Digging through the archives, I ran across this image from an 1896 “illustrated newspaper” cover. For many of you, Dr. Nansen needs no introduction. The Norwegian hard-ass explorer set the world abuzz with his exploits more than a century ago. Since then we’ve been enjoying the adventure ski culture he helped create. More, he’s probably the only pioneer backcountry skier to win the Nobel Peace Prize!
I’ve heard a lot of statements over the years about who has been the “most influential skier ever.” Shane McConkey gets the latest honors, but names such as Glen Plake, Bill Briggs, Franz Klammer and others have also fit the bill. My vote is still for Nansen. He’s not a household word here in North America and he doesn’t Instagram, but from what I’ve gleaned in my research he and his Norwegian friends are definitely an early and direct root for much of today’s “adventure skiing” culture. As for Shane, he is certainly huge but we’ll see how it all shakes out in another hundred years.
I find the Nansen newspaper caption to be rather interesting and amusing. After leaving his boat (Fram) and attempting to ski to the North Pole, Nansen had been living for more than a year in the same clothing, subsisting on a diet of mostly animal fat, probably seal blubber. Perhaps the skis are the most interesting. Designed more for overland travel than turns, they nonetheless have plenty of rocker.
Nansen was assisted (perhaps a better term is “rescued”) by British explorer Frederick Jackson at the end of 15 months of ski and foot travel while trying to be the first to reach the North Pole. It was a chance encounter that possibly saved Nansen and his companion’s life, as they were having a difficult time. By then, most of the world considered them to be lost and deceased.
Newspaper caption: Mr. Harry Fisher, the botanist of the Jackson Expedition, who has returned home in the Windward [a sailing vessel of the time], describes Dr. Nansen’s appearance when met by Mr. Jackson on the ice near Cape Flora. “Now we had time to look at Nansen, and it is certain his nearest relation would not have recognized him. He was absolutely black from head to toe. His light hair and mustache were jet black and there was not a speck of white about his face or hands. He looked for all the world like a black man [non PC term was used in original caption], and the brightness of his eyes was accentuated by the grime on his face, which had been blackened by the blubber-smoke. His cloths — the one suit he had worn for 15 months — were stiff with blood and oil with which his face and hands were also covered. Dr. Nansen and Lieutenant Johansson enjoyed what was to them a great luxury, namely, a good wash.
Interesting that the artist of the time still made Nansen’s face white. Perhaps due to prejudices, are perhaps just tougher to draw. I’ve seen some of this same dark patina on expedition clothing when we’ve been provisioned with significant quantities of bacon, but never to the extent it would develop over 15 months of eating meat you hunted and butchered yourself!
Nansen went on to write a famous book, Farthest North, which is said to have helped finance his further endeavors. He also was the first to ski across Greenland, resulting in another famous read. His adventures were amazing by any standard, modern or historic.
The Wikipedia article is quite comprehensive.
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.