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The History of

Polar Expeditions

from the Archives


 

From debated mysteries to exceptional survivals, the polar history books tell us of trailblazing tales that intrigue and inspire with long legacies that are shared by historians onboard your very own polar expedition. Discover some of those stories below…
 

1845 - Northwest Passage: What really happened to Erebus and Terror?

 

It was May 1845 when two ships sailed from Britain to chart the final part of the Northwest Passage, the link between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Teams aboard HMS Erebus and HMS Terror set off with explorer John Franklin towards what is now Nunavut in Northern Canada. Franklin was on his third shot at making the breakthrough, determined to cement his name in the history books. The two ships were powerful, comfortable and with enough food on board for all. There was heating too, keeping the crew safe as temperatures plummeted to as low as -48°C overnight and -35°C by day, freezing the mercury inside the thermometers solid. In theory, the trip should have been a success. A whaler saw the two vessels in Baffin Bay, waiting for the ice to thaw so they could continue their route to the Bering Strait. But that would be the last time that any of the 129 crew were seen alive.

Two years passed with no communication and so search parties were sent out to find the explorers. Unfortunately, no one was able to find any answers. It wasn’t until 1859 that a sole piece of paper gave some insight into the tragedy. The Victory Point Note is a hand-written message in the margins of a standard Admiralty form, stating that the ships had been deserted on April 22, 1848 after they’d become stuck in the ice in September of 1846. John Franklin had perished in June of 1847, the note revealed, and Captain F R M Crozier had taken leave with 105 officers and crew, making their way on foot towards the Back River. Inuit stories gathered by Dr John Rae back in 1854 indicate that some of the ill-fated crew had resorted to cannibalism to stay alive. It wasn’t until the 1980s that researchers were able to retrieve bodies and test them, determining that the remains of the crewmen showed high levels of lead in the bones, likely from the lead that had been used to seal the tins of food on board. The shipwrecks of the Erebus and Terror were finally discovered in 2014 and 2016. There’s still so much to be learnt about the fate of the men who lost their lives in search of the Northwest Passage.

1908 – First to the North Pole: A debated mystery

Unlike the South Pole which sits on solid ground, the northernmost point of the planet is on the sea floor beneath swiftly-shifting sheet ice. As such, staking a claim is much harder. Who arrived first is subject to debate. In 1909, American Robert Peary insisted it was he. While the claim received much fanfare, it was dampened when his former friend Frederick Cook declared it was in fact him that had discovered it first, a whole year earlier. The pair had travelled to the Arctic together in 1891–92 and things had turned sour. Known for his hunger for fame, Peary must have been furious when Cook sought to undermine his achievement. Though it was widely accepted that Peary’s was the better claim (Cook’s was disputed by the men who travelled with him), it remains, to this day, clouded by questions and doubt. In the 1980s, experts studying Peary’s expedition diary indicated that mistakes in navigation and keeping records may have led him to a point 30 to 60 miles short of the pole. And, even if he had made it, Peary was stepping in another’s footsteps. His companion, Matthew Henson, would tell of seeing his own prints in the snow. History wouldn’t remember his name in the same way it would remember Peary’s, perhaps because he was a black man, returning to America with his story at a time of Jim Crow hostility. But with all of his expertise in mushing, sledge-building and the crafting of igloos, it’s unlikely that Peary would have made it to the North Pole at all without him.

 

1910-11 - Scott v Amundsen: The race to the South Pole

 

It was 1910 when British explorer Robert Falcon Scott embarked on a mission to reach one of the last frontiers of exploration. Facing the threat of frostbite and blizzards, the “incredibly trying time” was made all the more desperate by competition. Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen sent a telegram to his rival in 1910. “Beg inform you Fram proceeding Antarctic,” it said, declaring his ship was sailing. The race was on. Amundsen’s base camp was closer to their goal than Scott’s but the harsh Antarctic winter was against them both. By October 20, 1911, Amundsen made a dash for it. Scott relied on sled dogs, ponies and even tractors. Meanwhile, Amundsen was clocking up 20 miles a day on skis and dogs, winding through mountains and glaciers to finally plant the Norwegian flag on December 14. As Amundsen smoked cigars, Scott was a month away. Arriving on January 17 in 1912, reality set in. “This is an awful place”, the defeated adventurer wrote in his diary. “And terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority.” Amundsen’s group returned home safely but Scott’s team, every one, were lost to hunger and frost.

1914 - Shackleton’s Trans-Antarctic Endurance: A story of survival

In August 1914, Ernest Shackleton set out for Antarctica aboard HMS Endurance. He took 27 men with him to complete the ‘last great polar journey’: crossing the continent on foot. In the years after the North and South Poles had flags planted firmly in them, this was Shackleton’s last chance of getting his name into the history books. And it certainly would be remembered, even if not for the reason he’d intended. The Endurance expedition was Shackleton’s third trip to the region and his experience of these harsh conditions would prove crucial once the ship reached the Weddell Sea. The ship became trapped in ice a number of times during the trip, with hard-working crew managing to steer the ship through danger and onward on their mission. However, on 27 October 1915, it could take no more. The wooden ship began to groan under pressure, its stern lifted and the keel and rudder were torn away; Endurance was sinking into the freezing water and Shackleton’s men were in grave danger.
In August 1914, Ernest Shackleton set out for Antarctica aboard HMS Endurance. He took 27 men with him to complete the ‘last great polar journey’: crossing the continent on foot. In the years after the North and South Poles had flags planted firmly in them, this was Shackleton’s last chance of getting his name into the history books. And it certainly would be remembered, even if not for the reason he’d intended. The Endurance expedition was Shackleton’s third trip to the region and his experience of these harsh conditions would prove crucial once the ship reached the Weddell Sea. The ship became trapped in ice a number of times during the trip, with hard-working crew managing to steer the ship through danger and onward on their mission. However, on 27 October 1915, it could take no more. The wooden ship began to groan under pressure, its stern lifted and the keel and rudder were torn away; Endurance was sinking into the freezing water and Shackleton’s men were in grave danger.

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