The invisible Swedes: determination, survival and good timing

The northern part of the Weddell Sea is called the Erebus and Terror Gulf. Over a decade before Shackleton came here in Endurance, it earned the second part of its name.

Otto Nordenskjold was a Swede (and Finnish too). Inspired by the discoveries of the south he put together a scientific expedition. He chartered the three master Antarctic and appointed Carl Larsen as skipper. Both officer and ship had polar experience, including conveying Nansen to Greenland for his sledge crossing in 1888.

They left Sweden in 1901, travelling first to Buenos Aires where they got an enthusiastic welcome. Argentina, then the seventh richest country in the world, was anxious to begin exploring Antarctica, and donated food and supplies in exchange for a berth for their army officer Sobral.  In January 1902 they arrived at the South Shetland Islands before heading, as we did, across the Bransfield Strait. Since then, we have been following in their complicated wake.

It started well. They passed through the Sound, now called Antarctic after their ship, and into the Gulf. Nordenskjold chose Snow Hill Island as his base, and with five companions established a winter camp there. They were well-provisioned and had an excellent pre-fabricated hut which is still there. The team worked well all winter and their research is still underpinning Antarctic geology today. Meantime the ship went to Stanley in the Falkland Islands for the winter.

In the spring, late 1902, Larsen headed back to collect the scientists, who were packing up the Snow Hill camp ready for him. He found the Sound choked with ice. At what is now called Hope Bay (where we visited Esperanza Station) he left three men with instructions to try for Snow Hill Island over the ice, but to turn back if they found open water and await his return at Hope. The three men did find open water and duly returned to their starting point.

Antarctic however had run into trouble. We found, in just the last few days, how difficult it can be to reach Snow Hill: Europa could not get within 15 miles of the island. In 1902, the pack ice in the Gulf was thick indeed, and it overwhelmed Antarctic; after a terrifying couple of weeks, she sank. The 20 men on board managed to salvage a lot of materiel and wood, but were left camped on ice floes with just two small row boats.  With great determination and bravery, over 14 nights they made it to Paulet Island. This is a small volcanic cone, largely covered in penguin poo, but it has fresh meltwater lakes from its glaciers and relatively flat, ice-free land on its fringes. Here they set up camp, making a sizable stone hut which they covered with sails and seal skins, and hunkered down for the winter. This was the only group who knew their ship was lost.

The three men at Hope Island, however, realised no rescue was coming and they too built a stone hut. It is tiny and draughty, but they not only survived but carried out intensive fossil research along the coast. In this way, the three separate groups from the expedition passed the winter, all wondering what chances they had of rescue and dreaming of food other than penguin fat.

In the spring they all leapt into action. Nordenskjold established a lookout camp on nearby Seymour Island, which is much higher than Snow Hill. The three men from Hope Bay skied across the ice and reached that look out just hours after it had been established. Two parties had been reunited.

Concern had grown in Argentina and Europe, and so the corvette Uruguay was dispatched from Buenos Aires to try for rescue. She headed to Snow Hill, and arrived just after the men from Hope Bay, bringing with her the news that Antarctic appeared to be lost with all hands. Nordenskjold was distressed by this, and argued successfully for a 24 hour window in which to pack up his camp.

Larsen had not been idle. With five companions he had left Paulet Island in one of his ship’s rowing boats. The six men rowed the 35 miles to Hope Bay, to find the note left behind by the three-man team, setting out their plans. Undaunted, they got back in the boat and rowed out into the Gulf, amongst the drifting ice. After 45 miles they found Snow Hill.

Arriving on the beach they woke the expedition’s dogs who set up an excited barking. Nordenskjold emerged to find the men he thought lost had found themselves. Within just 36 hours, the expedition was reunited.

Uruguay went north and picked up the survivors. One man had died on Paulet Island and his lonely grave stands there to this day. The others were delighted that their dreams of food and rescue came true.

Europa has managed to reach Hope and (just) Paulet Island. Both are bleak, forbidding places, even now in early winter. The determination and bravery of the expedition is extraordinary. Not only did they survive but they conducted valuable research in these horrific conditions.

It is a discredit to Shackleton that he does not even mention the expedition, which he must have known about. The entire story is rarely told, and often primarily from an Argentine standpoint as it marks the beginnings of their territorial ambitions in the continent. The tale, particularly that of the people who lived, deserves wider recognition.


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