This blog post is part of the Frozen Friday Series, an A-Z journey of the Polar Archives.  Each week, we will feature some aspect of the history of polar exploration with a blog post written by our student authors.

The waters around both the Arctic and the Antarctic
are filled with floating chunks of ice.

Before his second expedition to Greenland, Robert Peary commented “The life up there under the Pole is terribly hard. We will be as much out of touch with the world as we would on some other planet. Some of us more than likely will never return.”[i] For innumerable polar explorers this proved to be too true—the scenes of their triumphs would become their tombs. Sometimes even the best sacrificed their lives to the hostile environment. In 1928, Roald Amundsen, greatest Polar explorer of his time and the first man to reach the South Pole in 1911, flew into the Arctic on a rescue mission and was never seen again.

No exploration is risk-free. One does not simply wander into a new land, hoping that all goes well. Polar expeditions hold their own special types of dangers and challenges. The stereotypical features of Polar Regions—the snow, ice and cold—prove to have a greater impact than is often expected. When explorers get into trouble there, seldom is anyone coming to help. A rescue team faces as much or more danger than the explorer they are trying to save. Admiral Richard Byrd understood this and refused to radio his companions when he found himself alone with carbon monoxide poisoning miles away from his base camp. He did not want them to risk their lives trying to save his.

The perpetually shifting ice-floes that surround the poles create one of the main threats posed to explorers. No ship or airplane can stand against a massive iceberg. Shifting ice can trap or crush a ship, preventing an expedition from even landing in their predetermined location, as explorer Earnest Shackleton and his Imperial trans-Antarctic expedition would discover to their misery.

Much of Antarctica is covered in snow and ice, as
one might expect. But not all of it.

In 1914, Shackleton headed to Antarctica with plans for “the first crossing of the last continent.”[ii] Soon after reaching Antarctic waters, however, Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, became trapped in the ice pack. Like the Belgica before it, the ship and its crew survived a long, sun-free winter on the ice (where, through a mirage caused by the atmosphere, the crew saw the sun set twice in one day). The ship was not saved by the spring thaw like the Belgica, however. The newly mobile ice-floes smashed into the ship until it was completely destroyed.

Miraculously, Shackleton’s entire crew survived by crossing the melting ice and floating in lifeboats first to Elephant Island and then to a whaling station on South Georgia. The expedition’s epic quest to cross the continent ended without any member setting foot on Antarctic land.

Earnest Shackleton’s Hut with Mount Erebus in the

Polar exploration was no safer for men on foot, who found themselves at the mercy of the perpetually shifting substance under their feet. Leads, which are channels of water caused by splitting or melting ice, can wreak havoc on an expedition. It prevents explorers from following their designated paths and can delay or end an expedition altogether. Arctic explorer Robert Peary, first claimant to the North Pole, seemed particularly unlucky in regards to leads.  Several times the inability to cross leads forced Peary to postpone or end his expeditions early. During Peary’s last expedition to the North Pole (1908-1909), leads developed in the ice around his camp and several inhabited igloos floated away toward open water. The stranded men were rescued when their ice island collided with the mainland. At other times thin ice could simply crack underneath a man’s feet and plunge him into the polar water, often fatally. In Antarctica, killer whales sometimes smash through thin ice (although thin is relative; killer whales can smash through over three feet of ice) to get seals. One of Shackleton’s men was nearly attacked by killer whales while traveling via dog sled over a thin patch of ice.

Traitorous ice is not the only threat, however. The air and temperature alone try to kill explorers.  “In Antarctica, shelter is more vital than food. Intense cold may kill more swiftly than any deprivation, save that of air.”[iii] Surprisingly, this is not because of the inherently cold air, but the persistent winds. In still air, the human body produces a small ‘bubble’ of warm air around itself, better allowing the body to maintain its temperature. Any wind blows this ‘bubble’ away and lowers the body temperature rapidly. Even burying under the snow is better than facing the wind. This wind, which is controlled more by the circular shape of the continent than by weather patterns, also causes blizzards. These blizzards can throw tons—literally—of snow into the air and proceed to bombard travelers and buildings with it.

Because of this, any shelter is better than none. Typically, expeditions would establish a base camp close to a coast and build permanent houses or igloos there. While traveling across the ice, away from their home base, explorers often take tents as a light, portable shelter. In a pinch, though, nearly anything that kept an explorer out of the wind could be used. When he landed on Elephant Island, Shackleton flipped his rowboats upside down and used them as a shelter for his men. Most of Shackleton’s crew lived in these makeshift houses for over one hundred days, waiting for Shackleton’s return. During Robert Scott’s fatal expedition to the South Pole, six of his men spent their winter living in a hastily carved ice cave after exploring too far from camp. Even such marginal shelters probably saved their lives, if only temporarily.

A shot of Antarctica taken on the way to Williams
Field from Observation Hill.

As can be expected in these conditions—conditions that humans are not meant to survive in—the human body suffers extensively. Explorers can develop frostbite from the cold, scurvy from an inadequate diet, and polar anemia from lack of sunlight. With enough supplies and knowledge these problems can be overcome, but few are safe from their threat. Robert Peary spent twenty years in the Arctic and lost eight of his toes. Dr. Frederick Cook was actually one of the first to identify and moderate both scurvy and polar anemia. Cook correctly surmised that scurvy comes from a poor diet and that eating fresh meat would prevent it.

A final, rather less obvious danger of polar exploration is extreme boredom. The polar regions do not inherently provide entertainment. Instead, explorers brought books and cards, and sometimes even balls to play games on the ice. You can find more information on Polar entertainment here. These diversions not only served to entertain people, but they also kept morale up—particularly for those expeditions which became stuck on the ice.

Visit the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center Archival Program for more information about Richard Byrd, Frederick Cook or the many other polar expeditions held in our collection.

Written by Autumn Snellgrove and edited by John Hooton.

[i] True North, page 41

[ii] Reader’s Digest Antarctica, page 218

[iii] Reader’s Digest Antarctica, page 182