History is replete with tales of polar explorations that devolved into ordeals of unimaginable suffering. In May 1845 Sir John Franklin, a veteran British sea captain, set sail from England with 128 crewmen on two naval vessels, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, to find the Northwest Passage to the Pacific. Two months later, whalers encountered the ships in Baffin Bay, between Baffin Island and the west coast of Greenland. Then they disappeared. It took a decade for search parties to piece together the crew’s fate. Trapped in the Arctic ice pack and dying of scurvy, the men had abandoned the ships and marched south through the Canadian wilderness, where they perished one by one of exposure and starvation. Some turned to cannibalism.
Three decades after Franklin’s mission, the USS Jeannette departed from San Francisco with a plan to cruise through the Bering Strait and reach the North Pole. Its captain, George Washington De Long, had fallen for a much-derided theory that the “dome of the world” was covered by warm, ice-free water. As Hampton Sides vividly described in his 2014 best seller, In the Kingdom of Ice, the Jeannette also became icebound. It remained stuck for twenty-one months before De Long and his crew set forth on a thousand-mile trek over half-frozen water to the Siberian mainland. Most of the men died.
Then there was the most extraordinary misadventure of them all: Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 attempt to traverse Antarctica on foot, the last major expedition in the age of Antarctic exploration. Shackleton’s ship, HMS Endurance, became caught, like its predecessors, in the ice pack, then was crushed and sank, leaving the crew stranded on an ice floe. After months surviving in primitive camps as the ice drifted north, the men set off in lifeboats and reached an uninhabited rock called Elephant Island. From there, Shackleton and five others embarked on an eight-hundred-mile odyssey in an open boat to South Georgia Island, where they organized a successful rescue of the remaining crew.
What is it about these stories that exerts such a hold over the imagination? The expedition leaders were in almost all cases men with enormous egos and more than a touch of hubris, and there’s a ghoulish fascination in watching them push their crews toward catastrophe. The marooned adventurers endured unfathomable suffering, ranging from extreme cold to endless nights to hideous diseases such as scurvy, a vitamin-C deficiency that rots the flesh and teeth, swells the limbs, causes excruciating pain, and if left untreated usually results in death. But they also demonstrated remarkable teamwork, courage, and ingenuity, as they struggled to stay alive in the world’s most hostile regions. Then there’s the metaphoric power of the ice itself—inimical to life, filled with hidden menace, the ultimate symbol of nature’s indifference to man.
Madhouse at the End of the Earth: The Belgica’s Journey into the Dark Antarctic Night by Julian Sancton is the latest addition to the genre of polar expeditions gone wrong. Six years ago Sancton, an editor for Departures, noticed a reference to a star-crossed and largely forgotten 1897 expedition to Antarctica in a New Yorker feature about isolation training at a volcanic crater in Hawaii for a planned three-year voyage to Mars. The Belgica had ended up trapped in the ice for eighteen months before limping back to South America, an experience that, NASA scientists believed, offered lessons for coping with prolonged confinement and the stresses that came with it. “Future space expeditions will resemble sea voyages much more than test flights, which have served as the models for all previous space missions,” the NASA consultant and behavioral scientist Jack Stuster wrote in Bold Endeavors: Lessons from Polar and Space Exploration (1996). A mention in the New Yorker article of a “madhouse promenade” around the stranded ship further intrigued Sancton, who began piecing together the tale from a trove of journals left by many of the nineteen-man crew. The result of his research is a vivid horror story, charting the men’s step-by-step slide toward insanity and the courageous efforts of a handful on board to save them from annihilation.
The figure at the center of Sancton’s narrative is Adrien de Gerlache de Gomery, an aristocratic Belgian from a long line of distinguished military officers. Gerlache was a pacifist who had no interest in soldiering, choosing instead to build model ships and study ocean navigation, a rare obsession in a country with a forty-mile coastline, a tiny navy, and a thin history of maritime adventure. In his twenties the resourceful and ambitious Gerlache conceived of a voyage that would take his ship below the 70th parallel south—a feat that only three previous polar explorers had accomplished. (Among them were James Cook, who reached it on his second voyage around the world, and James Clark Ross, who crossed the 78th parallel during his 1840 expedition in the Erebus and the Terror—the two ships that would later meet a terrible fate at the opposite end of the world.)
The expedition got off to a promising start. Gerlache acquired a sturdy refitted whaling vessel in Norway and raised money from wealthy Belgian investors by promoting the voyage as a patriotic endeavor that would burnish the small nation’s stature. He set forth a lofty scientific goal: reaching the Southern Magnetic Pole, the shifting point in the Southern Hemisphere where all geomagnetic field lines are directed vertically upward; it was then situated in Victoria Land, on the opposite side of Antarctica from South America, far beyond where any explorer had ever ventured.
Yet Gerlache struggled to find qualified Belgian seamen, bringing on friends with no nautical experience and hiring third-rate crewmen with sketchy resumés: the chief engineer couldn’t fix an engine and the ne’er-do-well cook had had an ear bitten off during his stint in the French Foreign Legion. Eventually Gerlache was obliged to fill the ranks with Norwegians—some of them equally unqualified—angering the Belgians and setting the stage for trouble. He was a skilled navigator and sailor, Sancton writes, but he proved reluctant to assert his authority, and the crewmen, many of them hard-drinking toughs, quickly sized him up as a pushover:
Aloof and sensitive, with an intellectual disposition, he was not the type of exhortative leader who could inspire his men to prove their devotion to the mission. Nor was he a natural disciplinarian or a hothead…. And de Gerlache had few means of imposing discipline even if he’d been so inclined. Since the Belgica had no official naval commission—she technically flew under the burgee of the yacht club of Antwerp—he could not threaten a court martial or keep offenders in shackles. The commandant’s only recourse was to kick insubordinate soldiers off his ship, and stops on the way to Antarctica were few and very far between.
Once the Belgica set sail from Antwerp, the problems multiplied. An engine broke down as soon as the ship entered the open sea. The Belgians and Norwegians quarreled and came to blows, and a rift opened up as well between the French-speaking Belgians from Wallonia and the Dutch-speaking Belgians from Flanders. Sailors threatened mutiny. Rats got onto the ship during a stopover in Punta Arenas, Chile. A storm nearly sank it in the Beagle Channel, and a popular young Norwegian sailor fell overboard and drowned in the frigid waters of the South Atlantic as the rest of the crew helplessly looked on.
As Sancton tells it, Gerlache had far better luck with the officers and scientists who rounded out the Belgica’s manifest. He draws fascinating portraits of two men in particular. One was a last-minute hire named Frederick A. Cook, a physician and Arctic explorer from Brooklyn who had achieved splendid feats in the far north but had both a reputation for embellishing his accomplishments and a P.T. Barnum–like huckster streak: after one trip to Greenland in 1893 he had dragged two Inuit teenagers and a dozen huskies on a lecture tour across America to raise funds for a proposed expedition to Antarctica. (Most of the dogs died during the New York summer.)
Following a second trip to Greenland in which his ship struck an iceberg and had to be abandoned, Cook returned in humiliation to the United States, but he wasted no time in trying to organize another polar voyage. The steel magnate Andrew Carnegie refused to finance his proposed American Antarctic Expedition, so Cook sought out Gerlache, who, having failed to find a qualified ship’s doctor in Belgium, agreed to pick him up when the boat reached Rio de Janeiro. “To the doctor’s new shipmates, Cook must have appeared less like a sober physician than a character from an operetta,” Sancton writes.
They would have been struck by his peninsula of a nose. His fine clothes, too warm for the weather, together with his thick beard and the gold teeth in his big American smile, brought to mind an Alaskan prospector who had struck it rich.
The other fortuitous hire was Roald Amundsen, a tough-as-nails, twenty-four-year-old Norwegian who viewed the Belgica expedition as preparation for his all-consuming ambition: to lead his own team to the North or South Pole. In Tierra del Fuego, the volcanic wilderness at the tip of South America, writes Sancton,
he set daily challenges for himself, such as summiting the nearest snow-capped peak, walking across a vertiginous ridge no wider than a horse’s back, or swimming across frigid mountain streams. The more exhausting the climb, the more miserable the elements, the more Amundsen enjoyed himself. He liked to imagine how he might appear to someone watching his exploits from afar, comparing himself to a “slinking panther” or, in one instance, to Ibsen’s picaresque hero Peer Gynt. He would return to the Belgica cold, wet, tired, sore, muddied, lacerated, and happier than he’d ever been.
As the Belgica left civilization behind and reached the shores of Antarctica, Cook and Amundsen formed a tight bond, born of their shared fascination with the world’s harshest environment and their confidence on the ice. “Amundsen admired the calm, methodical way in which the doctor climbed, a skill he’d acquired—like the sealskin clothes—in Greenland,” Sancton writes. “His movements were precise and confident, as if he were performing surgery.” The scientific team aboard, including Emile Racovitza, a Romanian zoologist whose satirical cartoons entertained the men in the early part of the voyage, and the Polish geologist Henryk Arctowski, also threw themselves into their hostile environment with enthusiasm. Clambering over the ice to collect geological and animal samples, they marveled at the life that teemed around them on the land and in the sea, countering the image of Antarctica as a wasteland. “Among the most pervasive smells was the rotten-seafood reek of penguin rookeries,” Sancton writes.
These nesting colonies, slathered in guano that stained the snow blood red, could be detected hundreds of yards away by their acrid scent and the braying of their inhabitants. Of all the creatures the men encountered, none were as entertaining to them as penguins, with their comical waddle—reminiscent of the choppy way people walked in motion pictures, a technology that the Lumière brothers had demonstrated in Brussels just two years earlier—and their complex societies.
But the long scientific forays, coming after all the mishaps on the way to Antarctica, slowed the Belgica’s progress and forced Gerlache to make a decision: abandon the mission before the winter set in or push on toward Victoria Land and risk entrapment in the ice. He was well aware that the ship was not equipped for the Antarctic winter—it carried only four sets of clothing to protect against extreme cold. But he couldn’t bear to face the humiliation of retreating to South America after barely a year at sea, so, as Sancton damningly documents, he was willing to play with his men’s lives. Gerlache even welcomed the prospect of an enforced sojourn in the ice: it would stretch the journey to a respectable length, make a dramatic story, and burnish his legend. The Belgica continued its voyage through the freezing Bellingshausen Sea, with predictable results. “Unfurled all the sails,” Gerlache wrote tersely in his diary on March 5, 1898, as the ice closed around them. “The ship doesn’t move.”
At first, the men rose energetically to the challenge. They prepared the ship for the winter—furling and stowing the sails, constructing a berm of snow around the hull to protect it from the cold—and established routines to alleviate the tedium. But the sameness of the rapidly shortening days sank their spirits, as did the realization that their captain had deliberately marooned them. Sancton brilliantly conjures the mounting claustrophobia as the sun dipped below the horizon for the winter, beginning seventy days of around-the-clock darkness.
The men grew listless, stopped exercising, abandoned their chores, lost track of time, and retreated to their bunks. The hapless cook served the same soft, tasteless glop from cans every night, eliciting disgust and deepening the men’s despair. (Amundsen was the only one who seemed genuinely happy with the meatball and fishball cuisine.) “Around the tables, in the laboratory, and in the forecastle, men are sitting about sad and dejected, lost in dreams of melancholy,” Cook wrote in his diary. “We are at this moment as tired of each other’s company as we are of the cold monotony of the black night.”
Even the ship’s cat, Nansen, named after Amundsen’s hero, the polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen, sank into lethargy and later died. Nansen’s absence unleashed a new kind of horror:
Those who lay awake in their bunks were tormented by the squeaks coming up through the floorboards. The only creatures seemingly unaffected by the oppression of obscurity were the rats…. Rats are mostly nocturnal; darkness is their element. Since they’d embarked in Punta Arenas, the rodents had already produced several generations. After Nansen the cat lost interest in hunting, there was nothing to stop their proliferation. Their cries resounded across the ship and in the minds of the men trapped in the semiconscious limbo between wakefulness and sleep. It was as if the rats were scurrying through their brains.
As the purgatory ground on, Gerlache retreated to his cabin with migraines, chronic fatigue, and other ailments, ceding leadership to Amundsen and Cook. Sancton balances the portrait of gloom and despair aboard the Belgica with extraordinary scenes of courage and altruism. Cook in particular rose to the occasion. While Gerlache brooded in his bunk, the ship’s doctor remained in constant motion, circulating among the men, comforting them, keeping their minds occupied with activities such as the “madhouse promenade,” an exercise routine around the ship. He developed a primitive form of light therapy, placing the sickest members of the crew before the ship’s glowing coal stove, a “baking treatment” that dramatically improved their physical and mental health.
Cook was also the first on the ship to recognize the men’s lethargy, headaches, and swelling extremities as symptoms of scurvy. Like many vessels during this period, the Belgica had brought along a supply of lime juice concentrate, but the distillation process leached out its antiscorbutic properties and made it useless as a remedy. From his many trips to the Arctic, Cook knew that the Inuit stayed healthy on a diet of fresh whale and seal meat. He persuaded the skeptical crew to eat vitamin-rich fresh penguin roasted in blood and cod-liver oil, and they quickly recovered. (Amundsen devoured the meat raw; Gerlache refused the diet and stayed sick for months.)
Cook and Amundsen spent hours in animated discussions about their dreams and schemes: creating whaling stations in the Shetlands, harvesting penguin guano to eradicate hunger, transforming the Sahara into a vast pasture for sheep farming, building a “new Ark” that would redistribute animals around the globe. Their musings, writes Sancton, “were as vivid as the pack was bleak, as sunny as the night was dark.”
Despite Cook’s efforts to help his crew psychologically, some slipped over the edge. The men drew parallels between themselves and the doomed crew of Samuel Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” about an accursed voyage to the South Pole. “The expeditioners did their best to conceal their inner torment for fear of being ostracized or sparking panic on board. Yet for some the anguish was too excruciating to contain,” Sancton writes. In some of the darkest, most powerful sections of the book, an experienced Norwegian sailor named Tollefsen becomes gripped by paranoia and convinced that the crew is plotting his murder; wild-eyed and terrified, he retreats to the darkest corners of the ship. The Belgian crewman Jan Van Mirlo loses his hearing and his voice overnight in a psychosomatic breakdown. “Van Mirlo’s insanity struck his shipmates at their core,” Sancton observes.
It was one thing to be depressed, to suffer from despair, or even to be worn down by physical maladies…. But Van Mirlo’s unraveling escalated the sense of terror that had been simmering on board for months. He was simultaneously an augury of the worst that the men feared for themselves and a vector of fear…. The sailor’s condition was a particularly extreme manifestation of the generalized panic that most were barely managing to keep contained.
The second summer in Antarctica brought crushing disappointment. The warming weather failed to dislodge the ship from the ice, and the men began to confront the unthinkable prospect of enduring another winter in Antarctica. Gerlache abandoned his dream of sailing to Victoria Land and oversaw various plans to set the boat free. As thrillingly recounted by Sancton, these efforts raised hopes, which went the way of everything else on the expedition. The explosives, kept below deck in the cold and damp, fizzled out. The crew’s marathon attempt to saw a channel through the ice to open water ended in despair when the ice sealed the gap shut.
Eventually, the men did make it out, though I won’t reveal how. Their return to civilization was difficult. Staring at their reflections after coming ashore in Punta Arenas, they were shocked by what they saw. “Our skins were rough, like nutmeg-graters,” Cook wrote. “Our hair was long, stubborn, and liberally lined by bunches of gray, though the eldest among us was less than thirty five years of age.” One deckhand who had been desperately sick aboard the Belgica succumbed shortly after arriving in Chile—the third member of the expedition to die during the journey. Gerlache retreated to the South of France, where he slowly recovered from his debilitating headaches and chronic fatigue, and was tormented by guilt for having deliberately led his men into disaster. The Norwegian sailor Tollefsen refused to board the ship again in South America, convinced that it was haunted. He eventually found his way back to Norway and wound up in a mental institution, where he remained for the rest of his life.
The men who had performed heroically aboard the Belgica waited only a short time before returning to sea, where their destinies diverged. Amundsen fulfilled his life’s ambition on December 14, 1911, becoming the first person to reach the South Pole—and a global hero. He disappeared in a small plane in June 1928 while on a rescue mission in the Arctic. Cook claimed to have reached the North Pole on April 21, 1908, one year before Robert Peary, but a chorus of skeptics disputed that account, as well as another claim that he’d been the first person to summit Denali, then known as Mount McKinley. In 1923 he was convicted of running a Ponzi scheme in the Texas oilfields and served seven years in Leavenworth, destroying his reputation. Sancton’s narrative stands as a testament to his bravery and compassion in the darkest circumstances and rescues this extraordinary figure from ignominy.