Adventure Photo of the Week: Holiday on the Fram Expedition

Every year, May 17 is Constitution Day, Norway’s national holiday. In 1895, 12 Norwegian explorers celebrated it in the most remote place on earth. Led by the great Fridtjof Nansen, they and their ship, the Fram, had deliberately stuck themselves in the ice in order to try to drift to the North Pole. The photo is included in a new book called The Nansen Photographs, about that landmark expedition.

The expedition lasted from 1893-96. When it became evident that the drift was not going to take them over the North Pole, Nansen left the ship with one companion, Hjalmar Johansen, and tried to haul there with sleds and kayaks. Though they too failed, they reached a Farthest North — a kind of consolation prize that explorers claimed when they missed the North Pole but got closer to it than any previous expedition.

How Nansen and Johansen survived is one of the great stories of polar exploration and is too long to recount here. The Fram, captained by Otto Sverdrup, likewise escaped from the ice and returned safely to Norway to sail another day.

The problem with doctors

The photographer of the Constitution Day festivities, Henrik Blessing, was the ship’s physician. Doctors often caused trouble on polar expeditions. They were better educated and more independent than typical crew, and sometimes challenged the leader’s authority, but that wasn’t the problem on this expedition.

Blessing whiled away the time injecting himself with morphine from the medical kit, supposedly to test a theory that laxatives reduced withdrawal symptoms. The experiment, alas, became an end in itself for poor Blessing, who remained noticeably fuddled, even after Nansen left the ship. Clearly, the laxative theory did not work.

Two years later, in 1898, Sverdrup took the Fram on its second great polar voyage. For the next four years, he explored the Ellesmere Island area, in what eventually became the Canadian High Arctic. On May 17, 1899, they too celebrated Constitution Day in their overwintering spot on Ellesmere, a place called Fram Haven, below.

Some years ago, I was on a solo ski expedition and had camped in Fram Haven on May 17. I set up my tent on the sea ice in roughly the same location as the Fram. The lower photo also shows how much even that High Arctic glacier has retreated in the last 100 years.

Fram Haven then & now

Photo: Jerry Kobalenko


Another troubled doctor

Finally, Blessing was not the only Norwegian physician to dip into the morphine. Johan Svendsen, the doctor on this Second Fram Expedition under Otto Sverdrup, also became an addict. When he ran out of opioids, he killed himself. His body was buried at sea, but Sverdrup erected a cross to him at Fram Haven that is still there, etched with the name of the famous ship, below.

Photo: Jerry Kobalenko


It is little wonder that Roald Amundsen, who organized the third and final Fram Expedition — the one that eventually led him to the South Pole in 1911 — did not bring a doctor along.

Jerry Kobalenko

Jerry Kobalenko is the editor of ExplorersWeb. One of Canada’s premier arctic travelers, he is the author of The Horizontal Everest and Arctic Eden, and has just finished a book about adventures in Labrador. In 2018, he was awarded the Polar Medal by the Governor General of Canada and in 2022, he received the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee Medal for services to exploration.