By Stian Ward Bugten & Wil Lee-Wright
Nansen: The Impossible Man
There are lives that seem impossibly full of adventure, studded with achievement beyond the imaginable. These lives are the stories of legend, whose wide and deep footsteps blaze trails for others to follow. Fridtjof Nansen was one such character: a pioneer of neuroscience, founding champion of winter sports, novelist, artist, intrepid Arctic explorer, ambassador, humanitarian, High Commissioner, national hero, international celebrity and Nobel Peace Prize Winner.
Such legendary status is accompanied by both demand and expectation. It requires a location, a place to celebrate achievements, to rest, to present and to get things done. This is the story of Nansen and the Britannia Hotel, his home away from home in Trondheim, which bore witness to one great achievement after another. The comfort and luxury of the heritage hotel was in stark contrast to his near-impossible quests in the Arctic, yet it gave a fitting stage for his exceptional stories and became the pulpit from which he shared his dreams of a new Norwegian nation.
From an early age, Nansen excelled as a talented skier and ice skater and showed the signs of a champion in both. He led the first crossing of the Greenland interior in 1888, traversing the island on cross-country skis. But it was his Arctic expedition in 1893-1896 that won him international fame, leading the crew of the ship Framto a record northerly latitude of 86°14′ near the North Pole. This achievement catapulted Nansen into public life and ultimately towards winning the Nobel Peace Prize.
The Speilsalen Briefing of 1896
In 1896, after his pivotal explorations into the northern Arctic, Nansen chose Britannia Hotel to debrief the geological societies of the world. 247 people came together from far afield, squeezed into Speilsalen to hear the impassioned explorer share his incredible experiences from the Arctic and reveal what he and his team had learned on their venture to the North Pole. Nansen had proven his disparagers wrong, including many former polar explorers, and his stock and awe was undoubtedly at an all-time high.
The revelations of the Speilsalen Briefing must have seemed as far-fetched as hearing an astronaut return with stories from the surface of Mars. Nansen’s journey had begun three years prior, when he set off to reach the North Pole by tackling the Arctic Ocean’s east-west current. Against all established knowledge and advice, Nansen’s plan was to travel East to West, a route thought to be nearly impossible by contemporary explorers. This skepticism was due in part to the murderous westerly winds, and, after such a long absence as his, many would have assumed the worst.
The ideas Nansen had forwarded were considered uncommon and extreme. But he had recognised an opportunity after the American vessel, the USS Jeannette, was found on the southwestern coast of Greenland, three years after sinking off of northern Siberia in 1881. The location of the ship indicated that it had been carried across the polar ocean by the pack ice.
Nansen became fixated on his plan’s potential and conceived of the ship Fram(‘forward’), specifically designed with a rounded hull and features to withstand the pressures of the ice. He intended to purposefully freeze the Framin pack ice and let it carry them to the pole. Nansen launched his ship in June 1893 and tracked the Northern Russian coast to the New Siberian Islands. As expected, the ship froze into the ice of the Arctic Ocean. They then began to slowly drift towards the pole.
The drift was excruciatingly slow and so, after 18 months, Nansen and companion Hjalmar Johansen decided to leave the ship with their dogs and sledges to continue across the ice. They succeeded in reaching a record northerly latitude of 86°14′.
Nansen’s groundbreaking techniques for polar travel, as well as innovations in equipment and clothing, influenced a generation of subsequent Arctic and Antarctic expeditions. His arrival home was heralded by a series of triumphant receptions, which began the next stage of his remarkable career. After his expedition to the North Pole, Nansen turned to politics and used his newfound status to lobby for the end of Norway’s union with Sweden.
The Return to Britannia for Norway’s Independence
In 1905, as one of Norway’s most prominent citizens, Nansen sought to end Norway's union with Sweden. He was instrumental in persuading Prince Carl of Denmark to accept the throne of the newly independent Norway.
Nansen met at the Britannia Hotel with individuals from Norwegian high society to draft and plan the signing of the nation’s sovereign charter and departure from Sweden. Staying with him at Britannia was the Prime Minister Christian Michelsen, Foreign Minister Jørgen Løvland, Minister in Copenhagen Fritz Herman Wedel Jarlsberg and other foreign diplomats.
“Minister Wede-Jarlsberg held a dinner for the Frenchlegation,” read the newspaper Adresseavisen. “And at the same time, we learn that the King had a stroll down the street followed by two cavaliers. The Messrs were dressed in sivil, and not recognised.”
Between 1906 and 1908, Nansen served as the Norwegian representative in London, where he helped negotiate the Integrity Treaty that guaranteed Norway's status as an independent nation. From this pivotal meeting at Britannia, Nansen's pioneering spirit left the icy wilderness to focus on diplomacy, humanitarian efforts and global development.
The Fram expedition -
A Timeline of Events
24 June 1893 |The Framset out on her first expedition. Fridtjof Nansen was in charge of the scientific side of the expedition and Otto Sverdrup captained the ship.
21 July 1893 |The Framleft Vardø, on the northern tip of Norway, bound for the New Siberian Islands. By 22ndSeptember, they had reached the ice. Frambegan drifting with the ice.
14 March 1895 |Fridtjof Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen left the ship and set out with three dog-drawn sledges in a bid to make it to the Pole across the ice. They abandon the attempt on 9thApril, by which time they had reached 86° 14' ̒N.
16 October 1895 |The Framfound that its northernmost point reached was 85° 57' N. The Fram, with the rest of her crew, continued to drift westwards along the 85th parallel up until February 1896, when the current turned her southwards.
May 1896 |The Framcrew left their shelter and in two lashed kayaks made their way along the coast, reaching Cape Flora on 17thJune. There, by a remarkable coincidence, they met the British explorer F. G. Jackson, who took them back to Norway on board his ship the Windward.
13 August 1896 |The Framfinally emerged from the ice off the north coast of West Svalbard, the same day that Nansen arrived in Vardø.
20 August1896|Captain Sverdrup brought the ship safely to harbor in Skjervøy, not far from Tromsø.
9 September1896|The Framreturned in triumph to her port of departure, Oslo, bringing with her a wealth of valuable scientific materials from regions of the planet never before visited by mankind.
1896 | Fridtjof Nansen holds a debrief for the geological societies of the world at Britannia Hotel, Trondheim. 247 people came together from far afield, seated in Speilsalen.