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The Nordenskjold Sagas

Everyone knows the story of the Endurance. But, there is another story that sneaks below the radar. It is a story of not one, not two, but three epic tales of survival.

The Nordenskjold Sagas

When asked for great tales of survival, there is one that usually stands out in most people’s answers: Ernest Shackleton and The Endurance. It is the most famous Antarctic tale, and its cultural impact is hard to measure. But, there is another story that sneaks below the radar. It is a story of not one, not two, but three epic tales of survival.

This story is about the Nordenskjold Expedition, a survival story unlike any other. Although it may seem fantastical, it is 100% true.

The simple beginnings

Very early on in the so-called Heroic Age of Exploration, Swedish Geologist Dr Otto Nordenskjold set up an expedition to explore the Antarctic Peninsula. The plan was simple: a party of expeditioners would be dropped off as far south as possible and would overwinter on the continent. Whilst they did that, the rest of the party would head north during the freeze and instead conduct scientific research around the Falklands, South Georgia and Tierra Del Fuego. When summer approached, they would head south again, pick up the party and then head home.

It seemed easy enough on paper. Antarctica, however, always has other plans.

The party headed for Antarctica in 1901 on a ship called The Antarctic, consisting of four Swedish scientists and a Norwegian crew. Stopping in at Buenos Aires on the way south, the Argentine government had a great offer. The government would provide food and fuel for the expedition, as well as any assistance in case of emergency. In return, the expedition would let an Argentinean naval officer, Jose Sobral, join the overwintering party. Severely underfunded, the expedition readily accepted. Small changes can sometimes have a massive impact later.

Heading south, The Antarctic made landings all along the western side of the Peninsula. They then discovered a navigable body of water separating the tip of the Peninsula from the islands below it. This strait is now called The Antarctic Sound. Yes, it's named after the ship that first navigated it, not the destination the ship itself is named after.

Semantics aside, they headed through the sound and into the treacherous Weddell Sea, looking for a suitable overwintering site. They landed first on Paulet Island, before later making a landing at Seymour Island. After heading south as far as possible and eventually being stopped by the pack ice, they decided to set up their overwinter base at Snow Hill. Snow Hill seemed like the logical choice. It was easy to land on, had a good rocky base and seemed to have natural protection from the elements. Over the next three days, they landed all their overwinter equipment, including two huts, two boats and some dogs. Nordenskjold, Sobral and four other men then said their goodbyes and watched as The Antarctic sailed away, scheduled to meet them again in 6 months' time.

Part 1: The Nordenskjold saga

It turns out Snow Hill was a terrible place for a landing site.

Snow Hill is now, in more modern times, more commonly known as a site near a breeding colony of Emperor penguins. And, as any penguin fan will tell you, those penguins do it rough over the frigid winters. The area is prone to long storms and incredibly strong winds. Without the thick down the penguins have to keep warm, these men faced a brutal winter. One hut was destroyed by wind early on, one of their boats later blew away and several of the dogs died. This is also in the early days of Antarctic exploration, where best practices had yet to be established, so everything they did was untested and a gamble. They tried some sledding expeditions with the dogs to try out sledging equipment, without much success. On one trip their tents blew away, the dogs escaped and ran home on the second and then ate all their rations on another. Slowly turning black because of the constant burning of blubber to keep them warm, the men focused on their scientific studies and the promise of The Antarctic returning in spring.

It was this same spring, in November 1902, on the other side of the continent, Scott, Wilson and Shackleton set off on their push towards the South Pole. In Snow Hill, Nordenskjold and his team were instead ready to go home. There was just a slight problem. By November the ice around them hadn’t broken up. In December, the beginning of the Antarctic summer, it remained frozen solid. January came and went, but the ice didn’t. It stayed fast. On February 18th a storm came in and the temperature plunged again, refreezing the ice and condemning them to another winter spent at their blustery base. Resigned to their fate, they cached as many penguins, seals and birds as they could and hunkered down for another frozen winter.

7 months later, in October 1903, the team had been living in this frozen wind tunnel for almost 18 months. One day Nordenskjold and a colleague were out on a sledging trip collecting meteorological readings when they sighted three dark figures in the distance. Nordenskjold was very confused. They were too big to be penguins. As Nordenskjold himself said, they were “black as soot from top to toe; men with black clothes, black faces and high black caps, and with their eyes hidden by peculiar wooden frames... my powers of guessing fail me when I endeavour to imagine to what race of men these creatures belong”. It was only after they introduced themselves that Nordenskjold had his answer.

Stumbling through the vast wilderness, completely unrecognisable, were Andersson, Grunden and Duse from their ship, The Antarctic.

Part 2: The Andersson saga

After dropping off Nordenskjold and a winter spent exploring more northern areas, Captain Larson and the crew of The Antarctic headed south again at the end of 1902. There were immediate problems. They couldn’t even penetrate the pack ice surrounding the continent. After days of being stuck in the icy barrier, they managed to break through and landed at Deception Island, off the Peninsula. Here they took stock and prepared for their next step. In December, they found a lead through the ice of the Peninsula and headed towards the Antarctic Sound. At the entrance, the ice quickly narrowed and they soon stuck fast. This was the same strait they sailed through the year before without too much difficulty.

The path ahead seemingly blocked, Swedish archaeologist Johan Andersson decided to climb a nearby mountain to get a better look. After some struggle, they made it to the peak and to a terrible sight: The ocean ahead was frozen for as far as they could see. After a few days of attempting to ram the ship through the ice, with little success, they realised it was hopeless. So, a new plan was hatched. If they couldn’t go to the other team members, they would have the team members come to them.

Going ashore at Hope Bay, Andersson, Gruden and Duse established a supply depot and then set off on foot for the 320-kilometre journey to Snow Hill. Again, the plan was simple. Whilst Andersson and his team trekked over land, The Antarctic would keep trying to head south towards Snow Hill. Whatever team picked them up first would take them back to Hope Bay and then meet the others. It was a sound plan. An Antarctic Sound plan.

Andersson headed south using only a rough sketch made by the early Scottish explorer James Ross. It didn’t help much. They came across a vast frozen ocean, and after skiing over the ice and around stuck icebergs, they made their way to a nearby island. Looking south, they now could only see a vast open stretch of water. Without any boats, this was as far as they could go. Assuming The Antarctic would now be sailing easily over this open water to pick up the Snow Hill crew, they turned and headed north back to the rendezvous at Hope Bay. Along the way, they found some ancient plant fossils, an important scientific discovery pointing to the origin of the continent. With this safely stored at camp in Hope Bay, they awaited the arrival of The Antarctic.

The ship never came back.

They quickly realised that something terrible must have happened and they would have to spend a winter here, all by themselves. Using their sledge as a roof, some spare planks of wood and the nearby rocks, they made a shelter from the outside elements. Inside this shelter they built their tent, its floor lined with penguin skin. This clever double-wall shelter kept them only a few degrees below freezing all winter and relatively safe from the outside elements.

However, it was here that they had the horrible realisation: Nobody knew they were there. If The Antarctic had sunk, that also meant that nobody knew that they had left it to go ashore. They were completely unknown and completely alone.

So, in early September they decided they needed to head south towards Nordenskjold. Heading out, they hit a terrible storm almost immediately. It was so bad that the snow walls around their temporary shelter collapsed on them, pinning them to the ground until the wind subsided 30 hours later. But on they went. They continued to head south before hitting the water again, mapping out the area as they went. Again blocked by open water, they decided to retrace their steps and instead make their way across the dangerous nearby sea ice.

In early October 1903, near Cape Dreyfus, they had quickly stopped to have a warm meal when they saw some seals, far in the distance. These seals were different. These seals were standing upright. Getting their binoculars out, they realised they were men. As you know, it turned out to be Nordenskjold. Aptly, Cape Dreyfus was immediately renamed “Cape Well-Met”.

Two weeks later, after some rest and recuperation, Nordenskjold, Andersson and Sobral headed to Seymour Island. Here they made a large cairn of rocks. On top, they secured an old boathook, inscribed with a message detailing their location. With the directions left in a visible place, they headed back to Snow Hill to hope for rescue.

This leads us to the third part of this story: What happened to The Antarctic and her crew?

Part 3: The Antarctic saga

After dropping off Andersson and the men, Captain Larson and the crew attempted to sail The Antarctic to Snow Hill. It wasn’t long before they were caught in a violent storm and wrapped up tightly in the pack ice. There was open water ahead, but the ship couldn’t break free from the ice in the Sound to reach it. Whilst Andersson and his team waited patiently at Hope Bay to be picked up, Larson and the frozen ship were blown out, up and around the Peninsula. Then the winds and ice shifted, gradually pushing them further and further south back towards the Weddell Sea. They had no control over their direction, at first being moved forwards, then sideways and then stern first. All the while the ship groaned and creaked as it was slowly crushed by the shifting ice. Leaks began springing up all over. With the pumps working full time, they drifted with the ice for what seemed like forever.

Eventually, the ice began to release them. But, as the ice slowly reduced its pressure, the leaks began to open wider and the freezing water flooded in. With a clear patch of water between the ship and ‘nearby’ Paulet Island, Larson desperately raised the sails and attempted to reach land. This forward movement just made the leaking worse, and despite frantic pumping the ship soon sunk below the water. Using the two lifeboats, Larson and his men dragged over a ton of supplies (and the ship's cat called Ushuaia) across the ice, sailing from ice floe to ice floe for over 14 days. At the mercy of the winds and the currents, luck was on their side, with all eventually landing at Paulet Island.

With winter fast approaching, Larson and his men got to work. Carrying heavy stones from across the island, they constructed a large hut measuring 8 metres by 10 metres. Inside were bunks and enough room for all the men. You couldn’t stand up, but at least you weren’t outside. This stone hut still survives in some shape today and can be visited. It was also this exact hut that Shackleton was trying to reach after the Endurance sank. In his case, the currents were against them, pushing them north towards Elephant Island.

Midwinter, tragedy struck when a young crew member fell sick and died, his body placed in a snowdrift outside until they could bury him properly. With no one knowing their final location, the men spent a dark and cold winter in their hut, trying to figure out a plan for their rescue in spring.

At the end of October 1903, the plan was put into action. Larsen and five companions took a lifeboat and headed for Hope Bay to reunite with Andersson. The rest of The Antarctic crew would remain behind at Paulet Island and await rescue. Arriving at Andersson’s hut in Hope Bay, only 5 weeks after Andersson left, Larson found a map showing Andersson’s plan to head to Snow Hill. So, taking a tarpaulin and a tent pole from Andersson’s hut, they made a makeshift mast and now set sail for Snow Hill. They rowed and sailed their way closer and closer until they were blocked by a massive ice floe, and their sailing came to a halt. They dragged the boat onto the ice and contemplated their next step.

The Rescue

On November 7th 1903, two men from Nordenskjold’s camp set off for Seymour Island to keep a watch out for a rescue ship. As it happened, the rescue was already approaching. As part of their deal for taking Jose Sobral, the Argentines had sent the rescue ship Uruguay into the Antarctic to find them. On that exact same day, on November 7th, it arrived at the Seymour ice sheet. Putting men ashore, it didn’t take them too long to find the boathook with the inscription left by Nordenskjold. Setting off again, the Uruguay inched its way along the shoreline until it came across a tent. Inside were the two men from Nordenskjold’s overwinter camp. Delighted, they immediately led a few officers back to the overwintering camp.

Nordenskjold, Andersson and the crew were overwhelmed with joy at the rescue team’s arrival. This joy was short-lived however when they realised that no one had heard from The Antarctic. It had clearly been sunk, and all their friends were considered lost. They packed up camp, with the intention to begin a search for any survivors. It was now when the strangest thing happened.

The dogs started barking furiously at strangers.

Heading outside, they saw five distant figures walking across the ice. It was Captain Larson and his men, who had just walked 15 miles across the ice to meet them. With incredible timing, they arrived within hours of their rescue ship arriving and within hours of its departure. Nordenskjold had gone from getting rescued, from thinking he had lost his friends, to finding them in person, all within a few hours. With everyone now aboard, the Uruguay immediately headed north to Paulet Island. Here it picked up the remaining crew of The Antarctic and finally began the long journey home.

There’s a reason a lot of this coastline is now named after these men, from the Nordenskjold Coast to Andersson Island. Whilst each was just trying to survive, they also produced a wealth of scientific knowledge, including archaeological, meteorological and geographical studies of the entire area. Despite all this contribution to the world, it’s their incredible story of survival that is the most fascinating. It’s a story of wild coincidence, dramatic shifts in luck, tenacity, cleverness and loyalty. In the wilds of the Antarctic, the crew of The Antarctic not only found each other, but found a way home.

The remains of the Larson hut on Paulet Island, 100 years later
The remains of the Larson hut on Paulet Island, 100 years later

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