Labyrinth of Ice: The Triumphant and Tragic Greely Polar Expedition by Buddy Levy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I received a free advance copy of this from NetGalley for review.
As the warrior-poet Vanilla Ice once said, “Ice ice, baby.”
In 1881 Lt. Adolphus Greely led 24 men to Lady Franklin Bay in the Arctic where they planned to stay for 2 years while recording scientific data, exploring the area, and maybe becoming the first to reach the North Pole. Greely was a Civil War veteran who had meticulously prepared for the expedition, and he had worked up a detailed plan for resupply that had multiple contingencies in case things went wrong.
Unfortunately, the military managed to completely botch any resupply and recovery efforts, and Greely and his men had to make a desperate journey to get South on their own as some of their family and friends work to mount a rescue attempt. It’s kinda like if you thought someone promised to pick you up, but they forgot. Only instead of just getting a ride with Uber, you freeze or starve to death.
I’m fascinated people trying to do things in extreme conditions, and this certainly fits that bill. It’s an intriguing tale of survival, and one of the things I found most interesting was how it’s a slow-motion disaster where nobody in particular did anything you can point to as the cause of it. Greely comes across as a competent and conscientious man who did all he could to prepare for a tough mission, but by sticking strictly to the original plan he may have made a critical mistake by going South instead of trying to tough it out for one more winter in their base. Robert Todd Lincoln, son of President Abraham Lincoln, played a role as Secretary of War because his lack of enthusiasm for Arctic expeditions prevented the resupply efforts from having a lack of urgency until things became critical. Overall, bureaucracy and inexperience of some of those involved are the reasons why it ended in disaster.
There’s a lot of great descriptive writing of the environment and conditions that really drive home the perils of trying to travel in the Arctic, and there’s enough background on all the major people to give you a sense of who they were without getting bogged down in multiple biographies. There’s a real sense of what life was like for Greely and his men both before and after things went badly.
Frankly, the only reason I’m giving this 3 stars instead of 4 isn’t really the author’s fault. Once things go badly, and the expedition essentially finds itself trapped then it turns into a extended tale of starvation and frostbite. That’s just not a lot of fun to read about, and while Levy juxtaposes it with the rescue efforts so that it doesn't come across as a slog, it does start to feel like an extended horror movie in the last third of the book.
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