The harrowing true survival story of an early polar expedition that went terribly awry–with the ship frozen in ice and the crew trapped inside for the entire sunless, Antarctic winter–in the tradition of David Grann, Nathaniel Philbrick, and Hampton Sides
“Deserves a place beside Alfred Lansing’s immortal classic Endurance.”—Nathaniel Philbrick
“A riveting tale, splendidly told . . . Madhouse at the End of the Earth has it all.”—Stacy Schiff
“Julian Sancton has deftly rescued this forgotten saga from the deep freeze.”—Hampton Sides
In August 1897, thirty-one-year-old commandant Adrien de Gerlache set sail aboard the Belgica, fueled by a profound sense of adventure and dreams of claiming glory for his native Belgium. His destination was the uncharted end of the earth: the icy continent of Antarctica. But the commandant’s plans for a three-year expedition to reach the magnetic South Pole would be thwarted at each turn. Before the ship cleared South America, it had already broken down, run aground, and lost several key crew members, leaving behind a group with dubious experience for such an ambitious voyage.
As the ship progressed into the freezing waters, the captain had to make a choice: turn back and spare his men the potentially devastating consequences of getting stuck, or recklessly sail deeper into the ice pack to chase glory and fame. He sailed on, and the Belgica soon found itself stuck fast in the icy hold of the Antarctic continent. The ship would winter on the ice. Plagued by a mysterious, debilitating illness and besieged by the monotony of their days, the crew deteriorated as their confinement in suffocating close quarters wore on and their hope of escape dwindled daily. As winter approached the days grew shorter, until the sun set on the magnificent polar landscape one last time, condemning the ship’s occupants to months of quarantine in an endless night.
Forged in fire and carved by ice, Antarctica proved a formidable opponent for the motley crew. Among them was Frederick Cook, an American doctor–part scientist, part adventurer, part P.T. Barnum–whose unorthodox methods delivered many of the crew from the gruesome symptoms of scurvy and whose relentless optimism buoyed their spirits through the long, dark polar night. Then there was Roald Amundsen, a young Norwegian who went on to become a storied polar explorer in his own right, exceeding de Gerlache’s wildest dreams by leading the first expeditions to traverse the Northwest Passage and reach the South Pole.
Drawing on firsthand accounts of the Belgica’s voyage and exclusive access to the ship’s logbook, Sancton tells the tale of its long, isolated imprisonment on the ice–a story that NASA studies today in its research on isolation for missions to Mars. In vivid, hair-raising prose, Sancton recounts the myriad forces that drove these men right up to and over the brink of madness.