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Greenland Crossing in the footsteps of Fridtjof Nansen

Louis Supple came to St Andrews in 2007 and graduated with a history degree in 2011. While he was studying here, Louis became fascinated by former Rector Fridtjof Nansen and his polar expeditions to Greenland – to the extent that in 2019 he skied across the Arctic island of Svalbard in preparation for eventually fulfilling a long-held ambition by literally following in Fridtjof’s footsteps and skiing 550kms across Greenland. Here, Louis describes why he became so interested in Fridtjof and his polar journeys. 

I studied history at St Andrews and was just as interested in the rich history of the University and town as I was in my degree. Each year I participated in the Kate Kennedy procession – a parade that involved students dressing up as famous historical figures from St Andrews and the University. The procession included Fridtjof Nansen, who was Rector of the University from 1925 to 1928, and the student playing Fridtjof always stood out because they would be dressed like a polar explorer in a big Arctic down jacket.

Having always been interested in adventure and exploration, I wanted to learn more about Fridtjof’s life, so I went to the library to read about him. For me, Fridtjof’s achievements are really inspiring. He was the ultimate renaissance man: he not only led pioneering polar expeditions such as the first crossing of Greenland – he was also committed to making the world a better place and won the Nobel Peace Prize for his humanitarian work.

When I was at St Andrews, I always aspired to go on a big adventure of my own, but for one reason or another it never materialised, and it wasn’t until a few years after graduating that I finally committed to one by entering the Marathon des Sables (MDS) – an ultra-marathon that involves running over 250kms across the Sahara Desert. The MDS is a self-sufficient race, which means you have to carry everything you need to survive in the desert for a week in your backpack. With temperatures reaching 50 degrees, the MDS is often called the toughest footrace on earth and many people’s idea of hell, but for me it was the challenge I had been looking for: not only did it offer a unique sense of adventure, but I felt it would also test my physical and mental limits. That was in 2015 and the experience really sparked my passion for adventure and endurance challenges. Shortly after returning from the Sahara, I set myself the challenge of running ultra-marathons in three other extreme environments – the Himalayan mountains, the Amazon Rainforest, and the Arctic Circle – which I finally completed in 2019.

Out of all the ultra-marathons, the one in the Arctic was the most rewarding. The pure white landscape was spectacularly beautiful and surviving lengthy periods of intense physical activity in extreme cold felt like the ultimate test of endurance. I also really enjoyed the silence and serenity of the Arctic. I think Fridtjof was onto something when he wrote:  I can tell you deliverance will not come from the rushing noisy centers of civilization. It will come from the lonely places.

For my latest project I returned to the Arctic to ski across Svalbard, an archipelago in the high arctic not far from the North Pole. Overcoming polar bear encounters, arctic storms and crevasses, I skied 200km from the east coast to the west coast of Svalbard. In many ways this was a preparatory trip for more ambitious future polar expeditions, including skiing across Greenland next year– an adventure I have always aspired to undertake since reading about Fridtjof Nansen at University.

My father has just returned from a golf weekend in St Andrews and during his stay he was blessed with blue skies, sun and a cool sea breeze every day. He would send me daily photos of his glorious view looking out over the West Sands and it reminded me of how lucky I was to spend four years at the University. There is no doubt that living in such a picturesque location by the sea definitely heightened my appreciation of nature. I really enjoyed school and university and my experiences there taught me to believe in myself: if you want something badly enough and are willing to work for it, then anything is possible.

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