However, by adjusting their technique, they began to make better progress. Kristiansen tried using both Canadian and some smaller Norwegian snowshoes, but he found the Canadian snowshoes too cumbersome and the smaller ones made him sink deeply with each step. The Sami Balto and Ravna, didn’t even try using snowshoes referring to them as ‘idiotic things’. These three therefore continued hauling with skis which they preferred. Nansen, Sverdrup and Dietrichson used snowshoes until September 2nd when conditions improved whereupon they all used skis.

They chewed on bits of snowshoe!

During the next few weeks they struggled through the snow and ice in daytime temperatures ranging between – 15C and – 20C, regularly falling to below – 40C at night! They would stop at regular intervals each day for rests and to eat. Their evening meal when camping was usually stew. Food rations were calculated for each man and the melting of snow was limited because it was necessary to ration their fuel. Some men were allowed tobacco and everyone enjoyed their weekly quarter kilo of butter. To keep their mouths moist and to stop feeling so thirsty, Sverdrup and Nansen took to chewing bits of wood shaved off one of the Norwegian snowshoes. By the time they eventually reached the west coast they had chewed through a whole snowshoe! The expedition regularly carried-out navigational checks to make sure they were on course and they also took daily meteorological observations as a scientific record.

Making better progress

By September 4th they had reached the highest point of the inland plateau of Greenland’s ice at 2,720 metres (almost 9000 feet). They continued hauling but on ice that was now on the descent, however the conditions remained challenging and they continued to find areas of deep snow. Some days later, a stronger wind provided them with an opportunity to lash sledges together and raise improvised sails. This allowed for an increase in speed and they managed to cover greater distances for a several days. As they began to loose altitude it, became a little milder. On September 17th, a lone snow bunting was spotted flying nearby signalling they were approaching the edge of the ice. It was Balto who was first to cry out, “Land ahead!” At last, they could see bare land in the far distance. Then the main task was to carefully negotiate a way through the crevasses coming down from the interior. Whenever necessary, they would resort to using ropes and crampons whilst descending. On their way down, they all enjoyed drinking the cool meltwater now found on the surface of the ice relieving their permanent thirst of the past weeks. On September 24th, they finally stood on bare land, and two days later on the shore of Ameralik Fjord. It had taken 42 days to cross Greenland’s icecap.

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Otto Sverdrup standing next to the canvas boat they constructed before rowing to Godthaab. Photo courtesy: National Library of Norway                                                                                       

The final part of their journey

The final part of their journey required building a boat in order to reach Godthaab. So they cut down willow branches that they found growing and by used some of their bamboo ski poles and parts of their sledges to make a frame. They stretched what had been their tent floor over the frame and sewed the two together to make an unusually shaped boat 2.5 metres long by 1.5 metres wide (around 8 feet by 5 feet). They were then able to row along using oars they had also made. Unfortunately, the boat could only hold two people so Nansen and Sverdrup decided to row to Godthaab to obtain vessels and to return for the others and their equipment. Rowing down the Ameralik Fjord to their destination took them five days. As planned, the other four expedition members joined them.

Although relieved at having reached Godthaab and having finally completed such a dangerous journey, they were informed that the last ship leaving Greenland before the onset of winter, had already departed. The six adventurers were therefore forced to stay the winter amongst the Inuit community on the west coast. They lived with local families, went hunting and fishing and they all learnt how to kayak. During their months with their hosts, they were exposed to many aspects of everyday Inuit life which Nansen later turned into a book.

In the spring of 1889 they arrived back in Norway amidst much fanfare and fame. They became heroes in both Norway and beyond for being the first people to cross the interior of Greenland.

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A map of their route across Greenland from Fridtjof Nansen’s book of the expedition.  Photo courtesy: The National Library of Norway.

For a full account of their extraordinary adventure read: ‘The First Crossing of Greenland’ by Fridtjof Nansen.

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About Roger Bunyan

I am a life-long mountain fanatic! I like wild and mountainous places and have enjoyed a range of experiences in the Swiss, French and Austrian Alps, East Africa, Transylvania, Norway, Russia and in the British Isles. Being a winter creature, I love to cross-country ski, walk and snow shoe. I have recently retired from teaching so I'm now able to spend even more time enjoying outdoor activities. In addition, I also have more time to write about them! Retirement is good.

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