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Did any Antarctic expeditions use coal?

Did any Antarctic expeditions use coal?

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During the "Heroic Age" of Antarctic exploration (roughly 1890 to 1920), did any expeditions use coal as a fuel or heat source? I'm not just asking what they carried while walking in the interior, I'm interested in what they used at their stationary encampments on the coast as well.

Comparing the success and failure of different expeditions, methods of transportation and keeping warm are believed to have made quite a difference.

Ernest Shackleton

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Ernest Shackleton, in full Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, (born February 15, 1874, Kilkea, County Kildare, Ireland—died January 5, 1922, Grytviken, South Georgia), Anglo-Irish Antarctic explorer who attempted to reach the South Pole.

Who was Ernest Shackleton?

Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton was an Anglo-Irish explorer of Antarctica who attempted to reach the South Pole.

Where did Ernest Shackleton attend school?

Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton attended Dulwich College from 1887 until 1890.

What is Ernest Shackleton best known for?

Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton is best known as a polar explorer who was associated with four expeditions exploring Antarctica, particularly the Trans-Antarctic (Endurance) Expedition (1914–16) that he led, which, although unsuccessful, became famous as a tale of remarkable perseverance and survival.

Where was Ernest Shackleton buried?

Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton was buried on the island of South Georgia in the South Atlantic Ocean.

Educated at Dulwich College (1887–90), Shackleton entered the mercantile marine service in 1890 and became a sublieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve in 1901. He joined Capt. Robert Falcon Scott’s British National Antarctic (Discovery) Expedition (1901–04) as third lieutenant and took part, with Scott and Edward Wilson, in the sledge journey over the Ross Ice Shelf when latitude 82°16′33″ S was reached. His health suffered, and he was removed from duty and sent home on the supply ship Morning in March 1903.

In January 1908 he returned to Antarctica as leader of the British Antarctic (Nimrod) Expedition (1907–09). The expedition, prevented by ice from reaching the intended base site in Edward VII Peninsula, wintered on Ross Island, McMurdo Sound. A sledging party, led by Shackleton, reached within 97 nautical miles (112 statute miles or 180 km) of the South Pole, and another, under T.W. Edgeworth David, reached the area of the south magnetic pole. Victoria Land plateau was claimed for the British crown, and the expedition was responsible for the first ascent of Mount Erebus. The sledging party returned to the base camp in late February 1909, but they discovered that the Nimrod had set sail some two days earlier. Shackleton and his party set fire to the camp to signal the ship, which received the signal and returned to the camp a few days later, successfully retrieving them. On his return to England, Shackleton was knighted and was made a Commander of the Royal Victorian Order.

In August 1914 the British Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914–16) left England under Shackleton’s leadership. He planned to cross Antarctica from a base on the Weddell Sea to McMurdo Sound, via the South Pole, but the expedition ship Endurance was trapped in ice off the Caird coast and drifted for 10 months before being crushed in the pack ice. The members of the expedition then drifted on ice floes for another five months and finally escaped in boats to Elephant Island in the South Shetland Islands, where they subsisted on seal meat, penguins, and their dogs. Shackleton and five others sailed 800 miles (1,300 km) to South Georgia in a whale boat, a 16-day journey across a stretch of dangerous ocean, before landing on the southern side of South Georgia. Shackleton and his small crew then made the first crossing of the island to seek aid. Four months later, after leading four separate relief expeditions, Shackleton succeeded in rescuing his crew from Elephant Island. Throughout the ordeal, not one of Shackleton’s crew of the Endurance died. A supporting party, the Ross Sea party led by A.E. Mackintosh, sailed in the Aurora and laid depots as far as latitude 83°30′ S for the use of the Trans-Antarctic party three of this party died on the return journey.

Shackleton served in the British army during World War I. He attempted a fourth Antarctic expedition, called the Shackleton-Rowett Antarctic Expedition, aboard the Quest in 1921, which had the goal of circumnavigating the continent. Shackleton died at Grytviken, South Georgia, however, at the outset of the journey. His exertions in raising funds to finance his expeditions and the immense strain of the expeditions themselves were believed to have worn out his strength.

Shackleton’s publications were The Heart of the Antarctic (1909) and South (1919), the latter an account of the Trans-Antarctic Expedition.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica This article was most recently revised and updated by John P. Rafferty, Editor.

Antarctic coniferous trees

In a small part of Alexander Island, on the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, ancient fossil trees that date back 100 million years can be found, with logs up to seven metres high (23 feet) still found standing upright. The roots of these coniferous trees are still attached to the carbonaceous soil deposits today. Their root systems indicate that these trees thrived on the rich plains alongside large meandering rivers. However, the coarse sand that buries the trunks shows the power of floods in the area that eventually covered the whole plain in thick sediment. Fossilised leaves found in the area show that there was a large diversity of plants that once lived there. In fact, the area was dominated by evergreen species and had a temperate rainforest at about 75°S, while today this latitude is cold and frozen. 100 million years ago, despite a winter that witnessed around 70 days of darkness, the forests were thriving in much warmer conditions. The warmth came from the size of the landmass, with Gondwanaland keeping away the cold currents that today encircle Antarctica. Researchers have found that the floodplains in the area were covered with ferns, small podocarps, and conifers. On the coastal plain, the open canopy forests were thick with conifers and ferns.

The Forgotten American Explorer Who Discovered Huge Parts of Antarctica

The early-1900s exploits of intrepid explorers like Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton captured the public imagination. With the benefit of cameras and deft handling of newspaper media, the Edwardian British explorers, alongside their Norwegian rival Roald Amundsen, established themselves as heroic polar pioneers. In the process, however, the south polar exploits of their American forerunner, Charles Wilkes, have been largely forgotten.

It was the round-the-world expedition by Wilkes—whose scientific collection constituted the first treasures of the infant Smithsonian—that first established the continental dimensions of Antarctica. But in a twist of 19th-century international politics, that claim to Antarctica was denied to the Americans by the pole-hungry British. Fast forward to today, and the United States finds itself in another nationalistic race to capitalize on the frozen southern continent. This time, its sparring partner is China.

Land of Wondrous Cold: The Race to Discover Antarctica and Unlock the Secrets of Its Ice

A deep-time history of monumental scale, Land of Wondrous Cold brings the remotest of worlds within close reach―an Antarctica vital to both planetary history and human fortunes.

Amundsen might have been the first man to reach the South Pole, in 1911, but the discovery of the Antarctic continent occurred several generations earlier. In January 1840, when Wilkes was commander of the United States Exploring Expedition, he charted 1500 miles of the east Antarctic coastline in his flagship U.S.S. Vincennes. Before this American expedition, only small, rocky outcrops of Antarctica had been sighted. Most exploreres believed an open polar sea or, at most, a scattered archipelago lay at the planet’s far south.

In a remarkable coincidence, a French expedition led by the legendary Jules Dumont D’Urville reached the same stretch of coastline on the same day. But D’Urville stayed just long enough to plant the French flag on a tiny offshore island before sailing back north. Wilkes, meanwhile, against the advice of his medical staff and officers, braved the cold, ice, and howling katabatic winds to claim glory for the Vincennes.

Charles Wilkes barely had time to announce his Antarctic triumph before British rival James Clark Ross (celebrated discoverer of the North Magnetic Pole) began to steal his thunder. Wilkes’s mistake was to send the lagging Ross his historic first chart of the east Antarctic coast. A year later, when Ross retraced Wilkes’s route, he found the American had been deceived in places by glacial reflections and had mistaken ice shelves for actual coastline, marking it several degrees too far north. These errors did nothing to undermine the substance of Wilkes’s discoveries, yet Ross and the British Admiralty built a public case against the American claim—with great success. Most 19th-century maps of Antarctica do not recognize Wilkes’s remarkable 1840 feat. Even his obituaries in American newspapers made only passing mention of Wilkes’ polar discoveries.

Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, commander of the United States Exploring Expedition, 1838 to 1842 (Thomas Sully, U.S. Naval Academy Museum)

In the 20th century, Wilkes would finally get his due. In 1912-13, Australian explorer Douglas Mawson was the first to revisit the east Antarctic shores mapped by the Vincennes. Mawson so admired Wilkes’ navigation of the ice pack in a wooden sailing ship that he christened the entire coast “Wilkes Land,” which remains the largest continuous territory on Earth named for a single individual.

Wilkes’ rehabilitation reflected the changing power dynamics of the polar great game. The British and French eventually ceded the argument, and corresponding territory, to the United States as the world’s emerging polar power. During the Cold War, the United States continued to assert its leadership in Antarctic affairs, brokering the international Antarctic Treaty of 1958 and investing in cutting-edge polar research. Much of what we know about climate change, for instance, comes from secrets revealed in drilling Antarctic ice cores, an outgrowth of America’s interest in polar science.

2015 photograph of McMurdo station, Antarctica (Mike Lucibella, NSF)

Today, the Antarctic landscape is changing—and not just from melting glaciers. America’s interest in Antarctica appears to be waning, and so too is its influence.

In the decade following the 2008 global recession, funding for the Office of Polar Programs, which oversees American facilities and research in Antarctica, fell by 8 percent. Plans for the long-overdue replacement of aging facilities at McMurdo Station, the United States’ Antarctic headquarters, were drawn up during the Obama administration, but a further proposed cut of more than 10 percent in the 2021 budget places those rebuilding plans in jeopardy just as work is set to begin. Without modernization of McMurdo, which in its size and sophistication has long been the envy of other nations, the perception of America’s declining interest in Antarctica will grow.

China, long relegated to spectator status in Antarctic affairs, stands to gain the most. With four Antarctic stations already, China is now in the advanced planning stages for a fifth station—this one to be located in the heart of “downtown” Antarctica, on an island in the Ross Sea adjacent to McMurdo. The image of a rusting, outdated American station alongside a gleaming, state-of-the-art Chinese facility will communicate more clearly than a hundred polar policy papers the reality of the power transfer already under way in Antarctica, where China’s investments in icebreakers, communications hardware, and station infrastructure dwarfs that of other nations, including the United States.

China's 35th Antarctic expedition sends 37 members of two inland expedition teams to the Kunlun and Taishan stations in Antarctica Dec. 18, 2018. (Xinhua News Agency / Getty Images)

The French, British, and American expeditions of the 1840s sailed south in the hope of discovering a Terra Australis laden with mineral treasures, only to find towering glaciers and deathly cold. A couple of centuries later, it’s China that is determined to reap Antarctica’s mineral riches.

As the northern ice melts, the Arctic Ocean is already the scene of international jockeying for mining rights. But as China scholar Anne-Marie Brady has documented extensively, Beijing views Antarctica as the last great terrestrial frontier on Earth, hosting great deposits of coal, natural gas, precious minerals, added to plentiful fish stocks in the surrounding ocean and even vast freshwater reserves locked up in Antarctic ice. China intends to exploit the continent fully once the current Antarctic Treaty expires in 2048, if not sooner. With nations hungry for new sources of oil and mineral wealth, and China laying the groundwork for industrialization of the pole, the stakes for Antarctica couldn’t be higher.

An obvious irony looms over this new Antarctic rush. If Antarctic glaciers are already melting, and the consequent sea-level rise threatens to inundate coastal cities across the globe, why would any government make plans to exacerbate global warming by exploiting fossil fuel reserves in Antarctica? Will the 21st century end with oil fields in an ice-free Wilkes Land or strip-mining in the forested Transantarctic Mountains that are currently buried in ice? It seems outlandish, but this is exactly the future that Beijing’s plan could trigger, even if public pronouncements from China conform to the diplomatic polar language of international collaboration and disinterested scientific research.

A Brief History of People Losing Their Minds in Antarctica

The harrowing story of the Belgica, stuck fast in Antarctic sea ice for more than a year in the 1890s, reveals how isolation in the planet’s most hostile environment can cause even the hardiest explorers to lose their minds. In an adapted excerpt, the author of Madhouse at the End of the Earth examines the many cases of psychosis that have since afflicted year-round Antarctic personnel and asks, What is it about the southernmost continent that makes people go insane?

On August 16, 1897, more than twenty thousand people flocked to the Antwerp waterfront to see off the Belgica, a three-mast whaleship setting sail for the largely uncharted waters of Antarctica. Led by 31-year-old Adrien de Gerlache, the Belgian Antarctic Expedition was to be the first scientific mission into the void at the bottom of world maps. Seven months later, the Belgica was caught in the pack ice of the Bellingshausen sea, and her men were condemned to be the first to endure an Antarctic winter. The sun set for the last time on May 17. Through seventy days of darkness, during which the men were unable to stray from the ship for fear of never finding it again, their bodies and minds began to break down. The expedition’s American surgeon, Dr. Frederick Cook, observed the suffering around him with an anthropologist’s eye. His description of the men’s mental anguish might have applied to any number of polar missions in the years since the Belgica. “The long…night with its potential capacity for tragedy makes a madhouse of every polar camp,” he would later write. “Here men love and hate each other in a passion which defies description. Murder, suicide, starvation, insanity, icy death and all the acts of the devil, become regular mental pictures.”

Every man aboard hoped that the return of the sun in late July (seasons are inverted in the southern hemisphere) would ease the shipwide distress. Instead, symptoms grew more severe as it became obvious that the sun’s rays were insufficient to loosen the ice’s grip on the Belgica. For several men, in what would become a familiar pattern in Antarctica over the next 120 years, anguish gave way to insanity.

Julian Sancton's Madhouse at the End of the Earth, from which this essay is adapted.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House

As the forecastle was coming to life on the morning of August 7, 1898, the young Belgian sailor Jan Van Mirlo, his eyes glistening with fear, handed a note to the second engineer, Max Van Rysselberghe:

Van Rysselberghe was flabbergasted. He at first suspected a hoax—Van Mirlo was notorious for his histrionics—and asked him a series of questions. When his fellow Fleming failed to respond, Van Rysselberghe took him straight to Cook’s cabin.

After examining the patient, the doctor concluded that there was nothing wrong with Van Mirlo’s ears or vocal cords. The problem was with his mind. He was experiencing a hysterical crisis that was likely to get worse in the next few days. Cook ordered Van Mirlo’s crewmates to discreetly keep an eye on him, in two-hour shifts, even at night.

The deckhand recovered his speech and hearing within a week, but not his reason. Among the first things he said when he rediscovered his voice was that he was going to murder his superior, chief engineer Henri Somers, as soon as he had the chance.

Van Mirlo’s psychosis struck his shipmates at their core. His unraveling escalated the sense of terror that had been simmering on board for months. He was simultaneously an augury of the worst that the men feared for themselves and a vector of fear. If he said he would murder Somers, what was to stop him from changing his mind and killing someone else? Now the expeditioners had to worry not only about “the elements conjured against us,” wrote the Belgica’s captain, Georges Lecointe, but also “this man who was irresponsible for his actions.” The sailor’s condition was a particularly extreme manifestation of shipwide unease, an acting-out of the panic that most were barely managing to keep contained.

Soon after, another sailor, Adam Tollefsen, began showing signs of severe paranoia. The Norwegian boatswain was among the most experienced and dependable seamen on the ship. He was accustomed to the cold and the dark, having worked in the Arctic, and had performed his duties with skill, intelligence, and zeal. The Belgica’s first mate, a fellow Norwegian named Roald Amundsen, was especially fond of Tollefsen. But in his diary on November 28, Amundsen acknowledged that the boatswain “displayed some very strange symptoms today which are indicative of insanity.” That night, Tollefsen had asked him if he was truly aboard the Belgica. When Amundsen answered that yes, he was, Tollefsen looked perplexed and said he had no memory of embarking on the ship.

Tollefsen’s protuberant eyes darted nervously at every creak of the hull, every pop in the ice. He experienced ferocious headaches and kept his thickly bearded jaw clenched at all times, as if bracing for imminent disaster. Tollefsen grew so suspicious of the other crewmembers that he retreated to dark corners of the ship. He avoided the forecastle at night and slept instead in the freezing hold, among the rats, without a bedcover or proper winter clothes. “His spirit is troubled by delusions of grandeur and mad terrors,” observed Lecointe. “Odd mystery: the word ‘chose’ [French for ‘thing’] infuriates him. Since he doesn’t speak French, he imagines that ‘chose’ means kill and that his companions have given each other the signal to execute him.”

Tollefsen had to be watched at all times, lest he attempt to strike first at those he believed meant to harm him. His friend Jan Van Mirlo, still reeling from his own psychotic episode, volunteered to be his guardian. Van Mirlo believed that Tollefsen had begun to act bizarrely after the death in June of one of the Belgica’s officers, Emile Danco. “He became shy,” recalled Van Mirlo, and “was continuously writing letters to his beloved ‘Agnes’ in which he wrote about all his misery here on the ice and about his persecution at the hands of his shipmates.” According to Van Mirlo, Tollefsen would place these letters in a mound of snow that resembled a mailbox. “To give him pleasure, we went to retrieve the letters and told them they were on their way to Agnes.”

Tollefsen’s mental state deteriorated drastically during the month of November. “He doesn’t speak, his eyes look vacant, and the only task we can entrust him with is to scrape sealskins,” wrote Lecointe. “Even then, he barely progresses in this work: after ten minutes, he drums on the skin with his knife, looking with a bewildered air in the direction of distant pressure ridges.” If anyone approached him, Tollefsen would shudder and instinctively bow his head, “as if to receive the coup de grâce.”

The Belgica caught in the Antarctic pack ice, 1898.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Frederick A. Cook Society.

If the literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—by the likes of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, and Jules Verne—imagined a link between the polar regions and insanity, the Belgica expedition confirmed it. The decades of frenzied Antarctic exploration that followed the voyage cemented the continent’s reputation as an inherently maddening place. Still today in Antarctic research stations, as modern amenities dull the ferocity of the environment and digital communications keep year-round personnel in touch with the outside world, madness lurks in the corridors.

The English explorer Frank Wild, who traveled to Antarctica several times, including with Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton in the early 1900s, admitted in his unpublished memoirs that the psychological toll of polar expeditions had gone largely unreported: “When leaders of Expeditions write up their books, they usually give the impression that their parties were composed of archangels & that rows & differences never occurred,” wrote Wild. “In all of my six expeditions quarrels & squabbles have taken place, & men’s tempers most naturally become frayed when herded together in close quarters under the trying conditions of a polar winter.”

In the extreme conditions of the Antarctic, these crises could trigger violent impulses. During Scott’s Discovery expedition to the Ross Sea, in the winter of 1902, “one man’s mind gave way,” Wild wrote. “One evening during bad weather he was missed. A search party was organised by one man going straight out from the ship with a rope before he got out of sight in the drift, another took hold of the line & so on until some two hundred yards of rope was paid out, then the party commenced a sweeping movement round the ship. The missing man was found a short distance ahead of the ship with a crowbar in his hand. When asked what he was doing there he said ‘Well, I knew a search party would be sent out for me, & I hoped – (here he named a man with whom he had quarrelled) would find me, & I was going to brain him with this bar’.”

People who go mad in the Antarctic tend to go mad in similar ways. Those affected are prone to hallucinations and paranoid delusions. They often stray from the ship or the base without notifying their colleagues, as if they believed they could walk back to civilization. And they are typically obsessed with violence, either threatening murder (like Van Mirlo) or fearing it (like Tollefsen)—or both.

Sidney Jeffryes was a wireless radio operator on the Australian explorer Douglas Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic Expedition (1911-1914). After months holed up with four other men in a hut on Cape Denison—an outcropping of George V Land, immediately south of Australia, that Mawson rightly called “the windiest place on earth”—Jeffryes suffered a mental breakdown. He began ranting incoherently and picking fights with his companions. After brawling with one of them, he asked another to “be his second if he did any shooting.” All firearms and ammunition were immediately hidden from him. Jeffryes “surely must be going off his base,” Mawson wrote in his diaries. “During the day he sleeps badly, gets up for dinner looking bad, husky mutters sitting on his bunk in the dark afterward.“ Jeffryes became convinced, as Tollefsen had been, that his fellow expeditioners wanted to kill him, and nothing they could say could disabuse him of the notion. Months later, it was discovered that Jeffryes had secretly been sending radio communications to a station on Macquarie island to report that it was his colleagues who had gone mad. 1 He was relieved of his position and only recovered once he was back in Australia.

1 Another member of Mawson’s expedition, Xavier Mertz, became delirious following a grueling overland journey during which he and Mawson were forced to shoot and eat some of their beloved dogs to survive. Mertz raved and thrashed in their tent, soiled himself repeatedly, and chewed off the tip of his frostbitten finger to prove his courage. He died later that day. It has been suggested that his mental symptoms and his death were caused by an excess of vitamin A, found in high concentration in the livers of huskies.

By 1928, when the celebrated American naval pilot and explorer Richard Byrd was planning his first expedition to Antarctica, the idea that the continent drove men to violence and insanity had become so common that he thought to bring along two coffins and twelve straightjackets.

Instances of madness occurred throughout the twentieth century, even as the infrastructure of research bases developed, making personnel less likely to suffer from the harshness of the elements. A few cases stand out. In 1955, a member of the Naval Construction Battalion assigned to build the first American base on the continent, at McMurdo Sound, became paranoid. Fearing that his psychosis would destabilize the rest of the crew, his commanding officers had a special cell built for him next to the infirmary, lined with mattresses to muffle the sound of his mad ravings.

In the early 70s the U.S. Navy began carrying out regular psychiatric evaluations of all Antarctic personnel on its bases. At each station, the clinicians found, “there was at least one and usually more episodes of actual or attempted physical aggression each year. In retrospect, these events were invariably reported at the lowest points of morale during the year and were the source of great guilt, rumination and preoccupation in the group.” But the most extreme case of emotional disorder observed during the Naval study concerned a service member who was “overtly psychotic with paranoid delusions and assaultive behaviour.” The station’s medical staff treated him with powerful sedatives and isolated him from the rest of the other personnel. “It is significant that his delusions developed in a tense emotional milieu which was marked by conscious homosexual anxiety stimulated by a schizoid, effeminate and seductive member of the group,” the report of the study added.

At 5 a.m. on August 22, 1978, a fire broke out in the Chapel of the Snows at McMurdo station. The station’s firefighters were unable to contain the flames, which soon consumed the entire wooden structure. Only the church bell and a few religious items could be salvaged. It was later found that the blaze had been ignited by a man who had “gone a little screwy.”

For all the threats of violence issued by unstable crewmembers, there has been, to date, only one suspected murder in Antarctica. In May 2000, Rodney Marks, a 32-year-old Australian astrophysicist wintering at the South Pole station, fell ill while walking between buildings on the compound and died 36 hours later, in wretched pain. An autopsy attributed his death to methanol poisoning the subsequent criminal investigation could not determine whether it had been the result of suicide of foul play.

A recent case was more conclusive, if ultimately less deadly. On October 9, 2018, in the cafeteria of Russia’s Bellingshausen station, on King George Island, a 54-year-old engineer named Sergei Savitsky grabbed a knife and plunged it into the chest of Oleg Beloguzov, a welder with whom he’d had a history of conflict. (Beloguzov was airlifted to a hospital in Chile, where he recovered.) An unnamed source told a reporter that Savitsky had snapped after Beloguzov kept spoiling the endings of books.

The forecastle of the Belgica. Staring at the camera, with the pipe, is Jan Van Mirlo, who went temporarily insane during the expedition.

Courtesy of the De Gerlache Family Collection

A study of 313 men and women conducted at McMurdo Station in the 1990s revealed that 5.2 percent of those surveyed suffered from a psychiatric disorder. While this rate is slightly lower than among the general population of the United States, it should be noted that all station personnel are rigorously screened for such disorders before arriving. The Antarctic had made them lose their bearings.

What is it about Antarctica that seems to dissolve the bonds of sanity? An official report of the Belgica expedition, published in Brussels in 1904, offered an explanation that could have been written by Poe: “One sailor had fits of hysteria which bereft him of reason. Another, witnessing the pressure of the ice, was smitten with terror and went mad at the spectacle of the weird-sublime and in dread of pursuing fate.” It’s tempting to see, as authors from Coleridge to Verne to Lovecraft do, a dark poetry to polar madness, a correspondence between the highest latitudes of the earth and the deepest corners of the mind. Yet the romantic notions that a place can exert a maddening force, or that insanity is the penalty of hubris, or that the very blankness of the landscape forces men to face their innermost fears, don’t hold up to scientific scrutiny. The etiology of mental illness is rarely so symbolic.

Scholars today associate “polar madness,” generally speaking, with a combination of environmental factors like the cold and the dark—which can disrupt circadian rhythms and hormonal balances—and psychosocial factors, such as isolation, confinement, monotony, and the interpersonal conflicts that inevitably arise among small groups forced to spend a lot of time together. It has been observed on both ends of the earth. But a distinction must be made between winter-over syndrome, a sense of brain-fog and disorientation that amounts to a particularly acute form of cabin fever, and the rarer cases of actual psychosis, including Van Mirlo’s and Tollefsen’s. Whereas those suffering from winter-over syndrome tend to be listless and gloomy, the truly psychotic are typically frantic, paranoid, seeing enemies and danger around every corner. In many ways, their crises resemble a phenomenon observed in the Arctic not within overwintering expeditions but rather among the men and women who lived in those forbidding regions year-round.

From the 1890s until the 1920s, explorers documented dozens of cases of manic, delusional, sometimes violent behavior among the Inuhuit, the indigenous population of Northern Greenland. The Inuhuit supposedly had a word to describe such episodes: pibloktoq. 2 “The manifestations of this disorder are somewhat startling,” wrote the American Arctic explorer Robert Peary, among the first Western explorers to describe it.

2 The word first appears in the writing of Josephine Diebitsch-Peary, Robert Peary’s wife. She likely took liberties with the transliteration since it resembles no known term or phrase in the modern Inuhuit dialect of Northern Greenland.

The patient, usually a woman, begins to scream and tear off and destroy her clothing. If on the ship, she will walk up and down the deck, screaming and gesticulating, and generally in a state of nudity, though the thermometer may be in the minus forties. As the intensity of the attack increases, she will sometimes leap over the rail upon the ice, running perhaps half a mile. The attack may last a few minutes, an hour, or even more, and some sufferers become so wild that they would continue running about on the ice perfectly naked until they froze to death, if they were not forcibly brought back. When an Eskimo is attacked with piblokto indoors, nobody pays much attention, unless the sufferer should reach for a knife or attempt to injure some one.”

Early on, explorers and anthropologists tended to consider pibloktoq as integral to the identity of the Inuhuit, like an exotic version of the “hysteria” then thought primarily to afflict women. (Western doctors occasionally treated it with injections of mustard water.) Over the years, social scientists have proposed more plausible theories to explain it, none of which are fully satisfactory. Some believed it could be a form of shamanic trance, while others have attributed it to nutritional deficiency, and others still to “brooding over absent relatives or fear of the future.” Perhaps the most common explanation has been that pibloktoq was related—like winter-over syndrome—to seasonal environmental factors, particularly to the cold and darkness of the Arctic winter.

Both Van Mirlo and Tollefsen were also known to flee into the cold, woefully underdressed. Could the two men have experienced an antipodal variant of pibloktoq, one that lasted not hours but weeks, months? A current theory among social scientists suggests that pibloktoq was not a congenital malady peculiar to the Inuhuit but rather a severe stress reaction arising from early contact with Western outsiders. While that circumstance does not apply to the men of the Belgica—if anything, the source of their anxiety was the lack of contact with the outside—the theory suggests that polar psychosis might be less a physiological phenomenon than a function of emotional distress, exacerbated by a bleak and unforgiving landscape.

If isolation, confinement, and fear are the primary stressors in polar environments, they were especially potent on the Belgica expedition. Since no man had experienced a winter in the Antarctic pack ice before, nobody knew what lay in store. Drifting on the fringes of a desolate continent, at the mercy of the ice’s pressures, without the possibility of rescue or communication with the rest of the world, the men of the Belgica were among the most isolated human beings on earth.

Adapted from MADHOUSE AT THE END OF THE EARTH by Julian Sancton. Copyright © 2021 by Julian Sancton. Published by Crown, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Uninvited Guests

During the turn of the century, the island of South Georgia became a wildly popular whaling and sealing destination. With an increase of human activity on the island came alien, or non-native species of plants, that hitched rides on the boots or clothing of the visitors and workers. An absence of natural predators made colonization of these plant species extremely easy. Currently, South Georgia is home to 26 species of vascular plants and an additional 15 non-native species. Luckily for them, South Georgia experiences relatively mild winters and warm summers, both of which make for perfect growing conditions.

New Zealander Frank Worsley captained the Endurance during Sir Ernest Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. But he is best remembered for navigating the expedition party to safety after the Endurance was crushed by ice floes in the Weddell Sea. Worsley also took part in Shackleton's final expedition to the Antarctic in 1922.

Frank Arthur Worsley was born in Akaroa in February 1872. By the time he joined the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1914 he had 27 years' experience in a variety of ships and environments – including in the service of the New Zealand Shipping Company, the New Zealand government and the Royal Naval Reserve. He claimed to have been attracted to Shackleton's expedition by an ‘absurd dream’ in which he saw himself navigating a ship along Burlington Street, London, which was ‘full of ice-blocks’. When he went to the street the following day he saw a sign advertising the expedition. He met with Shackleton and, after only a few minutes, was appointed to captain the Endurance.

Worsley faced some difficulties – including a shortage of coal – while sailing the Endurance to Buenos Aires between August and October 1914. But this was nothing compared with what lay ahead. Within days of their departure from South Georgia in December 1914 the expedition struck pack ice in the Weddell Sea. Although Worsley reportedly ‘enjoyed the excitement of ramming the floes’, their progress was unpredictable and after two months the Endurance became trapped in the ice.

Worsley no longer had a ship to sail but he did not ‘put his feet up and rest’. He assisted the scientists on board, worked to divert his shipmates and took sightings when he could. After the ship was crushed in October 1915, he – despite his misgivings – led unsuccessful marches across the ice in the hope of reaching land.

His skills as a navigator came to the fore when the floe the party was camping on suddenly split apart on 8 April 1916. The party was forced to take to the three lifeboats they had carried with them, and Worsley safely navigated them to Elephant Island. Realising that this was uninhabited and rarely visited, Shackleton appointed Worsley to navigate his six-man rescue party some 1300 km to a whaling station in South Georgia.

The success of the journey depended entirely on the accuracy of Worsley's navigation, but taking precise measurements was virtually impossible due to heavy seas and strong winds. In what has been described as ‘an astonishing feat of navigation’, Worsley safely navigated the party to South Georgia with only four sightings over the 16-day journey.

When the party arrived on the west of South Georgia on 10 May 1916, it was not the end of their ordeal. Worsley, Shackleton and Thomas Crean made an arduous 36-hour overland journey to reach a whaling station to the east. Less than a day later, Worsley set out to rescue the other members of the lifeboat part.

In the four months that followed Worsley assisted Shackleton in his four attempts to rescue the remaining men from Elephant Island. He then accompanied Shackleton to New Zealand with the aim of assisting in the rescue of the Ross Sea Party, only to stand aside during negotiations with John King Davis.

On his return to England in April 1917 Worsley returned to the Royal Naval Reserve to serve in the First World War. He spent 10 months at sea commanding ‘Q-ships’ to combat Germany's U-boats. Shackleton then requested Worsley's assistance organising transport and equipment for the North Russia Expeditionary Force sent by the Allies to support anti-Bolshevik forces.

Worsley joined Shackleton again in 1921 as navigator and hydrographer on the Quest. But their next Antarctic adventure never eventuated. Shackleton died in South Georgia on 5 January 1922. It was also Worsley's last expedition to Antarctica, but he wrote and lectured on his Antarctic adventures for many years to come. Worsley died in February 1943 and was honoured with a full naval funeral. His ashes were scattered at sea.

In 1961-62 the New Zealand Geological and Survey Antarctic Expedition named some icefalls in Antarctica after Worsley. Worsley Icefalls are in the upper part of the Nimrod Glacier, south of the Geologists Range. A cape in Antarctic Peninsula, the northernmost part of the mainland, was named after Worsley by the Falkland Islands Dependency Survey in 1947. A mountain in South Georgia has also been named after Worsley by the United Kingdom Antarctic Place-Names Committee.

Ernest Shackleton – Discovery Expedition


Shackleton’s life would change forever in 1900, when he heard of an expedition that was going to Antarctica. Shackleton was very ambitious, and desired to make a name for himself, so he jumped at this chance for distinction. One of Shackleton’s most notable qualities was his charm – he could convince most people to do just about anything, and in this case he put that skill to use. He had heard about the expedition from Cedric Longstaff, and was able to meet his father, a major financier of the expedition, and convince him to recommend that he be be given a place on the trip. Longstaff senior recommended Shackleton to Sir Clement Markham, who was organizing the expedition, and on February 17, 1901, Shackleton was appointed third officer on the Discovery.

Captain Robert Scott

The Discovery was captained by Robert Scott, an ambitious naval officer. This was his first expedition to Antarctica, but he would go on to become a famous explorer, dying on the return journey from the South Pole. Scott would play an important role in Shackleton’s life, but they got off to a bad start as Scott was an officer of the Royal Navy, and did not appreciate civilians being appointed to his ship.

The Discovery set sail on July 31, 1901, arriving in Antarctica and setting up base in McMurdo Sound to stay there for the winter of 1902 (summer in the northern hemisphere.) Through the long months of close confinement, the relationship of Shackleton and Scott worsened. Shackleton, unlike Scott, was a natural leader. He was very popular with the men, and Scott may have seen him as a threat to his authority.

In the long, dark months of waiting for summer, when they could travel, the men had various pursuits. The scientists worked in the laboratories and gave lectures, and the men prepared the stores. There were also amusements to be had. Football was played on the ice, and Shackleton edited a newspaper, the South Polar Times. One thing that was neglected was training for the coming journey. Scott was not good at preparations, and did not have his men gain the experience in skis and sled dogs which they lacked. Shackleton, who was more inclined to fervent bursts of energy rather than the slow, patient, hard work, did not go out on his own to remedy the problem.

Edward Wilson

It was during the winter that Scott announced his choices for companions on the push for the south pole. He chose Dr. Edward Wilson and Shackleton, although tensions were high between them. The group that set off on November 2, 1902, was largely unprepared. They lacked necessary skills in dogs and skiing that would have made traveling much easier. As one historian has said, “where life might depend on technique, these men were but beginners.” 1

Traveling across the Barrier, which was later found to be an ice sheet jutting many miles from land out to sea, they made relatively slow progress. However, on November 11 they passed the previous Furthest South set by Borchgrevink a few years before. For there on they were traveling in unknown land. Their support parties turned back on November 15, and the three men began relaying because they had too much supplies and equipment to haul in one load. The dogs were not much help, for although they could be tremendously useful if treated properly, Scott, Shackleton and Wilson were ignorant in dog driving. The rations for the dogs were also wrong, and so they had to kill them, one by one, as they fell too sick to work.

Shackleton, Scott and Wilson (L to R)

As the men pushed forward across the cold and lonely expanse of ice, it quickly became apparent that the pole was out of reach. They were falling sick from scurvy, a deficiency of Vitamin C. Humans do not produce the vitamin, and have to get it from fresh food. Its onset is slow because we have large reserves in our bodies, and the horrible symptoms quickly fade when fresh food is restored. It was not known at the time what caused the disease. In previous decades it had been known that lemon juice would prevent the disease, which was a standard requirement on British ships, but the knowledge had been lost when the navy switched to lime juice which contained less Vitamin C. The symptoms of scurvy that the explorers suffered were horrible.

Shackleton, Scott and Wilson Sledging

Although he did not like to admit it, it was clear that Shackleton was the worst. He also suffered from a more mysterious disease, a trouble with his heart. Throughout his life he was very mistrustful of doctors, and would not let them examine him. He would eventually die from heart disease, and this problem, combined with the scurvy and cold, left him very sick. As they turned back on December 30 th , still on the Barrier, he was still unable to pull the sledge, and at times even had to ride. He was very short of breath, and was constantly coughing. However, with an incredible will power, he continued to press on through his sickness and keep moving, helping to pull the sledge when he could. It was clear that Scott had cut their margins too close. Their food was running so low that if they encountered a bad blizzard they probably would not have made it. Under this pressure, Shackleton and Scott lost their tempers with each other. With his calm, patience and cool head, Wilson took over the real leadership of the expedition, preserving the peace between Shackleton and Scott.

Wilson, Scott and Shackleton finally reached the ship on February 4, 1903. Although they had not been able to reach the pole they had set a new record of Farthest South. The relief ship the Morning had arrived, but with the Discovery still in the ice, Scott decided to stay another year. Shackleton, however, had to go. He and Scott had quarreled, and Shackleton had fallen sick. He was returned home, an invalid, although others who were sick were allowed to stay. Shackleton never quite forgave Scott for this. He was determined to return to Antarctica and succeed where Scott had failed. He was too much of a natural leader for Scott to keep. Scott chose to blame his failures in the southern journey on Shackleton, portraying himself as a rescuer of a sick comrade.

Discovery with relief ships

Ernest Shackleton (1874 - 1922)

Ernest Shackleton © Shackleton was an Anglo-Irish Antarctic explorer, best known for leading the 'Endurance' expedition of 1914-16.

Ernest Henry Shackleton was born on 15 February 1874 in County Kildare, Ireland. His father was a doctor. The family moved to London where Shackleton was educated. Rejecting his father's wish that he become a doctor, he joined the merchant navy when he was 16 and qualified as a master mariner in 1898. He travelled widely but was keen to explore the poles.

In 1901, Shackleton was chosen to go on the Antarctic expedition led by British naval officer Robert Falcon Scott on the ship 'Discovery'. With Scott and one other, Shackleton trekked towards the South Pole in extremely difficult conditions, getting closer to the Pole than anyone had come before. Shackleton became seriously ill and had to return home but had gained valuable experience.

Back in Britain, Shackleton spent some time as a journalist and was then elected secretary of the Scottish Royal Geographical Society. In 1906, he unsuccessfully stood for parliament in Dundee. In 1908, he returned to the Antarctic as the leader of his own expedition, on the ship 'Nimrod'. During the expedition, his team climbed Mount Erebus, made many important scientific discoveries and set a record by coming even closer to the South Pole than before. He was knighted on his return to Britain.

In 1911, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole, followed by Scott who died on the return journey. In 1914, Shackleton made his third trip to the Antarctic with the ship 'Endurance', planning to cross Antarctica via the South Pole. Early in 1915, 'Endurance' became trapped in the ice, and ten months later sank. Shackleton's crew had already abandoned the ship to live on the floating ice. In April 1916, they set off in three small boats, eventually reaching Elephant Island. Taking five crew members, Shackleton went to find help. In a small boat, the six men spent 16 days crossing 1,300 km of ocean to reach South Georgia and then trekked across the island to a whaling station. The remaining men from the 'Endurance' were rescued in August 1916. Not one member of the expedition died. 'South', Shackleton's account of the 'Endurance' expedition, was published in 1919.

Shackleton's fourth expedition aimed to circumnavigate the Antarctic continent but on 5 January 1922, Shackleton died of a heart attack off South Georgia. He was buried on the island.

Scott of the Antarctic (1868 - 1912)

Captain Robert Falcon Scott in his sledging gear © 'Scott of the Antarctic' was a naval officer and explorer, who died attempting to be the first to reach the South Pole.

Robert Falcon Scott was born on 6 June 1868 in Devonport. He became a naval cadet at the age of 13 and served on a number of Royal Navy ships in the 1880s and 1890s. He attracted the notice of the Royal Geographical Society, which appointed him to command the National Antarctic Expedition of 1901-1904. The expedition - which included Ernest Shackleton - reached further south than anyone before them and Scott returned to Britain a national hero. He had caught the exploring bug and began to plan an expedition to be the first to reach the South Pole. He spent years raising funds for the trip.

The whaling ship Terra Nova left Cardiff, Wales in June 1910 and the expedition set off from base the following October, with mechanical sledges, ponies and dogs. However, the sledges and ponies could not cope with the conditions and the expedition carried on without them, through appalling weather and increasingly tough terrain. In mid December, the dog teams turned back, leaving the rest to face the ascent of the Beardmore Glacier and the polar plateau. By January 1912, only five remained: Scott, Wilson, Oates, Bowers and Evans.

On 17 January, they reached the pole, only to find that a Norwegian party led by Roald Amundsen, had beaten them there. They started the 1,500 km journey back. Evans died in mid-February. By March, Oates was suffering from severe frostbite and, knowing he was holding back his companions, walked out into the freezing conditions never to be seen again. The remaining three men died of starvation and exposure in their tent on 29 March 1912. They were in fact only 20 km from a pre-arranged supply depot.

Eight months later, a search party found the tent, the bodies and Scott's diary. The bodies were buried under the tent, with a cairn of ice and snow to mark the spot.