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Fredrik Hjalmar Johansen »Explorersweb

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While Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen sought fame and attention, Fredrik Hjalmar Johansen preferred the dark. Yet Johansen was integral to their success. Only 80 years after his death, Johansen finally earned his place as one of Norway’s most important explorers.

Johansen’s life has been eventful. Struggling to find his place in society, he concentrated on sports. At the age of 18 he was national gymnastics champion. At 21, he was world champion in gymnastics. Preferring solo pursuits, he also excelled in skiing.

An athlete who didn’t like attention

Thanks to gymnastics, he became a celebrity in Norway. But he didn’t like it. The publicity forced him to sink into depression. He drank excessively. But when a new opportunity presented itself in 1893, he seized it.

Norwegian-born scientist and explorer Fridtjof Nansen intended to cross the Arctic Ocean adrift via the North Pole in a unique ship, the nut-shaped ship. Fram. From the remains of another stranded expedition off the coast of Greenland, Nansen intelligently calculated that the drift would carry him close to the as yet unvisited North Pole.

Nansen had held all of his crew positions before, but he saw value in Johansen’s skiing experience. He offered Johansen a place on the Fram in exchange for work as a driver and dog handler.

Johansen savored his time away from the burden of city life and found peace in the wild Arctic. For him, it was an escape.

Fridtjof Nansen.

 

The great Nansen-Johansen trek

Nansen, in turn, recognized Johansen’s competence. When he realized that the Fram was going to miss the North Pole, he invited Johansen to join him in trying to ski and dog sled there. They didn’t quite get to it, but they got a lot closer to it than anyone before. Nansen once saved Johansen when he fell through the ice. On another occasion, a polar bear attacked Johansen. Nansen saved him again.

Eventually the couple withdrew, using the kayaks they kept on top of their sleds to cross open water when they had to. After many adventures, they land in Land Franz Josef, off Russia. Here they spent the long winter, well fed on a diet consisting only of polar bear, walrus and seal meat.

An illustration of the hut on Franz Josef Land, where Nansen and Johansen spent the winter.

 

Their luck continued the following summer when Nansen miraculously met the only other explorer in this region. They were saved.

Although they failed to reach the North Pole, the couple returned to a hero’s welcome. Johansen was again uncomfortable with the attention. He publicly credited Nansen with their successful comeback. Perhaps naive about his abilities, he underestimated his expertise.

When Johansen was in the Arctic, he flourished. Thus, over the next two years, he participated in four expeditions to Svalbard, including wintering with German explorer Theodor Lerner.

Towards Antarctica

Then in 1910, on Nansen’s recommendation, he returned to the Fram. This time he was one of Amundsen’s men heading for Antarctica. Amundsen was the famous English pilot Robert Scott to reach the South Pole first.

Respected and ambitious, Amundsen had an eye on his goal. He had to beat Scott in the race to the South Pole. Amundsen was unstoppable. But Johansen’s own skill put the two at loggerheads.

On their first departure for the South Pole, Amundsen made a critical error. They started too early, again in winter, and it was too cold. Some of the crew suffered frostbite. They made little progress and had to return to camp.

Amundsen showed little respect for his team. He returned to camp with his dog sled, taking cooking supplies and shelter with him. He wanted to stay one step ahead of an impending storm.

Johansen noticed an inexperienced lieutenant in trouble and came to his aid. Through the blizzard, Johansen drove his comrade 75 km back to the camp. He saved the lieutenant’s life.

Fall out with Amundsen

Tempers were high in the camp. Johansen argued with Amundsen, playing down a decision that could have cost lives. Scolding the proud and ruthless Amundsen in front of his men was a pivotal moment in the downward trajectory of Johansen’s career.

Johansen was demoted and assigned to minor duties. Amundsen pulled him off the next South Pole expedition and ordered the crew never to speak about Johansen or his accusations. Indeed, Amundsen made sure that when he was writing his accounts of his possible successful expedition to the South Pole, Johansen’s involvement would be omitted.

Returning to civilization, again unrecognized, Johansen succumbed entirely to depression, seeking solace in alcohol. In 1913, he shot himself in the temple in a park in Oslo.

For almost a century, Johansen was forgotten. Amundsen enjoyed a famous career as an explorer and led expeditions until his demise in 1928. He did not only reach the South Pole and cross the Northwest Passage. Without realizing it, he was even the first to reach the North Pole, flying over it in an airship in 1926.

Nansen was a global superstar, not just in exploration, but as a scientist and diplomat. He made early forays into the nascent sciences of neurology and oceanography and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Johansen received little more than a grave in his local cemetery.

Then in 1997, Norwegian journalist Ragnar Kvam published a biography of this forgotten man. Title: Den tredje mann: Beretningen om Hjalmar Johansen, the book exposed Johansen’s true role in polar exploration. His legacy was finally restored.

Partly because of bad decisions and partly because of his character, Johansen did not make a deserving mark during his lifetime. But now he has rightly joined the great Norwegian triumvirate of Nansen, Amundsen and Sverdrup, as one of the great polar explorers.

About the Author

Chasing Dreams Travel

Alex myall

After 22 years in the exercise industry, offset by long haul adventures around the world, Alex Myall found a better option a few years ago and has never looked back. She earned a degree in travel journalism, supported it with travel industry certificates, and then started Chasing Dreams Travel NZ, her own travel agency.

Now, she combines her love of writing and world travel with running her business from her home on the spectacular south coast of Wellington, New Zealand, while simultaneously being a mother to a beautiful baby girl. She maintains a “life is too short to do things halfway” attitude.


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