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The first push for the North Pole

by Robert C. Brears Blog

The first to sail north with the specific intention of reaching the North Pole was the Englishman Constantine Phipps who in 1773 sailed the Racehorse and the Carcass past Svalbard. While he failed in his attempt it was a valuable experience for a 14-year-Midshipman Horatio Nelson on the dangers of polar bears, with the young Nelson’s quick action of firing a gun from the ship saving his life.
Antarctic Peninsula

Regions: Arctic

The first push for the North Pole

The first to make an Arctic trip with the specific intention of reaching the North Pole was the Englishman Constantine Phipps who in 1773 sailed the Racehorse and the Carcass past Svalbard. While he failed in his attempt it was a valuable experience for a 14-year-Midshipman Horatio Nelson on the dangers of polar bears, with the young Nelson’s quick action of firing a gun from the ship saving his life.

View of the Racehorse and Carcass August 7th 1773 | © Page; after John Cleveley (Collections of the National Maritime Museum) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Parry reaching further north

The next main exploration attempt to the North Pole was by William Edward Parry who in 1827 took the Hecla to Spitsbergen’s north coast. Having collected the GBP 5,000 reward for reaching 110°W he was then intent on collecting another GBP 1,000 for reaching 83°N. However, Parry soon realised that to reach the North Pole sledges had to be dragged across ice. Parry nonetheless experimented with attaching steel runners to two boats he took for the expedition, but the going was tough with the men exhausted from dragging the boats over ice: Parry was in charge of one boat and James Clark Ross the other, but with bad weather’s rain making the snow soft it was a fruitless task. Another point was discovered was the men were at times only covering 250 metres per hour north, however, the ice was drifting south at the same speed. But it was not all lost with the expedition reaching a record 82°45’N. The total distance covered to the North Pole was 220 km north of the Helca despite walking several times that distance.

American explorers aim for the Pole

The push for the North Pole had attracted the attention of American explorers by now who were keen to push their own ambitions of reaching the North Pole. The first American to make the push was Eisha Kent Kane, a man who despite poor health was driven by perseverance. Kane had already been on a search expedition that was sponsored by a New York businessman Henry Grinnel. Kane’s ship, the Advance, was 17-strong and sailed north hoping to find the open polar sea, something that still was claimed to exist by some scientists and whalers. However, this ambition was quashed quickly when his boat encountered severe ice, forcing Kane and his crew to winter-over at Rensselaer Harbour on the Greenland coast. He was all set for the push north to the Pole as he included in his expedition dogs and sledges, but unfortunately over the winter the dogs died of a mysterious illness. The Advance failed to escape the ice when summer came and was forced to spend a second winter. With diminishing supplies and scurvy setting in Kane’s surgeon Isaac Israel Hayes took half the men and headed south in search of a Danish settlement. Meanwhile, Kane and his men survived due to local Inuit providing them with much appreciated food. This experience did not deter Kanes’ surgeon Isaac Hayes from future Arctic expeditions with him returned with his own expedition in 1860 sailing in the United States.

Eisha Kent Kane © Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

The next real push for the North Pole

After the American Civil War, Charles Hall in 1871 set out with intent to reach the North Pole. Hall believed it was his destiny to discover the Pole writing that he ‘was born to discover the North Pole. That is my purpose. Once I have my right foot on the Pole, I shall be perfectly willing to die’. The Polaris sailed north with Sidney Budington as captain, the German Emil Bessels who was a surgeon with previous Arctic experience and two Inuit families that included children. Having reaching 82°11’N, the furthest north reached so far in Kane’s Basin, then overwintered on Greenland’s coast at 81°37’N, the furthest North anyone had been to date.

The expedition falling into disarray

Unfortunately, Hall’s prophecy came almost true with his passing away on 8 November 1871. The expedition now fell into disarray with Budington and Bessels falling out. When summer came Budington attempted to take the ship south but became stuck in ice. Then in October the ship was severely at risk from sinking due to gale-driven ice. The team desperately tried to save all their supplies by unloading the boats and supplies onto an ice floe. The job was almost completed before a strong gale wind separated the Polaris from the ice floe. Both the men on both the Polaris and ice floe watched in horror as they departed each other’s company.

Building a house to survive the winter

Those on the ship were driven north to the Greenland coast near an Inuit settlement that had kept Kane’s men alive. The crew there built a house with wood from the Polaris and had a reasonably comfortable winter. They then made boats from more of Polaris’ wood and headed south to be picked up by a whaler. On the ice floe the other members of Hall’s team had a dramatic winter. Not only did one of the Inuit families give birth to a child, but they managed to build snow igloos and hunt seals from kayaks that had been offloaded. That kept the party alive when the supplies from the ship ran out. When the summer came they crammed into the two salvaged boats they had been managed to be offloaded from the Polaris before it drifted away and set themselves adrift in the sea, hoping to be spotted. Eventually the Tigress spotted them after having drifted 2,400km. Two days later a violent storm passed through which would have certainly sunk the two boats.

A chaotic trip revealed

Because Hall’s expedition was an official United States venture, sanctioned by President Grant and underwritten the U.S. Navy, there was a board of inquiry into its conduct and the death of its leader. The inquiry found that Budington had been a secret alcoholic which brought him into conflict with God-fearing Hall, while Hall and Bessels had disagreed repeatedly with Bessels even threatening to leave the ship and take the German crewmen with him. It was also learnt that Hall had been violently ill only two weeks before his death.

The British inspired to reach the Pole

The British Navy was inspired by Hall’s attempt at reaching the North Pole and so in 1875, with the blessing of Queen Victoria and Prime Minister Disraeli, George Nares set out with the Alert and Discovery north. However, the expedition had not learnt any lessons from the previous failed attempts at reaching the Pole as the ships were large and un-manoeuvrable and with a crew number 120 far too large to live off the land should anything go wrong. Despite the ship’s size Nares navigated them skilfully through the Kane Ice Basin. The Discovery wintered in Lady Franklin Bay while the Alert continued to winter near Cape Sheridan where the Alert meteorologist station is now placed.

HMS Discovery © Nares, George S. (George Strong), 1831-1915; Feilden, H. W. (Henry Wemyss), 1838-1921 [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

A disaster on the ice

The Alert’s part of the expedition became a disaster due to the equipment carried: The same boats that were turned into sledges proved too heavy and cumbersome in the ice: The men had boat-hauled for only 117km from the ship but had walked over 800km as they had to return for the second of the two boats each time as they were so heavy: the boats were essential in case the expedition reached open water. The men also became cripple with scurvy. Nares by now wisely decided to call the expedition off and head for home, and like Hall’s expedition an inquiry was waiting for him. 

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