Marooned at the end of the world

Editor’s Note: CNN’s Dugald McConnell based this story on reports by six members of the 1913 Arctic expedition, including his grandfather.

Story highlights

Karluk departs Alaska 100 years ago on one of the most ambitious missions of its kind

Ship with 31 crew members ends up trapped in ice; ship sinks, setting off yearlong ordeal

In a controversial move, the expedition leader chooses to leave the ship

Remaining crew sets across ice, despite extreme cold and starvation

CNN  — 

Capt. Robert Bartlett was awakened by a sharp crack, like a gunshot. His ship was sinking.

“I heard a splitting, crashing sound,” he later wrote. “The ship was trembling and quivering.”

“We could hear water rushing into the hold, and by lantern light could see it pouring in at different places.”

Bartlett’s ship, the Karluk, had been frozen in the sea ice for five months, unable to budge – until now.

His men spent an hour, in the dark, offloading their supplies onto the surface of the surrounding ice. “The air was filled with driving snow, flying before the wind at fully 40 miles an hour,” he wrote. As soon as anything was placed on the ice, it was covered in white.

Then the ship disappeared into a hole so narrow that the ice snapped the yardarms from the masts on its way down.

Map: The path of the Karluk

The men were marooned.

Their plight: subzero temperatures, no shelter, endless winter darkness, shifting ice.

A hundred years ago Saturday, 31 people aboard the Karluk, including my grandfather, set out with lofty ambitions of exploration and discovery on one of the most ambitious Arctic expeditions in history.

But when massive pack ice crushed their ship, they found themselves in a desperate yearlong fight for their lives.

The crew’s perilous struggle to make it out alive in the face of daunting odds and fearsome conditions is preserved in their journals and memoirs.

To read their story is to be reminded of an epoch when men risked their lives for the sake of discovering the unknown corners of the Earth. Despite having no modern survival gear, no GPS, no weather forecasts and no way to make calls to civilization, they were driven on by an urge to set foot where no man had.

Some of these explorers died in the ice and snow. Some were never seen again. And some – despite facing death every day – mustered up unimaginable endurance to survive. Their record is a chronicle of determination, luck and hard choices.

The crew

When they began their trip in June of 1913, with three ships and dozens of people, these explorers were embarking on an Arctic expedition more sweeping than any before it.

They set out from Esquimalt, near Vancouver, Canada, to circle over the top of Alaska. Sponsored by the Canadian government, their mission was to conquer the last unexplored part of the north: hoping to chart new islands, find a northwest shipping passage or even discover an unknown continent.

They were led by Vilhjalmur Stefansson, 33. He was ambitious, optimistic and quick to court fame. He had made a name for himself demonstrating that even in the most barren emptiness, a determined and resourceful explorer could live off the frozen land in what he called “the friendly Arctic.”

Related: Watch archival film of Stefansson and Bartlett

Also among the explorers was my grandfather, Burt McConnell, enlisted as Stefansson’s secretary. Husky and energetic and just 25 – he looks dapper and nonchalant in a group photo taken shortly before their departure.

McConnell wrote to his sweetheart (who later became my grandmother) how thrilling it was to set out from Nome, Alaska, on July 13, 1913. In a yellowing letter that now sits in my father’s study, he described weighing anchor after midnight. In the endless summer daylight, countless well-wishers gave the ship a memorable sendoff.

Growing up hearing the story of this expedition, I was fascinated by its details, from the fickle dangers of the ice to the clashing personalities of the men.

The version I first heard told Stefansson’s side of the story – that he didn’t just abandon his men. But I later learned that other crewmen saw things differently.

The Karluk – an old whaler and the expedition’s 129-foot flagship – had been secured for a good price but had little of the hull reinforcement needed for navigating through ice floes. Soon after leaving port in Alaska, the ship encountered the worst summer ice in memory.

“It was a magnificent sight,” Bartlett later wrote, “the ice crushing and grinding and tearing asunder around us and rearing high on end.” Bartlett was a well-built and experienced leader, a 37-year-old man of letters who a few years prior had successfully captained Admiral Robert Peary’s ship in their historic expedition to the North Pole.

By the middle of August, the Karluk was caught in the ice, unable to turn back and unable to go forward.

The men were not far from land, but hundreds of miles from civilization.

They had two choices: leaving their ship, their supplies, their hopes and trekking ashore – or staying put, with winter approaching, on a ship that could be crushed or released at any moment.

Stefansson argued that there was no point abandoning the ship unless they were forced.

But he soon made a more controversial decision. Taking some of the expedition’s best dogs and five men, including McConnell, he set out for shore to hunt for meat.

The ship soon drifted away, and water opened up near shore, cutting off Stefansson’s group from the Karluk.

In Stefansson’s view, there was nothing more he could do for the Karluk, so he struck out along the shore, with his small party, to meet up with the rest of his expedition and his other two ships.

But he assured the world, in a dispatch to The New York Times, that on board the ship, “the men are in no grave danger, as the vessel is provisioned for five years, and equipped with suitable gear for making land if abandoning the ship become necessary.”

Karluk or no Karluk, he said, his work would continue, and within a few months, he was off exploring the coast like he planned.

Stefansson’s trip across the treacherous ice was not without its dangers. One morning, McConnell wrote, “we found ourselves afloat on a piece of ice about 20 feet wide.” But it was the men he left behind who would soon be facing the deadliest conditions.

Left behind

Remaining on board the Karluk were 14 crewmen, six scientists, an Eskimo, an Eskimo family with two girls, and 27 dogs. They were mostly in their 20s, and aside from the Eskimos, few had any experience in being out on the ice.

They had with them enough provisions to last several years, much of which they unloaded onto the ice to be ready for anything. At a moment’s notice, they had to be prepared to either abandon the ship immediately, if it was splintered by the ice, or to scramble aboard the ship instantly if the ice broke.

Gale force winds sometimes reached 60 mph, and temperatures fell below zero Fahrenheit for days.

The men knew they were drifting farther and farther from land, and the days were getting shorter and shorter.

It was clear that if the ice did not release them soon, they would become trapped throughout the winter and carried even farther away.

In spite of their plight, the castaways saw some memorable moments: enjoying the beauty of the Northern Lights; building a ski jump; hunting seals and polar bears; holding a chess tournament; and feasting at Christmas on canned delicacies such as ox tongue.

They even held a football game on New Year’s Day – although they stopped using the whistle because it froze to the lips and took the skin off.

But on many a night, “it was black as pitch, with a stinging snowdrift swirling through the air, driven by a screaming 50-mile wind,” meteorologist William McKinlay wrote. There were often loud cracks and tremors, and the constant knowledge that “our lives were in imminent danger, and any day, any hour might be our last.”

On January 10, 1914, after five months of being stuck, the ice finally crushed the Karluk.

The morning after it went under, according to crewman Ernest Chafe, “the place where she had sunk was completely frozen over, and every trace of the ship obliterated.”

Now forced to sleep on the ice pack in igloos and lean-tos, the adventurers had to avoid using sleeping bags. If the ice cracked, they would need their arms free to swim. One night, the shifting ice opened a gaping 2- to 3-foot-wide crack down the middle of one of the igloos.

“In a few seconds,” McKinlay wrote, “there was a lane of water just where [two people] had been sleeping.”

Desperate missions

They couldn’t stay put forever: the ice would break up beneath their feet come springtime, and they were drifting away on ocean currents, hundreds of miles to the northwest, north of Siberia.

They knew waiting for rescue would be a mistake, because no one knew their location and no ship could penetrate the ice. An attempt to make it to shore by sled team would be perilous, given the gale force winds, the bitter cold and the round-the-clock darkness.

The closest reachable land was almost a hundred miles south: Wrangel Island and the tiny neighboring Herald Island. After a few weeks, an advance party set out to blaze a trail to the islands. Their agonizingly slow trek was cursed with every impediment: blizzards, frostbite, soaked clothing, choppy ice, dogfights and openings of water that were hazardous to cross.

To go the final distance, four men split off and forged ahead. They were never seen again.

A second party of four set out for the islands, this time against the captain’s wishes. They were given their share of the food and supplies, but according to carpenter John Hadley, Bartlett denied them a crucial resource.

“Not one dog,” the captain said. “If you go off and leave us, you play dog yourself.” But even if it meant man-hauling their own sleds, the four decided they would rather take their chances than wait.

Ten days later, one of the captain’s men – returning from helping the first advance party – ran into this second group as it headed out and saw them struggling badly. Anthropologist Henri Beuchat, trailing behind and nearly frozen to death, seemed to have given up all hope of surviving.

Those four men were also never seen again.

Nevertheless, the only thing the rest of the group could do was try to reach land, with as much of their supplies as they could manage.

On February 24, after staying up all night making final preparations, Bartlett gave the order to move out. With their 800-pound sleds, exhausted dogs, brief daylight, recurring blizzards and jagged mountains of ice to climb over, each mile would be arduous.

“Almost every foot of the trail had to be hewn out of the ice, like making the Overland Trail through the Rockies,” Bartlett wrote. To get over the ice cliffs, “sometimes we had to get the sledges up on a ridge 50 feet high, with an almost sheer drop on the other side.”

Related: Watch archive film of the expedition

The most imminent danger was the risk of breaking through the ice. A pair of explorers who went ahead as scouts fell in up to their waists in icy water. “They started across a patch of young ice and got about 10 feet from the strong ice when their sled broke through,” Hadley wrote. “The next day they got back to us more dead than alive.”

Another time, it cost them a sled and all its supplies when two men broke through. “They were able to climb on the ice, but left the sled and dogs to sink where they were,” Hadley reported.

Eventually eight dogs were lost, leaving barely enough to pull the sleds.

Deadly predators, a mysterious illness

Another danger that could appear at any time was the polar bear.

Hadley chronicled three alarming encounters, one of which had a bear come within six feet before he noticed the dogs growling and their hair standing up stiff.

“If the dogs hadn’t smelt it, I should never have known what hit me, I guess,” he wrote. The bear “had blood in his eye, and went for the dogs as if bent on murder.” Hadley scrambled for his gun and “gave it to him in the head.”

Even turning in for the night could bring new risks. One group thought they picked a safe spot to sleep, but “the next morning at daylight they found they were adrift with water all around them,” Hadley wrote. Luckily, “after drifting a few hours, their cake touched the pack and they were able to get off.”

The party reached Wrangel Island on March 12, with enough food for only two months and only enough for the dogs for a couple of weeks.

Worse still, the men were also handicapped by injuries and illnesses.

One man suffered from a knee injury and could barely walk, and another underwent a gruesome toe amputation with tin snips.

But the crew’s worst affliction was a mysterious illness, causing weakness and swelling, that remains unexplained to this day.

The survivors had hoped to push on to Siberia’s coast, in another forbidding trek. But their injuries and illnesses made such a grueling and hazardous trip impossible. Also there weren’t enough dogs left to pull supplies for a monthlong journey – especially when the dogs would have to haul the sick and injured as well.

Bartlett weighed the risks and made a difficult choice.

He decided to take seven dogs and just one other man, an Eskimo named Kataktovik, to try to fetch help.

The rest of the party set about surviving as best they could. Even if Bartlett survived the trek and could launch a rescue effort before the seas froze again, it would be months before a lifeline could arrive.

The men Bartlett left behind sometimes succeeded in hunting seals or birds. But as their ammunition was limited, their luck with seals ran out. The group’s canned food stash dwindled, and arguments broke out about the fair distribution of rations.

“The misery and desperation of our situation multiplied every weakness, every quirk of personality, every flaw in character, a thousandfold,” McKinlay wrote.

In the darkest development of all, crewman George Breddy was found in his tent, dead of a gunshot wound to the head. Most of the group assumed it was accidentally self-inflicted, but the recent disputes over food gave his death a lingering note of suspicion.

Scientist Bjarne Mamen, generous and big-hearted and just 22, was one of the hardest hit by the mysterious malady. “My body looks horrible. It has swollen up now so that I am frightened about myself,” he wrote in his diary. “Is it death for all of us? No, with God’s help we will get out to of it,” he said.

A few days later, he was dead.

Related: Watch archival film of Mamen

Geologist George Malloch, 33, also died. While the survivors waited for a break in the weather to dig graves, the cook, according to Hadley, was “nearly out of his head with the two dead men beside him in the tent.”

McKinlay looked at the rest of the party and saw suffering all around: swelling, weakness, snow blindness, blisters, peeling skin, frozen feet, gangrene. “I was too miserable to care what happened,” he recalled.

On top of that, starvation was closing in, and the survivors resorted to eating leftover tails, flippers and hides.

“What we ate had little or no sustenance in it,” McKinlay wrote, “but it prevented the violent muscular contractions of an empty stomach and deadened the sickening hunger pains.”

By July, more than a year after they first set sail, the group was down to just 80 rounds for their guns. If no help came by the end of August, the ice would begin to close off the island from any potential rescue. The men began to prepare for another winter as castaways, but they would be facing almost a year with no food supplies and almost no ammunition.

They had no way to reach Siberia, with all but three of their 20 dogs gone. They were in no shape to trudge across ice ridges and giant cracks, with almost no food left, carrying their supplies on their backs.

King and Winge

Despite perilous ice cracks, steep ridges and bitter temperatures of minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit, miraculously, Bartlett and Kataktovik made it to Siberia.

Their sled-dog trip over the ice covered an extraordinary 200 miles in only 17 days.

But they still had to reach civilization. The two then traversed overland 500 miles in three weeks – sometimes sledding as late as 4 a.m. in the midnight sun, until they reached the Siberian port of Emma Harbor.

Hurrying onward to Alaska, Bartlett encountered McConnell, who had returned there after several months serving with Stefansson’s continuing expedition.

Bartlett recruited ships for several attempts to rescue the survivors at Wrangel Island, but bad weather and pack ice forced each venture to turn back.

“It was now late in August,” McConnell wrote, and “either the survivors must be rescued within 10 days at the most, or they surely would starve to death during the winter.”

Finally, as their window was closing, McConnell asked the owner of the schooner King and Winge to mount one more rescue attempt.

“The King and Winge fought every foot of her way through the ice,” bumping and crashing and grinding “through ice almost as high as the masts,” McConnell reported in The New York Times. Sometimes the reinforced ship climbed up on the ice and broke it down with its sheer weight.

“I think I see a ship!” One of the survivors on Wrangel Island had spotted the King and Winge breaking through, and called out to the others. “I jumped up and there, sure enough, was a schooner coming,” Hadley wrote.

They shouted at the tops of their voices and rushed out onto the ice waving, according to Chafe, overjoyed. “We had practically given up all hopes of being rescued,” he wrote.

The survivors were pale and gaunt, with matted hair and unkempt beards, sunken eyes and emaciated cheeks, their clothing and tents tattered and grimy.

“They were in a desperate plight when we arrived,” McConnell wrote.

Aboard the King and Winge, the men feasted on a sumptuous breakfast of eggs, cereal, toast and coffee, with “huge spoonfuls of both sugar and condensed milk.”

They were so excited they couldn’t even sleep the first night. “We talked and talked unceasingly, with the sheer exhilaration of being alive,” McKinlay wrote. “What luxuries we enjoyed!”

Bartlett and Kataktovik had pulled off the impossible, saving the lives of the 12 stranded men.

Eleven of the 31 original members of the Karluk expedition had died, six had gone ashore in Alaska and amazingly 14 survived a year on the ice including Bartlett and the Eskimo, Kataktovik.

As for Stefansson, he played no role in the rescue efforts for the men he left behind. After leaving the Karluk, he continued exploring the Arctic for five years, to the point that many gave him up for dead. But in fact, he was out charting much of the remainder of Canada’s unknown northern reaches, discovering and naming new islands. His work was widely hailed on his return.

But Stefansson’s success at survival may have led him to underappreciate the risks and the costs of Arctic exploration.

Instead of appreciating the dangers that killed almost half of the Karluk’s crew, he asked why they all hadn’t simply marched to the safety of Siberia’s coast, writing in his book, “It would have been easy to get ashore.”

When I was growing up, I heard Stefansson described as a visionary and determined young explorer who relished the impossible and accomplished the extraordinary. But others see him as a self-promoting risk-taker, regarded with skepticism by some of his own men.

“The geographical societies rushed to heap honors on him,” McKinlay wrote with some bitterness, but “not the slightest mention was made of the loss of 11 men.”

Looking at a map of the Arctic’s most distant boundaries, I see all the places Stefansson named after his men.

McConnell Island is one of them, a remote and barren chunk of ice and snow. I don’t think I’ll ever try to go see it in person – it looks like a bitterly cold no-man’s land that is impossible to get to. But there’s some family pride in seeing the name on Google Earth.

Then there are places named after those who perished: Cape Mamen, Cape Malloch, Cape Beuchat.

All these names, forever inscribed in the map of the world, form an indelible tribute to those who lost their lives exploring the last uncharted expanses of the Arctic.

They also honor explorers who fought for survival amid countless dangers and lived to tell about it. And they bear witness to an age when men of ambition and determination would head out into the unknown and risk everything, to try to conquer Earth’s farthest reaches.

Related story: 20 tourists trapped on Arctic ice