Recently, at Cape Norway, a shingle beach on the western extremity of Jackson Land in the uninhabited Arctic, I paid homage at one of the most sacred sites of Arctic history. In the giddy era when the North Pole was still the geographical grail, Fridtjof Nansen, the polar explorer’s polar explorer, had an idea about how to reach it. If Arctic ice drifted in the direction of the Pole, why not allow a ship to freeze in, and drift with it? When he tried, the ship refused to come unstuck. After two years imprisoned in ice, in August 1895 Nansen and his shipmate Hjalmar Johanssen set out for help on skis and in kayaks. They travelled over the ice for 600 miles, and when they reached Cape Norway they built a subterranean refuge. To celebrate, Johanssen changed his underwear for the first time in four months. The pair lived off bear and walrus and spent the winter huddled in the same sleeping bag. When the thaw came in May, they paddled for a hundred miles on the wildest of outside chances that they might reach Spitsbergen. Walrus destroyed the kayaks, and food was running out. On June 17 Nansen heard dogs barking. Three hours later he skied round a hummock on Cape Flora in the south west of Franz-Josef Land and saw a man in a tweed jacket. It was the English explorer Frederick Jackson, who happened to be on the spot having set off from England in 1894 leading an expedition sponsored by press baron Lord Harmsworth (Nansen later named the island after Jackson). The two men shook hands.
‘Aren’t you Nansen?’, asked Jackson, scrutinising the shaggy face of the world’s greatest living explorer.
‘Yes, I am, ‘came the reply.
‘By Jove,’ spluttered the Englishman. ‘I’m damned glad to see you.’
The whole world thought Nansen had perished. The two Norwegians went home on Jackson’s ship and reached Norway at the same time as their own vessel, which in the end had unfrozen of its own accord. The refuge at Cape Norway remains, a troglodytic memorial to what men can endure. ‘Polar exploration’, wrote one of the pioneers, ‘is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised.’