Labyrinth of Ice: The Triumphant and Tragic Greely Polar Expedition
by Buddy Levy
Expected publication: December 3, 2019, from St. Martin’s Press
Though we know now what the North Pole is like and have maps that show the shifting– and melting– polar ice caps in high resolution, we didn’t always know what was there. For centuries, people looked to the Arctic and made wild speculations. Was there land? Was there an open ocean? Or was it snow and ice all the way up? Though humans reached the North Pole in the twentieth century (there are disputed claims by Frederick Cook in 1908, Robert Peary and Matthew Henson in 1909, and Richard E. Byrd in 1926) the race northwards began far earlier, with expeditions trekking into the unknown to study the Arctic land, ice, and weather, as well as vying for the fame– and potential notoriety– that would come with having been Farthest North.
In July of 1881, Lieutenant A.W. Greely led an expedition crewed by American soldiers and scientists, a French doctor, and two Greenlanders. Their goal was to study everything they could while they were in the Arctic wilderness, hundreds of miles from the nearest outpost. They would spend years there, facing dangerously cold temperatures, brutal weather, potential wolf or bear attacks, and shifting ice. They brought enough supplies to build an outpost, Fort Conger, and had enough food to see them through the long dark of two Arctic winters, supplemented by meat taken during hunts. The first winter was spent in relative luxury. Levy describes in detail the Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts the men enjoyed, and the parties, classes, and competitions they used to keep their spirits up in those dark months. All through it, Greely would send out two- and three-man expeditions to push ever northward and take scientific measurements all the while.
The expedition’s initial plan was sound: in the following summers, ships would arrive with fresh supplies to keep Greely and his men fed. In the summer of 1881, everything happened on schedule. But what Greely and the captains of the supply ships could not know was that the summer of 1881 was particularly warm, and the polar ice had not expanded as far south as usual. In the following two years, the sea ice followed its normal path, putting a massive wall of ice in the supply ships’ paths, over 250 miles away from Fort Conger. With no way to communicate between the ships and Fort Conger, Greely and his men had no idea they were on their own until it was too late. With food stores running low, Greely decided to leave the relative safety of the fort and take his men south to Cape Sabine, where a cache with forty days’ worth of rations had been stored. He set up camp in the autumn of 1883, where he and his men faced starvation, insanity, and the possibility of cannibalism as they wintered in a primitive shelter, waiting for spring and the first possibility of rescue.
“Unfortunately it didn’t take an astronomer to realize what was happening: A gale was blowing offshore from the southwest, and the floe they were camped on had begun drifting imperceptibly to the north-northeast. Men starting tying down anything loose as the winds increased. It took hours to erect the teepee, the great sail threatening to fly away. Men sought refuge where they could, but few managed to sleep, as everywhere ice split and thundered. Even the stalwart Brainard was alarmed: ‘The roar of the moving and grinding pack… is something terrible that even the bravest cannot be unconcerned…'”
Though occasionally dry and full of background history and lists of food stores and scientific equipment, Levy’s narrative picks up its pace when the expedition reaches the Arctic and establishes Fort Conger, and is interspersed with the dramatic– a wolf attack– and the ethereal– astonishing displays of the Northern Lights. And though the focus is upon Greely’s team in the north, Levy takes the time to explain why the supply ships never arrived and the lengths Greely’s wife Henrietta went to in order to convince the American government to take action and send a rescue mission to find her husband and his men.
The tension ratchets up once the expedition leaves Fort Conger in search of the supply caches to the south. Once the effects of malnutrition begin to take hold amongst the crew, it is nearly impossible to put the book down. Like any great story, readers will be desperate to know what happens next.
While the race to gain the title of ‘Farthest North’ had a vainglorious element, the scientific element of Greely’s expedition was important. The team’s measurements and photographs were recovered, along with their personal journals and letters though they had left many of these things behind as they weakened on their journey south. The scientific observations from this expedition have helped form the baseline for Arctic weather and the extent of the polar ice caps, allowing scientists to see just how much ice has been lost and how quickly we are losing it as Earth’s climate warms. Though there is plenty of tragedy in Labyrinth of Ice, it is also a story of courage and the boundless nature of human curiosity. These twenty-five men spent years in some of the most remote and brutal conditions on the planet, and they did it all in the name of science.
Thank you to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for providing me with a free egalley in exchange for an honest review. This did not affect my opinion in any way.