Otto Nordenskjöld

Dr. Otto Nordenskjöld, a Swedish geologist, led one of the most fascinating and incredulous journeys ever attempted to the Antarctic regions. The Germans, under the command of Erich von Drygalski (the GAUSS EXPEDITION) and the British, under the command of Robert Falcon Scott (the DISCOVERY EXPEDITION) were in the final stages of their respective plans for research south of the Pacific and Indian Oceans as the 32-year old Nordenskjöld completed preparations for his expedition to the southern reaches. Seven other scientists along with 16 officers and men made the voyage south. The command was placed under an experienced Antarctic explorer, Captain Carl Anton Larsen , who had commanded the JASON during a whaling reconnaissance mission in 1892-93 as far south as 64°40'S into the Weddell Sea. A young geographer-geologist-anthropologist, named Dr. Gunnar Andersson, was going to join the ship at the Falkland Islands and assume leadership after Nordenskjöld's group was dropped off at their wintering station. Plans then called for the ANTARCTIC and it's remaining crew to carry out research in the region during the summer and fall before returning the following year to pick up Nordenskjöld and his men. A good plan but one that went terribly wrong.

The ANTARCTIC left Gothenburg on October 16, 1901 and arrived at Buenos Aires on December 15. It was here that the expedition was joined by an American artist, F. W. Stokes, and an Argentinean naval officer, Lieutenant J. M. Sobral. The Argentinean government offered Nordenskjöld free food, fuel and help if their officer could join the wintering offer too good to refuse. The ship left for the southern latitudes on December 21 and arrived in the South Shetlands on January 11, 1902. They landed, spending a short time on one of the islands, and then proceeded on south to explore the Orléans Strait. Nordenskjöld wrote in his diary, "We were now sailing a sea across which none had hitherto voyaged. The weather had changed as if by magic; it seemed as though the Antarctic world repented of the inhospitable way in which it had received us the previous day, or, maybe, it merely wished to entice us deeper into its interior in order the more surely to annihilate us. At all events, we pressed onward, seized by that almost feverish eagerness which can only be felt by an explorer who stands upon the threshold of the great unknown".

Soon Nordenskjöld made what he considered to be his most important geographical discovery of the expedition: contrary to popular belief, they soon saw that Louis-Philippe Land was connected to Danco Land and that the Orléans Strait ran into Gerlache Strait. He wanted to continue on but time was short so they turned around and headed back until the sound between Louis-Philippe Land and Joinville Island was reached. French explorer Dumont d'Urville originally discovered the sound but since no ship had ever sailed through, he named it after the ANTARCTIC. Once they made it across the sound, they landed on Paulet Island and from there crossed Erebus and Terror Gulf and made a depot on Seymour Island. The ship then steamed southwest towards the unexplored region of eastern Oscar II Land Coast. They made it as far as 60°10'S before running into a line of ice. They followed it eastwards until reaching 63°30'S, 45°7'W on February 1 at which time the ship was forced to turn back. By February 9 they spotted land again and for his winter campsite Nordenskjöld chose Snow Hill Island, southwest of Seymour Island. He and five others were put ashore with equipment, supplies and sledge dogs after which the ANTARCTIC headed north for the Falklands.

The first project the men completed was a small magnetic observatory which served as shelter until the prefabricated hut could be built. A group of strong storms rocked the camp which gave them an idea of what was to come. By the beginning of March the weather had started to improve. Nordenskjöld made a number of trips by boat and dog sledge to establish depots. When spring arrived, Nordenskjöld, Sobral and seaman Jonassen set off for the eastern part of Oscar II Coast again with the men towing one sledge and the dogs the other. On a good day they could travel 30 miles but this was the exception as the terrain was filled with crevasses, one of which nearly cost Nordenskjöld his life. They finally reached their goal as Nordenskjöld wrote, "We did not make much ado about choosing our camping-ground (October 18) but pitched our tent on the ice at the foot of a projecting, brown, weather-worn, rocky headland, torn by the frost into a mass of mighty blocks. The reader can easily imagine with what feelings I hurried forward to these rocks, the first spot trodden by human foot on the whole of the eastern coast of the mainland of West Antarctica". Bad weather hounded them, Jonassen hurt his arm, the tent was torn to shreds in a storm and the dogs found their sack of food which they promptly ate, consuming it all along with part of the sack, some harness and the whip; it was time to go home. The three men made it back to winter quarters on October 31 having covered 380 miles in 33 days.

Lieutenant José Sobral

By the end of November the sea ice had still not broken up. In early December Nordenskjöld made a sledge journey to Seymour Island and made some important fossil discoveries but heavy on his mind was the fact that the sea ice was not breaking up and the ship was no where in sight. The ship had been expected any day in January and February yet still she didn't show up and their fate was sealed on February 18 when a storm came in from the south and froze the sea completely over. The men were depressed, to say the least, at the prospects of spending another cold winter in the damp, cramped winter quarters on Snow Hill Island.

When spring arrived, Nordenskjöld and Jonassen set off on another sledge trip, this time to discover whether the huge gulf they had found the previous year behind Cape Foster connected with the bay north of Cape Gordon. Good weather allowed them, within five days on the ice, to determine this to be true and they named the stretch of water the Crown Prince Gustav Channel. The men now made for a peak on Vega Island in order to get a better glimpse at the ice conditions in Erebus and Terror Gulf as they wanted to cross over to Paulet Island. As they approached the land, Jonassen spotted what he believed to be penguins. He took out his field glasses and was astonished to see that it was actually three men! When they met, Nordenskjöld described the three as "black as soot from top to toe; men with black clothes, black faces and high black caps, and with their eyes hidden by peculiar wooden powers of guessing fail me when I endeavour to imagine to what race of men these creatures belong". When they told him who they were he still didn't recognize them. They were Gunnar Andersson, Lieutenant Duse and Toralf Grunden and their story was incredible.

The Sinking of the ANTARCTIC

The ANTARCTIC headed back to the Falklands after dropping Nordenskjöld and his party off at Snow Hill Island. They spent the winter of 1902 there and picked up Gunnar Andersson. They left the Falklands on November 5, 1902 for the return trip to pick up the wintering party. The first sign of trouble came on November 9, at a latitude of only 59°30'S, when pack ice was encountered. Within two days the ship was held tight. Carl Larsen was able to ram his way forward but on November 17 a storm hit that put the ANTARCTIC in jeopardy as Andersson wrote, "At 2:30 am on 21 November I was awakened by loud orders from the captain's bridge, and I dressed myself hurriedly and hastened on deck. Three or four ship's lengths on our larboard lay an iceberg which was considerably higher than our mainmast and about three times as long as the vessel...We were in evident danger of being carried by the pack which lay close around the ANTARCTIC, right on to the ice-mountain. To add to our difficulties we were in the midst of a blinding snowstorm. The engines were going full speed, and we had the jib and fore-sail set. For a long time the vessel moved slowly forward a few yards, only to be pressed back by the floes, but after a while the pieces of ice gave way before the united pressure of steam and sail, and the ANTARCTIC glided past the iceberg into the lead which had been formed in its lee". When the storm let up, the ship was able to move into open waters around the South Shetlands and eventually make landfall at Deception Island. After leaving Deception Island efforts were focused on an attempt to correctly chart the Orléans and Gerlache Straits since the BELGICA EXPEDITION, led by Adrien de Gerlache in 1898, had failed to do so. The charting was completed on December 5 and the ANTARCTIC then steamed for Antarctic Sound which would lead them to Nordenskjöld's winter quarters. Unfortunately, as the ship approached the sound, the lead between the ice became narrower and narrower and by the time the ship reached the vicinity of Mount Bransfield, the way was completely blocked. Andersson went ashore at Louis-Philippe Land in order to get a better look at the ice in the sound. Andersson reported back that Erebus and Terror Gulf was a complete sheet of ice but Larsen decided to try and ram his way through anyway. Many days later found them no better off. Larsen gave up on his idea and decided they would try to reach Nordenskjöld by sledge party. The ship finally broke free from the pack ice and Larsen headed once more for Antarctic Sound. On December 29 Andersson, Duse and Toralf Grunden were put ashore at Hope Bay. The men immediately established a depot for the wintering party in case the ship was not able to reach the winter quarters. They then set off on the 200-mile journey to Snow Hill Island. Larsen and the rest of the men on the ANTARCTIC tried again to make their way to the southeast. She was still caught in the pack ice as a fierce storm blew her southwards... first bow first, then sideways, then stern first. This event continued until they reached the vicinity of Paulet Island. In his diary on January 10, 1903, scientist Carl Skottsberg wrote, "During the afternoon the pressure on the sides of the vessel--which had begun yesterday--could scarcely be marked, but after dinner, just as we sat down to a hand at cards, the ship began to tremble like an aspen leaf, and a violent crash sent us all up on deck to see what the matter was. The pressure was tremendous; the vessel rose higher and higher, while the ice was crushed to powder along her sides". The ship was able to rise above the pressure of the ice but later that night the ANTARCTIC began to list to starboard. Everyone prepared to abandon ship but fortunately the pumps were able to keep up with the leak. Nearly two weeks went by like this as the ship drifted southeastwards in the ice. On January 16 the ice opened up to the point where the ship was able to right herself and on February 3 the pressure from an ice floe at her bow shook the stern loose and for the first time in weeks she was afloat. Unfortunately, this only worsened the leak so in an act of desperation, Larsen decided to try and beach the ship on Paulet Island. By February 12 the ship had managed to drift into a large lead that had opened in the direction of Paulet Island. The engine was started and the sails hoisted in a furious attempt to reach the island. But, this only made the leak unmanageable and, as the water rose, the order was given to abandon ship. "We stand in a long row on the edge of the ice", wrote Skottsberg, "and cannot take our eyes off her...The pumps are still going, but the sound grows fainter and fainter...she is breathing her last. She sinks slowly deeper and deeper...Now the name disappears from sight. Now the water is up to the rail, and with a rattle, the sea and bits of ice rush in over her deck. That sound I can never forget, however long I may live. Now the blue and yellow colours are drawn down into the deep. The mizzen-mast strikes against the edge of our floe and is snapped off; the main-mast strikes and breaks; the crow's nest rattles against the ice-edge, and the streamer, with the name ANTARCTIC disappears in the waves. The bowsprit--the last mast-top---She is gone!" The ANTARCTIC sank 25 miles from Paulet Island and the shipwrecked party now began the nightmare journey to it across the ice.

What supplies could be saved were loaded onto the whale boat and ferried from ice floe to ice floe. They were in constant danger from icebergs threatening their campsites on the ice but after 14 days and a six-hour row, they finally struggled ashore on Paulet Island on February 28, 1903. The only hope the men had was that Andersson was able to make arrangements for a rescue party if the ANTARCTIC had not returned by autumn. Even if this were accomplished the men knew they would be in for a very difficult winter ahead as there would simply be no possibility of a rescue ship making it through the sea ice this late in the season.

While the ANTARCTIC was trying to find a route to pick up Nordenskjöld and the others, Gunnar Andersson, Lt. Duse and Toralf Grunden's attempt to reach the winter quarters on foot was being compromised by their lack of knowledge of the geography of the area. After being put ashore, the men headed off in a south-southwesterly direction which, according to James Clark Ross's chart, would bring them to Sidney Herbert Sound. Unfortunately, instead of finding a continuation of land after their struggle across the eastern end of Louis-Philippe Land they found themselves at the frozen entrance of the Crown Prince Gustav Channel.

Andersson wrote, "We stand silent and perplexed and gaze at the new and wonderful scene. Mile upon mile of snowy plain, such as we have never seen before, meets our eyes. One can actually imagine that a gigantic snow-clad city lies before us, with houses, and palaces in thousands, and in hundreds of changing, irregular forms--towers and spires, and all the wonders of the world. At first sight it appears incomprehensible, but it must be, after all, a bay covered with a frozen-in mass of numberless icebergs". The men set off across the bay on skis for Vega Island and, after 15 hours, reached the island and set up camp. The men thought for certain they were on James Ross Island and therefore would soon be able to reach Admiralty Sound. They climbed a peak on the island and to their dismay discovered their way blocked by an expanse of open water which they immediately recognized as Sidney Herbert Sound. But....they could see open water to the south so they assumed the ANTARCTIC had experienced little difficulty reaching the winter quarters on Snow Hill Island that summer. This final reasoning sealed their fate for the coming winter. Before Larsen dropped Andersson and the other two men off at Hope Bay, plans had been made between them that entailed the following: whoever was the first to arrive at winter quarters on Snow Hill Island was to gather the winter party and make for a rendezvous with the trailing group back at Hope Bay. After seeing all the open water to the south of them, Andersson and his men took it for granted that the ANTARCTIC had already arrived at Snow Hill Island and were proceeding to Hope Bay to pick them up. They gave it no further thought and were back at their depot at Hope Bay on January 13 where they settled down to await arrival of the ship to pick them up.

But, those days turned into weeks and it finally occurred to them that something had gone terribly wrong. On February 11 they started building a winter hut made with stone walls to a height of the tallest man. The sledge, turned upside down, served as the roof which was then covered with some planks and an old tarp. Inside the structure they put up the tent in order to give them some extra added protection. The floor was covered with penguin skins and on March 11 the hut was ready for occupancy. As winter set in, the snow surrounding them kept the inside temperature to a comfortable few degrees below freezing...any warmer would melt the ice on the walls and ceiling. The three men hunted penguins to supplement their food resources and eventually killed 700 of them. They even managed to kill a few seals and catch some fish through holes in the ice. They each took turn on duty and entertaining one another in the evenings. According to Andersson, the winter passed quickly. When spring arrived, Andersson made a short trek to see if the channel up to Vega Island was frozen and indeed it was. The men thankfully departed their hut on September 29 in search of the others. All of them were a fit to see as they were blackened by soot from head to foot with long scraggy beards and dirty, ragged clothes. They had just started their journey when a storm came up, trapping them in their small tent. Andersson wrote, "The storm grew more and more violent while the cold increased in intensity, and during the following night the tent-wall fell on my head and the snow packed itself over me, so that I lay fast as though in a vice. I was not released from my position until the storm had subsided, some 30 hours later". They reached Vega Island on October 9 and found the depot left the previous summer. The next two days were spent taking care of Grunden's and Duse's frostbite. After further exploration they were able to confirm that Sidney Herbert Sound actually connected with Crown Prince Gustav Channel but any decent from the island would be extremely difficult. Therefore, the men retraced their steps and began the last leg of their journey to meet up with the others by way of the sea ice around the island. They reached Cape Dreyfus, soon renamed Cape Well-met, on October 12. Andersson wrote, "At 1 PM we had halted at the cape in order to prepare dinner. Groups of seals lay here and there upon the ice; we had just passed by a couple of the animals, and a large family lay some distance further out. 'What the deuce can those seals be, standing up there bolt upright?' says one of us, pointing to some small, dark objects far away on the ice, in towards the channel. 'They are moving', cries another. A delirious eagerness seizes us. A field-glass is pulled out. 'It's men! It's men!' we shout". At long last the men were reunited with their leader.

The Rescue

The story of Captain Larsen and the stranded men from the ANTARCTIC is another story of incredible courage. They had existed in a makeshift hut on Paulet Island throughout the long winter months of 1903. The marooned men spent their first full day ashore on Paulet Island on March 1, hunting penguins and seals to supplement their food supplies for the coming winter. By the end, 1100 penguins had been killed. Work was also started on a stone hut which was not a job for the weak at heart. Stones had to be gathered and carried long distances to the site where the double-walled structure was built. When it was finished, it measured 34 feet by 22 feet with most of it taken up by the living quarters; twelve feet was used for the kitchen. Two stone beds were built along the walls of the living area, each measuring seven feet wide and accommodating 10 men each. By mid March, storms were quite violent and soon one of them blew the kitchen roof off. The winter days dragged on as the cycle continued: sleeping, cooking penguin (and occasional seal or fish), hunting and evenings spent talking or reading out loud from one of the few books that survived the sinking of the ANTARCTIC. From time to time they would have a sing-along but the men acutely feared what their final outcome would be. Skottsberg wrote, "Many hundred dreams have been dreamed in our island but I do not know if they helped to brighten our existence. They grouped themselves around two objects--food and rescue. Why, we could dream through a whole dinner, from the soup to the dessert, and waken to be cruelly disappointed. How many times did one not see the relief vessel in our visions--sometimes as a large ship, sometimes as nothing but a little sloop? And we knew the persons on board; they spoke about our journey; took us in their arms; patted us on the back...". But the reality of the situation was far different as food supplies dwindled away. On June 7, Ole Wennersgaard died. They buried him in a snowdrift until they could properly bury him in the spring.

The months dragged on until October arrived along with a breakup of the sea ice in the gulf which was a clear indication that the sea was clear for a ship to try and reach the three men they had left at Hope Bay. Carl Larsen took five crewmembers from the ANTARCTIC and headed off for Hope Bay at dawn on October 31 in hopes of contacting a rescue ship. They fought the weather all the way but on November 4 they finally reached Hope Bay. To their dismay they found the depot and stone hut but no sign of the men. Attached to the hut was a board on which a note had been written informing anyone who found it that Gunnar Andersson, Lieutenant Duse and Toralf Grunden had wintered there. A sketched map was found in a flask that showed Larsen the route the three men were taking in their attempt to reach Snow Hill Island. Larsen realized he would have to make the same journey but for him it would be by water. Bad weather delayed them for three days before they were able to launch their small boat into Antarctic Sound. Larsen wrote, "We broke up at 4 am and then rowed the whole day in the direction of Sidney Herbert Bay. Only here and there did we meet with scattered ice. The fine weather continued the whole of the next night, and we were making rapid progress towards our goal when, just as we passed Cape Gage and came into Admiralty Sound we met with a hinder which could not be forced by the boat. We found the ice extending in a straight line right over the bay towards Cockburn Island and Cape Seymour, and inwards across the whole of the sound. So at 2 am we drew the boat up on the ice and retired to rest". As Larsen and his companions struggled across the gulf, close by was a rescue ship working it's way through the ice around Joinville Island. The folks back in Sweden and Argentina had become very concerned with the fate of the ANTARCTIC when she didn't return. After all, both the British (DISCOVERY) and German (GAUSS) expeditions had barely escaped the unusual ice conditions that summer. So, arrangements were made for France, Sweden and Argentina to send rescue ships to the vicinity of Snow Hill Island the following spring. Lieutenant Julian Irizar, the Argentinian naval attaché in London, was chosen to lead the Argentinean rescue expedition aboard the corvette URUGUAY. Meanwhile, as rescue preparations were being made, Nordenskjöld returned to Hope Bay along with Andersson, Duse and Toralf. On October 26, Nordenskjöld, Andersson and Sobral undertook a journey to Seymour Island and left an inscribed message on a boathook which was raised as a signal on a cairn of rocks. November 7 became a day of great excitement: on this day Larsen and his men began their epic row across Erebus and Terror Gulf; as they were doing this, two more members of the wintering party, Gösta Bodman and Gustaf Akerlund, left winter quarters for Seymour Island; and finally it was on this date that Lieutenant Irizar and the URUGUAY reached the ice shelf off Seymour Island. A small party of men were put ashore to explore the region and that very afternoon discovered the boathook previously planted by Andersson and Sobral. Irizar slowly inched his ship along the edge of the ice until a tent was visible on the shore. Irizar and Lieutenant Yalour landed, walked to the tent and proceeded to wake up the two men inside--Bodman and Akerlund. The two officers then followed the Swedes across the ice to the winter quarters. Nordenskjöld may have been consumed with delight but this was quickly tempered when the Argentineans informed him that they had not seen any sign of the ANTARCTIC. They quickly agreed to abandon the camp so that the search for the missing ship could start. All of a sudden the dogs started barking and when they went outside, to their astonishment was Bodman greeting Larsen and his party who had just completed the 15-mile journey across the ice. Nordenskjöld wrote, "No pen can describe the boundless joy of this first moment...I learned at once that our dear old ship was no more in existence, but for the instant I could feel nothing but joy when I saw amongst us these men, on whom I had only a few minutes before been thinking with feelings of the greatest despondency". All the men had finally been reunited.

The Hut at Winter Quarters

Otto Nordenskjöld's uncle was the discoverer of the Northeast Passage around Siberia. Nordenskjöld held a doctorate in geology and lectured at Uppsala University. He led geological expeditions to Tierra del Fuego in 1895-97 and to the Yukon in 1898. Upon return from the ANTARCTIC EXPEDITION , Nordenskjöld received much fame but remained in debt for the rest of his life. Nevertheless, he led further expeditions to Greenland in 1909 and to Peru and southern Chile in 1920-21.



Antarctica, or, Two Years Amongst the Ice of the South Pole, by Otto Nordenskjöld.

Antarctica; the Extraordinary History of Man's Conquest of the Frozen Continent, by Reader's Digest.

Antarctica, the Last Continent, by Ian Cameron.

Antarctic Conquest, the Great Explorers in Their Own Words, by Walker Chapman.

The White Continent, by Thomas R. Henry.



Antarctica; the Extraordinary History of Man's Conquest of the Frozen Continent, by Reader's Digest, Second Edition.

Chronological List of Antarctic Expeditions and Related Historical Events, by Robert K. Headland.