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.
  1. 6

    The Franklin Expedition

    This particular expedition is much more of a mystery than some of the others on this list (certainly not Fawcett's), mostly because of the lack of documentation. However, it does count as one with a high death toll.

    129 men total were lost when Captain John Franklin departed England to find the still sought-after Northern Passage. Men had been searching for a northern shortcut from Europe to Asia since Christopher Columbus in 1492 to no success. While these explorations added enormously to European knowledge of the Western Hemisphere, they had yet to find a safe, consistent route through the north. More and more eyes were turning that direction to see if a shortcut was possible. In 1670, the incorporation of the Hudson's Bay Company led to further exploration of the Canadian coasts and interior and of the Arctic seas. By 1800, their discoveries showed that no Northwest Passage navigable by ships lay in the temperate latitudes between the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans. But in 1804, England began a push to complete the Northwest Passage over the top of Canada and to navigate toward the North Pole.

    Over the next four decades, explorers made productive trips to the Canadian Arctic. Among these explorers was John Franklin, second-in-command of an expedition towards the North Pole in 1818 and the leader of two more overland expeditions to and along the Arctic coast of Canada. By 1845, the combined discoveries of all of these expeditions had reduced the relevant unknown parts of the Canadian Arctic to a quadrilateral area of about 70,000 square miles.

    It was this unknown, unmapped area that Franklin was to head into on his fourth Arctic expedition, this one to complete the Northwest Passage. The distance to be navigated was roughly 1,040 miles. Interestingly, Franklin was only chosen as leader very reluctantly by British Naval Command. Franklin was literally settled on... the 6th choice... after those before him declined or were rejected as being too young. Franklin received his orders on May 5, 1845.

    The two ships he commanded were sturdy and outfitted with the most current technology at the time. They were reinforced with iron plates, internal steam heating, screw propellers, and iron rudders that could be retracted into the hull. They had three years worth of food, but the ship had been hastily supplied and the 8,000 tins of food were found to have lead solder globs on the interiors of the cans.

    They set sail on May 19, 1845 and were last spotted by the whaler 'Prince of Wales' in early August, never to be seen again.

    Two years passed with no word and finally, urged by Franklin's wife and public concern, the Admiralty sent a three-pronged search party... which failed to turn up a trace of them. In 1855, talk with a group of Inuit disclosed that they had come upon a group of "whites" who had starved to death on the coast. But it was not until 1859 that sledge parties searching King William Island found a document in a cairn left by some of the officers. One stated "All well" but the second one, dated 25 April 1848, reported that the two ships had been trapped in the ice for a year and a half and that the crew had abandoned the ships on 22 April. Twenty-four officers and crew had died, including Franklin on June 11, 1847, just two weeks after the date of the first "all's well," letter (note: the dates on the missives were incorrect).

    It was not until 1981 that bodies were found. The mystery of just how the men had died remained intact. Over the next 10 years, scientists would pour over the remains. The results of this study from King William Island and Beechey Island artifacts and human remains showed that the Beechey Island crew had most likely died of pneumonia and perhaps tuberculosis, which was suggested by the evidence of Pott's disease discovered in one of the men. Lead poisoning also seemed likely. Also, blade cut marks found on bones from some of the crew were seen as signs of cannibalism.

    Evidence suggested that a combination of cold, starvation, and disease including scurvy, pneumonia, and tuberculosis, all made worse by lead poisoning, killed everyone in the Franklin party.

  2. 7

    The Burke & Wills Expedition

    In 1860 Australia, the government put forth a reward of 2000 pounds to anyone who succeeded in crossing the then-unknown (except, of course, to the indigenous Aborigines) north-south interior of the continent (approximately 2000 miles). The government of Victoria and South Australia each put forth an expedition, Victoria's led by a man named Robert Burke. Burke was a man with absolutely no experience in bushcraft. He had been a police super-intendant.

    Starting from Royal Park in Melbourne on August 21, 1860, 19 men took 23 horses, 6 wagons and 26 camels. Clearly, they were well-outfitted. What kind of expedition would it be without a handy cedar-topped oak camp table & chairs, rockets, flags... and of course, a Chinese gong? No expedition I would want to be a part of, that's for sure. Their equipment and food in total weighed as much as 20 tons, partly due to the fact that Burke decided to bring dried beef (instead of travelling with live cattle to slaughter along the way) which took an extra three wagons to haul and was extremely heavy. In fact, one wagon broke before it even left Royal Park. The expedition was so incredibly heavy that they had only gotten as far as the edges of Melbourne by midnight, and the next day, two more wagons broke down. On August 26th, they took a day off.

    In mid-September, they finally decided to lighten the load a bit and left behind sugar, lime juice (for scurvy prevention), guns, and ammo. Wait, they got rid of guns for hunting, but didn't ditch the gong? Someone must have really liked that gong. At the end of September, Burke's second-in-command quit as did the expedition's surgeon. Burke made William John Wills his second at that point and a man named Wright was added as a guide to get them to Cooper's Creek. He was becoming very concerned by their slow pace, as he knew that John Stuart's group was also seeking the same reward and goal. At this point, they were only moving about two miles a day. (He didn't know that Stuart had turned back and was no longer competition) At Menindee on October 12, he split the expedition, taking the strongest horses, seven of the fittest men, and a small amount of equipment with plans to push quickly to Cooper Creek and wait there for the rest to catch up.

    Travel was fairly easy at this point as recent rains had made water plentiful and the temperature were mild. Burke must have felt confident because he sent Wright back to Menindee alone to bring up the rest of the men and supplies. Cooper Creek was at the very edge of the area that had been explored by Europeans... once they reached it, they set up a first camp, but had to move it downstream due to a plague of rats. This was where they erected a camp that was dubbed Fort Wills, and the thought was they would wait there until March of the following year to continue – thus avoiding travel in the anvil of the Australian summer. But Burke decided to move out in mid-December. Let's check the temps, hmmm... oh, commonly 122 degrees Fahrenheit.

    Here he split the group again, leaving a man named Brahe in charge of the fort with three others. Burke, Wills, King, and Grey set off for the Gulf with six camels, one horse, and enough food for three months. The would return after reaching the Gulf, and so Brahe was instructed to wait for them. Burke told him three months, and Wills secretly told him to wait four. Almost as if he was starting to get the distinct impression that Burke didn't know what he was talking about.

    So, they headed out... and, surprisingly, the travel wasn't too difficult despite the terrible heat. The aborigines they encountered were friendly and peaceful, and they drew closer and closer to the Gulf. But when they reached the mangrove swamps, they found they could not continue further. They left King and Grey behind with the camels and continued on, but had to turn back – only three miles from their goal of the coast. At this point, they were seriously low on supplies. They had food for 27 days, but it had taken them 59 to get there.

    And this was when it started to get pretty bad. The monsoon season began on their return south. Slowly, their animals fell, one by one of exhaustion and to feed the men. Equipment was abandoned as they went, and on April 10, they shot their last horse. Burke and Grey both came down with dysentery and Grey died on April 17th. They took a day to bury him and continued south to the fort at Cooper Creek.

    But by the time they got there, Brahe and the men were gone, being unable to wait any longer for Wright to reach them re-supplied from Menindee. Burke, King, and Wills didn't know it, but Brahe had only left the camp eight hours before they got there – having waited 18 weeks for the men to return. Stopping to bury Grey had cost them the time they could have used to get back to the fort in time. Brahe had buried some supplies at the base of a tree in case Burke and his men returned, along with a note informing Burke just how closely he had missed them. Wills and King wanted to try to overtake Brahe, who was only miles away from them, but Burke decided against it. They were too weak and it would be impossible to overtake Brahe, whose expedition was still in good condition. Instead, Burke thought they should try to reach Mount Hopeless 150 miles away, the nearest outpost of civilization. They wrote a letter explaining this and reburied it at the tree, but failed to re-mark the tree so that someone should know they had found it.

    In an almost comical set of circumstances, Brahe, on his way back, ran into the finally arriving Wright who had come with supplies at last. They turned around and went back to Cooper's Creek, again, missing Burke and the others by miles. Finding the camp abandoned, they did not think to check the cache under the tree, since there was no indication it had been disturbed. They all turned around and went back to Menindee, taking their precious supplies with them.

    Burke, King, and Wills never made it to Mount Hopeless. They ended up returning to the fort site where they lived a starved existence through June of 1861. They survived off the charity of a nearby Aboriginal tribe who gave them fish, beans, called 'padlu,' and a type of damper made from the ground sporocarps of the ngardu (nardoo) plant in exchange for sugar. This plant was, centuries later, found to contain thiaminase, which is damaging to the human body when prepared improperly. If the men had not followed the aboriginals instructions for preparing it, the thiaminase would have depleted the body of vitamin b1, causing a disease called Beriberi. This theory is backed up by the symptoms that Burke complained of in his diary.

    It was at the end of June, as they made their way up the creek to the aboriginal camp, that Wills simply could not continue. He told them he would rest, and that he would catch up, and there he died. Burke and King continued upstream until they were too weak to continue, and there, Burke died. King stayed with him for two days and then returned downstream where he found Wills, dead. King ended up finding a tribe who took him in in exchange for him shooting birds for them. And, on September 3rd, a rescue party found him there.

    He was the only surviving member of the group, and he only lived 11 years longer after his experience, never really regaining his health and dying at age 33.

  3. 8

    1996 Mount Everest

    Most people know about this one... it wasn't very long ago, and it was well-publicized with books, articles and documentaries made on the subject. It's true that a large number of folks have died on the mountain since it was first ascended in 1953 (at least 300), but the year of 1996, and particularly May 10th, Everest became a death trap for expeditions.

    A sudden, brutal storm slammed into the mountain right when about 30 people were descending from the summit. Climbers call the area above 7,500 meters the "Death Zone" because thats where the air lacks the oxygen to support life for long periods. Carrying oxygen with you when you are in this zone is essential. While storms of this intensity are not unusual for Everest, what was different on May 10th was the sheer number of people on the mountain.

    At midnight on May 10th, no less than 33 people (all members of five different expedition teams – three American, one Taiwanese, and one Indian) started their ascent after midnight. There were a number of things that doomed these people before they'd even begun... the storm was just the killing stroke. Delays... delays were the thing. When the teams reached The Balcony (a wide shoulder-like area of rock), no fixed ropes had been set, forcing the teams to lose over an hour. And when they reached the Hillary Step, again they found that no lines were set. Another hour was lost. To understand why time is so very, very important to climbing Everest... they have to reach the summit by 2pm at the latest in order to return to the last camp before night. And the weather was getting worse. The first team (Krakauer's team – the "Into Thin Air" guy) summited at 1:30pm, but the others were well behind schedule. One set of climbers would not summit until 3:45pm!

    The storm hit as Krakauer's team was descending. It swallowed the fixed lines and obliterated the trail. Visibility was impossible. By 5:30pm, it was a full-scale blizzard with winds of up to 70mph. The teams that had not summited in time were trapped above the Balcony. Several climbers from the two American expeditions above the Balcony became lost, wandering in the storm until midnight... and when they could no longer walk, they huddled together, unknowingly only 20 meters from the drop-off of the Kangshung Face.

    By the time the storm cleared the next morning, eight people were dead. Four from Adventure Consultants, one from Mountain Madness, and the entire 3-man Indian team (who had summited on the North side).

    Jon Krakauer (one of the members of the Adventure Consultants expedition), wrote his account of the tragedy, and in later press, has suggested that the use of bottled oxygen and commercial guides, who do literally everything and allow otherwise unqualified climbers to attempt to summit, directly led to the disaster. He also claimed that the competition between two of the American expeditions (Adventure and Mountain Madness) may have led to the decision not to turn back after the pre-decided time for summiting of 2:00 pm.

    It pretty much can't be denied, however, that many of the poor decisions made on May 10 were under the conditions of lack of sleep and food for two or more days (because of the lack of oxygen), and constant hypoxia. The specific nature of the freakishly strong blizzard the climbers encountered is now known to have caused the oxygen levels to plunge even further... by 14%!

    Four more people died on Everest that same year. And, by the end of 2009, the total death toll on the mountain had reached 216.

  4. 9

    Sputnik & Laika

    Most folks know that the first living creature to leave the Earth's surface and enter orbit was a little Russian dog named Laika. Laika was found as a stray wandering the streets of Moscow... a female part-Samoyed terrier, originally named Kudryavka ("Little Curly") but later renamed Laika ("Barky") (I guess it's not too hard to figure out the reasons why they renamed her).

    Many doomed expeditions are doomed because of circumstances regarding planning. This one was doomed because poor Laika was never intended to return alive.

    Laika was placed in the satellite on October 31, 1957. The pressurized cabin on Sputnik 2 allowed enough room for her to lie down or stand and was padded. An air regeneration system provided oxygen; food and water were dispensed in a gelatinized form. Laika was fitted with a harness, a bag to collect waste, and electrodes to monitor vital signs. The early telemetry indicated Laika was agitated but eating her food. During launch her pulse rate rose to three times its resting level. After reaching weightlessness, her pulse rate decreased, but it took three times longer than it had during earlier ground tests, an indication of stress.

    It had been reported that approximately five to seven hours into the flight, no further life signs were received from the spacecraft, but newer speculation seems to indicate that Laika died within hours after launch from overheating, possibly caused by a failure of the central R-7 sustainer to separate from the payload. The true cause and time of her death was not made public until 2002; instead, it was widely reported that she died when her oxygen ran out on day six, or (as Soviet government initially claimed) she was euthanized prior to oxygen depletion.

    Due to the overshadowing issue of the Soviet vs. US Space Race, the ethical issues raised by what was done to Laika went largely ignored. The press was focused on reporting the political perspective, while the health and retrieval — or lack thereof — of Laika was hardly mentioned. Only later were there discussions regarding the fate of the dog. The mission sparked a debate on the mistreatment of animals and animal testing in general to advance science. Animal rights groups at the time called for the public to protest at Soviet embassies. Others demonstrated outside the United Nations in New York.

    In the USSR, neither the media, books, nor the public openly questioned the decision to send a dog into space. It was not until 1998, after the collapse of the Soviet regime, that one of the scientists responsible for sending Laika into space expressed regret for allowing her to die:

    "Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us. We treat them like babies who cannot speak. The more time passes, the more I'm sorry about it. We shouldn't have done it... We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog."

    Laika is memorialized in the form of a statue and plaque at Star City, Russia, the Russian Cosmonaut training facility.

  5. 10

    The Percy Fawcett Expedition

    Percy, Percy, Percy. Seriously, look at this guy. He's like Laura Croft or something, only without the tight, white tank top and short-shorts. Why is he even here among the poor planners and the blowhards? Come ON. Look at him. How can you see a picture of this dude and not want to put him on your list? I'm putting him on ALL my lists from now on. But, because his expedition didn't technically fail from poor planning or incompetence (as far as we know, but I'm on the side of the guy with the pipe and mustache on this one), he gets to come in at #10.

    Percy became a member of the Royal Geographic Society in Britain in 1901 with the order to study surveying and mapmaking and later working for the British Secret Service in North Africa. He was friends with Arthur Conan Doyle (the creator of Sherlock Holmes) and H. Rider Haggard – a writer who would use Fawcett's field reports as inspiration for his book, The Lost World.

    His expedition to find the "Lost City of Z" (nice name, Perce) was doomed, not because of poor planning and bad leadership like most of the entries on this list... his was doomed simply for the undertaking of it. To give an idea... it is estimated that approximately 100 people have died in 13 attempts just to LEARN what happened to him.

    Based on documentary research, and after years of experience and expeditions under his belt, Fawcett had formulated his ideas about a "Lost City of Z" in Brazil by the time of the outbreak of World War I. At that time he returned to Britain for active service, volunteered for the front in Flanders, and led an artillery brigade, despite the fact that he was approaching fifty years of age.

    And so, in 1925 after the war, Fawcett returned to Brazil with his elder son, Jack, for an exploratory expedition. He had studied ancient legends and historical records and was convinced a lost city existed somewhere in the Mato Grosso region, a city Fawcett named "Z." Fawcett picked only two traveling companions... Jack and his son's friend, Raleigh... in order to travel light and low-profile. He knew that many tribes of the jungle had never come in contact with white men, and that some of them were hostile to explorers.

    The small group left on April 20th of 1925, bringing two hired Brazilians, two horses, eight mules, and two dogs. The last communication anyone would receive from him was on May 29th, stating that he, Jack, and Raleigh were headed into unknown territory, just the three of them. They were never heard from again.

    There are several theories of what happened to them. Many assumed they had been killed by the jungle's native tribes. It could have been the Kalapalos, who saw them last, or the Arumas, Suyas, or Xavantes tribes, whose territories they had been entering. They could have easily been killed by any number of jungle animals. It was also noted that both Jack and Raleigh had been ill and weak-looking when they had last been seen entering the unknown territory, which could have contributed to being unable to run or fight. In 2005, a New Yorker staff writer visited the Kalapalo tribe and discovered that it had passed down an oral history about Fawcett, among the first white men the tribe had ever seen. The oral account said that Fawcett and his party had stayed at their village and then left, heading eastward. The Kalapalos claimed that they'd warned Fawcett and his companions not to go that way – that they would be killed by the "fierce Indians" who occupied that territory – but that Fawcett insisted on going. Whether this is true or not, it's definitely interesting that Fawcett's legend has influenced the area so strongly.

    Indiana Jones might have managed to make a last second escape, but it doesn't look like Fawcett's expedition had the same luck.

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