Valerian Albanov (1881-1919)

At the end of the 19th century, the problem of the North-East passage had yet to be resolved.  Explorers and merchants were interested in discovering whether or not there was a way to sail through the ice pack above Russia and Siberia and to access thereby the riches of the orient.  Georgiy Brusilov and his uncle General Boris Brusilov became enthused about the financial opportunities proffered by successfully pioneering such a route and the General stated his willingness to foot the expenses of an expedition directed at that end.

They hired a crew -32 men -acquired a ship, the St. Anne, and left Murmansk in north-western Russia in August, 1912.  Valerian Albanov was employed as navigator.  The voyage was ostensibly purposed as a hunting expedition, as the market for furs of various sorts was a major component of the economy of the times.

Almost immediately the ship was caught in the pack ice.  It drifted north in a zig-zag fashion for a year and half while the crew and officers became more and more lethargic and stultified.  They still had plenty of food but they began to run out of essential materiel with which to maintain the ship and rigging.  Shooting seals and polar bears had supplemented their dietary requirements, but to Albanov the future looked bleak.  So he convinced 22 of the crew members to accompany him, with the captain’s permission, on a sledge/ski attempt to reach Cape Flora on Northbrook island in the Franz Joseph archipelago.  This was a very small sealer’s haven that was regularly visited by hunters and seal oil ships.  It was located about 200 miles south east of their position.

Albanov managed to build seven sledges and seven canoes from wood and iron salvaged from the ship and departed with the others in April, 1914.  Almost immediately the heavy sledges proved immensely difficult to handle.  They were so designed that the canoes were tied on top;  each unit weighing about 400 pounds.  Pressure ridges and jagged, uplifted blocks  impeded progress and frequent open channels and fissures necessitated the expenditure of extra labor to detour around them.  The first day they made three miles, and although they did better afterwords, they never were able to travel much more than 6 or 8 miles in a day.  And the ice continued drifting north.  After trekking for four days and struggling for 22 miles, Albanov’s noon sighting showed they had only attained 3 miles from the last location of the ship.

Accidents occurred in which the stove was lost in a polynya (an open pond) and men began disappearing.  Three of them gave up and returned to the St. Anne and one wandered off, convinced that he saw land on the horizon.  Both compasses broke and the chronometer was damaged, so Albanov was never sure about their exact location.  Snow blindness was common and extremely painful.  Occasionally the pack ice broke up.  On one floe they discovered ski tracks and were disconcerted to realize that they were their own.  Storms were frequent and soggy clothes, dirt and lice made them miserable.

But they  were encouraged by finding sand on one floe and by the increase in bird sightings, particularly gulls that drove them mad with their overwhelming noise.  Men had continued dying, and soon after actually spotting land off to the east, two members of the crew absconded with most of the remaining food and gear, leaving the rest to starve and drown.  But those left managed to reach the land and to climb a steep ice barrier via a vertical crack in order to step onto rocks and dirt after two years of fighting to stay alive on the ice.

Eggs and Eider ducks were abundant and the survivors feasted to repletion.  But they were all so tired and sluggish that they couldn’t decide what to do next.  Cape Flora was their destination, but there was disagreement on how to get there.  Four of the men decided to travel by land, on skis, but Albanov and two others knew that the only hope was to use the canoes, paddling from cape to cape until they arrived.  So one morning the latter woke up to discover that the four had left, taking with them most of the supplies.  The only thing left to do was to start paddling again.  One of strongest remaining crew members was Alexander Konrad.  He was in one canoe and Albanov was in the other.  They faced violent storms, strong currents, aggressive walruses, occasional immersions and constant headaches, but they persevered, fighting their weariness and squeezing the last bit of energy and volition out of themselves until they reached Cape Flora at last.  The last man besides Albanov and Konrad died, but when the two remaining reached their goal they found shacks and cabins in widely varying states of repair, some collapsed, some ruined, but a few in livable condition.  They waited in hope of visitors and at last a ship was sighted in the offing and summoning up their remaining strength they canoed their way to it.

Rescued at last, they were soon discomfited by finding out that the ship was almost out of coal for its steam engine and that it was leaking a lot.  Before they finally arrived at Archangel in north east Russia, they were once again briefly trapped in the ice and worn out from operating the hand pumps 24 hours a day to keep from sinking.  The ship was reduced to a bare skeleton, all the superstructure having disappeared into the maw of the boiler furnace.

Some years later, the diary of Alexander Konrad was found and had some interesting additions to add to the epic story.  It was worded in such a way as to indicate that Konrad had been one of the two mutineers who had left the rest to starve and die on the ice even though he had later returned to help Albanov survive.  Whether this actually the case or not will probably never be known, as it was not specifically stated.  But the truth remains that Konrad was probably, besides Albanov, the most capable and energetic member of the  crew.

One of the symptoms of trichinosis, a parasitic roundworm found in polar bears, is lethargy and weakness.  There’s some speculation that many if not all of the trekkers suffered from this condition, as they were reduced to eating raw meat for the last part of their journey.  Albanov died in 1919, blown up in a railway station while returning to Moscow from Siberia:  apparently related to the Russian Revolution.  Konrad lived on until after the second World War.  The St. Anne and the rest of the crew were never heard from again.


22 thoughts on “IN THE LAND OF WHITE DEATH”

  1. This book sounds great. The things human beings can do!

    I have picked the book up at the library ten times but not brought it home. And it’s fairly short. What is my excuse?
    Your write-up may be the push I need.


    1. it’s in diary form and apparently part of it was lost at some point, accounting for why it’s a short book… but if you have interest at all in polar exploration, it’s pretty remarkable… tx for commenting…


  2. I have a bit of a cold right now. This would not be the book for me. I am about two-thirds of the way through James Michener’s The Source. Life is hard. My life is a walk in the park in comparison. Did you like this book?


    1. i liked The Source quite a bit but it’s been a long time since i read it. (i know you were referring to the other one, i just thought…) well, you need an electric blanket, some hot chocolate, a soft pillow, and some one to commiserate with, and then i think you’ll really like it! sorry you don’t feel well; hope you get better soon…


  3. Hello mudpuddle! I love these kind of non fiction adventures. It reminds me of the Intrepid. I am definitely going to find this book. It’s probably on Libravox or Gutenburg.


    1. i got a copy at the local library sale… don’t know if it’s available electronically or not… that period saw a number of attempts to complete the NE passage… the only successful one in that period was by a Norse explorer named Norskiold (sp.?) i think… his ship drifted in the ice also, but went farther east than the St. Anne before it got squashed; but Norskiold and company sledged and walked a very long distance to land in extreme eastern Siberia… there were others, but most ended in disaster…


  4. And I’m intimidated by a trip across town in my SUV … where do people such as those you celebrate get such courage (or is folly)? … well, another thought provoking, nicely written review from the eclectic reader … bravo zulu! (Which means “well done” in Navy talk).


  5. It is hard to imagine that people go through such experiences and survive or don’t. It’s hard to imagine the courage and misery. I read Franklins exploration of the northwest passage several years ago and that was similar.


    1. i went through a period in my youth when i read a lot of this type of book: Vihjalmir Steffanson, Franklin, and many others… it’s quite addictive, especially for younger persons, i think…

      Liked by 1 person

    1. as the book pointed out, the lack of activity on the part of the stay-behinds was probably due to trichinosis… the same thing happened to two balloonists who tried to fly over the north pole a hundred years or so ago… they found their bodies on one of the islands near Spitzbergen and autopsies showed that that was what happened to them, also…


  6. Hmm, I didn’t know about the roundworm – that’s very interesting, and disturbing.

    I really enjoyed this book several years ago and ought to read it again. Sad that Albanov survived only to get killed in war/terrorism (similar thing happened to some of Shackleton’s crew). If I remember correctly, there was also a woman on board the St. Anne, which was kind of unusual. Awful way to die…


    1. yes there was and from all accounts she performed a lot of the house maintenance and nursing of the incapacitated captain and crew… she didn’t leave with Albanov, tho… this was one of those books that is tantalizing: the reader is left wondering what happened to the rest of the crew… there was some speculation that the St. Anne survived to the beginning of the World War, but was sunk by a uboat in the gulf of Norway, but there’s no way to verify that… and it seems pretty unlikely…

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Stories like this are just crazy! I can’t imagine anyone nowadays braving the things many people braved in those days. Where has our thirst for adventure gone? Personally, this story would make me feel cold all the way through it. I can’t even imagine. Great review though!


    1. tx, Cleo… i think i finally figured out why my comments never get there, so maybe you’ll hear from me a bit more… possibly a dubious event to anticipate…

      Liked by 1 person

  8. This looks pretty good. I’m surprised I haven’t already read it. Do you know Jennifer Niven’s The Ice Master, about the Karluk? That’s worth reading, and might have more sources than whatever you read about Steffanson when you were younger.


    1. i don’t know that one by Niven; i’ll look for it. Steffanson wrote about six books if i remember and i read them all i think… i was bemused by his conviction that explorers in the Arctic need never starve, there was so much blubber and meat of different sorts around… then i was rather chagrined when, years later, i read that he died from plugged up arteries… but he was in his 80’s, so maybe he was onto something…


  9. It’s stinking hot here, about 40 C & it’s hard to imagine the frozen north of this story. Have you heard of ‘We Die Alone’ by David Howarth? A similar sort of book when just about everything that could go wrong did.


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