10 of the Most Doomed Expeditions in History Historical Events
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10 of the Most Doomed Expeditions in History

History is just FULL of doomed expeditions. It's hard to choose just ten, and it's hard to rank them in any kind of order. I chose these because these were doomed before they set out, and almost all of them were victims of bad planning or bad leadership. In any venture into the unknown, there is risk and a large factor of your success is luck. But in these cases, especially in the cases of the Arctic and Antarctic efforts – planning, flexibility, and the ability to think quickly are essential.

Lacking those things... you get doom. You get these. This list of doomed expeditions is far from exhaustive, and as I said, I only chose ten. Read and wonder how these errors could have been made – knowing as these men HAD to know – that a single mistake could cost lives. And they did.

Finally, I just want to note that while I write with a lot of sarcasm and mock many of these terrible decisions, I totally respect that people died here. These men may have made mistakes, maybe were shortsighted, maybe should never have been leaders or given funds or allowed to hold other peoples' lives in their hands... but they were explorers. It's hard not to respect their desire to discover. (I also give Wikipedia cred for some of my research).

What are doomed expeditions? Take a look here and see for yourself.

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    The Terra Nova Expedition

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    The Terra Nova Expedition is amazing. It is one of the few times in written history where we have the extraordinary instance of direct comparison. By that, I mean, we had two separate teams attempting to reach the same goal, at the same time, with catastrophically different results. Terra Nova cannot even be said to be a cursed expedition, but it was certainly doomed. Every single decision made by Captain Robert Scott (the British leader of the trek) directly led to the tragic end to their journey. In contrast, Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian leader of the other expedition, not only succeeded completely, but he is actually less spoken-of, less written about, and less-remembered than Scott DESPITE the fact that he was the first man to ever reach the South Pole. You can ask why that is, but its pretty obvious. History loves itself a good train-wreck, and Amundsen's dangerous trek went off without a hitch due to excellent planning and preparation. Booo-ring.

    In 1911, the two teams headed for the South Pole. They didn't leave at the same time, and, in fact, didn't even know about each other. Amundsen had kept his expedition's destination a secret for fear of others usurping the triumph of being the first to get there. So Scott did not know Amundsen was even out there until he came across evidence of the other team many weeks into the trip (big morale boost for them, I'm sure!). But let's go over the list of bad decisions that Scott made, shall we? And in doing so, we'll discover just how things went for them out there in the glamorous vacation destination of the Antarctic.

    First off, Scott was British right at a time when the British had a particular mindset. You know the one I'm talking about. Certain unshakable ideas about things despite reality. Scott had a purely British distaste for using dogs as transportation – and this was probably his single biggest mistake – because they were not as romantic a traveling tool as a horse. He fancied exploration to be a "Grand Adventure," and dogs were just too utilitarian. He justified this oddball supposition because of an earlier expedition he'd done where he'd used them and found them too difficult to deal with. He'd been feeding his dogs dried fish, which did not agree with them, and they sickened and became hard to handle. They also ran the sledges too fast, making it hard for his men (poorly trained on skis) to keep up. Scott decided that he was going to bring some dogs, but to rely on (and this is sad and hilarious) ponies. And also 3 motorized sledges, which had been invented for the trip – and, get this – he decided to leave the man who had built and designed them behind at the last minute. Which led to ANOTHER mistake: he brought five men, instead of four, despite the fact that the trip had been planned for four. AND, he utterly miscalculated how many calories he and and men would need to consume daily for such arduous work at high altitudes in terrible, human-hating conditions. He packed his sledges incorrectly, forcing the men to load and unload them every single day. He failed to properly seal the fuel canisters despite knowing from previous expeditions that the seams would fail in the sub-zero temps. This meant half his fuel leaked out, and the fuel – yes – was used for heating both men and food. Heat is useful when your limbs are freezing into a rictus. His ponies died almost right away, by the way. They were useless in the snow – and the man in charge of the ponies mistrusted the horse-snowshoes that had been constructed, and so they were left behind. Are you ringing a bell for every mistake? Let's keep going! There are so many more!

    Scott's men STILL didn't know how to ski and hadn't trained on them. Plus, he had actually planned to do something called man-hauling – which doesn't mean hauling men, but that the men would be hauling the massive, insanely heavy sledges. Since his motor sledges had failed spectacularly (one fell through the ice and the other two stopped working in the cold) and his ponies had died, that meant that the men were pulling the sledges much more than Scott had planned for. Which meant they needed more calories, which they weren't getting because there wasn't enough food. They apparently had no (or faulty) goggles as Scott's team regularly suffered from painful snow-blindness (which is the actual BURNING of your corneas). Aaaand, there's MORE.

    Scott's team was a scientific exploration team, so they were collecting rock samples as they went. Rocks are heavy, as most of us know. They continued to do this even when they started losing drastic mileage per day. Reminder: they had planned a certain amount of food for the trip, which meant they needed to keep to their mileage or they would run out of food. Even better for keeping to mileage is knowing where you are going. Scott did not bring the lightweight sextant that Amundsen used; instead, he brought a heavy theodolite. Scott only had one navigator, and he'd dismissed an offer to have the man trained to read latitudes.

    This led to one of the most disastrous mistakes of the trip besides the lack of dogs. The route marking and depot laying. As the expedition made its way across the ice, they needed to lay markers and depots of supplies for the return trip (turns out coming back is a lot harder than going) and because they sucked at pretty much everything, their depots were not where they should have been. And, in fact, the last depot was 11 miles off its marker.

    25km away from the South Pole, Scott and his men discovered evidence that Amundsen's team was ahead of them (in fact 37 days ahead).
     Ouch. Amundsen had returned safely to his base camp after 99 days, no casualties, on January 25, 1912.

    At this point, Scott and his men started to die. The first man died of exposure on February 17th. The second on March 16th. Scott and the remaining two men died in their tent, frozen, approximately March 29th, 11 miles short of the last supply depot that could have saved their lives.

    A final note. Amundsen trained himself and his men on skis for three years before embarking. They travelled light. They knew their dog teams intimately. Four of his five men knew how to navigate. He was not out there for scientific exploration, but to achieve a single goal. His men wore furs (like the native inuits) instead of wool. His sledges were designed to be lashed permanently – he used canisters that he could take off and replace without unpacking everything. He had made sure to reinforce all the seams of his fuel cans.

    It was Scott's mentality more than anything that doomed his expedition. The idea that he was out on a grand adventure. Amundsen stated outright that he wanted no adventure.

    "Adventure," he said, "meant that things were going wrong."

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