• Weird History

10 of the Most Doomed Expeditions in History


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.

  • The Terra Nova Expedition

    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."
  • The Darien Scheme

    In the late 1690s, the kingdoms of Europe were busy with the business of the New World, the Indies, and Africa. Anyone who was anyone was trading, slaving, colonizing, exploiting native populations, and whatnot. But there was someone who wasn't part of the cool kid gang, and that was Scotland, all hanging around outside the playground, pretending not to watch the other kids having all the fun. So Scotland (and they were in economic trouble – famine-level trouble – at this time and really NEEDED to get in the Trade game) hatched a fail-proof scheme. And by fail-proof, I mean, it proved to be a total failure (spoiler alert!).

    Here was the idea, and wait till you hear me out, it's totally not ridiculous. This guy, William Paterson, figured Scotland could be a world trading nation by establishing a colony called "New Caledonia," on the Isthmus of Panama in the late 1690s. The Company of Scotland, charted with capital to be raised by public subscription, got involved. They didn't really know anything about the area... oh, and also Spain had already claimed it.

    The Company of Scotland easily raised subscriptions in Amsterdam, Hamburg, and London, BUT the English government would have no part of it. They did not want to piss off Spain by peeing in their pool. So the Dutch and English investors were forced to withdraw their support. Next, the East India Company threatened legal action on the grounds that the Scots had no authority from the King to raise funds outside the English realm and made the promoters refund the Hamburg investors, too. This left no source of finance but Scotland itself. So, the Company raised as much as they could in a few weeks that amounted to approximately a FIFTH of all the wealth of  Scotland. No pressure. (Meanwhile, Paterson, whose idea this whole thing had been, was expelled from the Company when a bunch of money went missing.)

    So, they packed up 5 ships and 1200 people, and in 1698 they set sail from the east to avoid detection by British warships. The ships made landfall off the coast of Darien on November 2, 1698. The settlers christened their new home "New Caledonia." Then the glory of bad planning and worse leadership raised its hideous head and went to work. First, they constructed a fort in an area with no fresh water supply. Check. Then they set up fields to grow maize and yams, which none of them knew how to do. Check. They tried to trade and sell to the local indians, which didn't want any of the crap they were selling. Check. And finally, they were completely unable to sell ANYTHING to any of the passing traders... which had been the whole point of the thing. Check.

    The death rate rose to 10 settlers a day, partly because the gifts of fruit and plantains the indians would bring them were appropriated by the leadership and the sailors who remained on board the ships. The settlers had no idea how to store food in the heat and humidity of Panama, and most of it would spoil, making the hunger situation much worse. England instructed the Dutch and English colonies in America not to supply the settlement, not wanting to make Spain angry. The only thing the council gave the sick and dying settlers was alcohol, which speeded the deaths of many men weakened by dysentery, fever, and the rotting, worm-infested food.

    After 8 months, the colony was abandoned – except for six men too weak to move. Death continued on the ships as well, and even by the time they returned home, they were considered a disgrace to their country. Many of them were disowned by their families.

    Of the 1200 settlers, only 300 had survived... and only one ship made it back to Scotland. To make matters worse, word of the failed colony did not get back to Scotland in time to prevent a second wave of 1000 settlers who arrived to a decrepit colony that they had to rebuild. It was for nothing, as the same problems persisted, and after an attack by the Spanish in January of 1700, they abandoned the colony for good... allowed to take their guns and go. Only a few hundred had survived.

    An interesting historical note is that this disaster is what most allow as the reason for Scotland to petition England to stabilize their currency. The Scottish establishment realized that it had no choice but to lie in unity with England to survive.
  • S.A. Andree's Arctic Expedition

    On July 11, 1897, anxious to reengage Sweden's position in Polar exploration after falling behind Norway, a man named Solomon August Andree launched what would be his second and final expedition to take a hydrogen balloon straight over the North Pole to either Russia or Canada. To call this particular series of events a "doomed" expedition is not hyperbole. That would be like suggesting that my attempt last summer to strap my dog to a jet ski in Santa Monica, give him a helmet and a series of charts, and tell him I would meet him in Honolulu was a "flawed" idea.

    This guy, Mr. Andree, has a pretty kick-ass mustache, it's true. It's hard to imagine that anyone with a mustache that Sam Elliot-esque would be someone who thought that an un-steerable hydrogen balloon was the perfect vehicle to take them across the arctic polar ice to win victory for himself and his nation. Roald Amundsen, Norwegian Man of Awesomeness, this guy was not. But the best part was that everyone in Sweden at the time was like, "Hey! That sounds good! You go! We'll be over here." They were into it, I guess?

    Anyway, it started with Andree pretty much neglecting each and every sign that came along as he cooked up his scheme. See, at the time, everyone just thought all the exploration that was going on was the most glamorous, adventuresome, romantic thing you could do at the time. Andree was no exception. He was an engineer in the patent offices in Stockholm, and he had a passion for ballooning. He just added his two interests together: ballooning + exploration = what could go wrong? In 1893, he bought his own balloon and made nine voyages in it. During these voyages, his balloon (the "Svea") had a strong tendency to drift uncontrollably out to the Baltic Sea and drag his basket perilously across the surface of the water (or slam it into rocky islands, you pick!). He invented a 'steering' system made of drag ropes in which the ropes would hang off the balloon and could in theory, help it counteract the need for any lighter-than-air-craft to go the same speed as the wind pushing it. The friction of the ropes were supposed to slow the balloon enough to allow small sails to be used to turn the balloon. Andrée claimed that with the drag rope/sails steering, his Svea had essentially become a dirigible, but this notion is rejected by modern balloonists. The Swedish Ballooning Association ascribes Andrée's conviction entirely to wishful thinking, capricious winds, and the fact that much of the time Andrée was inside clouds and had little idea where he was or which way he was moving. Plus, his drag ropes would persistently snap, fall off, become entangled with each other, or get stuck to the ground, which could result in pulling the often low-flying balloon down into a dangerous bounce. Sounds good! Let's go to the north pole!

    Andree, Nils Strindberg and Knut Frænkel, planned to lift off from Svalbard in 1897. The polar balloon Örnen (Eagle) was delivered directly there from its manufacturer in Paris without being tested; when measurements showed it to be leaking more than expected, Andrée refused to acknowledge the alarming implications of this. The basket was loaded to the brim with scientific equipment, and the three members of the expedition climbed inside and the balloon was cut free to fly, which it did... slooooowwwwwly. Moving out low over the water, it was pulled so far down by the friction of the several-hundred-meter-long drag ropes that it dipped the basket into the water. The friction also twisted the ropes around, detaching them from their screw holds. Most of them unscrewed at once and 1170 lbs of rope were lost, while the three explorers could simultaneously be seen to dump 210 kilograms of sand overboard to get the basket clear of the water. 1630 lbs of essential weight was completely lost in the first few MINUTES. Before it was even clear of the launch, Örnen had turned from a supposedly steerable craft into an ordinary hydrogen balloon with a few ropes hanging from it, at the mercy of the wind, with no ability to aim at any particular goal and too little ballast. Lightened, it rose to 2300 ft, an unimagined height, where the lower air pressure made the hydrogen escape all the faster through the eight million little holes.

    The plan to communicate with the outside world was through pigeons and buoys. The buoys would have messages inside them and were dropped into the water, and the current took them to civilization. Only two of them were ever found. The pigeons (God, this is just amazing) were bred in Norway and the "hope" was that they would just, you know, fly back there. The messages would be written in Norwegian, with the instructions to deliver them to Sweden. So that sounds like a good idea. Andrée released at least four pigeons, but only one was ever retrieved, by a Norwegian steamer where the pigeon had alighted and been promptly shot.

    Andree's flight lasted for a mighty 10 hours and 29 minutes and was followed by another 41 hours of bumpy ride with frequent ground contact before the inevitable final crash. The Eagle thus traveled for two days and three hours altogether, during which time according to Andree nobody on board got any sleep. The definitive landing appears to have been gentle. Everybody was unhurt, including the pigeons in their wicker cages, and all the equipment was undamaged. Good thing, because everything Andree had packed... sucked (except the awesome camera – they took a ton of amazing pictures, which were recovered many years later when the bodies were found). He had spent no time considering the indigenous peoples' methods for surviving in such terrible terrain. The sled of his own design was completely worthless and owed not one thing to any Inuit sled. They had not made any provision for the possibility of crash landing on the ice and so the food was designed to be prepared and eaten in the balloon (including several heavy crates of beer, port and champagne). The warm clothes packed were just some wool coats and oilskins.

    The three struggled across the Arctic desert for months with their ridiculously over-heavy, badly designed sleds (at one point abandoning a huge pile of their gear) across increasingly difficult ice shelfs, crevasses and drifting floes. On September 12th, they resigned to camp on a floe and let the ice take them where it would. They drifted south, reinforcing their shelter as they went and met Kvitoya Island, where the stresses of ice against land caused the floe to break up. They moved to the island and died soon thereafter.

    Their story and their bodies were finally recovered 33 years later on August 5, 1930 by a Norwegian Expedition studying glaciers.

  • The Narváez Expedition

    I almost feel like I'm cheating on this one, because I already included mention of this particular expedition on another list I made. But I would be remiss not to mention this one, surely one of the more ill-fated expeditions in the history of exploration.

    In 1527, a crew of five ships and 600 men under the command of Pánfilo de Narváez made their way to the New World from Spain. They were sailing along, doing pretty well, when a hurricane struck their ships in the Gulf of Mexico. In April of 1528, 300 men landed near the Rio de las Palmas – at what is currently known as the Jungle Prada Site in St. Petersburg – amongst hostile natives.

    Thinking they were near Mexico, his expedition marched northward through interior Florida until it reached the territory of the powerful Apalachee Indians. They spent a fruitless amount of time fighting the hostile natives and the swamps of the Florida interior.

    Narváez decided to cut his losses and get the hell out of Dodge. He ordered the construction of four rafts to return to the sea from the interior. He intended to rejoin the ships and continue to Mexico, but the vessels were destroyed in yet another storm (must have been hurricane season). Narváez and almost all the members of his expedition died. The storm wrecked two of the four rafts.

    The 86 who survived the storm began an overland trek for Mexico. Starvation claimed all their lives but four. Of the four was the man I spoke of in my other list, Cabeza De Vaca. He managed to survive for the entire on-foot trek across the deserts of the southwest over the next eight years. Over that time, they became slaves of one indian tribe after another, forming relationships, making wild escapes, and generally living through an experience that most people couldn't MAKE up. At the end, they made it to Mexico and to a Spanish settlement.

    De Vaca ended up writing a book about his experiences that I highly recommend, titled Naufragios (Castaways).