Time to Eat the Dogs

A Podcast About Science, History, and Exploration

Why Expeditions Fail

Vasco da Gama by Gregorio Lopez, 1524

Vasco da Gama by Gregorio Lopez, 1524

It almost goes without saying that exploration is dangerous work. Vasco da Gama left for India with 180 men. He returned to Portugal with 60.  John Franklin’s 1845 expedition to discover the Northwest Passage resulted in an impressive 100% fatality rate.  Even expeditions to places well-mapped and long-traveled carry risk. Planning an ascent of K2 in the Karakoram Range? Chances are better than 1 in 4 that you will die in the attempt.

K2, Karakoram Range, India

K2, Karakoram Range, India

Where does danger lurk? One immediately thinks of physical and biological hazards, of gale-force winds, hull-crushing pack ice, capricious avalanches, & malarial fevers.

But these forces are only efficient causes, the sharp edge of the reaper’s scythe.

The Sinking of the Jeannette, based on sketch by M. J. Burns, 1881

The Sinking of the Jeannette, based on a sketch by M. J. Burns, 1881

When 37 Americans died in two Arctic expeditions from 1879-1884, it was clear to everybody that the men died from  starvation and exposure (well, mostly: one man drowned and another was shot for stealing food). But most Americans looked beyond these causes to contributing factors, to poor ship design and faulty relief efforts.

Yet if we look more closely, we see that, more often than not, the expedition party itself is largely to blame for its own failures. Reading the historical record, it becomes clear that one of the most difficult tasks of expeditionary life was not weathering the elements but enduring one’s peers. The 1870 Polaris Expedition to the North Pole fell apart when its pious and imperious commander Charles Hall suffered convulsions (and ultimately died) after drinking arsenic-laced coffee  (probably prepared by his disgruntled science officer).

Elisha Kent Kane

Elisha Kent Kane

For most of the nineteenth century, Elisha Kane was America’s celebrity explorer, a man revered for his eloquence, cultivation, and high-mindedness. Most of Kane’s men, however, thought he was an insufferable prig. Indeed, more than half of his crew turned against Kane in the Arctic, attempting to escape the Arctic without his approval. Almost all of this was hidden from public view, expunged from the narratives of the expedition written by Kane and his men.

The Kane Party, 1854

The Kane Party, 1854

Still one gets subtle glimpses, even from Kane’s own work. The image above was published in Kane’s best-selling narrative of his expedition, Arctic Explorations. In the scene, Kane sits in the center, surrounded by his officers. Kane looks weary and somewhat annoyed, staring down to the right. On the right, two of his officers stare forward towards the viewer, looking at different points. On the left, two other officers are engrossed in conversation, one with a shotgun slung over his shoulder. Whispering about plans perhaps? Indeed, the only one in the scene looking admiringly at Kane is his dog. Or perhaps he’s just hungry.

These might seem like sepia-colored anecdotes from long ago. But expeditions continue to live or die on the ability of their members to get along, to communicate well, and to improvise effectively when things go wrong.  Such is one of the findings of Michael Kodas who wrote about last year’s debacle on K2.

Artist rendition of Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) leaving Earth orbit

Artist rendition of Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) leaving Earth orbit

With this in mind, I wonder how much “unit cohesion” is on the minds of NASA’s administrators as it plans its mission to Mars. Two years is a long time to spend in a capsule with one’s mates, even with DVDs.


  Jessica wrote @

I’m sure you’ve read this already, but “Weird and Tragic Shores” really outlined the sheer ignorance of Hall. Maybe “ignorance” is the wrong word. He was so naive. Always jumping to conclusions. While people link Franklin have their own circumstances, some people like Hall seem to set themselves up for failure before they even embark, with ill-conceived hopes and dreams.

That said, I think stores of Franklin, Hall, etc are much more interesting than sometimes those of Amundsen and Sverdrup have that Nordic “observation but no personality” factor.

  darwinsbulldog wrote @

Were you inspired to do this post by Tuesday night’s NOVA episode on PBS about Franklin’s failed expedition:

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Jessica, I agree with you about Hall: he was naive in certain ways and inflexible about ideas, decision making, etc. At the same time, he was almost revolutionary in how he adapted to life with the Inuit of Cumberland Sound. Certainly he pushed the envelope in this regard, at least for Euro-Americans, who were pretty dismissive of Inuit ways of life.

On the comparison between Nordic and Anglo-Americans – this is very interesting. I don’t know enough about Amundsen to say…though it always seemed to me that Nansen was a fascinating character: explorer, scientist, man of culture, politician. Maybe there’s an article in this somewhere – a comparison of different national styles of Arctic exploration.

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Michael, the post was inspired by some modern climbing accounts I’ve read recently, specifically Steph Davis’s book High Infatuation and Jim Curran’s book about K2, Triumph and Tragedy.

I didn’t know they were airing the NOVA Franklin special again but I saw it first time around. Russell Potter, prof at University of Rhode Island, is a friend of mine – a good guy with wide interests. In fact, I’ve got a couple links to his work on the right.

  Jessica wrote @

Hey again,

There is an enormous difference in the way things were written by Americans and Canadians — even the British — versus the very factual, nonchalant observations recorded by people like Amundsen, Sverdrup (he was notorious for boring observations while traveling throughout Ellesmere Island), and even Nansen and Stefansson — I love Farthest North, and Stefansson’s adaptation to Inuit life was certainly extreme (he had more appreciation of their ways than almost anyone else).

Nonetheless, I think some of the more interesting tales come from unlikely folks, like the guy who wrote Kabloona….An African in Greenland…The Last Gentleman Explorer….etc.

You might want to check out a book by Vladimir Albanov called “Land of the White Death” — one of the few stories that involves prolonged experience in Franz Josef Land. It shows up everywhere on Amazon so if you’ve already read it I won’t be surprised. I actually, through reading Weird & Tragic Shores, really came to adore Hall. He was so honest about his emotions – his capital letters and underlining and everything. I love that intensity! ‘Land of the White Death’ has very somber, Russian storytelling technique – but they survived. It was an unbelievable novel.

I read that McPhee book as well and was less impressed than Coming Into the Country, which I just recently finished. I think one of my favorite Arctic books of all time is Barry Lopez’s ‘Arctic Dreams’ — nothing whatsoever to do with exploration, but unbelievably written.

I am actually not in FBX yet — still in upstate New York for the time being. I will be visiting your exhibit once the busy ski season is over.

P.S. – The Nova Franklin special is sweet. There is another cool box set thing called “Arctic Mission” that is on TV every so often and sold in cheap collectors’ tins.

Sorry for the long-windedness!

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Jessica, thanks for the great suggestions. I’ve heard a lot about Land of the White Death but have never read it. If you liked the Nova special, check out Russell’s Franklin site if you haven’t already. He’s got a new book out called Arctic Spectacles. He also guest blogged here a few months ago about the latest Franklin Search exp.

  Jessica wrote @

Thanks — I will check it out.

I’ll give you a heads up when I head out to your exhibit in the spring. If you haven’t already acquired a copy of Land of the White Death, I’ll hand over mine — maybe trade for a copy of YOUR new book? 😉


  ArchAsa wrote @

The most renowned failed expedition in Sweden is that of Andrée and crew to fly over the North Pole in a hot air balloon – of all things! This was in 1897 and the tragic circumstances are made worse by the fact that it did become clear at an early try in 1896 that the whole idea was completely impossible. One of the engineers that were to accompany Andrée realized that the balloon lost too much gas – what he didn’t know was that the reality was worse: Andrée had actually secretely refilled the balloon at times to hide the fact that it was loosing gas so rapidly…

This self-destructive stupidity was partly the result of an egomaniac backed into a corner by the nationalistic patos of his financial backers and the media. The complaining engineer was replaced with a younger less experienced one. The third member was the young photographer Nils Strindberg, distant cousin of August Strindberg, the writer.

They crashed on Svalbard and survived for some time after that, travelling over the ice. Their remains, the diary and the camera were found 33 years later by chance and they were brought home as national heroes. In modern times, the stupidity of the whole expedition, and the destructive behaviour of Andrée has been more in focus.

The human being is not just the only animal intrinsically aware of her own mortality – she is also the only animal that will act against all reason knowing this…

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Asa, I know a bit about Andree because of my work on Walter Wellman but I had no idea that Andree was so aware of the problems with the expedition. This is of interest to me because I’m working on a book about the ethos of exploration in America, 1800-present and I want to ground the project by looking first at other national styles of exploration.

Gustav Holmberg (of the blog Imaginary Magnitude) recommended that I take a look at Urban Wråkberg ed., The centennial of S.A. Andrée’s north pole expedition (Stockholm, 1999). From what you say here, it’s clear that Andree’s an important way into this subject. If you have suggestions about the literature of Scandinavian exploration, I’d love to hear them, particularly works that place exploration in the context of broader society.

  ArchAsa wrote @

I emailed you some tips, though I only have a few. One thought – it is impossible to really understand the events leading up to the disaster without understanding the very long and amiably hostile competition btw Sweden and Norway, who were at the time in a Union the Norwegians chafed at. The Norwegians had succesful explorers – the Swedes were less fortunate in that area. That was not to be borne.

Compare it if you will to two relentlessly competitive siblings at the family dinner table. Beneath the familiarity and cordial manners the blades are sharpened… I can tell you, that has not changed in the past century, but now we focus on winter sports instead.

Nils Strindberg actually went to the same Senior High School as me – I still remember the memorial plaque in the hallway.

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