Whether the public really needs yet another addition to the bulging canon of cold-air disaster books, there seems little doubt that the public wants more bulges in that canon. One has only to observe the snowy array of books that publishers have scurried to issue hot (or rather cold) on the bestselling heels of Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air and Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm, to see the evidence of a new industry maxim: Frostbite sells.
It would be wickedly unjust, however, to charge Leonard F. Guttridge with opportunism. This sturdy historian presaged the current ice vogue with Icebound: The Jeanette Expedition's Quest for the North Pole way back in 1986, when arctic-exploration tomes typically garnered their authors three-figure advances from the Naval Institute Press and a few lecture invitations from local cartography clubs. In his acknowledgments to his newest book, Guttridge confesses that after that effort he was determined to abandon the Arctic.
But then came a chance mention at a New York Explorers Club function, documents salvaged from a landfill outside a Washington, D.C., prison and scraps of a notebook secreted for decades with two spent rifle cartridges in a silver vegetable dish. These piloted Guttridge into seven years of research on a ruinous 1881-1883 expedition to the remote arctic terrain of Lady Franklin Bay. The result, Ghosts of Cape Sabine, is a frosty delight: There's adventure aplenty here, not to mention execution, mutiny, starvation, suicide and cannibalism. Oh -- and frostbite.
The Lady Franklin Bay expedition, which marked the United States' first foray into government-funded exploration, sailed north in the summer of 1881 from St. John's, Newfoundland under the command of Lt. Adolphus Greely, with 19 soldiers under the U.S. Army Signal Corps banner, three civilians, two Greenlanders and a petulant doctor/naturalist. "Except for those latter three," Guttridge writes,
not one could sail a boat, and few knew how to ow. Only Sergeant Cross, already identified by Greely as a drunk, knew how to operate the party's steam launch, having worked in the Washington Navy Yard. For the most part, knowledge of dog-sledge driving and ice-field navigation, not to mention the terrible psychological strains imposed by the Arctic's long winter nights, had been derived only from books...It was not a recipe for success.
But Greely's expedition did succeed, if only in the schoolyardish arena of exploratory conquest: Three of its members planted the American flag four miles north of where the British explorer Albert Markham had several years earlier planted the Union Jack, thus breaking England's 300-year reign in polar record-breaking. It was the party's only tangible success, however, and its cost in lives was enormous -- a rescue party, arriving two years later, brought out only seven men alive.
Those seven returned home less as heroes than emblems of a murderous national folly. As the Chicago Tribune put it: "Arctic exploration has involved an immense waste of money and life. It is time that it stopped." It didn't, of course -- precisely 20 years after Greely's survivors came home, a savvy self-promoter named Robert E. Peary passed by their former northernmost camp on his way to the North Pole. But Peary, backed by well-heeled sponsors, went forth on his own; the U.S. government had washed its hands of arctic exploration.
Guttridge's good fortune was immense -- not only did nearly every member of the party keep a journal, their journals are remarkably frank and even more remarkably dramatic: "I can do nothing more than shoot him." "This seems to me like a nightmare in one of Edgar Allen Poe's stories." "Madness." "If the channel doesn't freeze, and no help from the other side, and no game, we are all gone." "We can live about twenty more days -- then what?" "Only six more days are left us. Starvation looks us in the face. Seven of our party are dead already and the rest of us are resigned to follow."
What drives the current vogue for icebound adventure isn't entirely clear, though a glance backward reveals a similar fixation just prior to the last century's turn, when Britons and Americans, boggled by the technological leaps of the Industrial Age and the ideological upheavals that Darwin had wrought, turned in droves to the accounts of polar explorers and to Jack London's theater of extremes. Nothing better symbolized the nothingness at the heart of Darwinian theory, and of a world made of machines, than the bleached silence of the Arctic. Herman Melville, who knew a thing or two about whiteness, pondered the theme in Moby-Dick: "Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the hite depths of the Milky Way?"
Or perhaps, less pessimistically, what lies at the core of our recurring arctic yen is a smidgen of Luddite sympathies: The Arctic, even today, represents our failure to fully conquer nature. The whiteness always wins; human beings wither and die or, reduced to their animal essence, survive by devouring their companions. Then again, it may be even simpler. As Francis Spufford wrote in I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination, his masterly 1997 study of the Victorians' polar fetish, "The deep interest of those who are living and must die is their permanent source for the effectiveness of myth."
For whatever reasons, then, Guttridge's account -- vivid in its whiteness and raw in its themes -- is a thriller. If the cold-air disaster canon is bulging, so be it; this newest bulge deserves an honored place.
Of Ages Past
...a work of nonfiction narrative that reads like a novel--a raw, vivid, harrowing adventure, brilliantly told.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Mutiny, shipwreck, a new farthest north, bureaucratic ineptitude, cannibalism. A story that features all these elements promises more than enough excitement, but Guttridge (Icebound, etc.) doesn't corral all the pieces of his story into a coherent narrative until the end, when the stark and tragic facts take on their own momentum. The Greely Expedition set out in 1881 to conduct scientific observations at Lady Franklin Bay, a remote spot on Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic. Under the command of U.S. Army Lieut. Adolphus Greely, the expedition was part of a multinational research effort in which several countries were making scientific observations. But funds were hard to obtain for the expedition and, more importantly, for the relief parties that were sent out the following year to cache supplies in the event the Greely party had to retreat southward. The events themselves are gripping, and Guttridge shows how Greely's men steadily lost faith in their commander. Greely's most dependable sergeant wrote in his journal: "Why does the United States government persist in sending a fool in command of an Arctic expedition?" But Guttridge delves too deeply into the details of bureaucratic infighting and provisioning and fails to successfully evoke the rigors and beauties of the Arctic climate. He relies heavily on the words that the officers and men wrote in their journals, which give readers a sense of the inexorable breakdown of discipline and morale in the face of poor leadership, but don't offer any lingering sense of the men who wrote them or of the conditions to which they ultimately succumbed. (Jan.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
YA-The Greely expedition was the American component of an international effort to establish outposts for the purpose of scientific observation and exploration in the Arctic region. In 1881, the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition (as the Greely expedition was known) set up a base camp at the northern part of Ellesmere Island, and waited for the planned resupply ship to come in 1882. None came. Greely and company hunkered down for another winter, hoping that a ship would arrive in the spring of 1883. None came. At that point, they began a retreat south where at last, in 1884, a third rescue party found what remained of the expedition at Cape Sabine, at the southern part of the island. In alternating chapters, the book follows events over the course of these three years, both with the Greely party and with the expedition's handlers in Washington. Inexperience, incompetence, and ignorance compounded by rivalries and bureaucratic wrangling both in the Arctic and in Washington, DC, wrought near mutiny, courts of inquiry, starvation, execution, and cannibalism. Blame for the near annihilation of the party can be placed in both camps, as Guttridge shows. He notes that few expeditions included more prolific writers than this one and his adherence to primary sources both enhances and personalizes the narrative. YAs are sure to be moved by this painful account of men tested to the extreme by an "unforgiving Arctic."-Dori DeSpain, Fairfax County Public Library, VA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Guttridge's clean, concise writing style is as sharp and refreshing as the ice his subjects are inevitably stuck in. Guttridge's true talent here lies in his thoroughness. The story is as entertaining as it is can be seen as a direct tribute to his workhorse-like researchfor a book of 368 pages to not get bogged down one of the many ice floes encountered is a feat almost as rare surviving the Arctic conditions Guttridge so eloquently describes.
New York Times Book Review
He has assembled an exhaustive mass of sources, some not used before. He rounds off a workmanlike text, meticulously researched with a sober assessment....
Read an Excerpt
"Most of us are out of our right minds. I fear for the future."- Lieutenant Adolphus Greely
It was 18 September, 1883. Twenty-five men huddled in their sleeping bags on an ice floe grinding erratically through the shifting ice and swirling currents of the Arctic's Kane Basin. They were the men of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition, sent north to establish a base for scientific exploration and observation, and now engaged in a fight for their lives.
The expedition had had a turbulent birth, marked by scandal and political infighting in Washington, D.C., where the Secretary of War, Robert Todd Lincoln, son of the late president, had shown marked antipathy to the whole project. As a result, when the approval finally had come, the expedition had had to assemble in haste, and it showed, from the equipment to the ships to the personnel, a group composed primarily of Army Signal Corps soldiers with no experience in the Arctic.
Once up at Lady Franklin Bay, the personality differences had quickly made themselves known. One soldier drank too much. Another grew despondent. The second in command, Lieutenant Kislingbury, found the orders of his commander, Lieutenant Greely, objectionable, and Kislingbury was quickly relieved of duty. The expedition's doctor, Octave Pavy, clashed with the commander as well, and both wrote furiously of the other in the journals they kept. "If he could read my thoughts, he certainly must have read all the contempt I have for his person," wrote Pavy. "If he was anything but a doctor, I would deal with him summarily," wrote Greely.
Nevertheless, a degree of camaraderie developed, the scientific work went forward, and in a separate foray, the Americans jubilantly planted their flag at a point farther north than any human had ever attained-triumphantly surpassing 300 years of British polar record-breaking. For all its rocky beginnings, the expedition looked as though it would be a success after all .¤.¤. when the unexpected happened.
The ship that was supposed to resupply them after one year never came.
The ship that was supposed to relieve them after two years never came.
They were on their own.
Greely ordered a retreat to Smith Sound, 250 miles away, where more supplies were cached, but the gales blew, the ice thickened, their launch could make no headway. In desperation, Greely ordered the launch abandoned. If only ice floes could get through, they would ride them across Kane Basin to safety. Many of the men thought it was a bad idea, but they had no choice.
Now, more than five weeks since they had set out from their base, and after ten grueling days at the oars and drag ropes, the party had bivouacked on a paleocrystic floe one mile wide. They munched on seal meat before taking to their sleeping bags. No shelter was erected. The plan was to start off early the next morning. "I think land is within our grasp," Sergeant Brainard wrote. They were, in fact, some twenty miles from Cape Sabine, the pack having veered back north. Strong gales persisted, hurling ice-capped foam over the floe's rim. At the height of a blizzard, the floe broke in two. The segment with its half-frozen human cargo now whirled eastward across Kane Basin.
Powerful winds brought the party closer to the Greenland shore than to Ellesmere Island. When the storm abated, the party managed to erect a tent on the floe. It had space enough for only a few, Greely included. The others remained in their sleeping bags. But dulled senses revived enough to take in the words of the commander calling a council. To his people hunched in their snow-mantled bags, he declared that the Greenland coast about twenty miles to the east was now the only reasonable goal, "the only one where positive relief could be expected." Etah natives might be met there. The best course, Greely reasoned, was to "abandon everything but 2,000 pounds of selected baggage and with twenty days' rations start across the moving pack in the direction of Greenland." No one else agreed. Even Lieutenant Lockwood, while "hardly willing to give a decision, favored delay." Those were Greely's words, suggestive of Lockwood's characteristically neutral attitude. Sergeant Brainard's disagreement was stated with an outward show of respect. Within his bag that night, he scribbled a single word for the commander's proposal: "Madness."
Confronted with unanimous opposition, Greely said he would wait another forty-eight hours, and unless there were "remarkable changes in our drift," he would order the move to Greenland. He confessed regret for being alone in his opinion. But, he wrote, "my duty to the expedition, the government and myself demands that I lose no time in such emergency." Unable to divine just how much weight this formal explanation could have among the men, he went further, disclosing a more nagging fear, calling attention to the "continued criticism of our movements which showed a mutinous disposition." Those who shared the tepee with him were excepted. His remark applied "to the other detachment. I heard mutinous talk through the canvas." Out of the commander's sight, Kislingbury scribbled his private view. It was heartfelt: "God knows there is not one here who had not done his level best to please him [Greely]. Great God, does he call it doing his duty to attempt his ridiculous plan of abandoning half our supplies and moving over floating ice because he has heard the men talking about him? Bah!"
More days passed. Snow, dense fog, and a steadily vanishing sun ruled out noontime observations. "It is terrible to float in this manner," wrote Pavy, "in the snow, fog and dark. This seems to me like a nightmare in one of Edgar Allan Poe's stories."
But the nightmare was only beginning.
In the months to come, the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition would engage in a battle of man against nature, and man against man, unlike any they had ever known: an epic of human achievement and human frailty, of heroism, hardship, bad luck, and worse judgment. Before it was done, their story, and those of their would-be rescuers, would encompass starvation, mutiny, suicide, shipwreck, execution-and cannibalism.
The facts have been only partly known until now and full of dark riddles, but freshly discovered journals, reports, and personal correspondence, as well as already public materials, have come together to provide, for the first time, the intimate, day-to-day details of the men's thoughts and feelings, and of the events of that ill-fated voyage, from controversial birth to bizarre and tragic finale.
So follow in the wake of men who left their homes or Army posts and who had no idea how cruelly the Arctic could play games with them. They would be tested in an environment that is to this day as forbidding as any on our planet: the bleak and convoluted shores of northern Ellesmere Island; the treacherous winds and currents of Kane Basin and Smith Sound; the ice-clad rocks of Bedford Pim Island; the inhospitable soil of Cape Sabine; the no-man's-land of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition.
Reprinted from Ghosts of Cape Sabine: The Harrowing True Story of the Greely Expedition by Leonard F. Guttridge by permission of Putnam Pub. Group, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 by Leonard F. Guttridge. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.