The long march home

An Arctic epic uncovered from the past.

FARTHEST NORTH is an idea that has seized explorers and artists alike. (The genius-eccentric pianist Glenn Gould devoted an entire radio series to the subject.) However, while some were racing to the Pole in the early part of the 20th century, battling ice and cold for national glory and radio audiences, others just braved those uncharted regions for the money. Such was the lot of the 24-member crew—including one woman—aboard the Saint Anna, which left Imperial Russian St. Petersburg on July 28, 1912. They intended to hunt for pelts while traversing the Northeast Passage to Vladivostok on the Pacific. Some 723 days later, the only two survivors of the ill-fated enterprise were rescued from a frozen island; the others perished aboard their ice-locked ship. What happened?

In The land of white death

by Valerian Albanov (Modern Library. $21.95)

That's a good question, and White Death turns out to be a good little book in the midst of our present infatuation with disaster narratives. Plenty of quickie exploitation efforts have peddled lesser survival sagas since Into Thin Air, but White Death has the virtue of predating that tale by 79 years. As a result, it's essentially free of the feel-good moralizing and entirely devoid of the survivor finger-pointing that characterize the new catastrophe literature genre. No rival press conferences and competing accounts here. The Saint Anna's navigator Valerian Albanov published his expanded and reconstructed expedition diary in 1917 (the other survivor was probably illiterate), a time when World War I gripped Europe. The author died two years later, and the incident was essentially forgotten until mountaineering writer David Roberts became acquainted with the slim French 1928 translation—prompting this first-ever English edition at an opportune cultural moment.

With his ship stuck for some 18 months, feuding with his Bligh-like skipper, the then 34-year-old Albanov begins his narrative with the decision to leave the vessel—which had by then drifted with the ice some 2,400 miles north! The nearest landmass is the Franz Josef archipelago some 235 miles to the south, or perhaps the southeast, or perhaps the southwest. Maps are sketchy at best, and Albanov's compass isn't much better. Longitude is a guessing game. Still, 10 crewmen follow him onto the ice with handmade sledges and kayaks. "But I did not view our journey so optimistically," Albanov writes, knowing in retrospect it would "turn out to be even more terrible than I imagined."

THE NEXT 90 DAYS would prove him correct. Gradually succumbing to malnutrition on a diet of seal and polar bear, skiing across ice that turns to slush then water, Albanov's party suffers the inevitable casualties. As the sole decision-maker coping with such hardships, the prickly author is like a climbing guide who feels no need to mask his contempt for his clients. He writes, "There is nothing to be gained from my comrades. They surrendered long ago!" Starvation is slowly killing them all, of course, dulling their faculties, but it's Albanov's will to survive and navigation skills that keep them moving.

What's striking to a modern reader is the fatalism and lack of sentimentality that marks Albanov's account. Camped during one four-day storm, he and his men drift backward 22 miles with the ice! What he calls "the immensity of Nature's power" is overwhelming. "On the surface, one achieves no more success than a squirrel in a wheel-cage," he confides. Burying one crewmember, "no one wept," he notes tersely. "It seems we have become totally insensitive." Although he professes faith, Albanov is a man of his times, a contemporary of Chekhov and Conrad, more a figure of the century in which he died than in which he was born. In a proto-existentialist credo, he says, "Action alone could save us," and indeed it did.

That sentiment extends from Robinson Crusoe to the forthcoming Cast Away. Self-reliance against adversity has fascinated us from myth to the current best-seller lists. Only our interpretations change with the years, finding Zeus' hand in one epic, God's in another, while we now tend to cast survival in purely secular terms. The notion of tempting fate has given way to an age when we no longer believe in fate but instead in a contest of free will versus the elements. In this way, Albanov's words seem as contemporary as Krakauer's when he writes, "All this torture is simply deserved retribution. One should not poke one's nose into places where Nature does not want the presence of man."

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