Drama in real life: Great polar expeditions that went horribly wrong in history

There are countless amount of expeditions in the past that went disastrously wrong. Here are a few of those expeditions that failed immensely but are still remembered.

History is just full of doomed expeditions. Have you ever thought, what is the largest factor of success in the venture to an unknown? That’s luck. The phrase “on top of the world” carries ebullience and enthusiasm as if nothing could be better than standing at 90° north latitude. But in the cases of expeditions and especially in the cases of the Arctic and Antarctic efforts – planning, flexibility, and the ability to think quickly is highly essential, and lacking these essentials results in the doomed expeditions.

In reality, Earth’s remote North Pole is frigid and barren, an inhospitable region of ice and snow. And finding this last “undiscovered” place became an obsession for European and American explorers in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Let’s look at a few expeditions that went disastrously wrong:

The Lost Franklin Expedition (1845-?)

Desperate to find a shortcut to China and India, European trade interests set their eyes on the Arctic. Hundreds of explorers tried to locate the Northwest Passage, the polar sea route that links the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. But many of the attempts ended disastrously. Finally, on May 19, 1845, Sir John Franklin of the British Royal Navy, set out to find and cross the passage. 

Led by celebrated British explorer and naval officer Sir John Franklin, two of the British Royal Navy’s finest, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, set sail from England with a crew of 128 officers and sailors in search of the Northwest Passage and disappeared without a trace. 

So now, with all this above information, there’s just one question that runs through our minds, and that is what happened to Franklin, his 128 men and their two ships when they disappeared in the Canadian Arctic 170 years ago? 

The retrieved documents of the expedition gave the information that Franklin died in June 1847, two years after he left England. It is also believed that the ship became frozen in a place near the McClintock Channel for a considerable period of time and malnutrition and scurvy were probably rampant among the crew. Despite all this, some of the men were still alive in April 1848.

The Lost Franklin Expedition still is a mystery to many. Why was there a high number of deaths early on in the expedition? Why did the Franklin expedition fare so badly? There was immense amount of speculations, but there was little hard evidence to provide a firmer basis for the theories built.

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After years of surveys, the two Franklin ships were discovered recently, HMS Erebus in 2014 and HMS Terror in 2016. Both shipwrecks appeared in surprising locations, away from where they were left stuck in the ice in 1848.

The Australasian Antarctic Expedition (1911-1914)

Australian geologist Douglas Mawson was the part of Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition in 1907. This expedition was the first to reach the South Magnetic Pole. Expedition leader Douglas Mawson and his companions successfully mapped out little-known terrain, discovered new species, and found the first Antarctic meteorite. Scientifically, the expedition was termed to be a success but one portion of it is considered to be defaced by suffering and death.

Alistair Mackay, T.W. Edgeworth David and Douglas Mawson (L-R) take a grim selfie at the South Magnetic Pole after an arduous trek in Antarctica.  (Photo credit: State Library of South Australia)

 Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic expedition successfully established bases at Commonwealth Bay in November 1912, with two colleagues (Belgrave Ninnis and Xavier Mertz) and 16 huskies. Then on Dec. 14, when they were all 310 miles (500 kilometres) away from camp, one of the men fell into a rift and died taking the sledge down with him which led to the scarcity of food in Mawson’s team.

It was reported that in order to survive, Mawson and his other colleague had to eat their own dogs as they faced the insufficiency of food. Within a few days, the other man also died and Mawson was left alone. Traveling solo, Mawson walked for 32 days and more than 100 miles (160 kilometres) of the Antarctic wasteland. Mawson was back to the base camp but the Australian bound ship sailed away just before he arrived. It is believed that he was forced to stay in Antarctica for another winter with a contingent of six expedition members who were waiting for him.

On December 12, the Aurora (the Australian ship) returned. By December 24, 1913, the two-year expedition of Mawson was over and on February 5, 1914, the Aurora set sail for Australia. It was later diagnosed that Mawson was suffering the effects of vitamin A poisoning after eating the husky dogs’ livers.

The Australasian Antarctic Expedition is today regarded as one of the greatest polar scientific expeditions of all times because of the detailed observations in magnetism, geology, biology, and meteorology that were made.

The Terra Nova Expedition (1910-1913)

History gives you very little chance to have an extraordinary instance of a direct comparison. By this, I mean, the Terra Nova Expedition was all about two separate teams attempting to reach the same goal, at the same time, with catastrophically different results. In 1911, the two teams headed for the South Pole, without any clue of the existence of the other.

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Terra Nova was led by Captain Robert Scott (the British leader) while the other ship was headed by Roald Amundsen, who was a Norwegian leader. Scott did not know Amundsen before the start of the expedition until he came across the evidence of the other team after many weeks into the trip.

It is believed that Terra Nova was certainly a doomed expedition because every single decision made by Captain Robert Scott directly led to the tragic end to the journey made by them. While in contrast, Roald Amundsen, who was leading the other secretive expedition became the first man to set foot on the South Pole when he arrived there on December 14, 1912.

Amundsen and his team won the 99 day race. One of the biggest mistakes made by Scott was that he romanticised dogs as a travelling tool during his expedition, instead of horses. This was simply his bad decision as he later found that dogs were difficult to deal with. He was feeding his dogs with dried fishes, which they did not agree to. Ultimately all this made them sick and they became hard to handle. They also ran the sledges too fast, making it hard for his men to handle them.

Another mistake he did was that he took five men to the expedition with him, despite the fact that that the trip was planned for four men. He miscalculated the calories he and his men would need to consume daily for such arduous work at high altitudes in terrible weather conditions and this led to a terrible disaster later. Also, Scott’s team was a scientific exploration team, so they were collecting rock samples as they went and we all know rocks are heavy. These were few of the mistakes that led to the failure of the Terra Nova Expedition.

While on the other hand, Amundsen trained himself and his men on skis for three years before embarking. They travelled light. They knew their dog teams intimately. Four of his five men knew how to navigate. He was not out there for scientific exploration, but to achieve a single goal.

Roald Amundsen became the first explorer to reach the south pole. (Photo credit: History.com)

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