Most people are aware that explorer Matthew Henson was the first Western man to reach the North Pole in 1909, followed immediately by his collaborator Robert Peary.
But several other explorers attempted to reach the pole and fell short—not because they froze to death or fell through ice, but because they were victims of uncanny accidents.
Here is a brief timeline of these peculiar events.
1109: Knut Heraldsson, a Norwegian mariner, attempts to sail north of Greenland in search of “the frozen fields of Heaven.” He takes two ships into the Arctic Circle. In the late afternoon, sailors in one ship watch helplessly as the second ship “lifted into the air, then was carried away, into a gathering storm, where it was swallowed in white hail.” Heraldsson and his crew were never heard from again. The second ship retreated to Oslo without incident.
1810: In an effort to circumnavigate the British Navy, the French ship La Mouette sails north, with the intention of building a new supply post on Baffin Island. Inuit witnesses spot the ship, but they are alarmed when a pod of bowhead whales surrounds the Mouette. The whales proceed to ram the ship repeatedly, until the hull cracks and takes on water. Such behavior, uncharacteristic for bowheads, was never witnessed before or since. All hands were lost.
1895: Ivan and Fyodor Pirozhkov attempt an overland route to the North Pole. The twin brothers hail from a small village in Siberia, and they are considered some of the most daring explorers in the Russian Empire. But when they reach the 82nd parallel north, most of their guides become frightened and abandon them. Only one guide remains, and he insists on lagging behind by at least 100 ft. On the evening of June 16th or 17th, the brothers’ sled dogs suddenly stop and begin to whine. They roll around on the ground, seemingly in pain, then begin to gnaw at their leather straps. By the time the Pirozhkovs respond, many of the dogs have freed themselves and enter a berserker state. They attack the Pirozhkovs, biting at throats and wrists and severing major arteries. The men bleed to death before their guide’s eyes.
1918: Walter Gainsboro, a Boston banker, announces his desire to lead an expedition to the North Pole. Although the point has already been reached, Gainsboro publicizes his intentions in every newspaper in the city. A few days before his departure, a three-foot icicle dislodges from a nearby roof and crushes his skull. The event is only notable because the date is May 2, when large icicles are extremely uncommon, even in New England.