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Albanov: In the Land of the White Death—Surviving the Siberian Arctic

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Although I have been a devotee of Arctic and Antarctic exploration for three decades, before 1997 I had never heard a word about the ill-starred journey of the Saint Anna… a French publisher recommended to me an obscure book, published in French in 1928, called Au pays de la mort blanche… originally published in Russian in 1917… I read Albanov with a sense of awe laced with a growing excitement, for it is a stunning revelation to discover a great work in a field of writing in which one thinks one knows all the canonic books.
&#8212David Roberts, Introduction to In the Land of the White Death

Valerian Albanov left Alexandrovsk (now Murmansk) as navigator aboard a hunting and exploration vessel, the Saint Anna, in the late summer of 1912, just six months after Scott had perished in the Antarctic. The ill-equipped expedition set out almost casually&#8212in fact, a young lady, Yerminiya Zhdanko, joined the rag-tag crew in Alexandrovsk in lieu of the doctor, who had missed the sailing. The captain, Georgiy Brusilov, had apparently invited her to party with him, and felt that her nursing skills would be helpful on the voyage. Busilov stocked the British-made ship with food for 30 for 18 months, expecting to be ice-locked during the winter of 1912.

The food stocks may have been sufficient for the trip, but other supplies were seriously short: few anti-scorbutics were included and the crew soon became ill with scurvy. Fuel was also limited. When the ice in which the ship was locked drifted north of the 82nd parallel, there was no chance that summer would bring open water.

On board the Saint Anna, [Norwegian Fridtjof] Nansen’s magisterial account of [the 1893 Fram] expedition had become a kind of bible. Albanov had read certain passages so many times he had virtually memorized them. And Brusilov loitered on deck toward his second icebound summer in the serene faith that the drifting pack would liberate the Saint Anna just as it had the Fram.
&#8212David Roberts, Introduction

The approaching winter of 1913 found the ship even further north, in dire straits, scavenging the wood paneling of their vessel to feed their cook fire. By Spring 1914, continuing to drift north, the Saint Anna was 80 to 100 miles from the closest land, and well over 300 miles from the closest human settlement on Svalvard.

This is the point where In the Land of the White Death begins. Written in first person in the form of a daily journal by Albanov, it is an amazing chronicle of gruelling journey of 14 men who left the Saint Anna on April 10, 1914, and set off across the ice pulling sledges loaded with kayaks and supplies, to walk to the Franz Joseph Archipelago, far to the south.

Captain Brusilov acknowledged in his log (brought by Albanov out of the icy wastes) that he was happy to see them go; fewer men to support on the ship gave them a better chance to wait out the drifting ice, eventually to come free into the North Atlantic. He had relieved Albanov of duties as navigator that winter, at Albanov’s request, but relations between the two men were strained and tense. The entire crew turned out on that brisk April morning to accompany the travelers on the first leg of their trek.

Behind a high rise that hid the ship from view, Miss Zhdanko and Kalmikov, the cook, decided to return to the ship. The weather was rapidly deteriorating. Two hour later a strong south-southwesterly gale began to blow, bringing with it a raging snowstorm.
   We pitched camp for the night… Our pedometer indicated that we had barely covered three miles.

The men who set out to cross the frozen Arctic Ocean had warm caribou jackets that doubled as sleeping bags. They had warm socks and boots, gloves and outer clothing, a tent and an iron fire box and samovar cooker. They had bags of hard biscuits and powdered meat from the ship’s stores, along with tea and a small ration of chocolate. They counted on killing seal and polar bear for additional meat once they got to open water where these animals could be found, so they took several rifles and a stock of ammunition.

Their only map was a hand-traced copy of Nansen’s map from the 1893 account. Albanov wrote about two months into their crawl southward across the ice:

…I have been worried by a secondary phenomenon that i have kept hidden, for the moment, from my companions. The ice is drifting to the south-southwest… this rapid southwest drift will cause us to miss land altogether, and eventually sweep us into the Barents Sea… We might miss Franz Joseph Land altogether and still not make Svalbard…

Albanov with a four of his companions made it back to civilization. Of the others, however, as Roberts tells us in the haunting conclusion to his introduction,

…the nine men who died trying to reach Cape Flora; the thirteen, including Brusilov and Yerminiya Zhdanko, who stayed aboard the Saint Anna; of the doomed ship itself&#8212not a trace was ever found.

This is a tightly-written, intense tale of man against the most deadly&#8212and most beautiful&#8212land on Earth, the Arctic. I am deeply grateful to my brother-in-law for the loan of this book, and I recommend it highly to anyone who thrills to the triumph of man in such bleak conditions.

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  • Edward Ripley-Duggan

    A correction. Sadly, only one of Albanov’s companions survived, not four. Several died of what appears to be general malnutrition, the rest in various misadventures.

    What I find as astonishing as anything else in this account is that they were able to piece together (while on the ship) a number of seaworthy kayaks using waste wood, sailcloth, and hand-made copper rivets. This was done the bowels of the ship in freezing conditions, using light from blubber lamps.

    Reading this book (I gulped it down last night at one sitting) it was clear to me that Nansen was an enormous influence on the party. Not only did his book supply the map they used, but I strongly suspect that the carrying of kayaks (which seems to have been essential to the survival of *any* of the group) probably originated with the same source.

    It’s a gripping but tragic tale. All of the party might well have survived, had they found a crucial shelter and cache. Ironically, they were within a few hundred yards at one point…


  • No, Harold, the trekkers through the Land of White Death ate seal meat and polar bear. No bison in the Arctic wastes!

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  • This book was a surprise to me – most of my brother-in-law’s adventure books rely on “insider knowledge” of what it feels like to do the particular activity. Albanov’s tale, on the other hand, is enjoyable on many levels, even if you’ve never done such things yourself.

  • Thanks for another adventure yarn (truth is more adventurous…) to look for when I get back to the US and stock up (customs duties limit shipments to Mexico). I wrote recently on Shackleton’s amazing feat of survival after total failure. “Endurance” is a terrific story; but, unbeknown to me has been done in a movie and other books and his memory has its’ own website. And after all that it is still a chilling(in more that one sense) story. Another one is most welcome.