Arctic obsession drove explorers to seek the North Pole

Risking life and limb, countless expeditions braved Arctic cold and crushing ice in the 1800s. All failed, but each one came closer and closer to the top of the world.

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An iceberg looms over the Panther during an 1869 expedition to Greenland undertaken by the American artist and explorer William Bradford.
SPL/Age/Fotostock

The phrase “on top of the world” carries ebullience and enthusiasm, as if nothing could be better than standing at 90° north latitude. In reality, Earth’s remote North Pole is frigid and barren, an inhospitable region of ice and snow. Finding this last “undiscovered” place became an obsession for European and American explorers in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Few people lived near the North Pole. A small Inuit community had settled the closest, but for the most part the region remained isolated from the rest of the world for centuries. A few intrepid explorers—John Cabot, Martin Frobisher, Henry Hudson, and James Cook—tried to navigate the region in search of the Northwest Passage, a sea route believed to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans in the waters above North America. The North Pole was not a concern for these early explorers, but their work laid the foundation for a polar obsession to come.

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This unimpressive sign marks the 90° north latitude. The sign itself shifts as the polar caps are dragged along by the powerful marine currents.

After the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, Great Britain, the foremost colonial power of the time, mounted a series of Arctic expeditions to reach the Bering Strait by crossing the Arctic, which was at the time believed to be an open sea surrounded by a belt of ice. Sir John Ross and Sir William Edward Parry led several expeditions in the 1820s and 30s, but none located the passage itself. In 1831 a scientific milestone was achieved by James Clark Ross, nephew of John and an officer on his uncle’s Arctic voyage of 1829-1832. While on a sledge excursion, the young Ross became the first European to locate the planet’s north magnetic pole.

These early voyages revealed how dangerous exploration of northern waters could be but whetted explorers’ appetite for discovery. Complications often arose from frigid waters trapping ships in newly forming ice. If a crew could not free their vessel, they often had to wait for months—either for a rescue or for the ice to thaw enough for them to sail away.

Disappearing expeditions

In May 1845 another British expedition launched to find the Northwest Passage. Led by celebrated British explorer and naval officer Sir John Franklin, a crew of 133 sailed the H.M.S. Erebus and H.M.S. Terror into Arctic waters and disappeared without a trace. Over the next decade more than a hundred European ships went looking for Franklin and his men, searching the labyrinth of islands and inlets that make up the Canadian Arctic.

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William Derby’s portrait of Sir John Franklin, who disappeared with his crew while exploring Arctic waters in 1847.

These rescue missions weren’t successful in finding Franklin (his two ships would not be found until 2014 and 2016), but they did have unexpected results. While the captain of a naval ship is under strict orders to follow the route stipulated by the shipowner, in the case of a manhunt, the rules are different. As the objective was to locate the ships and whomever remained alive, the captains enjoyed the freedom to set their own course.

In 1852 Captain Edward Inglefield was in charge of one of the ships involved in the search for the missing explorers, and midway through the voyage it occurred to him to look for them in the Smith Sound, a sea passage between Greenland and Canada’s Ellesmere Island. He wrote: “We were entering the Polar Sea, and wild thoughts of getting to the Pole . . . rushed rapidly through my brain.” He didn’t find the lost ships, nor did he reach the pole—the ice in the Smith Sound blocked his way—but Inglefield did say that he had seen clear waters just a short distance north.

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Ice Kit A pair of snowshoes from Spitsbergen, in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago. They enable the wearer to walk through heavy snowfall without sinking.

New voyagers

The search for Franklin’s ships and the North Pole also caught the imaginations of several American explorers. In the 1850s American financier Henry Grinnell backed two expeditions to locate Franklin’s ships and any potential survivors. Each expedition faced a relentless battle against cold, exhaustion, and ultimately, ice. One of their ships made it some 1,250 miles, but the crew had to abandon the mission and were rescued by a whaling ship. The Grinnell expeditions had small successes: One of Franklin’s wintering camps was identified on Beechey Island, but searchers found nothing else that revealed Franklin’s fate. They charted nearly 1,000 miles of unexplored coastline.

After the Grinnell expeditions in the 1850s, Americans had continued their polar exploration. In 1860, aboard the ship United States, Isaac Israel Hayes, a physician and explorer who had served on the second Grinnell mission, set out to reach the North Pole via Baffin Bay and Smith Sound. Hayes claimed to have traveled far north enough to have seen the open polar sea, but later analysis revealed that his calculations were off. His book The Open Polar Sea, published in 1867, captured American imaginations and provided details about the harsh conditions faced in the Arctic and the resourcefulness of the Inuit whom he encountered there.

Stranded in ice

Around this time, German explorers also began seeking the North Pole after prominent geographer August Petermann called for them to get involved in the quest. Between 1868 and 1870, two German expeditions set out and plotted their routes based on the theories of Petermann. He argued that the Gulf Stream, an ocean current that carries warm water from the Gulf of Mexico to the North Atlantic, extended into the heart of the Arctic. He believed the presence of warmer waters in the northern regions could create a navigable breach in the ice. The team soon learned that the current was not warm enough to create such a breach. Their missions were unsuccessful.

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An 1892 painting depicts how the Austro-Hungarian crew of the Tegetthoff was locked in ice for a year and endured 109 days without sun before landing at an archipelago they named Franz Josef Land in August 1873.

Starting in 1872, an Austro-Hungarian expedition set out, also using the work of Petermann to guide their path. The team was led by Julius von Payer and Carl Weyprecht, both explorers and officers in the Austro-Hungarian armed forces. Their ship, the Tegetthoff, became stranded, frozen in the ice for 27 months. Unable to sail, the boat drifted among the frozen seas.

The explorers came across an archipelago that they named Franz Josef Land for their emperor. The team was forced to abandon ship and set out on foot, pulling sledges and lifeboats along with them over the snow and ice.

Pack ice, however, behaves differently from land. As they moved south, the marine current was pushing the frozen mass on which they were walking north. In two months of trudging, exhausted, over the ice, they only managed to advance 10 miles. Fortunately, the expedition did finally make it back to the open sea and reached the Russian coast, where they were rescued by a fisherman.

Northern record

In England, Franklin’s expedition, the tragic fate of which was eventually discovered in 1859, led to a public ambivalence toward North Pole expeditions, but the British Navy still sought the prize. In 1875 the British Navy launched an expedition commanded by George Nares. Two ships, the Alert and Discovery, would sail along the west coast of Greenland via Smith Sound. The explorers believed that route would lead them to an open polar sea and the North Pole. The Discovery stopped and set up winter quarters at Lady Franklin Bay off Hall Basin, while the Alert sailed farther north and sheltered in a bay near Ellesmere Island. To date, it was the farthest point north reached by a European ship.

At this point, Nares began having second thoughts about the expedition. His observations led him to believe there was no open polar sea. Despite his misgivings, the mission continued. After wintering in their respective spots, both crews sent out several sledging parties to explore the terrain in the spring. It turned out that they were poorly equipped for the brutal Arctic conditions. They were able to go as far as 83° 20'—the farthest any Western explorer had reached so far. But it was 450 miles short of their goal.

The team had to turn back because of illness and harsh conditions. Many were suffering from scurvy, and many died. The expedition was cut short of its goal, and the two boats ultimately returned to Britain in November 1876. The British public felt the mission was a disaster for having failed to reach the Pole and resulting in the deaths of so many men. Nares’s mission would be the last major one sponsored by Great Britain.

Polar years

In 1881 another major American scientific expedition set out to capture the North Pole. Led by 1st Lt. Adolphus Greely of the Fifth United States Cavalry, the Lady Franklin Bay expedition aimed to establish a weather station as part of the first International Polar Year (IPY). The collaboration came about in 1879 as 12 nations agreed to join forces in the scientific study of the Arctic.

The United States’ purpose of the expedition was not only to collect scientific data, but also to claim the “farthest north” record held by the British. Despite high hopes for Greely’s mission, the results were tragic. Only seven of the expedition’s original 25 members, including Greely, survived. Poor planning combined with harsh weather delayed the delivery of critical supplies and rations for the team, who were left for three seasons on Ellesmere Island to endure starvation, fatigue, and exposure. The United States did achieve the record of farthest north, but at a great cost.

Undeterred by the disaster of Greely’s mission, the New York Herald decided to sponsor its own expedition to the North Pole. In 1879 the Jeannette, commanded by George De Long, entered the Arctic through the Bering Strait with the hope of being carried along by the warm Kuroshio ocean current from the North Pacific. But De Long had not heeded the advice of whalers who worked in the area and who knew from experience that the current would not be strong enough to carry the ship through. As the ship advanced, the Jeannette became locked in ice and sank two years later. The expeditioners were forced to drag their lifeboats across a vast wasteland until they found open water. They eventually reached the coast of Siberia in the autumn of 1881, but only a third of the crew survived the devastating journey.

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Trapped in ice, the Jeannette was stuck for two years before her crew abandoned ship to seek rescue. 1882 engraving

Testing theories

Amazingly, three years later, wreckage from the Jeannette had drifted to the coast of Greenland. Norwegian scientist and explorer Fridtjof Nansen used this finding to theorize the existence of a marine current that ran across the entire Arctic Ocean. By his reckoning, if a ship was caught by the ice in the same area that the Jeannette sank, it could cross the entire Arctic. It would eventually exit at the other end, having passed across the North Pole.

Nansen decided to test his theory. He built a ship named Fram (“forward”) with a new keel design, capable of holding fast against the ice in Arctic waters. The ship would be allowed to become embedded in ice, and Nansen believed the current would then carry it to the pole. He set out in 1893 with a small crew of 12.

At first all went well. The ship was able to withstand the pressure of the ice in the water. However, after about a year adrift, the explorer saw that his water route might not take him to the North Pole after all. Nansen decided to strike for the pole by skis and by sledges in March 1895. He and teammate Hjalmar Johansen were able to establish a new farthest north record while facing harsh conditions as they moved across Franz Josef Land. They were forced to build a shelter and overwinter at what is now called Jackson Island, named in honor of British polar explorer Frederick Jackson, the man who found Nansen and Johansen and brought them back to Norway in 1896.

Meanwhile, still dedicated to testing Nansen’s theory, the Fram and the rest of her crew remained caught in the pack ice that was drifting across the Arctic. Otto Sverdrup commanded the ship and made sure that scientific observations continued as the Fram slowly moved. In August 1896 the ship finally found open water and was able to sail back to Norway, proving Nansen’s theory correct.

Less successful but no less imaginative was a balloon expedition attempted by Swedish explorer Salomon Andrée in 1897. Andrée believed he could achieve the pole by air rather than by sea. He and Nils Strindberg and Knut Fraenkel set out from Spitsbergen, Norway, on July 11, 1897. The balloon crashed three days into the trip; the three men survived the initial landing but perished in the unforgiving conditions on land.

The North Pole heats up

European expeditions for the North Pole continued with no success. Some managed to push a little farther north, like the Italian mission led by Prince Luigi Amedeo, with his captain Umberto Cagni managing to travel a bit farther north than Nansen, but did not achieve the North Pole.

While Europeans continued to strive for the pole. American explorers were hot on their heels. Among them was Robert E. Peary, who made eight trips to the Arctic between 1886 and 1909. Another American striver was Frederick A. Cook, who served in 1891-92 as physician on Peary’s Arctic mission. Cook continued to explore Earth’s northern regions, eventually striking out on his own for the North Pole in 1907. The two former comrades had become competitors, each one trying to capture the prize.

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On April 6, 1909, Peary and Henson believed they reached the North Pole. Of all the team, only Peary knew how to make the latitude calculations, and many researchers have called them into question. The speed with which they returned prompted further doubts.

Cook’s mission began with little fanfare in 1907 when his schooner, the John R. Bradley, departed from Massachusetts for Greenland, where he would spend the winter at Annoatok, an Inuit settlement some 700 miles away. In February 1908 he set off in search of the North Pole. Two Inuit guides, Etukishook and Ahwelah, accompanied Cook all the way north to where he claimed he reached 90° north on April 21, 1908.

Peary had been trying to claim the North Pole for nearly two decades by the time he set out in summer 1908 aboard the Roosevelt. He started his journey with a large group, but winnowed it down over several months to just Matthew Henson, a veteran of Peary’s expeditions, and four Inuit guides. On April 6, 1909, Peary’s party believed they had reached the North Pole.

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Peary and Cook fight over their claims of having arrived first at the North Pole cover of a Parisian publication Le Petit Journal 1909

In fall 1909 competing newspapers trumpeted each man’s claim to the discovery, and a red-hot controversy was born. Cook’s account came under great scrutiny and was pronounced unproven. The National Geographic Society, after examining Peary’s papers, proclaimed that Peary had indeed reached the North Pole. Cook’s reputation diminished while Peary’s soared.

In the 1980s the National Geographic Society reevaluated Peary’s documents and found that he had not achieved the North Pole. Other experts argue that Henson was actually the first to the pole, not Peary. Cook’s account remains a mystery; his supporting documents went missing and have never been found.

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Setting Out Ralph Plaisted boards a plane at Montreal in an early phase of his overland conquest of the North Pole. His team would reach the pole by snowmobile in the spring of 1968.

In the decades ahead, powered flight finally brought the pole within reach. The first confirmed expedition to set foot at 90° north was a Soviet crew, airlifted directly to the spot in 1948. But the land approach seemed abandoned until the 1960s when Ralph Plaisted—an insurance man from Minnesota—successfully headed the first surface conquest of the pole, riding on a snowmobile, and arriving on April 19, 1968. A year later, British explorer Wally Herbert became the first, confirmed person to walk to the pole as part of an epic, 3,800-mile crossing of the Arctic Ocean.

Scientist and historian Javier Cacho is author of a biography of the Norwegian Arctic explorer Fridjtof Nansen.
The Reel Story: Matthew Henson Reaching the North Pole is no small feat. While many believe the first person to accomplish this daunting task was either Robert Peary or Frederick Cook, the title might actually belong to an African American explorer named Matthew Henson.