In the Land of White Death
An Epic Story of Survival in the Siberian Arctic
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About the author
Valerian Albanov was born in 1881 in Voronezh, Russia, and graduated in 1904 from the Naval College of St. Petersburg. Despite his harrowing voyage aboard the Saint Anna, he continued going to sea until his death in 1919.
Jon Krakauer is the bestselling author of Into the Wild and Into Thin Air, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1998.
David Roberts is the author of over a dozen books on mountaineering, exploration, and archaeology, including, most recently, True Summit. His work regularly appears in National Geographic Adventure, Smithsonian, and Outside, among other publications.
In 1912, six months after Robert Falcon Scott and four of his men came to grief in Antarctica, a thirty-two-year-old Russian navigator named Valerian Albanov embarked on an expedition that would prove even more disastrous. In search of new Arctic hunting grounds, Albanov's ship, the Saint Anna, was frozen fast in the pack ice of the treacherous Kara Sea-a misfortune grievously compounded by an incompetent commander, the absence of crucial nautical charts, insufficient fuel, and inadequate provisions that left the crew weak and debilitated by scurvy.
For nearly a year and a half, the twenty-five men and one woman aboard the Saint Anna endured terrible hardships and danger as the icebound ship drifted helplessly north. Convinced that the Saint Anna would never free herself from the ice, Albanov and thirteen crewmen left the ship in January 1914, hauling makeshift sledges and kayaks behind them across the frozen sea, hoping to reach the distant coast of Franz Josef Land. With only a shockingly inaccurate map to guide him, Albanov led his men on a 235-mile journey of continuous peril, enduring blizzards, disintegrating ice floes, attacks by polar bears and walrus, starvation, sickness, snowblindness, and mutiny. That any of the team survived is a wonder. That Albanov kept a diary of his ninety-day ordeal-a story that Jon Krakauer calls an "astounding, utterly compelling book," and David Roberts calls "as lean and taut as a good thriller"-is nearly miraculous.
First published in Russia in 1917, Albanov's narrative is here translated into English for the first time. Haunting, suspenseful, and told with gripping detail, In the Land of White Death can now rightfully take its place among the classic writings of Nansen, Scott, Cherry-Garrard, and Shackleton.
How many weeks and months have gone by since the day I left the Saint Anna and bade farewell to Lieutenant Brusilov! Little did I know that our separation was to be forever.
The ship was completely trapped by the ice pack. She had been drifting northward for a year and a half off Franz Josef Land. In October 1912, she had become icebound in the Kara Sea at latitude 71'45'' north, unable to advance or retreat, at the mercy of the winds and tides.
Together with thirteen other crewmembers I left the ship to her aimless course and set off on foot toward Franz Josef Land, in search of an inhabited shore.
Although it is not overly long since I left, I find it somewhat difficult to re-create from memory a complete picture of those dismal weeks and months on board the Saint Anna. I have completely forgotten many incidents, but certain events remain engraved on my memory. If the diary I had kept on the ship had been saved, my narrative would of course have made use of its entire contents. But all the notes that I had entrusted to two companions on the eve of my rescue disappeared with them when they failed to reach Cape Flora on Northbrook Island in the Franz Josef archipelago. The few notes I kept on my person are intact, and cover the period from May 14 to August 10, 1914. Here follows the excerpt from Lieutenant Brusilov's logbook relating the events which caused our separation, and which I submitted upon my return to the Hydrographic Bureau of Petrograd:
September 9. I relieved the navigation officer of his duties.
January 9. Lengthened the Thomson sounding cable with a makeshift wire cable, as the 400-fathom sounding line that we had at our disposal was inadequate. Navigation Officer Albanov, whom I have relieved of his duties, asked me for permission and materials to build a kayak in which he planned to leave the ship in the springtime. Appreciating his difficult position on board, I gave my consent. Northern lights in the evening.
January 22. The ship's crew asked me to meet with them in their quarters, and when I did they also requested permission to build kayaks, following the navigation officer's example. They were afraid of spending a third winter in such perilous circumstances and with so few provisions. At first I tried to talk them out of their plan by promising that if the ship did not break free of the ice by the following summer, we too would abandon the ship and set off in our lifeboats. I reminded them of the fate of the Jeannette, whose crew had been forced to cover a far greater distance in their light craft, but had nevertheless managed to reach a safe port. My efforts were in vain, as none of them believed the Saint Anna would ever break free again, and their only desire was to see their homeland again. I announced that they could all make ready to leave if that is what they wanted. A small but increasing number of them decided to stay, more than I actually would have liked, but I did not want to force anyone to leave. Together with the nurse, those who finally remained on board were two harpooners, the engineer, the stoker, the steward, the cook, and two young sailors. I needed their services in any case to maintain and run the ship. Taking their numbers into account, our supplies should last for one year, if rationed carefully, and so in the final analysis I was quite pleased with this unexpected turn of events. My sense of responsibility had remained intact because the others were leaving voluntarily, and had freely chosen their fate. . . .
At my request, the following paragraph explaining my reasons for leaving the Saint Anna was added to Brusilov's logbook: "After Lieutenant Brusilov had recovered from his long and serious illness, our relations became more and more strained to the point of becoming intolerable in our present desperate situation. As I could not foresee a solution to our conflict, I asked the lieutenant to relieve me of my duties as navigator. After some reflection Lieutenant Brusilov complied with my request, for which I am extremely grateful to him."
His own account proves beyond question that I asked to leave alone. It was only on January 22 that he informed me that certain crewmembers wished to accompany me. The only reason I wanted to leave was my personal dispute with Brusilov, whereas the others wanted to avoid spending a third winter marooned on the ice with dwindling supplies.
Now as I look back in retrospect on my quarrel with Brusilov, I can see that the pressure of our desperate situation had frayed our nerves to the breaking point. Our journey had been dogged by misfortune from the very start. Serious illness, a pervasive doubt that our fortunes would soon change, the certainty that we were at the mercy of hostile natural forces, and, finally, the growing concern about our inadequate food supply, were grounds for all manner of disagreements and flaring tempers. The minor frictions that a prolonged sharing of quarters inevitably produces drove us further and further apart, and finally created an almost insurmountable barrier between us. Neither of us made any effort to put our differences aside and let bygones be bygones. The air was electric whenever we met; an underlying hostility became more and more evident, and senseless fits of anger prevailed on every occasion. At times we quarreled so violently, for practically no reason at all, that we were left speechless and had to stay away from each other to avoid more serious outbursts. If we each had tried, after the fact, to recall exactly why we had quarreled, we would seldom have found a legitimate reason. Even after lengthy reflection I cannot remember whether, after September 1913, we ever once had a normal, civilized conversation! We were always overemotional and often broke off our discussions in a rage. Today I am certain that we would have understood one another well enough if we had both been able to stay calm. No doubt we would have agreed that in most cases there was no cause for dispute, and that a little mutual patience would have quickly improved our relationship. But that was impossible in our overwrought state. In spite of everything, however, we did not part on bad terms. The odd, unbalanced state of mind that had prevailed on the ship now seems hard to fathom. . . .
The Saint Anna had been very well fitted out and stocked with supplies for eighteen months. There were only twenty-four crewmembers, but our supplies had been calculated for thirty. So for the time being there was no danger of shortages. During the first year, moreover, our bear hunting had been quite successful, and had added considerably to our provisions. We could therefore assume that strict management of our resources would allow the entire crew an additional year's grace, until December 1914. Bountiful hunting might have improved our situation somewhat, but in the second year we had encountered absolutely no animals to hunt, so there was no good reason to count on this.
Early in 1914, moreover, we realized that it would be impossible to free the Saint Anna from the ice; at best, we would drift until the autumn of 1915, more than three years after we had departed Alexandrovsk.* If we stayed on board, starvation would become a real threat by January 1915, if not sooner. In the darkness of the long polar night, a struggle against hunger carries no hope of salvation. During this season, hunting is out of the question, as all animals are in hibernation. The only certainty for those trapped in its realm is that "white death" lies in wait for them.
Although a large number of crewmen were abandoning the vessel at a time when conditions for traveling and hunting were at their most favorable, and were taking with them two months' supplies—mainly ship's biscuits—those staying on board the Saint Anna would still have enough provisions to last them comfortably until the autumn of 1915. We assumed also that the ship would, in the meantime, eventually be able to reach open water somewhere between Greenland and Svalbard.
In the press
"A beguiling and valuable record of polar exploration before the planes landed, and a miraculous testament to what the human spirit can achieve. Albanov's harrowing story is a welcome addition to the canon of polar literature."
-Sara Wheeler, author of Terra Incognita