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10 of the Most Doomed Expeditions in History

Updated October 12, 2020 321.9k views10 items


History is just FULL of doomed expeditions. In any venture into the unknown, there is risk and a large factor in 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 were essential.

Lacking those things... you get doom. You get these. 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.

  • Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Reed-Donner Party

    When people hear the name Donner.... well, you know what you think. The whole horrible ordeal those people went through has been boiled down by history to one thing: cannibalism. This fact is made all the more tragic by the connotations of that taboo branding... that that was all there was to the story, and that is all this group of 90 people will ever be known for.

    The Donner party was, in fact, a wagon train full of lots of families, including all of the Donner clan. They, like so many, were headed west into the land of golden Californian opportunity that was being sold by the government at the time. Go West! Just think of it! In the spring of 1846, 500 wagons headed west from Independence (which was pretty much considered the diving board into the West). At the tail end of this group were the 32 members of the Donner-Reed families and their employees. They left Independence on May 12th.

    The story of this group of wagons and people starts the same that it did for thousands of others who made the same trip along the Oregon Trail. But the reason that their story was doomed from the moment they left Independence is because of one man... a man whose name is not remembered nor associated with "Donner Party." Well, and another is heavily culpable, but I'll get to that in a second.

    A man named Lansford W. Hastings had gone to California in 1842 and saw the promise of the undeveloped country. To entice settlers, he published a guide for pioneers titled, "The Emigrants' Guide to Oregon and California." He described a direct route across the Great Basin, which would bring emigrants through the Wasatch Mountains and across the Great Salt Lake Desert. Hastings had not traveled any part of his proposed "shortcut" until early 1846 on a trip from California to Fort Bridger. The fort was a supply station run by Jim Bridger (yes, that Jim Bridger) and his partner in Wyoming. Hastings stayed at the fort to persuade travelers to turn south on his route and Bridger, of course, encouraged this plan as it would give his supply station a huge opportunity to thrive if emmigrants were to start using the route. Hastings was the second of only two men to have EVER crossed the southern part of the Great Salt Lake Desert and neither had been accompanied by wagons, which, as you might guess, tend to be a part of things like "wagon trains." Nevertheless, to promote this route, Hastings sent riders to deliver letters to traveling emigrants.

    On July 12, the Reeds and Donners were given one of these letters. It warned that the emigrants could expect opposition from the Mexican authorities in California, and advised them therefore to band together in large groups. The letter also informed them that Hastings had "worked out a new and better road to California," and said he would be waiting at Fort Bridger to guide the emigrants along the new shortcut.

    And so, at the Little Sandy River (where the Oregon Trail continues on and another splits down to Ft Bridger), the larger wagon train opted to follow the established trail and our intrepid, smaller Donner group opted to head for Fort Bridger and the "shortcut."

    Edwin Bryant, a journalist, had reached Blacks Fork a week ahead of the Donners. He actually SAW the first part of this magical new shortcut trail, and was concerned that it would be difficult for the wagons in the Donner group, especially with so many women and children, so he made a point to return to Blacks Fork to leave letters warning the group NOT to take the shortcut. By the time the Donner Party reached Blacks Fork on July 27, Hastings had already left, leading the 40 wagons of another group he'd talked into trying the shortcut. Jim Bridger, the other culpable man I spoke of earlier, concealed Bryant's warning letters and told the party that the shortcut was a smooth trip devoid of rugged country and so would shorten their journey by 350 miles, and it was free of hostile Indians; water would be easy to find along the way, although a couple of days crossing a 30–40-mile dry lake bed would be necessary. Remember that it was in Bridger's best interests if this shortcut were to become an established route West.

    And so, they took the shortcut... and, like so many of us who take unknown shortcuts, ended up seriously regretting it.

    This poor group of inexperienced, poorly-led people endured one of the most grueling series of events than any emigrant has ever faced in the history of Western Expansion. The route was completely impossible for wagons to use. At points, they would only manage 1.5 miles of travel a day. The "indian-free" route they were promised was crawling with indians who ended up stealing and/or killing the majority of their horses and oxen. In November, because they had made such terrible, slow progress, they were only in the middle of the effin' Sierras when winter hit. And it hit HARD. They became completely trapped near Truckee (now named 'Donner') and were forced to hunker down in poorly built log shelters. Let's not forget that these people were not Mountain Men. A large majority of them were children, and even a few infants. On November 29th, they killed the very last ox for food. On December 15, the first of them died of malnutrition.

    The next day five men, nine women, and one child departed on snow shoes for the summit, determined to travel the 100 miles to Sutter’s Fort. However, with only meager rations and already weak from hunger, the group faced a challenging ordeal. On the sixth day, their food ran out and for the next three days no one ate while they traveled through grueling high winds and freezing weather. One member of the party, snow-blind and exhausted, was unable to keep up with the rest of the party and told them to go on. He never rejoined the group. A few days later, the party was caught in a blizzard and four more soon died. Completely starving, the others resorted to cannibalism. By the time they reached Sutter's Fort, the "snowshoe party" had been reduced to seven.

    On February 19th, the first rescue party reached Truckee lake finding what appeared to be a deserted camp until the ghostly figure of a woman appeared. Twelve of the emigrants were dead, and of the forty-eight remaining, many had gone crazy or were barely clinging to life. However, the nightmare was not over. Not everyone could be taken out at one time, and since no pack animals could be brought in, few food supplies were delivered. The first rescue party left with 23 of the survivors, but two more children died on the way to Sutter's. March 1st, the second rescue party arrived and found more evidence of cannibalism. They took 17 more with them, losing yet another on this trip. March 12th, the 3rd rescue party arrives and takes 4 people, leaving behind those too weak to travel. Two of the rescuers stayed behind to care for them, but abandoned them shortly thereafter, opting to catch up to the relief party they'd come with. April 17th, the final member of the original Donner-Reed Party arrived at Sutter's Fort.

    The toll was grisly. Two-thirds of the men in the party died, while two-thirds of the women and children lived. 41 people died and 46 survived. In the end, five had died before reaching the mountains, 35 died either at the mountain camps or trying to cross the mountains, and one died just after reaching the valley. Most of those who survived lost toes to frostbite.

    Donner Lake (originally Truckee Lake), now-named for the party, is today a popular mountain resort and the Donner Camp has been designated as a National Historic Landmark.

    All for a shortcut.

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Photo: Maxwelljo40 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    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.