Fram (which means "forward") is perhaps the most famous ship in Norway's long seafaring history, and an icon of polar exploration. Nothing about this fat-bellied ark would begin to suggest the grueling odysseys it has endured. The story of the Fram is a modern Norse saga, a story of unimaginable hardship and intelligent striving that is closely tied to Norwegian national identity. The boat itself is an engineering marvel—its reinforced hull having withstood three years gripped by Arctic ice. True to its assertive, full-frontal name, Fram bored farther into the frozen latitudes than any vessel had before.
The prime mover behind the Fram, the brilliant and moody scientist-explorer who commissioned its construction and led its insanely dangerous maiden voyage into the polar mists, remains a national patriarch. His name is Fridtjof Nansen, and although today he is not as well-known outside Norway as other marquee polar adventurers—Peary, Scott, and Amundsen—he should be. For Nansen was quite simply the father of modern polar exploration; all others were, in a very real sense, his acolytes.
Nansen was a strapping blond man, fair complected, with a frosty stare and a truculent face that seemed slightly at odds with the refinements of his intellect. Nansen stood apart from the quixotic glory hounds who characterized much of polar exploration's golden age. Call him a Renaissance Viking: He was a gifted writer, a sought-after lecturer, a first-rate zoologist, and a prominent statesman. Fluent in at least five languages, adroit with a camera, he made beautiful maps and illustrations, kept up a voluminous scientific correspondence, and brought an element of cerebral precision to all his explorations. A contemporary German scientist said of Nansen that he "knew how to handle the microscope as well as the ice axe and skis," and his scientific achievements were notable, including a groundbreaking paper on the nature of the central nervous system.
In 1888 Nansen led the first traverse of Greenland—with typical understatement, he called it a "ski tour"—but he missed the last boat home, forcing him to stay the winter hunting seals, learning to kayak, and living with Greenlanders. This experience formed the basis for his acclaimed account, The First Crossing of Greenland, published in 1890, and a lively ethnology, Eskimo Life. Following his Greenland adventures, he became a leading proselytizer for the sport of skiing. At Oslo's Holmenkollen Ski Museum, Nansen is depicted as a twin-planked deity in furs, a founding father of Norway's national sport.
For all of Nansen's protean accomplishments, it was the harrowing journey of the Fram between 1893 and 1896 that gave his life story real drama. The expedition was predicated on an idea so outlandish that the leading polar authorities of the day, including the Royal Geographical Society, considered it suicidal. Nansen deliberately set out to become locked in the Arctic—or, as he put it, to "give ourselves up to the ice."