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STONES, BONES, AND WRECKS

The Harrowing Arctic Survival Story Behind Netflix's Against the Ice

Ellen Gutoskey
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Joe Cole in Against the Ice.
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Joe Cole in Against the Ice. / Lilja Jonsdottir/Netflix
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In June 1906, Danish explorer Ludvig Mylius-Erichsen led a team of 28 men to northeast Greenland in order to map its uncharted areas. Though this so-called Denmark Expedition did succeed in collecting new data, that fact was largely overshadowed by the tragic loss of three men—Mylius-Erichsen, Danish cartographer Niels Peter Høeg-Hagen, and Inuit dogsledder and diarist Jørgen Brønlund—who never returned from a dogsled trip to Danmark Fjord.

Other members of the party discovered Brønlund’s body, along with some sketch maps and his diary, in March 1908. Brønlund’s parting message revealed that he had suffered frostbite and ultimately “perished … under the hardships of the return journey” the previous November, and both his comrades had died earlier that month. He gave an approximate location of their bodies, but the remaining explorers didn’t recover them before heading back to Denmark.

Mylius-Erichsen (left) and other members of the Denmark expedition in 1906.
Mylius-Erichsen (left) and other members of the Denmark expedition in 1906. / Det Kongelige Bibliotek, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

A rescue mission for people who were definitely dead may not have garnered much financial support. But finding Mylius-Erichsen and Høeg-Hagen meant possibly finding their journals, too—and maybe even clearing up some burning questions about Greenland’s geography. Chief among them was the mystery of Peary Channel. In the early 1890s, American explorer Robert Peary—best known for his quest to reach the North Pole—asserted that part of northeast Greenland was totally separated from the rest of the island by a body of water dubbed the “Peary Channel.” If the missing Denmark Expedition documents corroborated that claim, it could mean that the territory above the channel belonged to the U.S., not Denmark.

So, in June 1909, an expert Danish explorer (and friend of Mylius-Erichsen) named Ejnar Mikkelsen and six men set sail for Greenland in a motorized sloop named the Alabama, hoping to come home with answers. Their harrowing adventure would feature nearly every horror the Arctic had to offer, from starvation and scurvy to frostbite and polar bear attacks. Mikkelsen chronicled it all in his memoir Two Against the Ice—the basis for Netflix’s new film Against the Ice, co-written and co-produced by Game of Thrones’s Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who also stars as Mikkelsen.

Read on for the history behind it.

Iversen Volunteers As Tribute

The Alabama near Shannon Island in September 1909.
The Alabama near Shannon Island in September 1909. / Det Kongelige Bibliotek, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The voyage got off to a shaky start. The sledge dogs earmarked for the trip were riddled with disease, so Mikkelsen and his subordinates had to shoot them all and make a pit stop in the western Greenland town of Angmagssalik (now Tasiilaq) to purchase replacements from Inuit. The expedition’s mechanic, Aagaard, then became so ill that he had to be discharged—an especially pressing issue, since the Alabama’s motor was malfunctioning. Luckily, the captain of a nearby ship in Iceland, the Islands Falk, got permission from the Danish Admiralty to lend one of his assistant mechanics to Mikkelsen for the entire expedition.

Only one volunteered for the gig: Iver P. Iversen, a charismatic young engineer with no Arctic experience who’d been dreaming about joining Mikkelsen’s crew since learning about the trip in a magazine. After a good 24 hours of cacophonous tinkering—which Iversen supplemented with his own “merry song” and “thoughtful whistling”—the new recruit emerged from below and flashed a toothy grin. “Well, skipper,” he said, “just give the word and the motor will start.”

At last, the Alabama charted a course for northeastern Greenland, landing in late summer and dropping anchor in a safe spot off Shannon Island where they’d spend the winter. From there, Mikkelsen plotted a sledge journey to Brønlund’s final resting place, Lambert Land, some 330 miles north. After hearing his leader impress upon everyone how dangerous it would be, Lieutenant C. H. Jørgensen tossed his hat in the ring—so, too, did Iversen, laughing off Mikkelsen’s insistent words of warning.

Jørgensen’s Last Stand

Ejnar Mikkelsen photographed by Ernest de Koven Leffingwell during an expedition to Alaska in 1907.
Ejnar Mikkelsen photographed by Ernest de Koven Leffingwell during an expedition to Alaska in 1907. / U.S. Geological Survey Photographic Library, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The three travelers departed the Alabama with their dog-led sledges on September 26 and trod slowly over league after league of precariously pliant ice. “Often the ice was so thin that we could see swimming narwhals through it, and that was not so pleasant,” Mikkelsen recalled. In 16 days, they covered a distance that Mikkelsen thought should’ve taken just five in better conditions, finally reaching the Denmark Expedition’s old camp—“Danmarkshavn”—and recuperating there for four days. They soldiered on toward Lambert Land. Two dogs died of exhaustion, and on October 25, the men basked in the last bit of sunlight they’d see for the whole winter.

Mikkelsen was the first to spot the hole that Brønlund’s body had been buried in. They shoveled away “with reverent hands the kindly snow that hid the pitiful remains of a modest hero,” as Mikkelsen wrote in an earlier account, and unearthed a few sketches of Brønlund’s companions and other odds and ends. They then gave him a proper burial and continued their search for his fallen friends. Unfortunately, the surrounding ice had done quite a bit of melting, breaking up, and refreezing in the intervening years, and it became clear after three days of investigation that Mylius-Erichsen and Høeg-Hagen had been swallowed by the sea.

Jørgen Brønlund circa 1906.
Jørgen Brønlund circa 1906. / Det Kongelige Bibliotek, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

They set off on the long road back to the Alabama, racing against time to make it there before starvation or frostbite overtook them. The dogs became so ravenous that they began to kill and eat each other, and five of Jørgensen’s toes froze past the point of no return. They’d be amputated “without any better anesthetic than half a bottle of whisky,” Mikkelsen wrote.

Jørgensen’s plight presented another issue. Mikkelsen had already scheduled a springtime (and much longer) odyssey to Danmark Fjord to uncover any reports that Mylius-Erichsen may have stored in cairns along his trail. With Jørgensen very likely unfit for such an arduous undertaking, Mikkelsen would need a new right-hand man. Before Mikkelsen had even voiced that concern—before, in fact, the three had made it back to the ship—Iversen, again, volunteered to accompany him. Mikkelsen accepted the offer.

“It can’t be much worse a journey than the one we can almost see the end of now,” Iversen said. Dear reader, it was much worse.

“Alone With Dogs and Ice”

Mikkelsen and Iversen the day before setting off alone in April 1910.
Mikkelsen and Iversen the day before setting off alone in April 1910. / Det Kongelige Bibliotek, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

They did make it back to Shannon Island, where their friends greeted them with “great mugs of scalding coffee” and “wonderful thick slices of white bread with mountains of butter.” Netflix’s Against the Ice begins with this return (though the fictionalized Iversen, played by Joe Cole, is shown with the rest of the crew, not having gone to Lambert Land).

In spring 1910, everyone but Jørgensen and Carl Unger traveled inland, following in Mylius-Erichsen’s footsteps toward Danmark Fjord. On April 10, Mikkelsen and Iversen split from the rest of the team, who headed back to the Alabama. Over the next several weeks, the pair settled into a rapport characterized by Iversen singing made-up songs (“Alone, alone, quite alone between Heaven and Earth / Alone with dogs and ice, alone, quite alone”) and peppering his superior with questions about polar exploration. Mikkelsen entertained this to a point.

“Usually such bouts of questioning ended with a gruff: ‘Oh, shut up, Iver. Save your breath for pulling to help the dogs,” Mikkelsen said.

Coster-Waldau and Cole in Against the Ice.
Coster-Waldau and Cole in Against the Ice. / Netflix/Lilja Jonsdottir

They spit water down the runners of their sledges, creating a layer of ice that would increase their speed. They hunted musk-oxen whenever they could, though hunger gnawed at them incessantly. They battled frozen fingers, biting wind, and the “many-tongued ghost” of fear that struck at every idle moment. And then, on May 22, they spotted the first cairn. Inside was a letter written by Mylius-Erichsen on September 12, 1907, explaining that the three comrades were all in good health and had started the return trek to their ship. Iversen and Mikkelsen continued on for four days until they hit a “desolate, gloomy place” that had evidently been the company’s summer camp. Cairns abounded. The first five were empty, but the final stack of stones contained an illuminating letter from August 8, 1907.

“We … reached Peary’s Cape Glacier and discovered that Peary Channel does not exist, Navy Cliff is joined by land to Heilprin Land,” Mylius-Erichsen wrote.

With that, Iversen and Mikkelsen turned their sledges back toward Shannon Island.

Food, Glorious Food

Mikkelsen soon came down with a near-fatal case of scurvy, complete with “the tender, swollen joints, the vivid patches on legs and thighs, loose teeth and tender, bleeding gums,” and weakness so debilitating that he had to travel lying atop the sledge. He finally improved after eating about a dozen very undercooked gulls, guts and all, presumably because of the vitamin C found in certain raw meat. Gull was just one of many innovative food sources the starving duo scarfed down. They also ate lumps of mold found in an old cache left by previous explorers, as Iversen thought it counted as “a kind of vegetable.” “They did not altogether agree with us,” Mikkelsen reported.

Their own beloved hounds became sustenance, too. They weren’t sure if the livers were poisonous, so they employed an old half-remembered trick: Drop something silver into the pot with the possibly poisonous material; if it doesn’t change color, there’s no poison. Mikkelsen used a silver locket of his, but since the results were inconclusive, they decided to go ahead and risk it with the livers. That meal did not agree with them, either—they both slept for 24 hours and awoke with splitting headaches, among other afflictions.

Danmarkshavn in 2013.
Danmarkshavn in 2013. / Andreas Faessler, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

When they neared Danmarkshavn, they bundled their remaining effects—diaries and Mylius-Erichsen’s letters included—in a shirt and deposited them in a rock crevice so they could travel as lightly as possible. They arrived on September 18 and gorged themselves on the Denmark Expedition’s old foodstuffs, from chocolate and porridge to stew and sardine-topped biscuits. Their respite lasted a month, after which they packed up and left for the Alabama, just 130 miles away.

But Mikkelsen had given his crew strict orders to depart, with or without them, no later than August 15. And it was now very much later than August 15.

A Steadfast Friendship

The two weary travelers wished so fervently for the crew to have disobeyed these orders that they came to believe they had, and were hardly surprised when they spied their ship’s mast illuminated by the moon. What did surprise them was the silence. When they moved closer, they found that the mast was detached from the rest of the ship, which was actually no longer a ship—most of its wood had been used to build a house. Unbeknownst to Mikkelsen and Iversen, the Alabama had suffered damage and begun to sink, so the crew had transformed it into a shelter. They were found by a Norwegian ship in late July, and, after seeing no sign of their missing companions by early August, left with the Norwegians and were picked up by a schooner on August 11.

Mikkelsen and Iversen had no choice but to hunker down in the house for the long winter—which turned into spring, then summer, and so on until they were finally rescued by Norwegian sealers on July 19, 1912.

In the film adaptation, this lengthy survival stint is depicted in a rather more dramatic fashion than the real-life version, though the events are based in truth. The men did fend off polar bears, and Mikkelsen lanced a large boil on his neck (Iversen refused to do it for him). While Mikkelsen did end up marrying Naja Holm—daughter of another Danish explorer—in May 1913, he didn’t mention ever hallucinating her in the Arctic. Actually, he didn’t mention her name at all in either of his memoirs about the expedition. Iversen, on the other hand, did report seeing his grandfather sitting on a stone near the hut, and believed the old man must’ve died. (Later, he’d learn that he was right.)

Cole as Iversen in front of the Alabama house in Against the Ice.
Cole as Iversen in front of the Alabama house in Against the Ice. / Netflix/Lilja Jonsdottir

Mikkelsen, at least by his account, didn’t experience periods of insanity or near-homicidal bouts of violence while cohabitating with Iversen. In fact, their rare tiffs were charmingly genteel. Once, when devising the rules of a new card game brought them to “the point of squabbling,” Mikkelsen scattered the entire deck to the wind. “Iver was looking a bit sour when I came in again; but the next day he told me that what I had done was very sensible,” Mikkelsen remembered.

Another incident involved a postcard of Iversen’s that showed a group of young women photographed in a schoolyard. The men nicknamed them—Miss Affectation, Miss Sulky, Miss Long, Miss Short, etc.—and each chose a favorite. Mikkelsen’s was Miss Steadfast, “a pretty girl in a white dress and a free and easy attitude.” Iversen preferred little Miss Sunbeam, “who looked so young, so happy and smiling, that it warmed Iver’s all but icy heart.” (In fact, it was this humanizing anecdote that inspired Coster-Waldau to bring the story to the silver screen in the first place.)

One morning while cooking porridge, Iversen started singing a ditty he’d composed about Miss Steadfast. He immediately registered the deep hurt in Mikkelsen’s eyes, and the two didn’t speak a word to each other for the rest of the day. The next morning, Iversen wrote Mikkelsen a note that read: “I am so sorry I took your girl. Take her back, take my four as well, take the whole damned lot—only to be cheerful again!” The two laughed about the debacle and ate their next meal “looking happily at each other and thinking of our friendship.”

Home at Last

A sketch of Ejnar Mikkelsen by Beverly Bennett Dobbs, dated 1908.
A sketch of Ejnar Mikkelsen by Beverly Bennett Dobbs, dated 1908. / Kapitän Mikkelsen: Ein arktischer Robinson, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Mikkelsen and Iversen ventured off Shannon Island on a few occasions, once in February 1911 to retrieve their belongings from the rock crevice past Danmarkshavn. Unlike in the movie, they didn’t find a message left by a rescue party upon their return to the Alabama. But they did suffer bitter disappointment during a later excursion to Bass Rock, just 30 or so miles away, where they discovered messages from two separate ships that had searched for them. When they visited the area again in April 1912, Mikkelsen scratched his initials and the date into a piece of driftwood. It was this sign that prompted the Norwegian sealers, motivated by a promised reward from the Danish government, to hunt for them on Shannon Island in July.

“Give us your rifles, boys, we come as friends,” said the ship’s owner, Paul Lillenaes, when Mikkelsen and Iversen burst from the cabin, armed and expecting a bear. Instead, they laid eyes on the first humans they’d encountered in nearly 28 months.

Lillenaes took them back to Norway, where they were met with champagne, new clothes, and telegrams from loved ones (and one from Denmark’s King Christian IX). The welcoming party continued upon their arrival in Copenhagen, and newspapers far and wide reported on the miracle of their survival.

“Half Naked and Like Frightened Arctic Animals, Explorers Are Found After Two Years’ Wandering,” The Vancouver Sun proclaimed.

While the treacherous tale captivated a global audience, their homecoming may not have been quite as politically celebrated as Against the Ice suggests. For one, Mikkelsen never received the Royal Danish Geographical Society’s gold medal, possibly because his peers thought he was too critical of the Denmark Expedition. And though he is sometimes mentioned as having been involved in disproving the Peary Channel’s existence, the credit usually goes to Knud Rasmussen, an explorer of Danish and Inuit descent who saw the area for himself in 1912—almost at the exact time that Mikkelsen and Iversen were being collected by the Norwegians. (Rasmussen had searched for the missing men during his expedition, but to no avail.)

Knud Rasmussen, date unknown.
Knud Rasmussen, date unknown. / George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Wikimedia Commons // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Mikkelsen went on to make other contributions to his field. He helped Inuit settle a village, now called Ittoqqortoormiit, at east Greenland’s Scoresby Sound in 1924 and spearheaded a scientific survey of southeast Greenland eight years later. From 1934 until his retirement in 1950, Mikkelsen worked as east Greenland’s official inspector general, focusing again on establishing Inuit settlements throughout the region.

Little is known about Iversen’s endeavors beyond 1912. In Two Against the Ice, Mikkelsen mentions talking to him more than 40 years after the expedition, so it’s probably safe to assume that he enjoyed several decades of hearty meals and dry clothes. As for highly perilous polar missions, however, it seems that Iversen stopped volunteering for every opportunity that came his way.

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