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The late-winter sun shines weakly on the six-man party, who are bundled in furs against the endless white sea ice. Nothing breaks the horizon in any direction, and they are hundreds of miles from their supply ship. For weeks, they’ve struggled against extreme cold and exhaustion to reach this place.
Veteran explorer Robert E. Peary sets up a sextant and a pan of mercury to observe their position. They have reached the top of the world—the North Pole. Peary’s longtime assistant Matthew Henson and four Inughuit guides scrape together a large mound of snow and then stand in front of it, holding the expedition’s flags. Peary takes out his Kodak camera and snaps the image—a rare moment in which he isn’t the center of attention.
“The Pole at last!” Peary writes in his journal. “The prize of three centuries, my dream and ambition for 20 years. Mine”—and here, he underlines the word mine—“at last."
This group would be called the first men on Earth to reach the North Pole. Peary would be lionized throughout the world as the man who succeeded where all others—and there were a lot of others—had failed.
What had made Henson and the rest of the crew follow Peary to the North Pole? What made Peary, and generations of explorers before him, want to unlock the mysteries of the Arctic? And what did they get in return? That’s what we’re going to find out.
From Mental Floss and iHeartRadio, this is The Quest for the North Pole. I’m your host, Kat Long, Science Editor at Mental Floss, and this is Episode One: Why Go to the North Pole?
Before we dive in, I want to tell you a bit about why I’m so fascinated with the story of the North Pole and Arctic exploration in general. When I was little, my grandmother mentioned in a very casual way that we were related to an Arctic explorer named William Scoresby, Jr. I didn’t think much about it until years later, but eventually, I got curious about who this person was and what he did. In researching his life, I was introduced to the perils and excitement of polar history, and felt a strange affinity for these feats of bravery, and, sometimes, foolishness. (We’ll hear more about him in this podcast, by the way.)
Around this time, I read a fantastic book by the British author Fergus Fleming called Barrow’s Boys. It’s a lively history of the many British expeditions to different corners of the world in the 19th century, but primarily to the Arctic. It’s filled with accounts of courage as well as hardship and suffering. In one expedition, the men got so hungry that they ate their leather boots. When I finished it, I wanted to plumb the mystery of humankind’s attraction to the unknown and uncharted. I had an incurable case of Arctic fever.
Many explorers have probably felt the same way. A reporter once asked the mountaineer George Mallory why he wanted to climb to the summit of Mount Everest, a feat that had never been achieved. He answered, “Because it’s there.”
We can apply the same thinking to the quest to reach the North Pole. It has attracted adventurers, explorers, and scientists for centuries. On their quests to reach it, men have faced an unbelievably harsh and dangerous climate. People have lost fingers and toes to frostbite, or even cut off their own body parts to survive. But while the tales of North Pole adventure are filled with heroic sacrifice and achievement, the ills of society still trickled in. Nationalism was a driving force in the race to claim the Pole. Racist attitudes and exploitation were common. White men took all the glory, while the Black and Indigenous people—without whom many expeditions would have failed—received little, if any, credit.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Before we get there, we need to try to understand what made these guys go north in the first place … and also, what the North Pole even is.
Today, we know that the North Pole is actually a point in a vast ocean. It’s almost permanently covered in sea ice. But until the early 20th century, no one had gotten really close to that point on the globe. It remained one of the last blank spots on the map of the Earth.
The North Pole has served as a literal lodestar for European geographers, astronomers, mathematicians, and sailors. Because extensive polar ice blocked ships from reaching it, no explorers really knew what existed there.
But, in the mid-16th century, it became critical to find out. European nations needed new trade routes to Asia. Spain and Portugal already controlled well-established southern trade routes, circling the globe from Africa to the Americas. England and the Netherlands launched voyages to find northern routes, which would avoid conflict with Spain and Portugal. But they would be in uncharted territory.
To find those mythical passages, European navigators used a number of tools. One was a compass. These instruments have a magnetized needle pivoting in a liquid and pointing to directions marked on the case. The needle always pointed north—but which north?
The farther they sailed, navigators realized that their compasses were influenced by a magnetic force that didn’t correspond with the directions on their charts. Accurate navigation depended on calculating the difference between what the compass pointed to and where they were actually sailing.
That’s because there are two North Poles, and they’re in different places. Magnetic North is the spot that compass needles point to in response to Earth’s magnetic field. Its location is always shifting. During Peary’s expeditions, it was in Arctic Canada, but it’s been moving toward Siberia in recent years.
True North is a geographical spot located at 90° North Latitude. It’s the pinnacle of the grid of latitude and longitude, devised by Greek geographers as early as the 3rd century BCE, that allows people to pinpoint their position on Earth. True North is what we think of as the North Pole. If you were to stand at this point, you would face south in every direction.
So imagine yourself as a 16th-century European looking at a map. Between Europe and the North Pole lay a vast, uncharted belt of ocean punctuated with volcanic islands and impassable ice. To the west lay unexplored Greenland and North America, and to the east stretched the frozen seas north of Siberia. One possible route through this unmapped expanse was the hoped-for Northwest Passage, believed to go westward across the Atlantic and over the top of North America to the Pacific Ocean. The other, the Northeast Passage, allegedly extended the length of the Siberian seas to Japan. No one knew if these routes truly existed, or what mortal dangers explorers would face.
An English adventurer named Martin Frobisher was determined to find the Northwest Passage. Born in Yorkshire around 1535, Frobisher had sailed around the eastern Atlantic as a privateer before setting his heart on the passage. He convinced a group of English traders to sponsor his voyage. He promised the riches of Cathay as a return on their investments.
Frobisher first obtained a fleet of three tiny ships. The two larger vessels, the Gabriel and the Michael, weighed only 30 tons each, about a quarter of the size of the Golden Hind, the ship Sir Francis Drake sailed around the world. The third ship was smaller than a dinghy.
Frobisher departed in 1576, and Queen Elizabeth waved farewell. He rounded the southern tip of Greenland, and then a huge storm separated the ships. The smallest was never seen again. The Michael turned back to England. Frobisher sailed onward to the north, eventually coming to an enormous bay at the southern end of what is now called Baffin Island. He mistook the bay for a strait to Asia. Inuit men in kayaks approached the ship, and their appearance convinced him (incorrectly) that he had indeed sailed through the Northwest Passage and reached some part of Asia.
The first part of his mission quote-unquote achieved, Frobisher got down to the second part: Locating riches. But after a few weeks of exploring the area, cold weather forced the Englishmen to leave. Frobisher made sure to gather some souvenirs, one of which was rock “as great as a half-penny loaf,” a government official wrote.
Back in England, three appraisers said the stone was worthless, but a fourth said it contained gold. That was enough to launch Frobisher’s second voyage to North America—and what happened next would have huge consequences for the future of British exploration in the area.
After landing at a place Frobisher called Countess of Warwick’s Island, the crew began filling the ships’ holds with as much of the glittering rock as they could find. Unfortunately, they also clashed with the Inuit, killing several and taking some as hostages back to England. We’ll talk about what led to this event in a future episode.
Frobisher escaped to England with 200 tons of ore, thinking that it would prove the Northwest Passage was everything they’d hoped for. You might think that those deadly battles would have kept Frobisher away, but … you would be wrong. In fact, he had even bigger plans.
In 1578, he set off from England with the queen’s blessing and a fleet of 15 ships laden with supplies to establish a colony—England’s first in North America—to guard and extract the gold.
The crew had high hopes, but nothing went as planned: As they neared their destination, a huge storm sank the ship containing their housing materials. It was snowing—in summer—so they knew it would be impossible to build a colony that year. Instead, the crew filled their cargo holds with more than a thousand tons of ore and departed just a few days later.
The worst news was yet to come: The ore didn’t contain any gold. It was iron pyrite—appropriately known as fool’s gold. The so-called Northwest Passage was a bust.
Queen Elizabeth and the English merchants lost their investments. The company founded to organize the colony went bankrupt. Frobisher’s reputation was ruined, and it seemed like a Northwest Passage would remain elusive. England was out of the game … for now. But another country was up for the challenge.
We’ll be right back.
Explorers from the Netherlands were determined to find a Northeast Passage following Frobisher’s defeat. Several Dutch expeditions had fanned out to the east, searching along the ragged coast of Siberia for an opening. For Dutch merchants and traders seeking to expand commerce with Asia, it was their best option.
Andrea Pitzer: The Dutch were fighting a war of independence with Spain for almost a century. It was the 80 Years War, and so it was going on this whole time and Spain had such a fleet. The last thing they wanted to do was to be running into the Spanish fleet.
That’s Andrea Pitzer, journalist and author of the new book Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World, which recounts the three polar voyages of Dutch explorer William Barents.
Pitzer: If Spain had these southern routes that they were using, then it made a lot of sense for the new Dutch nation, which was trying to get away from Spain and establish its own empire and its own independence, it made sense for them to go north. So, they were very vested at first in this northern passage, as were England for some of the same reasons.
There was one problem.
Pitzer: Very little was known in Europe at this time about the high arctic above the continental land masses. People had gotten to Southern Nova Zembla before, people had gotten around to Archangel and had started trade with Russia, but when you got up to the high arctic, there was just so much that was still unknown.
Nova Zembla—now often known by its Russian name, Novaya Zemlya— is a long, skinny archipelago off the coast of northwestern Russia, and it was William Barents’s first destination on his search for a northeast passage.
On the first of his three voyages, in 1594, Barents and his crew sailed his ship Mercury as far as Nova Zembla’s western shore. The island lies north to south, creating a barrier for sailors going east. Barents sailed north along the coast and reached its uppermost point. Then he encountered a sea choked with ice. As historian Jeannette Mirsky writes in her book, To the Arctic!, “he maneuvered his ship from patch to patch of open water, advancing, retreating, dodging, advancing,” zigzagging over 1500 miles looking for a way through. After struggling for 25 days, Barents was forced to return home, but not before he and his men attempted to kill a herd of 2000-pound walruses with their hatchets. They got a couple of ivory tusks.
Pitzer: One of the things Barents discovered was that Nova Zembla was not connected to any polar continent. For a long time, it was thought there was a group of islands or a continent at the top of the globe, and so when he was able to sail around these islands to the North it was clear that it wasn't connected to a polar continent.
That discovery prompted another voyage the following year, but Barents found his route barred by ice.
In 1596, Barents convinced a group of Amsterdam merchants to back another voyage. They outfitted two ships captained by Jacob van Heemskerck and Jan Cornelis Rijp, with Barents serving as Van Heemskerck’s pilot and navigator. This time, instead of sailing east along the coast of Scandinavia, they took what they hoped was a shortcut and sailed due north.
A month after their departure, they reached a small island where they killed a polar bear, naming it Bear Island. They realized they had discovered a large archipelago of polar islands, just 600 miles from the North Pole. The waters teemed with whales and walrus. The men collected thousands of bird’s eggs from the beaches and cliffs. They charted the coast and named the islands Spitsbergen, meaning “jagged mountains.” (Today, Spitsbergen refers to its largest island, and the entire archipelago is named Svalbard.)
The two ships couldn’t agree on what to do next. Rijp eventually sailed home, while Barents and Van Heemskerck sailed east to Nova Zembla, hoping that the fortune of their journey thus far would continue.
It … did not. While they were able to dodge massive icebergs and round the northern point of the island, the constantly moving sea ice soon closed in and threatened to crush the ship. Only Barents’s skills saved them from disaster. As the temperatures dropped and signaled the coming of winter, they anchored in a small bay on the northeast coast. The men suddenly understood that they had no choice but, as crew member Gerrit de Veer later wrote, “in great cold, poverty, misery, and grief, to stay all that winter.”
The men built a crude shelter out of driftwood without the help of their carpenter, who had inconveniently died during its construction. They had to lug the wood over frozen terrain eight miles to the site of the hut, all the while being followed by hungry polar bears.
They burned more driftwood to try to stay warm, but even inside the shelter, one side of a freshly washed shirt would dry, while the other side remained frozen. An inch of ice coated the walls inside the hut. Darkness reigned 24 hours a day, which was fine because it was so cold that their clock froze. They had to tell time by a 12-hour sandglass.
Pitzer: The climate there basically turns to arctic desert. It's really another world, and I think of how amazing it must have been for them to come across this setting and then live in it.
When the men managed to shoot a polar bear, they used the bear’s fat as fuel and lived on the meat. Weeks pass, and then months. But wait—it gets worse!
Pitzer: They eat polar bear liver and they almost die. Kat Long: Oh no, not the vitamin A.
Here’s the thing about polar bear liver: it contains a near-lethal amount of Vitamin A.
Pitzer: Their skin peels off. Exactly, exactly. They got hypervitaminosis.
The men grew weaker and came down with scurvy, an often-deadly Vitamin C deficiency. But in February, the sun returned, and in May, they seized the opportunity to escape.
Their ship was beyond repair. That left two small rowboats, and the men made them seaworthy as best they could. In June 1597, more than a year from when they set out from Europe, Barents and the crew began their way down the icy coast for home.
They hadn’t gotten far when a gale threatened to capsize their boats and they had to seek refuge on an ice floe. There, after sustaining the hopes of the crew for as long as he could, William Barents died. But his men pressed on for more than 1600 miles. Finally, the Arctic castaways were rescued by a ship sailed by Jan Rijp, from whom they had parted at Spitsbergen.
The value of Barents’s discovery of Spitsbergen, and his exploration and mapping of Nova Zembla, was immediately apparent to European geographers and the public.
Pitzer: He is the first in recorded history that actually rounded it and saw what was that far north. Svalbard is even farther north, in the northern end of Nova Zembla, and so the fact that on that third voyage he both discovered Spitsbergen, got that far north just above Svalbard, and then came over and went over Nova Zembla … that's pretty incredible. They were not actively scientists, but they were these proto-scientists. They didn't always understand their discovery, but they made it possible for us to understand what they saw even when they weren't able to understand it at the time.
Not long after survivors got back to the Netherlands, Gerrit de Veer published his journal of Barents’s three voyages and the hardships the men faced before they were rescued. The drama of the final voyage captivated readers.
Pitzer: Within two years of the surviving sailors getting back, there were additions in Dutch, and in German, in Latin, in French, and well actually right away in Italian, and then a few years later in English. Their adventures were so legendary that William Shakespeare actually mentioned their ordeal in passing in Twelfth Night. It's kind of incredible to have this international bestseller in this pretty early era of printing at that point, then in addition there were journals from Jan Huyghen van Linschoten, who was on Barents's first two voyages. Another Dutchman, and those really changed some of the terrain and cartographical understandings of the territory that they saw as well. So, it's an amazing adventure story and it changed people's awareness of the existence of the arctic and what was going on there, but they did also make these scientific discoveries. They didn't just map the geography of the high arctic above Europe from Spitsbergen across to Nova Zembla, they also made discoveries in ornithology and optics. They really changed the popular understanding of the arctic.
They also introduced the popular character of an explorer. In the published account, Barents displayed remarkable endurance in the face of hardship. His courage when threatened by storms and ice lifted the men’s spirits. Despite near-impossible odds, Barents helped save the men’s lives—and even sacrificed his own. These characteristics defined explorers from then on.
Pitzer: Barents's suffering was so extraordinary, and the arctic setting was so unique particularly as we were saying in terms of having this long account from the trip from the point of view of the people who actually survived it. It kind of ended up redefining in some ways the nature of what the explorer was.
After Barents, a few more explorers added important details to Europe’s growing knowledge of the Arctic.
English navigator Henry Hudson explored the possible northeast and northwest passages. For his first two voyages, Hudson sailed east, reaching Spitsbergen in 1607 and reporting the abundance of whales and seals. On the second voyage in 1608, he was blocked by ice and the landmass of Nova Zembla, just as Barents had been. The following year, working for the Dutch East India Company, Hudson investigated a possible Northwest Passage he’d heard about—the New York river that now bears his name. He explored it for 150 miles before realizing it went nowhere near Asia.
On his final expedition, again under the English flag, he sailed into Canada’s Hudson Bay—named after himself. Hudson mistook the giant inland bay for an ocean, and sailed to its southern extremity before realizing it was a dead end. Eventually, the crew turned restless and homesick. They mutinied, forcing Hudson, his teenage son, and several sick crew members into a small boat. The boat was set adrift, and never seen again.
A few years later, English mariner William Baffin—the eponym of the island—searched for the Northwest Passage by sailing up the western coast of Greenland farther than any European had at that time. He realized the waters west of Greenland were basically a large bay.
He sailed down the eastern coast of Arctic Canada and observed the entrances to three large waterways that appeared to go west from Baffin Bay. One of them was a true Northwest Passage.
But Baffin didn’t know that, because he saw the passages completely blocked by ice. He returned home and told his sponsors that the routes he found were unnavigable. Explorers lost interest in the region after that, and no navigators sailed that far north in Baffin Bay for another 236 years.
We’ll be right back.
Over the 17th and 18th centuries, explorers continued to fill in the blank spaces on the Arctic map. They were learning the rules of surviving in the Arctic—and what dangers lay in the unforgiving region. They had mapped portions of the coastlines of Spitsbergen, Greenland, Canada, and Russia. They had discovered uninhabited islands and waterways. They had met Indigenous peoples and traded goods in exchange for geographical information.
But beyond that, the Arctic was unknown territory. Was it land or water? Was it cold all the time? Did the ice melt? Or did an as-yet-undiscovered tongue of land link Greenland to Siberia across the top of the world? People were only too willing to fill the blank space at the top of the map with their aspirations and dreams. It seemed that the less people knew about the conditions at the North Pole, the more fantastic the theories. And the more important it became to find out if they were true.
Armchair geographers seized on the observations made by the early explorers and devised their own theories about what lay beyond the ice. One theory was called the Open Polar Sea. The idea was that the North Pole lay in the center of a warm polar sea surrounded by a ring of thick ice.
It seems ludicrous now, but in the 18th and 19th centuries, it dovetailed with the information explorers had published. Some suggested that the warm-water currents that appeared to influence the growth of vegetation in the polar regions might stem from a large, warm sea at the North Pole; and it was wrong to presume that extremely cold temperatures, duly recorded by explorers, got progressively colder in higher latitudes.
The Open Polar Sea theory emerged mainly from wishful thinking. Barents, Hudson, and others failed to navigate a northeast or northwest passage, so many navigators hoped that a passage due north, over the North Pole, would prove easier.
Here’s Andrea Pitzer.
Pitzer: I think first, we have to remember that they're imagining a land that they don't know at all, and they're trying to picture what's possible there. Also, there is kind of an internal logic that is certainly in play fairly early on and by Barents's time, is very much in play in which they know that you've got this part of the Earth that's tilted closer to the sun, that's exposed to the sun for longer during these long, long days in which the sun would not set in the summer. Because that's what the Arctic Circle is, is once you're above the circle that there's a point at which you're going to have days where the sun is not setting. Of course, the farther north you go you have a lot of days. You have whole months in which the sun is not setting. So, the idea was if that's exposed to the sun all the time, then it's going to be warm. So for a long time, there was this idea that either ice just formed around the continents and if you could just get away from the continents, then you would get to the Open Polar Sea. Other people thought as you got closer to the Arctic Circle, there was a ring of ice and if you could just break through that ring of ice, then you'd be golden.
In England, the theory gained support thanks to a lawyer and government official named Daines Barrington. He studied the accounts of past polar explorers and interviewed whalers who worked in the Arctic. He concluded that an open polar sea, if not a certainty, was worth investigating. He presented his ideas in 1770 to the Royal Society, England’s leading scientific organization.
Barrington’s proposal made its way to the British Admiralty, the government agency that runs the Royal Navy. Barrington had no firsthand knowledge about the Arctic, but he was very persuasive. He convinced the Admiralty to send an expedition to the North Pole in 1773, the first true voyage to the Pole ever attempted.
A decorated naval officer named Constantine Phipps was put in charge. He captained a ship called the Racehorse, and his second-in-command, the awesomely named Skeffington Lutwidge, helmed the ship Carcass. They left London in June 1773 and sailed north to Spitsbergen, aiming for the Pole. In the 175 years since Barents had discovered the islands, whaling fleets had set up operations on Svalbard’s shores, but it was still a dangerous outpost.
Phipps got to the northern coast of Spitsbergen but ran into ice. He was forced to turn around, without gaining much insight on the existence of an open polar sea. But on the other hand, the voyage didn’t disprove the open polar sea, and later expeditions could theoretically gain more clues. Phipps’s main contribution to polar knowledge was the chart of his route, due north for the Pole, that future voyages would follow. He also set a record for the farthest northern point reached by Europeans, a claim to fame that would stand for 33 years.
But further voyages to the Pole were put on hold. The British government now had bigger things to worry about … like the revolution brewing in its American colonies.
Interest in a possible Open Polar Sea remained high, though, influencing exploration well into the 19th century. Perhaps the bizarre theory persisted for so long because no one could definitely disprove it. One thing was certain after centuries of exploration: reaching the North Pole would not be easy. But that wouldn’t stop people from trying.
Pitzer: They always came to underestimate how far they really needed to go, but they knew even then that rather than sailing across the middle latitudes, they would be quicker if they could go over the top of the planet. So there was always this hope that that would happen.
Another popular theory from the era seems even less likely. An American former Army officer named John Cleves Symmes, Jr. proposed in April 1818 that the Earth was made up of five concentric spheres. He suggested Earth’s interior was hollow, with entry points at the North and South Poles. No doubt inspired by the Open Polar Sea theory, Symmes argued that refraction of the sun’s rays entering Earth at the poles would create never-ending daylight and a warm environment. The concept became known as “Symmes’ holes.”
Symmes proposed a polar expedition to confirm his “hollow Earth” theory. He wrote, “I ask one hundred brave companions, well equipped, to start from Siberia in the fall season, with Reindeer and slays [sic], on the ice of the frozen sea; I engage we find warm and rich land, stocked with thrifty vegetables and animals if not men, on reaching 1° northward of latitude 82; we will return in the succeeding spring.” Symmes sent hundreds of copies to leaders in numerous countries.
Let’s keep in mind that no one in Symmes’ time had yet reached 82 degrees north—which passes through the northern extremity of Greenland—much less 1 degree, totalling 60 nautical miles, north of it.
Symmes’s son later wrote, “so fixed in his mind was the belief of the truth of his theory, that for 10 years, although laboring under great pecuniary embarrassments, and buffeted by the ridicule and sarcasm of an opposing world, he persevered in his endeavors to interest others in it, so as to enable him to test its truth by a polar expedition, but without success.”
Undaunted, Symmes lectured across America, gaining a few followers but many more detractors. After he died in 1829, his theory of holes at the poles melded into what was left of the arguments supporting the existence of an open polar sea.
Yet the mystery of the North Pole remained, enticing generation after generation of explorers. Their appetites had been whetted by the tantalizingly incomplete conclusions of Frobisher, Barents, Hudson, and Baffin. They were determined to uncover its secrets for themselves, and for their national honor. Reaching ever further into the Arctic, no matter the cost, presented an irresistible test of courage and endurance. As we’ll see in future episodes, plenty of adventurers answered that challenge.
The Quest for the North Pole is hosted by me, Kat Long.
This episode was researched and written by me, with fact-checking by Austin Thompson. The Executive Producers are Erin McCarthy and Tyler Klang. The Supervising Producer is Dylan Fagan. The show is edited by Dylan Fagan.
For transcripts, a glossary, and to learn more about this episode, visit mentalfloss.com/podcast.