“Reliable” plan: 3 expeditions that naturally ended in tragedies

It seemed to their leaders that they thought everything through and provided for

In the history of geographical discoveries, there are almost more examples of failures than examples of success. And this is normal: confrontation with nature is a dangerous and unpredictable thing, whether it be the open sea or the slopes of Everest. But some trips seemed to have been deliberately planned in such a way as to end with the death of the participants. The catastrophic outcome of the expeditions of John Franklin and Robert Scott in the unforgiving ice of the Earth's poles is well known, but we will tell about less famous stories.

We must point out right away that, from the point of view of the organizers and participants of the failed expeditions, the enterprises were conceived quite reasonably. So it seemed, at least in the initial stages.

Take, for example, the lost expedition of Sir John Franklin, who went in search of the Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean in 1845. It seems that the Terror and Erebus ships had everything necessary so that their crews, even frozen in the ice, could winter tolerably in the Arctic and return home, & nbsp; – from stocks of canned food for three years (which, according to one of versions, and killed the sailors, as they were infected with botulism pathogens) to board games and books in the amount of about 1000 pieces.

At the same time, when equipping its sailors, the British Admiralty, in particular, gave them sets of warm clothes, including woolen mittens and uniforms, leather boots, and cotton pants with drawstrings. Such vestments would probably not have protected their wearers even in the cold European winter, and in the Arctic it was completely out of place. And this despite the fact that the Europeans were already familiar with the clothes of the native Inuit, who survived in those latitudes, dressed in layered clothing made from the skins and fur of seals and polar bears.

Interestingly, 65 years later, on a trip to the South Pole, an experienced polar explorer Robert Scott made even more egregious mistakes in preparation, among other things, relying on ponies, and not on sled dogs, as the main means of transportation (the horses had to be shot pretty soon, and then the participants expeditions dragged on themselves) and taking almost half the provisions than required (and completely without vitamin C, which is why very soon the polar explorers developed scurvy). Outcome: the tragic death of the entire detachment and Scott himself. As often happens, Robert Scott at first became a national (tragic) hero, but in the last decades of the last century, his actions and image were reassessed, and instead of heroism, his death began to symbolize arrogance at best.

These cases are the most famous, but far from the only ones, and man lost to nature not only in ice or snow, but also on land, and in heat. This is what our first story is about.

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Walking Across Australia: The Burke and Wills Expedition

In the middle of the 19th century, the map of Australia was mostly a white field. For two and a half centuries of presence on the continent, Europeans have never crossed it from south to north. It could not continue like this, the local authorities decided in 1859 and sponsored the first expedition, designed to go overland from Melbourne to the shores of the Gulf of Carpentaria (approximately in a straight line on the opposite coast) and describe what they saw along the way.

But here's the problem: there was some problem with experienced researchers on the continent – they were absent. Therefore, 40-year-old Robert Burke and 27-year-old William Wills were chosen to lead the campaign. Burke was born in Ireland, served in the Austrian (no, we didn’t mix it up – it was in the Austrian) army, and then moved to the Green Continent and joined the police.

Wills, having sailed to Australia at the age of 18 from England, accompanied by a 15-year-old brother, grazed cows, mined gold, helped his father, who arrived in Australia a few years after his brothers, in his medical practice, and eventually trained as a surveyor. In 1860, these two led a detachment that had to overcome 3250 kilometers and return (because there were no European settlements on the opposite coast).

Apparently, the election of Burke as the head of the expedition predetermined its outcome, since already at the preparation stage the number of erroneous decisions was egregious – and they appeared in the very first hours of the journey. A detachment of 19 people with 23 horses, 26 camels (from Afghanistan with Afghan drivers (!), And all in order to overcome the deserts that separated the south coast from the north) and six carts at five o'clock in the afternoon on August 20, 1861, with a huge crowd of people (of the 37 thousand inhabitants of Melbourne, about 15 thousand came to see off the detachment) slowly moved north.

Slowly, because the carts were loaded with about 20 tons of cargo: food supplies for the entire detachment for two years, including 270 liters of rum, personal belongings of the detachment members, scientific equipment, weapons, as well as flags, fireworks, table with a cedar top, chairs and even a Chinese gong, apparently designed to call travelers to dinner. And all this in the midst of the Australian winter, when rains wash away dirt roads.

It is not surprising that the first cart broke down before even leaving Melbourne, and by midnight the detachment had not even left the city limits. Could it have been done differently? Quite: let's say, as provisions, one could take not three tons of dried beef, but live animals to cut them on the way and eat, as was done in similar cases on other expeditions. It was also not necessary to drag cargo all the way overland: if it was absolutely impossible to do without a table and a gong, they and everything else could be delivered 500 km inland along the river.

But no! In two months, the detachment covered approximately 750 kilometers – the mail coach managed to overcome this path in a little more than a week. By November, the researchers reached the Cooper Creek, which formed the border of the territory of the continent known to Europeans.

Along the way, Burke divided the detachment, leaving someone to set up intermediate camps, and also fired unreliable and unsuitable, from his point of view, people; some, however, quit on their own, feeling that it would not end well.

Finally, having set up a last intermediate camp on the banks of Cooper Creek and rested himself, Burke, along with Wills and two companions, Charles Gray and John King, went further north. He left William Brahe and three people with him in the camp with food supplies and orders to expect their return within three months.

It was December 16, 1860, at the height of the Australian summer, when the temperature reached 50 degrees in the shade, which was practically non-existent in those places. Burke took with him food for three months, six camels and one horse. Already this broad stroke description of the first stage of the journey is enough to understand why it could hardly have been successful.

Nevertheless, in the second week of February 1861, the detachment reached the mangrove swamps on the coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria and, unable to break through them to the sea, turned back. They had 27 days of food left, although the journey from the camp to Cooper Creek took 59 days. Soon the supplies ran out, four camels and a horse were eaten, and local plants and even a 5-kilogram python caught were used. After eating his meat, Burke and Gray developed dysentery. The latter soon died, and the other three, suffering from hunger, set off back to Cooper Creek.

They reached the camp on the river on April 21, 1861, only to find that Brahe's group with supplies, having waited a month longer prescribed by Burke and exhausted supplies, took almost all that was left, and went home & nbsp; – three hungry, exhausted with beriberi and heat men missed them by nine hours.

After resting, the three heroes after some time lost their last two camels, which sealed their fate: without animals, they could not carry enough water on themselves to overcome the desert territories that separated Cooper Creek from other sources of water.

Did they still have room to make mistakes? Oh yeah. The unfortunate explorers made contact with the natives, and they even began to give them food, but once the Europeans scared them away with an accidental shot from a pistol, and they did not return to the camp for a long time. At the end of June 1861, Burke and Wills died of starvation and disease. The last member of the expedition, John King, was rescued by the natives and lived with them for 2.5 months until he was discovered by a detachment from Melbourne sent to search for Burke.

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By air to the pole: Salomon Andre's balloon flight to the Arctic

Imagine: the end of the 19th century, three people with no experience of surviving in the Arctic get into the basket of a hydrogen-filled balloon with a dubious control system and go flying with accompanying winds to the Arctic, meaning to fly, if they're lucky, over the North Pole. It would seem that what could go wrong? Spoiler: almost everything.

This is not the plot of an unpublished novel by Jules Verne, but a very real tragic story. In 1895, the Swedish natural scientist Salomon August André proposed such an expedition to the members of the Swedish Academy of Sciences, and those who wanted to reduce Sweden's ever-increasing backlog in polar research met the idea with great enthusiasm.

What exactly did Andre suggest? Build a controllable balloon with a capacity of about 3 tons and such that, despite a hydrogen leak, it can remain in the air for 30 days with three people, supplies and equipment on board.

The balloon was supposed to leave Svalbard with fair winds towards the Bering Strait and land in Canada, Russia or Alaska, flying over the North Pole. And most importantly, Andre said, he knows how to build such a balloon and how to control it, because he flew about 1,500 km in balloons over the Baltic. True, the winds at the same time sometimes carried him away at all to where he was going, but these are trifles, because he invented a balloon control system using guides & nbsp; – ropes that, being lowered from the basket, dragged along the ground and, due to friction, made it possible to deflect the ball from the direction of the wind that carries it.

“It works, I checked it!” said Andre. And they believed him, at least in Sweden, because no one in the country had much experience in aeronautics, and the skepticism of European, in particular French specialists with immeasurably more experience in this matter, was either ignored or did not reach the ears of Andre and the Swedish public. André decided not to mention the fact that his experiments with the use of guides were very unsuccessful.

As a result of the expedition, the green light was given, and money was raised for it – an amount equivalent to the current million dollars. Even the Swedish king Oscar II and the industrialist Alfred Nobel invested. Gradually, the national and then the world press believed in the project, and the attention of millions of people was riveted to Andre's personality.

The balloon was ordered in France – it was built by balloonist and balloon manufacturer Henri Lachambre. The construction of three layers of silk fabric with a diameter of 20.5 m and a volume of approximately 5000 m3 was called the “Eagle” (Swedish: Örnen). He relied on a rattan basket, designed for a long stay and work of three people.

Tests of the ball were scheduled for 1896, however, due to strong winds blowing in the opposite direction, it was not possible to carry them out, but it became clear that the ball was losing hydrogen much faster than Andre expected. This was discovered by the meteorologist Niels Ekholm, who had considerable experience in researching the polar climate – Andre chose him as one of his two companions.

Hydrogen flowed away so fast that, as Ekoholm calculated, the ball would not even reach the North Pole, let alone the Bering Strait. Andre decided to ignore this inconvenient fact and even ordered, secretly from other members of the expedition, to refuel the balloon with hydrogen. Why? We will never know for sure, but it can be assumed that after a super-successful fundraising campaign, a significant part (more than a quarter) of which went to the construction of the ball, Andre could not admit that he had made a mistake in the calculations and the ball needed to be redone. Especially against the background of the fact that in neighboring Norway, which was then in union with Sweden, the well-planned expedition of Fridtjof Nansen on the Fram vessel successfully completed – sailing to the Arctic, which reached 13.6 degrees N. sh. and not losing -for the first time in the 19th century -not a single person.

In the end, Ekholm refused to participate in a dubious enterprise, and a much less experienced 27-year-old engineer Knut Frenkel was hired to replace him. The third member of the expedition was the student Nils Strindberg. In this company, 43-year-old Andre, a brilliant speaker, was the undisputed leader, who did not meet the resistance of the other two participants.

Despite any doubts and obstacles, on July 11, 1897, the Eagle's flight to glory began. And it began ingloriously: a heavily laden ball began to be pressed against the water. Then the ballast was thrown out of the basket, and then the guide ropes, which turned the seemingly controlled balloon into the most ordinary one, subject only to the will of the wind, but not to the passengers. A large weight loss immediately after the start made it possible to lift the ball to a height of 700 meters instead of the estimated one hundred or two hundred, which is why the already excess hydrogen consumption increased even more. As a result, instead of 30 days, the Eagle spent two days and 3.5 hours in the air and made a soft landing on the pack ice.


The landing (or fall) of the “Eagle” on the ice was so soft that even Strindberg's cameras survived, which he later used to carefully record the entire path of the detachment up to a certain point

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The aeronauts had to return home on foot. And although by that time methods of survival in the polar regions had already been developed, largely borrowed from the indigenous peoples of the north, Andre did not use them, taking neither fur clothes nor comfortable sledges with him.

Hunting for polar bears and seals, the travelers went to one of the warehouses arranged in advance with supplies for about three months and, in the end, not reaching it, were forced by circumstances to settle down for the winter on Bely Island, the easternmost in the Svalbard archipelago. There, on October 5, 1897, they made their last legible entries in their diaries. Why and when exactly they died is unknown: after examining their remains, discovered only in 1930, it was not possible to draw unambiguous conclusions.

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