10 Of The Most Doomed Expeditions In History

History is just FULL of doomed expeditions. It’s hard to choose just ten, and it’s hard to rank them in any kind of order. I chose these because these were doomed before they set out, and almost all of them were victims of bad planning or bad leadership. In any venture into the unknown, there is risk and a large factor of 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 are essential.

Lacking those things… you get doom. You get these. This list of doomed expeditions is far from exhaustive, and as I said, I only chose ten. 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, you know, who knew?

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).


The Reed-Donner Party

When people hear the name Donner…. well, you know what you think. The whole horrible ordeal those people went through has been boiled down by history to one thing: cannibalism. This fact is made all the more tragic by the connotations of that taboo branding… that that was all there was to the story, and that is all this group of 90 people will ever be known for.

The Donner party was, in fact, a wagon trail full of lots of families, including all of the Donner clan. They, like so many, were headed west into the land of golden Californian opportunity that was being sold by the government at the time. Go West! Just think of it! In the spring of 1846, 500 wagons headed west from Independence (which was pretty much considered the diving board into the West). At the tail end of this group were the 32 members of the Donner-Reed families and their employees. They left Independence on May 12th.

The story of this group of wagons and people starts the same that it did for thousands of others who made the same trip along the Oregon Trail. But the reason that their story was doomed from the moment they left Independence is because of one man… a man whose name is not remembered nor associated with “Donner Party.” Well, and another is heavily culpable, but I’ll get to that in a second.

A man named Lansford W. Hastings had gone to California in 1842 and saw the promise of the undeveloped country. To entice settlers, he published a guide for pioneers titled, “The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California.” He described a direct route across the Great Basin, which would bring emigrants through the Wasatch Mountains and across the Great Salt Lake Desert. Hastings had not traveled any part of his proposed “shortcut” until early 1846 on a trip from California to Fort Bridger. The fort was a supply station run by Jim Bridger (yes, that Jim Bridger) and his partner in Wyoming. Hastings stayed at the fort to persuade travelers to turn south on his route and Bridger, of course, encouraged this plan as it would give his supply station a huge opportunity to thrive if emmigrants were to start using the route. Hastings was the second of only two men to have EVER crossed the southern part of the Great Salt Lake Desert and neither had been accompanied by wagons, which, as you might guess, tend to be a part of things like “wagon trains.” Nevertheless, to promote this route, Hastings sent riders to deliver letters to traveling emigrants.

On July 12, the Reeds and Donners were given one of these letters. It warned that the emigrants could expect opposition from the Mexican authorities in California, and advised them therefore to band together in large groups. The letter also informed them that Hastings had “worked out a new and better road to California,” and said he would be waiting at Fort Bridger to guide the emigrants along the new shortcut.

And so, at the Little Sandy River (where the Oregon Trail continues on and another splits down to Ft Bridger), the larger wagon train opted to follow the established trail and our intrepid, smaller Donner group opted to head for Fort Bridger and the “shortcut.”

Edwin Bryant, a journalist, had reached Blacks Fork a week ahead of the Donners. He actually SAW the first part of this magical new shortcut trail, and was concerned that it would be difficult for the wagons in the Donner group, especially with so many women and children, so he made a point to return to Blacks Fork to leave letters warning the group NOT to take the shortcut. By the time the Donner Party reached Blacks Fork on July 27, Hastings had already left, leading the 40 wagons of another group he’d talked into trying the shortcut. Jim Bridger, the other culpable man I spoke of earlier, concealed Bryant’s warning letters and told the party that the shortcut was a smooth trip devoid of rugged country and so would shorten their journey by 350 miles, and it was free of hostile Indians; water would be easy to find along the way, although a couple of days crossing a 30–40-mile dry lake bed would be necessary. Remember that it was in Bridger’s best interests if this shortcut were to become an established route West.

And so, they took the shortcut… and, like so many of us who take unknown shortcuts, ended up seriously regretting it.

This poor group of inexperienced, poorly-led people endured one of the most grueling series of events than any emigrant has ever faced in the history of Western Expansion. The route was completely impossible for wagons to use. At points, they would only manage 1.5 miles of travel a day. The “indian-free” route they were promised was crawling with indians who ended up stealing and/or killing the majority of their horses and oxen. In November, because they had made such terrible, slow progress, they were only in the middle of the effin’ Sierras when winter hit. And it hit HARD. They became completely trapped near Truckee (now named ‘Donner’) and were forced to hunker down in poorly built log shelters. Let’s not forget that these people were not Mountain Men. A large majority of them were children, and even a few infants. On November 29th, they killed the very last ox for food. On December 15, the first of them died of malnutrition.

The next day five men, nine women, and one child departed on snow shoes for the summit, determined to travel the 100 miles to Sutter’s Fort. However, with only meager rations and already weak from hunger, the group faced a challenging ordeal. On the sixth day, their food ran out and for the next three days no one ate while they traveled through grueling high winds and freezing weather. One member of the party, snow-blind and exhausted, was unable to keep up with the rest of the party and told them to go on. He never rejoined the group. A few days later, the party was caught in a blizzard and four more soon died. Completely starving, the others resorted to cannibalism. By the time they reached Sutter’s Fort, the “snowshoe party” had been reduced to seven.

On February 19th, the first rescue party reached Truckee lake finding what appeared to be a deserted camp until the ghostly figure of a woman appeared. Twelve of the emigrants were dead, and of the forty-eight remaining, many had gone crazy or were barely clinging to life. However, the nightmare was not over. Not everyone could be taken out at one time, and since no pack animals could be brought in, few food supplies were delivered. The first rescue party left with 23 of the survivors, but two more children died on the way to Sutter’s. March 1st, the second rescue party arrived and found more evidence of cannibalism. They took 17 more with them, losing yet another on this trip. March 12th, the 3rd rescue party arrives and takes 4 people, leaving behind those too weak to travel. Two of the rescuers stayed behind to care for them, but abandoned them shortly thereafter, opting to catch up to the relief party they’d come with. April 17th, the final member of the original Donner-Reed Party arrived at Sutter’s Fort.

The toll was grisly. Two-thirds of the men in the party died, while two-thirds of the women and children lived. 41 people died and 46 survived. In the end, five had died before reaching the mountains, 35 died either at the mountain camps or trying to cross the mountains, and one died just after reaching the valley. Most of those who survived lost toes to frostbite.

Donner Lake (originally Truckee Lake), now-named for the party, is today a popular mountain resort and the Donner Camp has been designated as a National Historic Landmark.

All for a shortcut.


The Franklin Expedition

This particular expedition is much more of a mystery than some of the others on this list (certainly not Fawcett’s), mostly because of the lack of documentation. However, it does count as one with a high death toll.

129 men total were lost when Captain John Franklin departed England to find the still sought-after Northern Passage. Men had been searching for a northern shortcut from Europe to Asia since Christopher Columbus in 1492 to no success. While these explorations added enormously to European knowledge of the Western Hemisphere, they had yet to find a safe, consistent route through the north. More and more eyes were turning that direction to see if a shortcut was possible. In 1670, the incorporation of the Hudson’s Bay Company led to further exploration of the Canadian coasts and interior and of the Arctic seas. By 1800, their discoveries showed that no Northwest Passage navigable by ships lay in the temperate latitudes between the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans. But in 1804, England began a push to complete the Northwest Passage over the top of Canada and to navigate toward the North Pole.

Over the next four decades, explorers made productive trips to the Canadian Arctic. Among these explorers was John Franklin, second-in-command of an expedition towards the North Pole in 1818 and the leader of two more overland expeditions to and along the Arctic coast of Canada. By 1845, the combined discoveries of all of these expeditions had reduced the relevant unknown parts of the Canadian Arctic to a quadrilateral area of about 70,000 square miles.

It was this unknown, unmapped area that Franklin was to head into on his fourth Arctic expedition, this one to complete the Northwest Passage. The distance to be navigated was roughly 1,040 miles. Interestingly, Franklin was only chosen as leader very reluctantly by British Naval Command. Franklin was literally settled on… the 6th choice… after those before him declined or were rejected as being too young. Franklin received his orders on May 5, 1845.

The two ships he commanded were sturdy and outfitted with the most current technology at the time. They were reinforced with iron plates, internal steam heating, screw propellers, and iron rudders that could be retracted into the hull. They had three years worth of food, but the ship had been hastily supplied and the 8,000 tins of food were found to have lead solder globs on the interiors of the cans.

They set sail on May 19, 1845 and were last spotted by the whaler ‘Prince of Wales’ in early August, never to be seen again.

Two years passed with no word and finally, urged by Franklin’s wife and public concern, the Admiralty sent a three-pronged search party… which failed to turn up a trace of them. In 1855, talk with a group of Inuit disclosed that they had come upon a group of “whites” who had starved to death on the coast. But it was not until 1859 that sledge parties searching King William Island found a document in a cairn left by some of the officers. One stated “All well” but the second one, dated 25 April 1848, reported that the two ships had been trapped in the ice for a year and a half and that the crew had abandoned the ships on 22 April. Twenty-four officers and crew had died, including Franklin on June 11, 1847, just two weeks after the date of the first “all’s well,” letter (note: the dates on the missives were incorrect).

It was not until 1981 that bodies were found. The mystery of just how the men had died remained intact. Over the next 10 years, scientists would pour over the remains. The results of this study from King William Island and Beechey Island artifacts and human remains showed that the Beechey Island crew had most likely died of pneumonia and perhaps tuberculosis, which was suggested by the evidence of Pott’s disease discovered in one of the men. Lead poisoning also seemed likely. Also, blade cut marks found on bones from some of the crew were seen as signs of cannibalism.

Evidence suggested that a combination of cold, starvation, and disease including scurvy, pneumonia, and tuberculosis, all made worse by lead poisoning, killed everyone in the Franklin party.


The Burke & Wills Expedition

In 1860 Australia, the government put forth a reward of 2000 pounds to anyone who succeeded in crossing the then-unknown (except, of course, to the indigenous Aborigines) north-south interior of the continent (approximately 2000 miles). The government of Victoria and South Australia each put forth an expedition, Victoria’s led by a man named Robert Burke. Burke was a man with absolutely no experience in bushcraft. He had been a police super-intendant.

Starting from Royal Park in Melbourne on August 21, 1860, 19 men took 23 horses, 6 wagons and 26 camels. Clearly, they were well-outfitted. What kind of expedition would it be without a handy cedar-topped oak camp table & chairs, rockets, flags… and of course, a Chinese gong? No expedition I would want to be a part of, that’s for sure. Their equipment and food in total weighed as much as 20 tons, partly due to the fact that Burke decided to bring dried beef (instead of travelling with live cattle to slaughter along the way) which took an extra three wagons to haul and was extremely heavy. In fact, one wagon broke before it even left Royal Park. The expedition was so incredibly heavy that they had only gotten as far as the edges of Melbourne by midnight, and the next day, two more wagons broke down. On August 26th, they took a day off.

In mid-September, they finally decided to lighten the load a bit and left behind sugar, lime juice (for scurvy prevention), guns, and ammo. Wait, they got rid of guns for hunting, but didn’t ditch the gong? Someone must have really liked that gong. At the end of September, Burke’s second-in-command quit as did the expedition’s surgeon. Burke made William John Wills his second at that point and a man named Wright was added as a guide to get them to Cooper’s Creek. He was becoming very concerned by their slow pace, as he knew that John Stuart’s group was also seeking the same reward and goal. At this point, they were only moving about two miles a day. (He didn’t know that Stuart had turned back and was no longer competition) At Menindee on October 12, he split the expedition, taking the strongest horses, seven of the fittest men, and a small amount of equipment with plans to push quickly to Cooper Creek and wait there for the rest to catch up.

Travel was fairly easy at this point as recent rains had made water plentiful and the temperature were mild. Burke must have felt confident because he sent Wright back to Menindee alone to bring up the rest of the men and supplies. Cooper Creek was at the very edge of the area that had been explored by Europeans… once they reached it, they set up a first camp, but had to move it downstream due to a plague of rats. This was where they erected a camp that was dubbed Fort Wills, and the thought was they would wait there until March of the following year to continue – thus avoiding travel in the anvil of the Australian summer. But Burke decided to move out in mid-December. Let’s check the temps, hmmm… oh, commonly 122 degrees Fahrenheit.

Here he split the group again, leaving a man named Brahe in charge of the fort with three others. Burke, Wills, King, and Grey set off for the Gulf with six camels, one horse, and enough food for three months. The would return after reaching the Gulf, and so Brahe was instructed to wait for them. Burke told him three months, and Wills secretly told him to wait four. Almost as if he was starting to get the distinct impression that Burke didn’t know what he was talking about.

So, they headed out… and, surprisingly, the travel wasn’t too difficult despite the terrible heat. The aborigines they encountered were friendly and peaceful, and they drew closer and closer to the Gulf. But when they reached the mangrove swamps, they found they could not continue further. They left King and Grey behind with the camels and continued on, but had to turn back – only three miles from their goal of the coast. At this point, they were seriously low on supplies. They had food for 27 days, but it had taken them 59 to get there.

And this was when it started to get pretty bad. The monsoon season began on their return south. Slowly, their animals fell, one by one of exhaustion and to feed the men. Equipment was abandoned as they went, and on April 10, they shot their last horse. Burke and Grey both came down with dysentery and Grey died on April 17th. They took a day to bury him and continued south to the fort at Cooper Creek.

But by the time they got there, Brahe and the men were gone, being unable to wait any longer for Wright to reach them re-supplied from Menindee. Burke, King, and Wills didn’t know it, but Brahe had only left the camp eight hours before they got there – having waited 18 weeks for the men to return. Stopping to bury Grey had cost them the time they could have used to get back to the fort in time. Brahe had buried some supplies at the base of a tree in case Burke and his men returned, along with a note informing Burke just how closely he had missed them. Wills and King wanted to try to overtake Brahe, who was only miles away from them, but Burke decided against it. They were too weak and it would be impossible to overtake Brahe, whose expedition was still in good condition. Instead, Burke thought they should try to reach Mount Hopeless 150 miles away, the nearest outpost of civilization. They wrote a letter explaining this and reburied it at the tree, but failed to re-mark the tree so that someone should know they had found it.

In an almost comical set of circumstances, Brahe, on his way back, ran into the finally arriving Wright who had come with supplies at last. They turned around and went back to Cooper’s Creek, again, missing Burke and the others by miles. Finding the camp abandoned, they did not think to check the cache under the tree, since there was no indication it had been disturbed. They all turned around and went back to Menindee, taking their precious supplies with them.

Burke, King, and Wills never made it to Mount Hopeless. They ended up returning to the fort site where they lived a starved existence through June of 1861. They survived off the charity of a nearby Aboriginal tribe who gave them fish, beans, called ‘padlu,’ and a type of damper made from the ground sporocarps of the ngardu (nardoo) plant in exchange for sugar. This plant was, centuries later, found to contain thiaminase, which is damaging to the human body when prepared improperly. If the men had not followed the aboriginals instructions for preparing it, the thiaminase would have depleted the body of vitamin b1, causing a disease called Beriberi. This theory is backed up by the symptoms that Burke complained of in his diary.

It was at the end of June, as they made their way up the creek to the aboriginal camp, that Wills simply could not continue. He told them he would rest, and that he would catch up, and there he died. Burke and King continued upstream until they were too weak to continue, and there, Burke died. King stayed with him for two days and then returned downstream where he found Wills, dead. King ended up finding a tribe who took him in in exchange for him shooting birds for them. And, on September 3rd, a rescue party found him there.

He was the only surviving member of the group, and he only lived 11 years longer after his experience, never really regaining his health and dying at age 33.


1996 Mount Everest

Most people know about this one… it wasn’t very long ago, and it was well-publicized with books, articles and documentaries made on the subject. It’s true that a large number of folks have died on the mountain since it was first ascended in 1953 (at least 300), but the year of 1996, and particularly May 10th, Everest became a death trap for expeditions.

A sudden, brutal storm slammed into the mountain right when about 30 people were descending from the summit. Climbers call the area above 7,500 meters the “Death Zone” because thats where the air lacks the oxygen to support life for long periods. Carrying oxygen with you when you are in this zone is essential. While storms of this intensity are not unusual for Everest, what was different on May 10th was the sheer number of people on the mountain.

At midnight on May 10th, no less than 33 people (all members of five different expedition teams – three American, one Taiwanese, and one Indian) started their ascent after midnight. There were a number of things that doomed these people before they’d even begun… the storm was just the killing stroke. Delays… delays were the thing. When the teams reached The Balcony (a wide shoulder-like area of rock), no fixed ropes had been set, forcing the teams to lose over an hour. And when they reached the Hillary Step, again they found that no lines were set. Another hour was lost. To understand why time is so very, very important to climbing Everest… they have to reach the summit by 2pm at the latest in order to return to the last camp before night. And the weather was getting worse. The first team (Krakauer’s team – the “Into Thin Air” guy) summited at 1:30pm, but the others were well behind schedule. One set of climbers would not summit until 3:45pm!

The storm hit as Krakauer’s team was descending. It swallowed the fixed lines and obliterated the trail. Visibility was impossible. By 5:30pm, it was a full-scale blizzard with winds of up to 70mph. The teams that had not summited in time were trapped above the Balcony. Several climbers from the two American expeditions above the Balcony became lost, wandering in the storm until midnight… and when they could no longer walk, they huddled together, unknowingly only 20 meters from the drop-off of the Kangshung Face.

By the time the storm cleared the next morning, eight people were dead. Four from Adventure Consultants, one from Mountain Madness, and the entire 3-man Indian team (who had summited on the North side).

Jon Krakauer (one of the members of the Adventure Consultants expedition), wrote his account of the tragedy, and in later press, has suggested that the use of bottled oxygen and commercial guides, who do literally everything and allow otherwise unqualified climbers to attempt to summit, directly led to the disaster. He also claimed that the competition between two of the American expeditions (Adventure and Mountain Madness) may have led to the decision not to turn back after the pre-decided time for summiting of 2:00 pm.

It pretty much can’t be denied, however, that many of the poor decisions made on May 10 were under the conditions of lack of sleep and food for two or more days (because of the lack of oxygen), and constant hypoxia. The specific nature of the freakishly strong blizzard the climbers encountered is now known to have caused the oxygen levels to plunge even further… by 14%!

Four more people died on Everest that same year. And, by the end of 2009, the total death toll on the mountain had reached 216.


Sputnik & Laika

Most folks know that the first living creature to leave the Earth’s surface and enter orbit was a little Russian dog named Laika. Laika was found as a stray wandering the streets of Moscow… a female part-Samoyed terrier, originally named Kudryavka (“Little Curly”) but later renamed Laika (“Barky”) (I guess it’s not too hard to figure out the reasons why they renamed her).

Many doomed expeditions are doomed because of circumstances regarding planning. This one was doomed because poor Laika was never intended to return alive.

Laika was placed in the satellite on October 31, 1957. The pressurized cabin on Sputnik 2 allowed enough room for her to lie down or stand and was padded. An air regeneration system provided oxygen; food and water were dispensed in a gelatinized form. Laika was fitted with a harness, a bag to collect waste, and electrodes to monitor vital signs. The early telemetry indicated Laika was agitated but eating her food. During launch her pulse rate rose to three times its resting level. After reaching weightlessness, her pulse rate decreased, but it took three times longer than it had during earlier ground tests, an indication of stress.

It had been reported that approximately five to seven hours into the flight, no further life signs were received from the spacecraft, but newer speculation seems to indicate that Laika died within hours after launch from overheating, possibly caused by a failure of the central R-7 sustainer to separate from the payload. The true cause and time of her death was not made public until 2002; instead, it was widely reported that she died when her oxygen ran out on day six, or (as Soviet government initially claimed) she was euthanized prior to oxygen depletion.

Due to the overshadowing issue of the Soviet vs. US Space Race, the ethical issues raised by what was done to Laika went largely ignored. The press was focused on reporting the political perspective, while the health and retrieval — or lack thereof — of Laika was hardly mentioned. Only later were there discussions regarding the fate of the dog. The mission sparked a debate on the mistreatment of animals and animal testing in general to advance science. Animal rights groups at the time called for the public to protest at Soviet embassies. Others demonstrated outside the United Nations in New York.

In the USSR, neither the media, books, nor the public openly questioned the decision to send a dog into space. It was not until 1998, after the collapse of the Soviet regime, that one of the scientists responsible for sending Laika into space expressed regret for allowing her to die:

“Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us. We treat them like babies who cannot speak. The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We shouldn’t have done it… We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog.”

Laika is memorialized in the form of a statue and plaque at Star City, Russia, the Russian Cosmonaut training facility.


The Percy Fawcett Expedition

Photo: Wikipedia

Percy, Percy, Percy. Seriously, look at this guy. He’s like Laura Croft or something, only without the tight, white tank top and short-shorts. Why is he even here among the poor planners and the blowhards? Come ON. Look at him. How can you see a picture of this dude and not want to put him on your list? I’m putting him on ALL my lists from now on. But, because his expedition didn’t technically fail from poor planning or incompetence (as far as we know, but I’m on the side of the guy with the pipe and mustache on this one), he gets to come in at #10.

Percy became a member of the Royal Geographic Society in Britain in 1901 with the order to study surveying and mapmaking and later working for the British Secret Service in North Africa. He was friends with Arthur Conan Doyle (the creator of Sherlock Holmes) and H. Rider Haggard – a writer who would use Fawcett’s field reports as inspiration for his book, The Lost World.

His expedition to find the “Lost City of Z” (nice name, Perce) was doomed, not because of poor planning and bad leadership like most of the entries on this list… his was doomed simply for the undertaking of it. To give an idea… it is estimated that approximately 100 people have died in 13 attempts just to LEARN what happened to him.

Based on documentary research, and after years of experience and expeditions under his belt, Fawcett had formulated his ideas about a “Lost City of Z” in Brazil by the time of the outbreak of World War I. At that time he returned to Britain for active service, volunteered for the front in Flanders, and led an artillery brigade, despite the fact that he was approaching fifty years of age.

And so, in 1925 after the war, Fawcett returned to Brazil with his elder son, Jack, for an exploratory expedition. He had studied ancient legends and historical records and was convinced a lost city existed somewhere in the Mato Grosso region, a city Fawcett named “Z.” Fawcett picked only two traveling companions… Jack and his son’s friend, Raleigh… in order to travel light and low-profile. He knew that many tribes of the jungle had never come in contact with white men, and that some of them were hostile to explorers.

The small group left on April 20th of 1925, bringing two hired Brazilians, two horses, eight mules, and two dogs. The last communication anyone would receive from him was on May 29th, stating that he, Jack, and Raleigh were headed into unknown territory, just the three of them. They were never heard from again.

There are several theories of what happened to them. Many assumed they had been killed by the jungle’s native tribes. It could have been the Kalapalos, who saw them last, or the Arumas, Suyas, or Xavantes tribes, whose territories they had been entering. They could have easily been killed by any number of jungle animals. It was also noted that both Jack and Raleigh had been ill and weak-looking when they had last been seen entering the unknown territory, which could have contributed to being unable to run or fight. In 2005, a New Yorker staff writer visited the Kalapalo tribe and discovered that it had passed down an oral history about Fawcett, among the first white men the tribe had ever seen. The oral account said that Fawcett and his party had stayed at their village and then left, heading eastward. The Kalapalos claimed that they’d warned Fawcett and his companions not to go that way – that they would be killed by the “fierce Indians” who occupied that territory – but that Fawcett insisted on going. Whether this is true or not, it’s definitely interesting that Fawcett’s legend has influenced the area so strongly.


Indiana Jones might have managed to make a last second escape, but it doesn’t look like Fawcett’s expedition had the same luck.

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