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Six polar explorations that didn't make it


Daniel Martins
Digital Reporter

Sunday, August 25, 2013, 12:47 PM -

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper, on last week's tour of the Canadian Arctic, stopped by the scientists who are participating in this year's search for the lost ships of the Franklin Expedition, it was a reminder that one of the greatest Canadian mysteries remains unsolved, even after more than a hundred and sixty years.

Sir John Franklin set out with two ships and a crew of 129 men to find the fabled Northwest Passage. He never returned. 

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Image: Wikimedia Commons

A comprehensive search effort years after his disappearance turned up evidence of what had happened to the vessels, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror - it seemed they became trapped in the ice - but to this day they remain lost. The fate of the crew is partly solved - graves have been discovered over the years - but the cause of their deaths has never been conclusively determined (everything from lead poisoning to cannibalism has been proposed), and Franklin himself was never found.

It's the darker side of the race to discover the farthest reaches of the Arctic, mirrored by similarly epic explorations in the Antarctic. But the expeditions that failed, each in their own way, can be just as inspiring for their tales of endurance and survival.

We've already told you about six great feats in polar exploration.

Here are six great expeditions whose stories earned a spot in the history of the last unconquered regions of the Earth.

The Belgica Expedition spends a year trapped in the ice

The quest for Antarctica was such a huge deal a century ago that even tiny Belgium was compelled to get in on the action – with harrowing results.

The converted whaling vessel Belgica set forth for the frozen continent with a crew of scientists and sailors from at least five countries in 1897.

Source: NOAA

Source: NOAA

It wasn’t an easy voyage. By most reports, the poorly-chosen crew was tough to handle (this account says the ship almost rammed the Belgian royal yacht, and several crewmembers were so unruly they had to be put off the ship in South America, apparently with the help of Chilean troops), and at least one sailor was lost overboard.

It was just the prelude to the nightmare that was to come when, on March 3, 1898, Belgica became trapped in the pack ice, where it would remain gripped until March 14.

There wasn’t much to do as the months dragged, especially when the Antarctic night came and, with it, weeks on end of darkness.

The ship’s doctor, Frederick Cook, tried to keep people’s spirits up with card and other games, with “imaginary” stakes of up to 1000 francs worth of money that nobody had.

He even had to basically force the expedition’s leader, Adrien de Gerlache, to allow the crew to eat seal and penguin meat – a valuable source of much needed nutrients that the captain thought was too nasty, and forbade anyone to consume it.

Despite all these efforts, one crewman died of a heart defect, and another two suffered nervous breakdowns that the doctor struggled to treat on the spot. In a terrible blow to morale, the ship’s cat, Nansen, also passed away, before a channel opened up in the ice and the crew were able to hack their way free.

Roald Amundsen and Engelbret Knudsen, National Library of Norway.

Roald Amundsen and Engelbret Knudsen, National Library of Norway.

Despite the terrible turn the expedition had taken, it was still considered a massive success: Belgica was the first ship to overwinter in the Antarctic wastes, and its crew brought back more than 1,600 scientific samples, as well as invaluable meteorological data.

Dr. Cook would eventually embark on a quest to discover the north pole, only to have his claim disproven, while the ship's first officer, a young Norwegian named Roald Amundsen, would be the first to chart the Northwest Passage and reach the South Pole in the years to come.

Airship Italia

This airship has the dubious honour of being the focus of the first-ever Arctic search and rescue attempt in 1928, when it plummeted onto the ice more than 100 kilometres from the nearest inhabited land.

Photo: German Federal Archives.

Photo: German Federal Archives.

Ten of the crew were thrown onto the ice as the ship’s gondola detached. With nothing weighing it down, the ship’s hydrogen-filled envelope drifted away, taking with it six more crew members, who were never found.

Luckily, plenty of supplies had landed on the ice – including a tent dyed bright red for easy view from the air, and enough radio equipment to broadcast an SOS.

A half dozen nations pitched in for the search and rescue efforts, but the response was uncoordinated, due to indecisiveness and official meddling by the Italian government, and the nearby ship which was meant to resupply the Italia led to a very uncoordinated response. Terrible weather and ice conditions made it worse.

Still, the lost men were eventually found – although one had died after the crash and another perished during a three-man attempt to hike for land.

And indirectly, the search claimed the life of south pole discoverer Roald Amundsen, who boarded a French plane that was never seen again.

Shackleton braves the worst seas in the world to rescue his men

If there’s anyone you really, really want in your corner when your polar expedition goes south, as it were, it’s Ernest Shackleton.

He’d already been on two Antarctic outings by the time he kitted out a new ship, Endurance, for a new attempt. The South Pole had already been reached three years earlier, but his plan was to march right across the huge, frozen continent, from coast to coast, which would be a respectable entry into the history books.

Endurance never reached the Antarctic shore. While navigating the pack ice, the ship became trapped in early 1915, and sank after its hull was eventually crushed.

Endurance in the ice. Photo: National Maritime Museum.

Endurance in the ice. Photo: National Maritime Museum.

Shackleton and his crew had plenty of time to abandon ship with their supplies, and they managed to make their way to dry land over the perilous ice. Trouble was, the land they found, Elephant Island, was nowhere near shipping lanes, and no one would ever think to look for them there.

That’s where the James Caird came in:

The launching of the James Caird. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The launching of the James Caird. Image: Wikimedia Commons

It was just a lifeboat, which the crew had hauled with them from the wreck of the Endurance, but it was all they had. Shackleton and five men piled in and set out for help, on a 1,300 km journey across the roughest seas in the world.

This documentary clip from the Smithsonian pretty much sums up how lousy the journey was:

It went on like this for 16 straight days. And even when they got to their destination, the island of South Georgia, they didn’t dare risk taking the boat around the rocky shores, so Shackleton and two others – with just a rope, some carpenter’s tools, and ship’s nails hammered into their rotting boots for traction – marched through the frigid mountains to a whaling station, where they organized a rescue attempt.

Not one of Endurance’s 28-man crew was lost. And as for Shackleton, he wasn’t done with the continent that had almost killed him. He set out on yet another expedition in 1921, but died of a heart attack early the next year – on South Georgia, the same island that was the destination of his daring quest for help. He was buried there.

USS Jeanette crew goes from the frozen ice to the wastes of Siberia

This ill-fated ship was part of a U.S. effort to reach the North Pole, back then still unconquered. U.S.S. Jeannette was stuck in the Arctic ice from late 1879 to mid-1881 – almost two years.

Sounds bad, but this account from the U.S. Navy makes it sound like that was actually what the expedition commanders were counting on – the ship was in good shape, and was basically used as a mobile science platform as the crew waited to be carried by the ice to (hopefully) open waters that would lead them to the Pole.

Image: United States Naval History and Heritage Command.

Image: United States Naval History and Heritage Command.

The plan fell apart when the ice did, indeed, open up briefly, then slammed shut with enough force to rupture the hull, forcing an evacuation more than a thousand kilometres away from land.

We can’t imagine what it must have been like, but the crew, lugging salvaged equipment and three recovered boats, reached open water and set off for northern Russia.

As if they hadn’t already gone through enough, a storm sprang up, separating the three boats. One was lost, but the other two, though separated, made it onto the mainland.

Image: United States Naval History and Heritage Command.

Image: United States Naval History and Heritage Command.

One party, led by Chief Engineer George Melville, quickly found several aboriginal Siberians, who rescued them. 

The second party, weakened by the elements and lack of supplies, sent two men to get help. They reached a Russian outpost, but weren't able to arrange a rescue operation until Melville arrived at the same outpost.

Melville himself, despite lack of supplies and terrible conditions, set out anyway to try find the rest of the missing party. He found the logbooks of the U.S.S. Jeannette in a cache, but no trace of his comrades.

He went back to safety…and then a few months later, after contacting his superiors, marched back north yet again on a last effort to find the other expedition members. This time he succeeded, and gave them a proper burial before finally setting off back to the United States – more than three years after he set out.

Australian explorer loses his companions, has to trek back to camp by himself

Look at this guy, Sir Douglas Mawson:

Image: State Library of New South Wales

Image: State Library of New South Wales

He’s arguably Australia’s greatest polar explorer, the first to climb the continent’s second-highest volcano and to stand at the magnetic South Pole. And in this grainy shot, he’s completely exhausted after a transcontinental expedition that left his two companions dead.

He, Xavier Mertz and Belgrave Ninnis set out from their base camp on dog sleds as part of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, in late 1912, and made it 500 km across snow and glacier when an ice bridge over a crevasse collapsed, swallowing Ninnis, several dogs, and much of the group’s supplies.

There was no sign of the missing man, and no safe way to search for him, so the grief-stricken survivors started back to base.

Disaster struck again: Mawson’s comrade Mertz took ill and started behaving erratically, before passing away (scientists think the men’s diet was too rich in vitamin A, which can be lethal in large amounts).

Image: State Library of New South Wales

Image: State Library of New South Wales

Again, Mawson carried on, after sawing his sled in half for easier travel – braving extreme cold and the strongest winds on the planet, along with blizzards that slowed his progress. He almost suffered the fate of one of his colleagues, crashing through the ice into a crevasse, with only the rope tethering him to his sled saving him from worse.

Finally, the nightmarish ordeal came to an end, and he finally reached his companions at base camp – only to learn the ship that had come for the expedition had left just a few hours earlier. 

Still, he made it, and was nursed back to health over ten months until the next ship came in. His two lost colleagues were the expedition’s only fatalities, and today, the coastal huts that sustained the expedition are considered an Australian national heritage site:


Scott of the Antarctic

Of all the great races in exploration, probably none was as dramatic as the tale of Englishman Robert Falcon Scott.

He set out for the still-unclaimed South Pole in late 1911, reaching it in January the next year – only to find they’d been beaten to the punch by Norwegian Roald Amundsen, the first person to traverse the Northwest Passage (years later, the legendary explorer would be one of the first to fly over the North Pole).

Scott and companions at the Pole. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Scott and companions at the Pole. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Bitterly disappointed, and running low on supplies in one of the most hostile environments on Earth, Scott’s party of five began the 1,500 km journey back to base.

Two of Scott’s companions died on the way, and the rest, including the explorer himself, succumbed in their tent just 20 km away from the next food depot.

Although at first lionized in the press, eventually criticism of Scott tarnished his image – re-examination of the expedition showed he made key planning errors, such as taking unsuitable ponies and mechanical sleds, who then making much of the journey hauling the sleds themselves (Amundsen’s team had well-trained dogs).

That was the official story, although new research says Scott might have been saved if the men he’d left behind at base had come to meet him with dog teams, as he’d specifically ordered them to.

Scott at camp, 1911. Image: Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

Scott at camp, 1911. Image: Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

Regardless of whether poor preparation, or simply the unusually harsh weather, was the cause of the tragedy, Scott’s story – told through his popular journals – stands as a one of the great tales of endurance in the face of terrible odds.

The Weather Network's own Mark Robinson and George Kourounis are on their own polar odyssey (with much brighter results). You can track their progress here.

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