Use Of Snowshoes In The First Crossing of Greenland

The Norwegian legend, Fridtjof Nansen, and five companions became the first people in history to complete the expedition to cross Greenland’s interior in 1888. Of course, snowshoes were also part of his expedition, even if for only a short while (and unexpected way). Here is the story of these incredible adventurers.

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

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The Plan

Nansen began planning the expedition after seeing Greenland’s mountains whilst working as a scientist aboard a research ship. 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 of the crossing had begun on the west coast, where waters were more navigable, and there were some settlements.

Nansen was meticulous in his planning for this intrepid journey and took great care to use the most suitable equipment and provisions of the time. In fact, the sleeping bags, clothing, skis, footwear, and cooking stove he modified himself.

He was also careful to select a strong team to accompany him. He 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.

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map of first crossing of Greenland by Nansen

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

Getting Started

In June 1888, Nansen and all 5 expedition members were aboard a sealing ship to Greenland from Norway. 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 proved to be too problematic. Therefore, he decided the expedition members would have to take their chances 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. Unfortunately, though, they found themselves many miles south of their intended landing site.

So, there was no alternative but to row northwards close to the coast to reach their landing site. They arrived many days later at Umivik, on August 10, 1888, which would be their starting point across the interior.

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

The Heavy Work Begins

The aim was to drag five sleds 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.

When they reached 870 metres (2,800 feet), though the gradient eased, the hauling became less exhausting, and they began making better headway.  By August 27, 1888, they had reached a height of 1880 metres (6000 feet). However, with a continual headwind and difficult snow conditions, progress remained slow.

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 decided to change course and head further to the south towards Godthaab (now Nuuk), which was a shorter distance for them to travel.

Furthermore, after each grueling day, there was still more work to be done. Each member of the expedition had a particular chore to complete for their overnight camp. They erected their tent, cooked food, and melted snow on a stove for drinking water. The expedition members ate the best, long-lasting food available to provide the necessary calories for heavy labour and maintain their good health. They slept in two large reindeer skin sleeping bags at the end of the day, each one large enough for three people.

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

Get The Snowshoes Out

In addition to the expedition’s slow progress, Kristiansen injured his knee when he was hauling the sled with skis. Then, the two Sami members, Ravna and Balto, suffered from snow blindness.

The group encountered deep and loose snow, which exacerbated the situation, and made any progress very difficult. At this point, Nansen, Sverdrup, and Dietrichson decided to use the Canadian snowshoes they had brought along.

Balto and Ravna didn’t even try using snowshoes, referring to them as ‘idiotic things.’ Similarly, Kristiansen tried using both the 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.

Nansen, Sverdrup, and Dietrichson struggled initially, 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 on their snowshoes.  These three expedition members used snowshoes until September 2nd, when conditions improved.

They chewed on bits of snowshoe!

During the next few weeks, they struggled through the snow and ice in daytime temperatures ranging between – 15 C and – 20 C (5 F to -4 F), regularly falling to below – 40C (-40 F) at night! 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.

They would stop at regular intervals each day for rest and to eat. Their evening meal when camping was usually stew. Some men were allowed tobacco, and everyone enjoyed their weekly quarter kilo of butter. Food rations were calculated for each man, and the melting of snow for drinking water was limited because it was necessary to ration their fuel.

So, 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!

Nansen Greenland expedition: men crossing the interior of Greenland with their sleds

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

Making Better Progress

By September 4, 1888, Nansen and his fellow expedition members 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 sleds together and raise improvised sails. These sails allowed for an increase in speed, and they managed to cover greater distances for several days. As they began to lose altitude, it became a little milder.

On September 17th, a lone snow bunting was spotted flying nearby, signalling they were approaching the ice’s edge. It was Balto who was first to cry out, “Land ahead!” At last, they could see bare land in the far distance.

After spotting bare land, 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 24, 1888, all 6 members of the expedition crew finally stood on bare land. Then, two days later, they arrived on the shore of Ameralik Fjord. It had taken 42 days to cross Greenland’s icecap.

The Final Part Of Their Journey

After reaching the Ameralik Fjord, the final part of their journey required building a boat to reach Godthaab (now Nuuk).

So they cut down willow branches that they found growing and used some of their bamboo ski poles and parts of their sleds to make a frame. They stretched what had been their tent floor over the frame and sewed the two together. This engineering made an unusually shaped boat 2.5 metres long by 1.5 metres wide (around 8 feet by 5 feet).

The crew was 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 then 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.

Nansen Greenland expedition: man with canvas boat used to row to Nuuk

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

The Aftermath

Although relieved at reaching Godthaab and finally completing such a dangerous journey, they were informed that the last ship leaving Greenland before the onset of winter had already departed.

The six adventurers, therefore, stayed the winter amongst the Inuit community on the west coast. They lived with local families, went hunting and fishing, and they all learned how to kayak. During their months with their hosts, they were exposed to many aspects of everyday Inuit life. Later, Nansen turned his experience 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 Greenland’s interior.

For a full account of their extraordinary adventure, read ‘The First Crossing of Greenland’ by Fridtjof Nansen, Volume 1 and Volume 2.

Purchase the English translated versions at:

Bookshop.org (Volume 1)
Bookshop.org (Volume 2)
Amazon (Volume 1)

What are your thoughts about this incredible adventure? Have you read Nansen’s book about his expedition, ‘The First Crossing of Greenland’?

This article was originally published on April 8, 2015, and updated on December 9, 2020, to include new information.

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About the author

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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