A lookout climbs high up on a ridge to search for a passageway through the ice choked waters during the reenactment of the 1881 Greely expedition to the Arctic for the film, Abandoned in the Arctic which will premiere at the Harvard Science Center on Thursday June 19, sponsored by the Harvard Museum of Natural History. Credit: James Shedd
In 1881, U.S. Army Lieutenant Adolphus W. Greely lead an expedition that traveled farther north than anyone in history–to within just a few hundred miles of the North Pole. This achievement was the high point in the worst arctic disaster in American history.
Greely and his men were ordered to travel far into the Canadian Arctic, set up a research base there and return after two years of data gathering. But it took three years and a 250-mile journey through the treacherous ice before the men could be rescued. Only six of the original 25 survived.
“This is an amazing story that almost nobody has heard of,” says documentary director Gino Del Guercio. In “Abandoned in the Arctic,” his first feature documentary, Del Guercio follows an expedition in which Greely’s great-great-grandson seeks to trace his ancestor’s incredible journey. The film will be screened in a free sneak preview at the Harvard Science Center, One Oxford St., Cambridge, on June 19th, 7 p.m.
Greely’s expedition was part of an international effort that set the baseline for modern Arctic research. As part of the First International Polar Year, Greely was appointed by the U.S. government to establish a research station in Ellesmere Island, the tenth largest island in the world. Greely and his men not only did so, they also beat the world record for reaching furthest north, which the British had held for 300 years. Two years later, an American ship was scheduled to arrive at the research station and take the men home. The ship never came.
Greely ordered his men to head south towards Cape Sabine, where a rescue ship was supposed to wait in case the first ship could not make it up to their base. Carrying a few months’ food, the men sailed through icebergs in small boats. When sailing was not possible they dragged their boats across the rough ice with temperatures of 50 below zero.
“At one point they were stranded on a piece of ice and about to die in a terrible storm,” says Del Guercio. When the men finally arrived at the rescue point there was no ship there. They spent eight months in an area with almost no food and shelter before they were rescued. The last six men were found lying together in a tent waiting to die. Greely’s first words to his rescuers were: “Did what I came to do. Beat the best record,” referring to the farthest north record.
The modern expedition also experienced the hardships in one of the world’s most dangerous areas. For six weeks in the summer of 2004, James Shedd and five other men rowed in their Kayaks or dragged them through the ice on their way to Cape Sabine. One of them was nearly killed when an ice floe crashed his boat against the frozen coastline. “This area has been called the horizontal Everest,” says Del Guercio, who will be at the preview with Shedd and other members of the expedition. “We discovered for ourselves how truly dangerous it can be.”
Story by Nuño Dominguez.