The Cold & the Beautiful: A Brief History of Arctic Exploration, Pt 2

November 13, 2014 Steve English

The Arctic has called to us since before we even knew it was there. By turns beautiful and fearsome, serene and violent, vast and yet often maddeningly elusive, our planet’s northernmost reaches play to our sense of adventure. Some came in the name of science and discovery. Others came in search of wealth and power. Still others came by accident or purely for the hell of it. The Arctic is nothingness and everythingness all at once. And that is why we go.

The incredible history of Arctic exploration is as captivating as the region itself. What follows is the second half of a two-part series. Catch up with the story so far and read Pt 1 here.

Bravery on the ice

Perhaps cowed by the fates of Barentsz and Hudson, explorers mostly shied away from the Arctic until the 1800s, when they suddenly couldn’t get enough of the place. Among the most colourful and determined of these brave souls was William Edward Parry, a British naval officer who mounted three attempts at finding that still-elusive Northwest Passage. Setting sail from England in 1819, his first expedition entered the Arctic Archipelago and reached a longitude of 110°W – both firsts – before a harsh winter and frozen seas forced him to winter over on Melville Island for ten wearying months. To stave off boredom, Parry established an onboard school to help his largely illiterate crew learn to read and write, published not one but two onboard newspapers, and even founded a theatrical company that performed every two weeks.

Undaunted, Parry tried again in 1821, opting this time to search for a more southerly route around Baffin Island across the northern edge of Hudson Bay. Following Inuit reports of a westward strait, he pushed on until impassable ice forced him and his crew to again winter over in the Arctic, this time for a comparatively breezy nine months.

Still, the man endured. Parry came back for a third kick at the can in 1824, only to be rebuffed yet again by impenetrable ice at Somerset Island. He would mount one final expedition to the Arctic in 1827, establishing a farthest-north record 82°45’N that would stand for over 50 years.

As hard-earned as they were, Parry’s triumphs stand out as the few bright spots in an otherwise dark era of Artic exploration. Harrowing tales of ships lost at sea or marooned in ice, of men dying in droves from exhaustion, starvation, and exposure – often in valiant but vain attempts to rescue those who had gone before – were the norm, and the human cost was great. The Northwest Passage would not yield to man until Roald Amundsen, a conqueror of Antarctica, completed the first successful crossing in 1905. The first would also be the last for over 30 years.

Quest for the pole


With the Northwest Passage tamed at last, attention turned to the Arctic’s final challenge: the North Pole itself. The first man to reach the Pole was Robert Peary, an American naval engineer who, after several unsuccessful attempts (and more than a few toes lost to frostbite) reached the hallowed mark in 1909 with the help of a friend and four Innu guides. Or maybe not – in later years, Peary’s claim came under fire, with some historians claiming he exaggerated his story and may have actually fallen short by some 100km (60 mi). In fact, Peary may not even have been the first to the Pole at all; Frederick Cook, a surgeon on one of Peary’s earlier attempts at the Pole, claimed to have made it to the top of the world the year before. (It would take 40 years for the first undisputed claim, when Valery Chernetsov and the crew of the Soviet Sever-2 aircraft landed at the Pole on April 23, 1948.)

By 1930, most explorers had wised up to the fact that throwing men and ships at the frozen wastes was perhaps not the best way to attain the Pole. Hubert Wilkins, an Australian explorer and ornithologist, purchased a submarine from the United States Navy with the intention of piloting it to the Pole under the ice. Wilkins’s mission got off to a less-than-auspicious start, however, after the ship’s quartermaster was knocked overboard and drowned while the sub was still in the harbour. Undaunted, Wilkins pushed north through the pack ice above Spitsbergen before turning back. While he hadn’t made it far, he’d made his point: The way up was under. By 1958, the Nautilus, an American nuclear sub, made a successful pass under the North Pole. Later that year, the USS Skate became the first vessel to surface at the Pole. The top of the earth had fallen to humankind, and the frozen frontier had been conquered at last.

Getting There

Bring the Arctic a little closer. G Adventures runs a number of departures throughout the season. We’re thrilled at the prospect of introducing you to this wintry landscape — check out our trips here.

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