The discovery of an ice-free passage, one that could link east and west, clearly offered huge commercial and strategic benefits to every maritime nation. Explorers therefore had little trouble finding sponsorship from governments, business organizations or wealthy individuals for any journey that they wanted to make to the region. By contrast, locating the North Pole - the Earth's precise axis of rotation - had intrigued both scientists and adventurers for centuries, but in the world of commerce it seemed to be a rather empty gesture: even if it could be pinpointed, the Pole was really just like any other stretch of land, water or ice. For many adventurers it represented a great prize, but almost no one could raise the funds to make a journey and seize it.
For this reason, few people made any specific effort to find the Pole unless it also helped them to map the Northwest Passage, even if the personal bravery of those who made the effort was just as remarkable. By the end of the nineteenth century only a handful of journeys there had been made, most of which had ended in disaster. The least costly of these was undertaken by a British naval officer, William Edward Parry, who had set sail in 1827 with the specific intention of being the first to locate the exact spot and raise his national flag. Setting out from the northern shores of Spitsbergen, he and his men set a new record, reaching a higher latitude than any previous explorer, but in the end he had to admit defeat before returning safely to base.
Decades passed before anyone tried to surpass this feat, and the stories of those who did were typically tragic. A party led by an
American, Isaac Israel Hayes, set out in 1860 to reach the Pole but was eventually forced to turn back by unexpectedly severe blizzards and by the death of a man who had fallen through the ice and frozen to death.
Eleven years later another American explorer, Charles Francis Hall, led a disastrous mission to the earth's northern-most point, enjoying generous congressional patronage to do so. Initially everything went well for the USS Polaris and its crew of 35 men, who safely reached the coast of Greenland and established a base camp. But it was not long before tragedy struck. Hall became violently ill and died in agony. His second-in-command took over, but, although a very able and experienced seaman, he was unable to prevent the Polaris from being surrounded and nearly crushed by huge packs of ice. In the ensuing chaos, about half of the crew jumped ship for the relative safety of the ice floe while the others stayed determinedly on board, drifting with the vessel for several more days before it finally ran aground. Some of the sailors were fortunate enough to be led to safety by Inuits and then rescued by passing whaling ships, lucky to escape with their lives.
Other voyages of the age fared even worse. In 1881 the American explorer George DeLong set sail from San Francisco on board the USS Jeannette in a bid to find a direct route to the North Pole through the Bering Strait. But like the Polaris a decade before, this ship also became helplessly stuck in pack ice. 'We started for the Pole', as DeLong wrote in his log, '[but] we are beset in the pack in 71 plus (latitude); we drift northwest; our ship is injured . . . we drift back southeast.' He added later, with a terrible sense of grief and pain, that 'we have failed, inasmuch as we did not reach the Pole'. DeLong ordered his men to abandon ship and try to head for Siberia in three small boats. But most of the mariners perished in the days ahead, becoming disorientated and lost in their arduous surroundings, and the bodies of DeLong and his last companions were later discovered near Mat Vay in Siberia.
Another subsequent mission to find the North Pole, made in 1897 by three Swedes who tried crossing the area by hydrogen balloon, also ended tragically when the fog weighed the balloon down, forcing them to land and leaving them stranded in a remote area of the Svalbard archipelago. Their frozen bodies, and the logbook they had kept meticulously until their diary entries suddenly broke off, were not discovered until 1930. Others came within a whisker of death. In 1893 the Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen led a very ambitious bid to reach the Pole on the ship Fram, but he and his crew were forced to spend nine months hibernating, like native Inuit, in a simple hut covered with walrus skins. They only made their way back home because of a near-miraculous encounter with a British expedition that had known nothing of their whereabouts.
Although a number of people claimed to have been the first to reach the Pole - notably the Americans Frederick Cook and Robert Peary in 1909 - it was not until 1926 that anyone made a confirmed, undisputed sighting of what was still considered, in the world of exploration, to be a great prize. Once again it was the intrepid Norwegian, Amundsen, who seized the attention of the watching world. Although he was by this time in his early fifties, Amundsen was still immensely ambitious to reach the Pole and his appetite had been whetted by his success in the Antarctic in 1911, when he had narrowly beaten the legendary British explorer, Captain Scott, in the race to the South Pole.
In early 1926, Amundsen's generous American patron, Lincoln Ellsworth, put up the money to develop a new airship that was specially designed for both the huge distances and the atrocious weather conditions in the Arctic, and before long the Norge was ready to fly. Piloted by an Italian, Umberto Nobile, the airship had taken off on 11 May from Spitsbergen, and after several days flying the crew waited anxiously for the navigator to confirm that they had reached the exact spot. After the airship landed on the ice below, one member of the jubilant crew described the event in his logbook: 'The beautiful, padded Norwegian silk flag whistled down; a cross-bar fixed to a long aluminium pole, like a standard, which gave it excellent steering. It landed perfectly, bored into the ice and in the light breeze the Norwegian colours unfolded.'5
One race for the Arctic was over, but more than eight decades later another has begun.
Part 2 The Issues
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