10 Doomed Expeditions to the North and South Poles

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Some of the most dangerous areas of the world are the North and South Poles. The North Pole, which is in the Arctic, is slightly warmer than the South Pole. On average, it’s about -40 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter and -32 degrees in the summer. The South Pole, which is in Antarctica, has a mean temperature of  about -18 degrees in the summer and during the winter months the mean temperature is around -76 degrees. Not only is it extremely cold, but storms could make it even worse with blowing snow and ice. The highest wind speed ever recorded in Antarctica was 199 miles per hour in 1972.

That’s just the weather, because you also have to consider the fact that there isn’t much in the way of vegetation and shelter, and there are hidden dangers everywhere. Since Antarctica is so much colder, there aren’t even any animals that live there. Yet, despite being nearly as inhospitable as Mars, for centuries people ventured to both poles for exploration purposes, only to never to leave the frozen ends of the Earth.

10. Ernest Shackleton


Born in County Kildare, Ireland, in February of 1874, Ernest Shackleton is probably one of the most famous Antarctic explorers. He attempted to reach the South Pole on three different expeditions; in 1901, 1908, and 1914. Unfortunately, he was thwarted due to weather and illness each time.

Although he never made it to the South Pole, his research and exploration led to many scientific discoveries. On Shackleton’s fourth and final expedition in 1922, he had a heart attack off the coast of South Georgia, an Antarctic island. He was 49 years old and was buried on that island.

9. Philip Goodeve-Docker


In late April of 2013, Philip Goodeve-Docker, an amateur explorer from London, England, was on a “trip of a lifetime” with two friends. The trio had collected enough money through crowdsourcing to travel across the Greenland ice cap, which is the second largest ice cap in the world. It was supposed to be a 442-mile trek in the Arctic and it would take 30 to 35 days to complete.

Early into the trip the three men were hit by a sudden blizzard that blew their tent away and they were forced to call for help. The three men were rescued, but Goodeve-Docker died in the hospital; he was 31 years old.

8. Henry Worsley


On November 14, 2015, 55-year-old British explorer Henry Worsley set off on an expedition to be the first person to cross Antarctica solo and unaided. By day 71 of his trek, Worsley had covered 913 miles and was within 30 miles of his goal when his health took a turn for the worse and the weather developed blizzard-like conditions, forcing him to call for help. His last statement from Antarctica was “The 71 days alone on the Antarctic with over 900 statute miles covered and a gradual grinding down of my physical endurance finally took its toll today, and it is with sadness that I report it is journey’s end — so close to my goal.”

Worsley was airlifted to a hospital in Chile and he was diagnosed with severe exhaustion, dehydration, and a bacterial infection in the abdomen. Unfortunately, he died the next day in the hospital. Even though Worsley never reached his goal, his family still believes his expedition was a success because he raised £100,000 ($142,000) for the Endeavour Fund, which is a charity to help wounded servicemen and servicewomen.

7. Nicolai Hanson


In 1898, when Norwegian zoologist Nicolai Hanson was 28, he set off from England to head to the Antarctic. Along the way, he became ill, but by the time they reached Cape Adare, an Antarctic island, he was better and got involved in scientific studies.

But as winter came on, his health problems returned. He managed to survive the winter and the spring, and then died on October 14, 1899. He became the first person to be buried in Antarctica. His tomb site is marked by quartz stones and a wooden cross and it was used as a marker on expeditions that followed. The burial site is also designated a historical monument in Antarctica.

6. Wolf V. Vishniac


Wolf V. Vishniac was born in Berlin in 1922 and his family moved to the United States in 1940. In 1949, he achieved his doctorate in chemistry and microbiology from Stanford and became a professor of biology at Rochester University. In 1959, Vishniac got a grant from NASA to develop a prototype system that would test for life on other planets, which was called the Wolf Trap. On December 10, 1973, Vishniac was in Antarctica doing tests, because the conditions in Antarctica are the closest thing on Earth compared to Mars, and while trying to retrieve equipment that had fallen into a crevice, Vishniac fell to his death.

The Wolf Trap was one of four biological tests sent to Mars by NASA on the Viking Probes and it landed on the Red Planet’s surface in 1976. Also, the Vishniac crater on Mars is named in his honor.

5. The Terra Nova Expedition


Born on June 6, 1868, in Devonport, England, Robert Falcon Scott became a naval cadet by the age of 13 and spent his teen years and his 20s on a number of naval ships. Due to his experience, the Royal Geographical Society put him in command of the National Antarctic Expedition of 1901-1904 and this expedition, which included Ernest Shackleton, reached farther South than any before them.

For his second expedition, Scott wanted to actually reach the South Pole, which would make him the first person to do so. Scott and his crew aboard the Terra Nova whaling vessel shipped off in June of 1910. They landed in Antarctica in October and set off with mechanical sleds, horses, and dogs. Pretty soon the crew realized the sleds and the horses couldn’t handle the elements so they were sent back to the base. By December, the dog teams also abandoned the journey. That left five men who continued on to the South Pole. Beside Scott, there was Edward Adrian Wilson, Lawrence Oates, Henry Robertson Bowers, and Edgar Evans. On January 17, 1912, they reached the pole and made a heartbreaking discovery; a Norwegian exploration team had beaten them by 34 days.

After reaching the pole, they started the 930 mile trip back, but none of them would make it. Evans died first in mid-February. By March, Oates had suffered severe frostbite and knowing he was slowing down the crew, simply walked away and has never been found. Around March 29, 1912, about 12 miles from their pre-arranged supply depot, Falcon, Wilson, and Bowers died from starvation and exposure. Their bodies and Scott’s diary were found eight months after their death.

4. Douglas Mawson’s Far Eastern Shore Party


Australian geologists Douglas Mawson is one of the four biggest Antarctic explorers who were part of an era known as the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. Besides Mawson, the other three are Ernest Shackleton, Robert Falcon Scott, and Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer who beat Scott to the South Pole.

Mawson had been offered a chance to go on Scott’s doomed Terra Nova expedition in 1910, but had turned down the offer. Instead, at the age of 30, Mawson led his own expedition that set off in December of 1911 and anchored in a very remote part of Antarctica called Commonwealth Bay in January of 1912. Once they made landfall, they were hit by constant blizzards with winds ranging anywhere from 50 to 200 miles per hour. Despite the miserable weather, Mawson split the group into four to perform studies. Mawson took charge of a team that had two other men in it called the Far Eastern Shore Party. Their task was to survey glaciers hundreds of miles away.

Mawson and the two other men, Belgrave Ninnis, a British Army Lieutenant who was hired as the dog handler, and Xavier Mertz, a Swiss lawyer with no qualifications to be exploring the arctic, set off on November 10, 1912, with a team of 16 huskies. By December 13, they had covered 300 miles and that’s when they started to run into trouble. On December 14, Ninnis and one of the two dog teams fell 150 feet into a crevasse, which is a deep crack found in ice sheets and glaciers. On the sled was most of the team’s food.

With no other choice, Mawson and Mertz started to head back to Commonwealth Bay, where their ship was anchored. Along the way, they ate some of the weaker dogs, Mawson went snow blind, and they were hit by whiteout blizzards. As they traveled, they also started to physically deteriorate. In a diary entry from January 5, 1913, Mawson wrote that the skin was coming off his legs. Mertz had it worse though. He went delirious and died from exposure on January 8. By January 11, Mawson tried to do some more walking; he was about 100 miles away from the nearest living person. The problem was that his feet were covered in blisters and every step was agony. Yet he carried on, at times dragging himself, covering five miles a day. On January 17, Mawson fell 14 feet into a crevasse, but he was saved because he had a rope tied around his waist and his sled anchored him to the surface of the ice sheet. He managed to climb out hand over hand.

On February 1, Mawson reached a supply depot called Aladdin’s Cave, about 10 miles away from the ship. There he found three oranges and a pineapple. He wrote that he wept when he saw something that wasn’t white. Mawson was forced to stay in the cave for five days because of a blizzard before setting off again. He made it the shore on February 8, just in time to see the ship leaving, and it was impossible for them to turn around. Mawson was forced to spend another winter in Antarctica with six other men before they were finally picked up in December of 1913.

3. The Lost Men of the Ross Sea Party

ross sea party

Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition is one of the most amazing stories of human endurance and strength in the face of adversary. Setting off on August 1, 1914, from England, the expedition’s ship, Endurance, became stuck in the ice. They were forced to abandon the ship in October of 1915 and all 28 men stayed on floating ice patches. Then in April of 1916, Shackleton split the men into three lifeboats and seven days later they landed on the desolate, uninhabited Elephant Island, off the southern tip of Cape Horn. Knowing that no one would come to save them, Shackleton and a small group of men set out and traveled 16 days on a 22-foot lifeboat to South Georgia, where he was able to radio for help. On August 25, 1916, Shackleton returned to Elephant Island and after almost two years of being marooned on an island in the Antarctic, all 28 men were saved. What’s interesting is that while none of the men on the Endurance died, other people who were part of the expedition were not so lucky, and that is the Ross Sea Party.

The reason that Shackleton and his crew were traveling to Antarctica was to trek from South Georgia across the South Pole. In order to do that, supply depots needed to be dropped along the way. The team responsible for that was the Ross Sea Party, led by Aeneas Mackintosh. In January of 1916, the 10 man team made landfall in Antarctica to plant 4,000 pounds of supply every 60 miles. Immediately, the men encountered bad weather and temperatures reaching -92 degrees, causing all of the men to suffer severe frostbite.

In June of 1916, like the Endurance, the Ross Sea Party found themselves marooned. But unlike the Endurance, their ship was not a victim of ice. Instead, their ship, the Aurora, was blown out to sea by winds that were over 120 miles per hour. Without much of their own supplies, the crew of the Ross Sea Party, who had no idea the Endurance crew had to abandon their expedition, set out to lay the depots because they thought that Shackleton and his men’s lives depended on it. So nine of the crew members set out and three had to turn back after their stove died. Along the way, Reverend Arnold Spencer-Smith and commander Mackintosh got scurvy, and had to be left behind. The rest of the men successfully dropped the supplies at the southernmost drop and when they returned to Spencer-Smith and Mackintosh, they found that the pair was much sicker than when they had left them. They had to be dragged in sleds by the four other men and four dogs. Along the way, another man, a banker named Victor Hayward, also got scurvy and collapsed. With no other choice, the three men left Mackintosh while they dragged Hayward and Spencer-Smith back to their base. On March 8, 1916, en route to the camp, Spencer-Smith died quietly and the three men and Hayward reached the base days later. They ate some seal and then the three people who weren’t suffering from scurvy retrieved Mackintosh.

On May 8, 1816, Hayward and Mackintosh decided to walk to Cape Evans to meet up with the rest of the crew. The other three men told them not to because the ice was still thin. Yet, they walked off and were never seen again. The three remaining men waited until the ice was thicker and reunited with their four other crew members. On January 10, 1917, while hunting for seals, one of the men spotted the Aurora locked in the ice. They waited for the ice to melt and then set sail, arriving in New Zealand on February 9, 1917. That is when the seven surviving men found out their work had been in vain because Shackleton and his Endurance expedition didn’t even make landfall on the mainland of Antarctica.

2. Rodney Marks


Since the days of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, many methods of exploration have changed drastically. For example, dog sleds have been replaced with motorized vehicles and people don’t wear cotton that absorbs water while walking around in extreme temperatures over land covered in snow and ice. In fact, there is actually a base at the South Pole called the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station and it was built in 1956 by the United States government for scientific exploration. It is also home to the most mysterious death in Antarctica.

In May of 2000, there were 49 people at the base, including Australian astrophysicist Rodney Marks. He was 32 at the time, and one day while he was walking from the Antarctic Submillimeter Telescope and Remote Observatory to the base, he suddenly didn’t feel well. Over the next 36 hours, he remained severely ill and died on May 11. Since he died in the winter, his body was stored at the base and then in the spring when flights resumed to Antarctica, his body was flown to Christchurch, New Zealand, and an autopsy was performed. The results were shocking, as the tests showed that Marks had been poisoned with methanol, a solvent that is used in cleaning agents.

After the autopsy, an investigation was launched, but the death still remains a mystery. Some of the theories include that he committed suicide, because there were two needle marks in his arms and no sign of drugs, but Marks had just started a new relationship, was happy in his work, and did not have any financial problems. Investigators believe that suicide is the least likely cause of death. Another theory is that he may have also tried to brew his own alcohol and poisoned himself, but alcohol was readily available at the base so that theory also seems unlikely. Finally, there is the possibility that he may have been murdered or killed in a prank gone wrong. Adding to this theory is the fact that out of the 49 people at the base at the time of his death, only 13 cooperated with the investigation.

Due to how little is known about the death, there is a good chance that Antarctica’s only possible murder mystery may never be solved.

1. Sir John Franklin’s Lost Expedition

sir john franklin

Born in 1786, in Spilsby, England, Sir John Franklin joined the Royal Navy at the age of 14, and he saw Naval action in the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812. After being injured, he found a renewed interest in exploration, particularly exploring the Canadian Arctic and looking for the fabled Northern Passage. He was involved in a number of expeditions and drew many new maps of uncharted coastline in the Arctic. By the 1820s, he lost interest in exploration, but by the time he was in his late 50s, he wanted to help finish mapping the Northwest Passage, which only had 310 miles left to map between the Barrow Strait and the mainland of Canada.

On May 19, 1845, Franklin and 134 men set off in two ships. Five of the men ended up being dropped off in Greenland before the rest of the men carried on. On July 26, whaling boats saw the two ships go into Baffin Island, Canada, and that was anyone ever saw of the expedition. People believed that the ships became locked in the water. According to reports from the Inuit people in the area, the men turned to cannibalism before dying off.

No trace of the ships or the 129 men were found until 1980, when three bodies were found. Tests were performed on the bodies and it was discovered that they had high levels of lead. This has led to speculation that the men suffered lead poisoning from food in tin cans.

Then in 2014, the Canadian government launched a search for the ships and they found one of them using sonar images. It was found sunk off the shore of King William Island.

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Robert Grimminck is a Canadian freelance writer. You can friend him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter, follow him on Pinterest or visit his website.


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