Monday, March 2, 2015

Before Global Warming: Surviving the Siberian Arctic

Although I have been a devotee of Arctic and Antarctic exploration for three decades, before 1997 I had never heard a word about the ill-starred journey of the Saint Anna... a French publisher recommended to me an obscure book, published in French in 1928, called Au pays de la mort blanche... originally published in Russian in 1917...

I read Albanov with a sense of awe laced with a growing excitement, for it is a stunning revelation to discover a great work in a field of writing in which one thinks one knows all the canonic books.

—David Roberts, Introduction to In the Land of White Death

Valerian Albanov left Alexandrovsk (now Murmansk) as navigator aboard a hunting and exploration vessel, the Saint Anna, in the late summer of 1912, just six months after Scott had perished in the Antarctic. The ill-equipped expedition set out almost casually—in fact, a young lady, Yerminiya Zhdanko, joined the rag-tag crew in Alexandrovsk in lieu of the doctor, who had missed the sailing. The captain, Georgiy Brusilov, had apparently invited her to party with him, and felt that her nursing skills would be helpful on the voyage. Busilov stocked the British-made ship with food for 30 for 18 months, expecting to be ice-locked during the winter of 1912.


The food stocks may have been sufficient for the trip, but other supplies were seriously short: few anti-scorbutics were included and the crew soon became ill with scurvy. Fuel was also limited. When the ice in which the ship was locked drifted north of the 82nd parallel, there was no chance that summer would bring open water.

On board the Saint Anna, [Norwegian Fridtjof] Nansen's magisterial account of [the 1893 Fram] expedition had become a kind of bible. Albanov had read certain passages so many times he had virtually memorized them. And Brusilov loitered on deck toward his second icebound summer in the serene faith that the drifting pack would liberate the Saint Anna just as it had the Fram.

—David Roberts, Introduction

The approaching winter of 1913 found the ship even further north, in dire straits, scavenging the wood paneling of their vessel to feed their cook fire. By Spring 1914, continuing to drift north, the Saint Anna was 80 to 100 miles from the closest land, and well over 300 miles from the closest human settlement on Svalvard.


This is the point where In the Land of White Death begins. Written in first person in the form of a daily journal by Albanov, it is an amazing chronicle of the grueling journey of 14 men who left the Saint Anna on April 10, 1914, and set off across the ice pulling sledges loaded with kayaks and supplies, to walk to the Franz Joseph Archipelago, far to the south.


Captain Brusilov acknowledged in his log (brought by Albanov out of the icy wastes) that he was happy to see them go; fewer men to support on the ship gave them a better chance to wait out the drifting ice, eventually to come free into the North Atlantic. He had relieved Albanov of duties as navigator that winter, at Albanov's request, but relations between the two men were strained and tense. The entire crew turned out on that brisk April morning to accompany the travelers on the first leg of their trek.

Behind a high rise that hid the ship from view, Miss Zhdanko and Kalmikov, the cook, decided to return to the ship. The weather was rapidly deteriorating. Two hour later a strong south-southwesterly gale began to blow, bringing with it a raging snowstorm.

We pitched camp for the night... Our pedometer indicated that we had barely covered three miles.

The men who set out to cross the frozen Arctic Ocean had warm caribou jackets that doubled as sleeping bags. They had warm socks and boots, gloves and outer clothing, a tent and an iron fire box and samovar cooker. They had bags of hard biscuits and powdered meat from the ship's stores, along with tea and a small ration of chocolate. They counted on killing seal and polar bear for additional meat once they got to open water where these animals could be found, so they took several rifles and a stock of ammunition.


Their only map was a hand-traced copy of Nansen's map from the 1893 account. Albanov wrote about two months into their crawl southward across the ice:

...I have been worried by a secondary phenomenon that i have kept hidden, for the moment, from my companions. The ice is drifting to the south-southwest... this rapid southwest drift will cause us to miss land altogether, and eventually sweep us into the Barents Sea... We might miss Franz Joseph Land altogether and still not make Svalbard...

Albanov with four of his companions made it back to civilization. Of the others, however, as Roberts tells us in the haunting conclusion to his introduction,

...the nine men who died trying to reach Cape Flora; the thirteen, including Brusilov and Yerminiya Zhdanko, who stayed aboard the Saint Anna; of the doomed ship itself—not a trace was ever found.

This is a tightly-written, intense tale of man against the most deadly—and most beautiful—land on Earth, the Arctic. I am deeply grateful to my brother-in-law Tom for the loan of this book, and I recommend it highly to anyone who thrills to the triumph of man in such bleak conditions.


originally wrote this review in 2005. It appears again to mark the availability of this thrilling book on Kindle.