Sports until you drop, on skis and on gymnastics equipment. That made Fredrik Hjalmar Johansen happy. Because when he was doing sports, the young Norwegian didn’t have to think about his writing disability or about his law studies, which were making little progress. In 1885, when the son of a Christian farming family from Skien was just 18 years old, Hjalmar became Norwegian gymnastics champion. Two years later he broke off his studies, and in 1889 he even became gymnastics world champion in Paris.
This made Hjalmar Johansen the most famous sportsman in Norway. But somehow the taciturn Johansen couldn’t get his life together properly. He kept his head above water with trivial office jobs or as a prison guard. Sometimes he just helped at home on the farm.
When his compatriot Fridtjof Nansen was looking for capable people for his planned drift voyage with the “Fram” to the North Pole, Johansen sensed morning air in his disordered life. He offered Nansen to work without pay, if only he could come along. He was added to the crew – in exchange for wages – as a stoker and dog handler.
In the Arctic, Johansen finally found what he was looking for: silence. And wild nature, where no words were needed, but unswerving perseverance and sure instinct. Nansen recognized Johansen’s qualities and took him along as his only companion on his advance to the North Pole. For a year, the two were on foot on the ice, but without having reached the North Pole. The two were nevertheless celebrated as national heroes in Norway after their return in 1896. But Johansen was not invited to the official tribute at the royal court. That the king promoted him to captain was of little comfort to him. After all, Nansen publicly admitted several times that he would not have survived in the eternal ice without Johansen’s unerring instinct.
So Fredrik Hjalmar Johansen became famous a second time. But again, he couldn’t handle the fame and the daily grind. His melancholy character broke through. He started drinking. He quit his job in the army without giving any reason. In 1898 he married Hilda Øvrum and had four children with her, but the marriage broke up.
In the Arctic, however, far from home, he flourished: in 1907/1908 he wintered with Theodor Lerner on Spitzbergen. At one point he wrote in his diary, “Oh, one has it good here. It’s mostly cold and dark, but you’re free!”
On the recommendation of Fridtjof Nansen, Roald Amundsen took him with him on his expedition to Antarctica in 1910. The declared goal: Amundsen is to be the first man to conquer the South Pole in a race against the Englishman Robert Falcon Scott. Hjalmar Johansen was the most experienced man of the whole crew.
Amundsen’s first advance to the South Pole with Johansen in the team failed: It was still deepest winter, the men suffered from frostbite and hardly made any progress. Amundsen ordered the retreat, but made a mistake: he divided his team into three groups, grabbed the best sled, and hurried back to the base station – without regard for the rest of his team.
And they were in bad shape: a young lieutenant had suffered severe frostbite. Hjalmar took care of him and brought him back alive to the camp after a forced march of 75 kilometres at minus 60 degrees, where Amundsen was already sitting at the warm fire. Johansen confronted Amundsen in front of the assembled crew. “I don’t call that expedition,” Johansen scolded, “I call that panic.”
Amundsen was exposed. And interpreted Johansen’s rebellion as a mutiny. As punishment, he excluded Johansen from the pole group. Amundsen even ordered Johansen on an insignificant exploration, while he himself was the first man to reach the South Pole on the second attempt. When the whole crew returned to Norway, Johansen was not allowed to leave the ship together with the heroes. Once again, Johansen was “overlooked” in the festivities. Amundsen even concealed Johansen’s heroic deeds in his memoirs.
That was too much for Hjalmar. He had been a member of two of the most important explorer expeditions in the history of the world, he had been almost at the North Pole and almost at the South Pole and yet was simply ignored. He sank into the deepest depression. On January 3, 1913, he shot himself in the head in a park in what is now Oslo. Today Fredrik Hjalmar Johansen is considered the third most important polar explorer after Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen.