In “Farthest North”—Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen’s 600-page book about his three-year expedition to the Arctic—a lot of cool stuff in the face of potential death by freezing or starvation happens. In 1893, Nansen and twelve companions built a boat capable of withstanding the dense pack ice, froze it in ice, and tried to drift to the North Pole. They played the onboard organ, eat, slept, and read. After eighteen months, and still 500 miles from the pole, Fridtjof selected the most rugged of his companions—an ex-gymnast named Hjalmar Johansen—picked twenty-eight dogs, loaded up a few kayaks on sledges, disembarked from the boat, and set off north over the ice. Alone in the Arctic for over a year, Nansen and Johansen were pretty cool cucumbers. Fending off polar bear attacks, repairing leaky kayaks, and becoming lost—truly lost—in endless, unexplored terrain? Mere occupational hazards.
But the greatest challenge the pair confronted was less cinematic. Shrewdly turning around short of the pole, Nansen and Johansen were forced to find land before the summer warmth melted the pack ice, which stranded them in the Arctic sea. This they do, but not with enough time to spare before winter moves in again. On Franz Josef Land, Nansen and Johansen erect a crude moss hut, crawl into their double sleeping bag, and auger in for nine months, eating walrus and polar bear and fighting what must have been insidious boredom and cabin fever. Nansen’s diary, once brimming with detail, is barely touched. “Our life was so monotonous that there was nothing left to write about…The very emptiness of the journal really gives the best representation of our life during the nine months we lived there.”
I’d assumed adventuring taught me courage, or sacrifice, or strength, or stamina, the real takeaway was something less glamourous. The greatest lesson I have gleaned is patience.
An alpinist with many a botched expedition under my belt, I pride myself on being able to spend weeks of time doing nothing in small spaces. After all, what’s eighteen days in a shiny new nylon tent compared to nine months in a moss hut sharing a sleeping bag?
This spring, of course, hunkering down has proved less romantic—and far more serious than any expedition. Like many of you, I’d had several months of back-to-back adventuring planned before coronavirus tightened its grip on our modern world: a few weeks of alpine climbing in Denali National Park with my fiancée Alexa and a month of chasing first ascents in another remote corner of Alaska. During the past ten days, we’ve gone from flirting with contingency plans (climbing road trip!) to the gnawing realization that any climbing—any climbing—would be dangerous right now. Instead of fretting over Alexa on an alpine ridgeline, I worry about her when she puts on her nursing scrubs and heads to the local ER for her shift.
We live in northern New Hampshire in a 12-by-12 cabin without running water that our landlords built ten years ago. Professional climbers, they figured limiting space at home would open up a world of travel options. Now, Freddie and Janet live in a real house a hundred yards away with their two kids, but last March, when a fire destroyed our apartment building (long story), they told us to move into the deserted ‘Shabin’ until we bought or built a house of our own.
We boil water for dishes, chop wood for warmth, poop in an outhouse, and try not to drive each other crazy, which isn’t too hard when you can run or climb all day, or shower at the local gym, or grab a burger in downtown North Conway. Suddenly, though, the Shabin’s started to feel a lot like a tent on an Alaskan glacier, or a moss hut on Franz Josef Land. Forced minimalism stings a little more than choosing to live simply, and I find myself gleaning inspiration not from Nansen and Johansen’s skiing, or distance traveled, or operational brilliance, but from their great ability to lay low. With this realization comes another: While I’d assumed adventuring taught me courage, or sacrifice, or strength, or stamina, the real takeaway was something less glamourous. The greatest lesson I have gleaned is patience.
Most expedition accounts breeze through the waiting bits. After all, you don’t want to hear about protagonists reading or playing cribbage. You want to skip to the part where the spindrift avalanche hits, or the guy gets his arm stuck behind a rock. Miles traveled, hours without sleep, pitches climbed…these are quantifiable things. There’s no metric for boredom and isolation, though.
Nansen doesn’t devote much time in his book to Franz Joseph Land. “If depression seized the men’s spirits,” writes David Roberts in Limits of the Known, his celebration of adventure, “Farthest North gives no hint of it.” How petty did the monotony get while Shackleton’s crew waited for his return on Elephant Island? Alfred Lansing’s Endurance focuses on Shackleton’s daring traverse of South Georgia Island. Lansing writes less of the psychological plight of Shackleton’s marooned men. What of Ada Blackjack, the Inuit woman who survived 57 days on an Arctic island alone in 1923? “She later claimed she would have gone nuts if it wasn’t for the expedition cat,” Kate Siber wrote for Outside Online. Then there’s poor Douglas Mawson. After his harrowing, solo Antarctic sledge to safety (the bottoms of his feet literally fell off) he arrived at his expedition’s cabin as his ship steamed out of the harbor without him. He and his six remaining expedition companions had to endure another polar winter because he was a few hours late.
It’s not hard to have these epics whirling around your head when you’re digging out your tent in another Alaskan storm, praying the bush pilot will take pity on you, or running out of things to talk about in sopping hail in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca. I’ll admit: Combating the strange cocktail boredom and uncertainty create so close to home—at home—never crossed my mind. But I’ve suddenly come to relish the time I’ve spent stranded in tents with nothing to do. Now more than ever, this has proven valuable experience.
I’ve always wondered what the hell Nansen and Johansen talked about for those nine months. Two men accustomed to roaming the greatest wilderness on earth suddenly found themselves stuck in a cramped little space. The only books the pair possessed were a navigational chart and an old Norwegian almanac. Did they then take pleasure, as I find myself trying to do, in the smallness of their confines or the simplicity of their forlorn post? Nansen lost himself in his observations on Franz Josef Land, scouring the beach on walks, repairing the team’s already battered boats, readjusting his vision toward the minutiae. The scant diary entries and moments that do make it into Farthest North are funny and sad, similar to the desolate social media posts coronavirus has wrought: “I have discovered that it is possible to get twelve threads out of a bit of twine, and I am happy as a king.”
“This is some Nansen shit,” I tell Alexa as we readjust ourselves to another day of each other’s company in a 144-square-foot shack. I am already driving her nuts; I can feel it. And it’s obviously not comparable. Our vigil has a hangboard, gravel bikes, groceries, Netflix. Nothing can be triter than whining about a missed expedition or two, and besides, what would we have learned by going? The meat of any expedition is being bitten by the unexpected, the unplanned, uncertain moment; the challenge is rising to the occasion with grace. This time, the unknown bit before we left our doorsteps. Worse still, it happened to us all at once.
When spring came, Nansen and Johansen shook out their filthy rags and continued their journey. By chance, they encountered a British expedition on the southern tip of Franz Josef Land. By chance, Nansen and Johansen and the rest of the Fram crew returned to Norway within a week of each other. Throngs of people greeted the once-isolated men.
I’ll miss my tent time, but I know I’ll be back. Until then, I’ll do my best to hunker down like my polar heroes. There is an unkempt beauty at the heart of Nansen and Johansen’s winter sojourn, a slow tempo of patience. In that I now find my solace.
For a terrific biography of Nansen’s explorations, check out Nansen: The Explorer as Hero.