The Arctic and Antarctic were among the last places on Earth to be properly explored by humanity, and for good reason – they’re seriously dangerous. If you can survive the cold, you still have the problem of finding food to eat. And if you manage that, there’s the problem of all the things trying to eat you.
It’s only in the past few centuries – relatively recent compared to the whole breadth of human history – that civilization has started poking around in these extreme parts of our planet. Many brave people have set out on expeditions to the chilly wildernesses, and many have ended up with some seriously frightening tales to tell. A few lucky ones have even survived to tell them!
Even today, we haven’t mastered the art of survival in frozen climates, and some recent stories show the lands close to the poles are as dangerous as they ever were.
So wrap up warm, grab yourself a coffee, and think about how lucky you are to have solid walls around you – here are fifteen chilling tales of excursions to the Arctic or Antarctic that really tested the strengths of the poor people involved.
15. Dragged Underwater By A Hungry Seal
In 1985, Gareth Wood’s team of polar explorers were forced to make their way across a thin layer of ice. You can’t blame them for being pretty terrified that it would crack under their weight. But what happened was much worse, as something under the ice cracked it for them – a hungry leopard seal.
Later writing about the attack, Wood said: “Suddenly, the surface erupted as the massive head and shoulders of a mature leopard seal, mouth gaping in expectation, crashed through the eggshell covering. It closed its powerful jaws around my right leg, and I fell backward, shocked and helpless.”
Thankfully, his colleagues were on hand to stamp on the seal’s eye with their spiked boots, while shouting things such as “Kick it, kick it, for Christ’s sake, kick it!” – that’s an actual quote there. It seems you can’t love animals too much if you want to survive at the poles. The seal retreated and Gareth limped his way to safety.
14. Cannibalism, Poison Or Both – What Really Happened To The Franklin Expedition Of 1845?
Victorian explorers were an uppity lot, and when Sir John Franklin set off in 1845 to sail the Northwest Passage, with two ships and 129 men, he expected to find a shortcut from Europe to Asia and become a hero of the British Empire. It came as a shock to everyone – not least Franklin, no doubt – when all 129 men were lost.
It’s believed that the ships, HMS Erubus and HMS Terror, became lost in the ice and were abandoned by the crew, who set off on foot. When nothing had been heard of them for three years, someone decided it would be a good time to go and see if they were alright. No one found anything concrete until, in 1854, John Rae spoke to the local Inuit community. As it turned out, they weren’t alright – the Inuits had found bones belonging to members of the crew, with signs of cannibalism.
More bodies were later found, and twentieth-century scientific studies have shown that many of the crew could have died from lead poisoning due to the food they were eating or the water they were drinking. Others died of pneumonia… It seems that if you were on that expedition, however you ended up dying, it wouldn’t be pleasant!
13. Inuit Girl Survives Two Years Alone On Arctic Island
In 1921, four experienced Arctic explorers sailed across the Chukchi Sea to claim Russia’s Wrangel Island on behalf of Canada. They brought with them Ada Blackjack, a 23-year-old Inuit girl who’d never left her home before, as a cook and seamstress. Guess which one of them managed not to die.
When they arrived on the island, weather conditions were bad, rations ran out, and the team was unable to kill enough game to survive. Three of the men set out to get help. They never returned. Ada was left with the American man Lorne Knight, but he was dying of scurvy. Before he passed, he taught her some of the basics of hunting.
For two whole years, before being rescued by a former colleague of the expedition leader, Ada managed to survive on the island, hunting to eat and narrowly avoiding attacks from polar bears. She wasn’t entirely alone, as she had the company of the expedition’s cat, Vic, who she somehow also kept alive – a detail that makes us even more sure that her story needs to be made into a movie.
12. Dog Meat Made His Skin Fall Off, But He Kept On Walking
In 1912, the Australian explorer Douglas Mawson was exploring an uncharted area of the Antarctic with his two companions, Lieutenant Belgrave Ninnis and champion skier Xavier Mertz, when disaster struck. 1,200 miles out from base, a crevasse opened up beneath them. Ninnis fell into it, as did their sled, six of their dogs, and the majority of their supplies.
Whereas the obvious thing for Mawson and Mertz to do at this point would be to curl up and hope there’s an afterlife, they plodded on, hoping to endure the long walk back to camp. Running out of rations, they resorted to eating their own dogs. But what wasn’t known at the time was that eating dog liver can cause vitamin A poisoning. Nor did they know that this poisoning can cause bits of your skin to fall off.
The consequences of this were as gruesome as you’re imagining. Every morning, Mawson had to reattach the soles of his feet, the skin having peeled off. The same illness sent Mertz mad, and Mawson had to sit on top of him to stop him destroying the tent in a fit of rage. Mertz succumbed to the illness, but Mawson eventually made it back to camp… to find the ship had left without him six hours before. D’oh! Thankfully, a small group had stayed behind, and the ship came back ten months later.
11. Saved By A Knife Made Of Frozen Crap
Peter Freuchen lived his life to the full. He took part in several arctic expeditions, consulted on and starred in an Oscar-winning film, was involved in the Danish resistance against the Nazis, and married a margarine heiress. But his most jaw-dropping feat was his escape from a horrendous blizzard in 1926.
To shelter himself, Freuchen ducked under a dog sled. But by the time the storm had calmed, the sled had become buried under a thick layer of snow and ice. After hours of trying to claw himself out with both his bare bands and a bear skin, Freuchen had an idea. He’d previously noticed how the dogs’ feces would end up frozen and rock-hard, and thought he could craft an implement in a similar manner.
So he dropped his pants, forced one out, squashed it into the shape of a knife, and waited. Hopefully, it was too cold for the smell to be a problem. When the poo-knife had frozen, he used it to chisel his way out. While crawling back, his toes developed gangrene, so he chopped them off, without any anesthetic. Peter Freuchen was way more badass than most of us could dream of being.
10. Guy Kills Polar Bear, Then Trains Its Cub To Defend Him
In 1857, the whaling ship Ann Forbes was caught in a current and smashed between two colliding icebergs. Bruce Gordon, who was on lookout in one of the ship’s masts, was thrown onto one of the huge ice sheets. He watched in horror as the ship sunk, taking all his crewmates with him. Maybe he should have seen the ice coming.
Gordon managed to find his way to the wreckage of the ship, used it as shelter, and did what anyone would have done – got himself heavily drunk. When he woke up, the shipwreck was surrounded by polar bears, having his shipmates’ corpses for breakfast. And Gordon was lunch. He barricaded himself in the captain’s cabin and lived off the provisions there for as long as he could. One bear got past his defenses, but couldn’t easily get through the cabin door, giving Gordon the opportunity to stab it to death.
And then another bear came – the dead bear’s young cub, looking for mommy. Aww. Gordon took sympathy on the cub, whom he named Nancy, and trained her to fish for him. Nancy became a sort of protector for Gordon as they explored the ice floe, scaring off other bears. When the ice sheet eventually floated all the way to Greenland, a tribe of natives were greeted by a sunburnt foreigner with a messy beard and a pet polar bear.
9. The Lost Canadian Winter Patrol of 1910
Northwestern Canada in the early twentieth century was surged by prospectors, whalers and trappers seeking fortune in new territory. The North West Mounted Police were present to maintain law on this freezing frontier, and to protect the indigenous peoples – but often faced harrowing conditions.
In December 1910, a four-man patrol left Fort McPherson on a 670-mile trip to Dawson City. But the snow was heavier than usual, and within a week the team were lost. Some indigenous families put them back on the right track, but the patrol’s leader Francis Joseph Fitzgerald passed on the opportunity to hire one as a guide – he was a veteran of 14 years’ service in the Mounties, he knew what he was doing, right? He didn’t. By the middle of January, they were badly lost again, and were running out of food.
But Fitzgerald wouldn’t turn back or seek indigenous help – he just kept on going and they kept on getting more lost. They resorting to eating their dogs, but even that ran out, and in mid-February, they all died – three of starvation and one of suicide. The moral of this story is clear: just admit you’re lost.
8. Four Sailors Were Shipwrecked On An Arctic Island For Six Years
In 1743, a Russian ship became trapped by ice, and the four sailors who made it out found themselves stranded on a small Norwegian island known as Half Moon Island. They had only twenty pounds of flour for food. If they could just find some eggs and sugar, they could bake a cake.
Thankfully, the men were more resourceful and practical than we would be, and managed to find and kill reindeer for meat. They found a hut from a previous expedition, in which they set up home, and even devised a form of lamp used by lighting reindeer fat. Even when some polar bears caught the scent of their meat store, they managed to fend off the beasts – over their time on the island, they killed ten with home-made lances.
7. 62-Year-Old Politician Gets Lost In Snow
We can all think of a politician we’d like to wander into an arctic wasteland and get themselves lost. But no one had wished this upon Pauloosie Keyootak, a member of Nunavut’s Legislative Assembly. In March last year, 62-year-old Keyootak went on a snowmobile excursion with his teenage son and another man, and it didn’t go as planned.
The men decided to go off course to follow some caribou they’d seen, but this turned out to be a bad decision when the weather worsened and they couldn’t find their way back to the track. With only tea and sugar left from their supplies, they had to hunt caribou to eat. They also had to build a shelter out of ice.
It took eight days for a rescue party to find them, by which point Keyootak had been sure he was going to die. Unfortunately, the airplane that saw the lost party crashed and broke a hydraulic line upon landing, and couldn’t take off again, so they had to call in a helicopter to rescue the rescue team. It’s never easy, is it?
6. Making A Sled From A Dog’s Rib Cage
The Canadian government of the 1950s didn’t care about the country’s indigenous people as they are now; in fact, they rounded up the Inuit people and forced them to live in settlements. But one man refused to go and kicked up a fuss. Afraid he’d try something stupid and get them all in trouble, his family hid his tools from him. So he did something really stupid – and successfully escaped.
This man slipped out of his igloo one night, dropped his sealskin and caribou trousers, and made – you guessed it – a feces knife, just like Peter Freuchen’s. And then this is where the story gets grisly. He used the implement to kill a dog (poor thing – stabbed by poo is an embarrassing way to go), then skinned the animal and improvised a sled out of its rib cage.
He then used bits of its skin as a harness to tie his contraption to another dog – this one alive, and almost as unlucky as the first – and disappeared into the night. It’s a strange story, but one that illustrates the Inuit’s desire to live in the wild, as his ancestors had before him.
5. Elisha Kent Kane’s Badly Failed Search For Franklin
It’s the real life equivalent of a movie sequel in which people try to find out what happened to the characters from the first film, only to end up in a similar jam themselves. Elisha Kent Kane was determined to find out what had happened to the Franklin expedition (see earlier in this list) and so, in 1853, set out on his ship Advance.
The early days of the expedition did not bode well, as the crew fell ill with scurvy and many of the dogs died of lockjaw. And then, perhaps inevitably, the Advance got stuck in ice. There was a harsh winter on the way, and so Kane and his remaining crew holed up in the stilled ship, living on dwindling supplies. They even survived a fire in a storage room.
In spring the next year, Kane made the decision to abandon ship and try their luck across the ice. He also formally gave up on searching for Franklin around this point, which you would have expected him to have done earlier, to be fair. The overland trek took 83 days, and then they reached Upernavik and were rescued. At least this sequel had a happy ending.
4. This Captain Walked Across 1,100km Of Ocean To Save His Crew
The Canadian ship Karluk had already been stuck in ice for five months, which can’t have been fun, when it was crushed and sunk by an iceberg, which was definitely not fun. The crew managed to make it onto the ice, but the expedition leader, anthropologist Vilhjalmur Stefansson, gave up on leading them to safety, passing responsibility over to Captain Bob Bartlett.
Bartlett knew exactly what to do. He led the crew on an 80-mile trek to Wrangel Island, where they set up camp. He then set off on a much longer trip, of 1,100 kilometers (680 miles), accompanied only by an Inuit hunter named Kakaktovik.
This trek took the pair all of 37 days, but they eventually reached Alaska, where they found help. A rescue mission was sent, and the survivors of the crew picked up. Bartlett was praised by the media and by his crew for his leadership, which had saved many lives.
3. The Race To The Pole Gets Stuck For Two Years
In the 1960s, the US and Russia competed to see who could get to the moon first. But in the late nineteenth century, it was all about the North Pole. America was starting to see itself as a great global power, and wanted a big achievement to back this up. Newspaper tycoon James Gordon Bennett Jr. funded the expedition of the USS Jeanette, heading through what they thought was a temperate current that would lead straight to the North Pole.
Unfortunately, the theory was wrong. Setting off in 1870, the Jeanette initially made good speed, but its movements soon became slow and erratic. It was surrounded by ice, and trapped. It drifted in this condition for almost two years, after which the hull was irreparably breached.
The ship’s captain, George De Long, ordered an evacuation, and his crew trekked the perilous journey across frozen seas to Siberia. 13 of the original 33 crew members eventually made it to civilization. The North Pole would remain unreached for a couple more decades.
2. Stuck In A Blizzard… Without A Thick Coat!
Keizo Funatsu’s parents had obviously never drilled into him the importance of putting a proper coat on before he went outside. During his expedition in 1990, Japanese adventurer Funatsu was only intending to step outside for a few seconds so he could feed the dogs, and so wasn’t wearing anything thicker than a wind jacket.
Big mistake, as he could have caught much more than a cold when the wind took a sudden turn for the worse, becoming so heavy that he couldn’t see anything, not even the camp he had just exited. Nor could he shout for help over the sound of the raging snowstorm.
His big idea was to dig a ditch and hide inside, hoping it would provide enough warmth for him to survive the storm. Unfortunately, this conflicted with his colleagues’ big idea, which was to tie themselves together with a rope and walk around, hoping for Funatsu to see and grab onto the rope. It passed right over his head. Nevertheless, the storm eventually calmed, and Funatsu had clung onto life. Hopefully, he zipped himself up next time.
1. 58 Days Alone In The Wilderness
In 1967, Canadian aviator Bob Gauchie was flying solo to Yellowknife when he became caught in a storm. With fuel supplies dwindling, he was forced to land on a remote lake, where he found himself isolated from any radio contact with the outside world (that’s one box in the horror movie checklist ticked off, then).
For two months, Gauchie faced circling wolves, frostbite, and temperatures as low as minus 60 degrees. Several search parties were sent out, but all failed to spot him – even when he could see them flying overhead. Worst of all was the depression; facing the prospect of probable death, he wrote a journal full of messages to his beloved wife.
In the end, his rescuer was not a deliberate search party but a bush plane that happened to be flying past. The mechanic on board spotted a glint of light from Gauchie’s camp and pointed it out, and the pilot decided to land. What the two men found was a bearded Gauchie clutching a suitcase and jokingly asking if they had room for a passenger.