1893 - 1896 : Fridtjof Nansen,the Fram and the drifting pack ice
The adventure of the Fram stems from the discovery in 1883 of wreckage and notes signed by De Long on the east coast of Greenland. Aware that the Jeannette sank to the North of the New Siberian Islands, the Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen concluded that a current must exist, starting from the icy ocean off Siberia, across the polar basin and onwards to the East of Greenland. And because the scientific world remained perplexed, this curator at the Natural History Museum in Bergen decided to demonstrate his theory. It was straightforward: he would allow himself to be trapped by the ice and wait patiently to be carried towards the immediate proximity of the pole. Having said that, an expedition of this type costs a lot of money. And someone unknown has not the slightest chance of obtaining any funding. So our learned scientist decided to become famous by making a trek across Greenland. He achieved this in 1888 and suddenly the money came pouring in from every corner of Norway. The government, the parliament, King Oscar II and wealthy merchants all fell over themselves to contribute. Which financed the building of the Fram (meaning "forward"). This highly individual ship was built like a platform, with double-thickness sides and a rounded design to counter the pressure of the ice.
On 24th June 1893, he departed for the spot where, twelve years earlier, the Jeannette had been trapped by the pack ice. The winter was late in setting in and this allowed the Fram to go twenty miles further to the north. But on 25th September, even the Fram found itself hemmed in by the pack ice. Was it for two years, as planned? No, for three long years. Because the northward drift was slower than he initially thought. What's more, the drift zigzags, which slows any forward movement down even further.
Another imponderable: in the end, the Fram drifted no further than 84 degrees latitude north, forcing Nansen - in March 1895 - to leave the ship with a companion (Johansen) and walk 777 kilometres towards the pole. The two Norwegians reached the 86th parallel. In fact they even went past it, beating all of the records at the time. But the ice was becoming more and more chaotic and as their dogs were dying one by one, they resolved to turn back, death in their hearts.
Yet it was by no means a total failure. Because the Fram, continued on its way before breaking out of the ice and reaching Spiotsbergen off Greenland. Hence in 1896, Nansen's theory was confirmed. At the age of 36, he had become the stuff of legend...
Salomon Andrée and the Oern take to the sky in vain
Back to 1895. The Swede, Salomon Andrée, planned to reach the North pole aboard the Oern, a gigantic balloon filled with gas, underneath which was suspended a gondola equipped with a kitchenette and bedroom. It was with this equipment, financed by the King of Sweden, Alfred Nobel and a rich nobleman by the name of Dickson, that Andrée planned to cover the 1,200 kilometres separating Spitsbergen (Greenland) and the North Pole in under two days. But the wind was not in his favour, so the project was postponed for a year.
Leaving this time from the Danish-ruled island with two companions, our industrial designer hero was to pay a heavy price for the lack of foresight generated by his optimistic nature. By day two of the odyssey, the Oern was leaving its marks in the ice every fifty metres. The next day, this bumpy ride became a crawl and the dirigible ground to a halt with two-thirds of the route still to be completed. The three crew members tried to reach the closest land to where they were (Franz-Josef Land), 350 kilometres away. But the cold overcame their best efforts. Thirty years later, three men were found... and none of them had thought to bring a fur coat to keep out the Arctic cold!
Roald Amundsen : triumph and tragedy
In 1903, Roald Amundsen set himself a maximum deadline of five years to complete a journey that would enable him to carry out scientific measurements in the vicinity of the magnetic pole and also to inaugurate the South-West passage through to the Bering Straits.
His whaler, the Gjøa, may not have been exactly new, but it was certainly sturdy enough, especially once the hull had been significantly strengthened for the expedition. Seven men prepared for the voyage and in the hold were sufficient supplies to last five years, fuel for the engine, six sled dogs and plenty of spare equipment.
He was en route for Greenland and, from there for Godhavn, where he would re-supply and take 10 other dogs on board. On 20th August, the Gjøa entered the Lancaster Straits. And on 12th September, the ship dropped anchor off King William Land. It was to be the first of two winters spent making magnetic, meteorological, astrological, zoological, geographic and anthropological observations.
On 13th August 1905, the ship set off again. It soon passed the south-east cape of Victoria Island, which was the furthest point ever achieved by any navigator (Collinson in 1850). And at the end of the day, the Gjøa made its way through the passage. The hardest part appeared to be over. Yet they still had to cope with a third winter (forced on them by the sudden onset of the bitter cold) and a terrible storm before the Gjøa, patched up from stem to stern finally limped through the Bering Straits. It was 30th August 1906.
While it seemed like a good time for the valiant whaler to head for home, the ship's owner had not finished with the cold. In 1918, Nansen's protégé first planned to reach the North pole by letting himself be carried by the current. But his new ship, the Maud, was blocked by the ice. It was a failure.
In 1921, he doubled the stakes by leaving the Maud in the hands of Captain Wisting in order to reach the pole by aeroplane from Alaska. But the ship was almost crushed by the ice, while the aircraft broke its undercarriage when returning from a test flight. Another (double) whammy. In 1925, a second attempt by air tripped up on account of a mechanical problem. Another fiasco.
So, had Amundsen used up the quota of success that Fate had allocated for him? No. In 1926, he finally flew over the pole in the Norge, a dirigible designed and piloted by an aeronautical engineer, Colonel Umberto Nobile. It was a fine performance by fascist Italy and, personally, by the Italian officer. This was a point of view that would significantly lower the temperature in relations between the two men behind the project.
However, the man who had just been promoted to general by Mussolini wanted more. In 1928, he set off again - this time without his former companion - about the Italia. This dirigible, which differed from the Norge both in terms of its size and the solely national origins of its funding and crew, reached the pole once again. But on the return trip, everything went wrong. The aerial giant smashed its gondola on the pack ice before careering into the sky and disappearing forever. Eight men out of sixteen survived the accident. Six of them, including Nobile, were rescued, safe and sound, by emergency teams. Amundsen, rejecting any notions of rancour, volunteered to lead one of these rescue teams. It was a final journey from which he was never to return...
Robert Peary and Frederick Cook: the vagaries of glory
More than any other, Robert Peary was able to ponder the vagaries of fate as he found himself rejected, adulated and then again refused honours.
Yet the American did not let up in his efforts. His entire life was dedicated to the assault on the North Pole. He first came into contact with Greenland (in 1886), then another expedition - continued in spite of a leg broken by a flying tiller - up to the far North of Greenland (in 1891/1892), a trek that demonstrated that the "green land" was an island - and not a continent reaching up to the pole - (in 1893) and 800 kilometres of training, again across Greenland (in 1894), all served as aperitifs for his first attempt on the North Pole.
|Who reached the North Pole first ?
Cook (on the left) ou Peary (on the right) ?
Since then, it's an endless controversy. antarctica.org takes stock
In 1898, our engineer in the U.S. Navy set out aboard the Winward with his friend and henchman, a black man named Henson, along with Esquimaux and their families who, by helping him to hunt musk ox and reindeer, enabled him to persist for four years in his successful undertaking. Little matter that he lost his toes to frostbite, because a year later he was back again, although unfortunately unable to advance beyond the 84th parallel.
But Peary did not know the meaning of the word impossible and set out two years later, in 1902, again with the Winward, and once again in 1905, with the Theodore Roosevelt. To no avail. It was not until 1908 that a final attempt would be made, again aboard the Theodore Roosevelt. This time, success was awaiting him (6th April 1909). With his team, which Nansen called "the best among all those trying to reach the pole", he went around his objective to make sure he had not made a mistake. "No doubt about it," he mused. "The great day has arrived!" He noted his position, hoisted the flag of Uncle Sam and slipped a bottle between two rocks containing a document announcing that he was claiming possession "of all the area and adjacent areas for and on behalf of the President of the United States". He then took a photo of his five travelling companions: the faithful Henson and four Esquimaux. Just thirty hours later and the return trip was underway. It was to last just sixteen days - twenty-one less than it took to reach the pole. "Thanks to the ease generated by using the track we took to come," Peary would explain later.
Meanwhile, on 6th September, Peary sent a telegram to the United States with a euphoric message: "Stars and Stripes raised at the North Pole". He did not know that five days earlier, another cable had arrived in New York stating that a compatriot, Frederick Cook ... had reached the North Pole on 21st April 1908 - or one year earlier! It was certainly a triumph - but one reserved for his old friend.
Cook was the man who had tended his broken leg during the expedition in 1891/1892. The man who subsequently se off for the Antarctic, aboard the Belgica, with Baron de Gerlache.
The scientific community, however, was disappointed by the lack of proof. The University of Copenhagen was also asking for more convincing proof. Cook made promises along those lines, but they were never honoured. And the fact that he had been convicted of lying for claiming to have climbed the 6,187 metre high Mount McKinley in Alaska, while he had in fact stopped halfway up, did not exactly go in his favour. The short-lived hero was to experience the frustrations of discredit. He would be expelled from The Explorer's Club, then The Arctic Club and finally from The Academy of Science in Brooklyn. Did Cook really reach the pole? Was he mistaken in good faith? Or did he lie? And if he did, was Peary the first person to achieve the feat? "Yes!" said the Washington Geographic Society initially. It too was disappointed by the lack of proof provided by Cook and convinced by the conclusions of a committee of experts appointed by the Society to rule on the truthfulness of the Peary case. "Yes, yes and yes again!" confirmed the geographic societies of London, Berlin and Paris unequivocally, each of which ratified Peary's victory one after the other. But a unanimous assessment was never reached. Worse still: in the 1980s, Peary's claim was fundamentally called into question. The testimony of an Inuit, the navigational readings and the speed (deemed excessive) of the return journey, did not fit in with the version of a Peary who is now believed never to have reached the pole.
In any event, the controversy rages on and is doubtless not about to disappear.
Richard Byrdand Floyd Bennett : the pole seen from the sky
In 1926, an aeroplane named Josephine Ford took off from Spitsbergen (Greenland) for the North Pole. Aboard the plane was the U.S. Navy officer, Richard Byrd, and another American aviation enthusiast, Floyd Bennett. Flying at 160 km/h, the aircraft reached the edge of the icecap in under sixty minutes. It flew over its objective a few hours later. The position of the sun was measured using a sextant. Yes - it really was the pole! They took some photos and filmed some shots as a souvenir and started on the return journey. Despite concerns raised by an oil leak, all went well in the best of far northern worlds. Even the landing went without a hitch after a flight lasting fifteen hours. Byrd and Bennett had succeeded - and this time, there was no-one to pour doubt on the success of the operation.