Bookkeeper’s Corner – In the Land of White Death


By: Dr. Charles Ormsby – January, 2005

You may be familiar with Sir Ernest Shackleton’s disastrous expedition to the Antarctic that spanned 22 months from 1914 to 1916. It has been retold numerous times in books, newspaper/magazine articles, and even a PBS Nova special. After considerable hardship, all members of Shackleton’s expedition survived the ordeal.

Just as Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, was caught in pack ice and the crew left at the mercy of the Antarctic, another ship (the Saint Anna) was stuck in pack ice in the Arctic north of Siberia. Unfortunately, survival was a scarcer commodity for the crew of the Saint Anna.

The fateful journey of the Saint Anna began in Alexandrovsk (currently Murmansk) on August 28, 1912 with the intended destination of Vladivostok. If the voyage had been successfully completed, it would have been only the second time a ship had traversed the Northeast Passage (the Russian equivalent of the better known Northwest Passage across Northern Canada).

The Saint Anna expedition was destined to fail. Its chances may have been slight even if the expedition had been well planned but, even to the untrained observer, the planning was worse than atrocious. Of the 33 crewmen enlisted for the voyage, only five were genuine sailors. The food stored on board was lacking in citrus fruits … scurvy was inevitable. And, did you notice the August 28th departure date? A little late for an Arctic journey. As you might expect, the sea was preparing an icy welcome for the crew of the Saint Anna.

By October 15, 1912 the Saint Anna was frozen solid in pack ice. Wintering over in the ice was not unheard of. Typically, ships were prepared to winter over and, if the ice did not crush them, they broke free in the spring to continue their journey. The Saint Anna was not so lucky. The Artic ice carried her North of the Franz Joseph Archipelago and kept the expedition in its frozen grip for over 18 months.

In April of 1914, with any hope of slipping free or being rescued having faded, Valerian Albanov (the author) and 12 of the 33 crewmen decided to abandon ship and make their way over the ice to an uncertain rescue. The 20 who decided to stay behind and wait for rescue never got a chance to tell their story.

In the Land of White Death is Albanov’s story of the tortuous 90-day trek that he and his dwindling crew endured across 235 miles of ice, ice floes, and glaciers. Everything they took with them was fashioned out of ship’s timbers, sailcloth, and their portion of the remaining provisions. With no accurate maps and no means of determining longitude, navigation was reduced to guesswork. Guess wrong and you’ll never reach land; and you die. Guess right and … well, with the polar bears, walruses, ice breakthroughs, and no way to dry off and restore body heat … you’re probably going to die anyway. And if these don’t kill you, a rogue group of traitors probably will. Eleven of the 13 didn’t survive the ordeal. Only two (Albanov and Alexander Konrad) lived to tell the story.

Truth is often more exciting than fiction. The story of the Saint Anna and the desperate attempt of 13 determined crewmembers to escape the polar ice is a prime example of this … an example that was almost lost to western readers. Translated from Russian to French, the story languished in Harvard’s Widener Library for 68 years … and was never checked out. Not even once. So much for Harvard scholarship! It is now available in English as part of The Modern Library Exploration Series.

Pick up a copy, put on a warm goose down parka, sit outside in a snow bank, and start reading. You’ll swear you are on the pack ice with the crew of the Saint Anna. Oh, don’t forget the hot chocolate … no need to suffer unnecessarily!