Trial by Ice, by Richard Parry, is a fascinating and exciting account of the 1871 Polaris Expedition, an American naval mission to discover the North Pole. The story is absolutely remarkable in itself, but what makes the book so valuable now are the disturbing parallels to what is happening right now in America and other countries that are clinging to law, order and civilization by a thread. Trial by Ice is instructive: It’s a warning, an explanation, and a horrifying taste of what may be to come. I’ll come back to this idea later.
The Polaris commander, Charles Francis Hall, is an outsider, lacking in formal education, energetic in pursuit of his objectives, has the best interest of his crew at heart, is a competent explorer but has a personality that easily rubs people the wrong way.
The expedition’s surgeon and chief science officer, Emil Bessel, is a highly educated Prussian physician, with deep political connections, an arrogant attitude, and devious methods of getting what he wants. He will use any methods, fair or foul, to accomplish his ends.
The rest of the ship’s crew, 23 in all, are mainly Americans and Germans who tend to be rather tribal, suspicious of each other, combative, lacking in enthusiasm for the mission and primarily concerned with advancing their own interests.
The expedition is put together by the U.S. Navy with the enthusiastic support of President Grant, but for various reason, the crew is not regular navy. Instead, it is a patchwork of whalers, adventurers and seamen. Hall’s choice for chief science officer was overruled, with the government appointing Bessel to the post for reasons to this day not clearly understood, although shadowy political maneuvering no doubt played a role. Hall and Bessel dislike each other from the get-go, and as the expedition goes on, crewmen line up behind one or the other. As the expedition pushes north into the cold, the darkness, the ice and ever mounting dangers, the tension intensified, undermining everyone’s confidence, impeding teamwork, and turning every tactical and strategic decision into a conflict. The only things all on board can agree on are: Everything is screwed up, nobody knows what’s going on, and everyone is afraid of what horrors tomorrow will bring.
Problems aboard the vessel do nothing but intensify as Hall’s drive to reach the Pole. In the upper reaches of Greenland the ship becomes trapped in the ice pack and is forced to winter in a precarious position amid destructive icebergs, deadly currents and fierce gales. Adding to the tension caused by the elements themselves, which is more than enough, is the constant jockeying for control: Foolishly, the Navy had made exploration and scientific discovery equal priorities, creating a built-in conflict between Hall, who with solid Arctic exploration experience wants to push on as quickly as possible, and Bessel, who needs time along the way to take his methodical measurements, collect geological and biological samples, and the like. Additionally, the scheming and haughty Bessel believes himself to be far superior to Hall in every way, giving his commander no respect, continually undermining his authority with passive-aggressive behavior, and forever angling to gain complete control over the expedition.
And then, during the ship’s wintering, after returning to the ship from an arduous, two-week solo sled run northward, which took him to the farthest point north ever recorded, Hall develops intense stomach pains and other alarming symptoms. After a prolonged and horrific series of setbacks and a miraculous but temporary recovery — he dies.
Many aboard believe Hall was poisoned and it certainly looks that way. Bessel and the ship captain (now commander), Sidney O. Buddington, seem relieved and almost happy that Hall is dead. A few of the crewmen, the wise ones as it turns out, are terrified that Hall is gone, but many see the commander’s demise as the lifting of onerous discipline, and a welcome chance to retreat rather than push north into even more hostile waters.
What happens next is an incredible story of survival that will have you on the edge of your seat. I don’t want to spoil it, but a few excerpts from Parry will give you a flavor of what happens.
“Regrettably the members of the Polaris expedition had no such unity. In reality, they couldn’t even call one another shipmates. Divided by nationality, different loyalties, and conflicting purposes, the crew of the Polaris had lost all cohesion.”
“Buddington had no stomach for order, preferring to drink in his cabin. Tyson, Hayes, and Hobby regularly visited Hall’s grave and lamented his absence. ‘Captain Hall did not always act with the clearest judgment,’ George Tyson wrote, ‘but it was heaven to this.'”
“Since Charles Francis Hall’s suspicious death, discipline and cohesion of the expedition had weakened and dissolved by degrees over the long winter. Now little remained of the United States North Polar expedition but an unruly, self-serving mob bent on having their own way with no regard over the consequences.”
Murder mystery, intrigue, sabotage, cover-ups, scurvy, starvation, flirtation with cannibalism, mind-bending darkness, crashing icebergs, splitting ice, murderous gales, freezing temperatures, squandered supplies, catastrophic lapses in judgment followed by miraculous strokes of fortune — the story of the Polaris has it all. If it weren’t true, nobody would believe it.
Important Lessons for Today
How does all of this relate to today’s problems? In this story, we see VIVID and IRREFUTABLE proof that:
- Without shared goals, all is lost.
- Without leadership, all is lost.
- Without discipline, all is lost.
- Nobody, from the president to a lowly ship’s cook, knows exactly what is going on.
- For that reason, trust and faith are essential if anything is to be accomplished.
- Building and achieving are supremely difficult; tearing things apart is easy.
- What matters is individual character; everything else is just posturing.
Whether you’re trying to build a company or a country, or just plain survive, these points need to be remembered. If you want to combine entertainment with essential education, you can’t do better than Trial by Ice.