Where would we be without the great adventurers of yesteryear? That sounds like a rhetorical question but basically we would still be in Europe eating snails and chasing each other around with swords. Thanks to innovations in sailing and navigation technology, bold explorers were able to travel to distant lands and chase their inhabitants around with swords while eating their corn, spices, and dodos.
While many of these journeys into the unknown met embarrassing or fatal ends, the following ten expeditions failed so catastrophically that they’ve become almost as well known as successes.
THE DONNER PARTY
A group of eighty-odd Missouri pioneers of the Reed and Donner clans, the Donner Party’s attempt to take a shortcut to California through the Sierra Nevada mountains ranks as one of the worst family vacations ever taken.
Patriarch George Donner decided to lead his wagon train through the newly-blazed Hastings Cutoff (even though the trail had never been attempted with wagons before) and wound up snowed in near what was then called Truckee Lake with so little food left that serious thought was given to eaten the oxhide leather strips that made up most of the roofs of their makeshift settlement.
With the Mexican-American war in full swing, nearly all troops and most able-bodied men were too busy to come to the Donner Party’s rescue, and the handful of rescuers able to reach their camp encountered a ragged group of starving, unbalanced women and children living in ruined cabins, as well as evidence of cannibalism among the camp’s few healthy citizens.
Today, the town of Truckee sits at the edge of Donner Lake near the party’s original settlement, and relatively few people are eaten.
THE DARIEN SCHEME
The last and worst of independent Scotland’s colonization attempts, the Darien Scheme to colonize what is now Panama near the gulf of Darien was a last-ditch attempt to expand the Scottish economy which instead ended up destroying the Scottish economy.
1200 people aboard five ships made landfall on at the Bay of Caledonia in November of 1698, where they soon discovered that nothing would grow properly, all the food was spoiled, nobody would trade with them, and that supposedly friendly English and Dutch colonies were under orders not to aid them in any way in order to avoid provoking the Spanish Empire’s wrath.
None of this was reflected in any of the heavily-censored letters home, so another expedition of a thousand suckers set forth to find a half-finished settlement full of half-dead people surviving almost entirely on giant turtles and booze. Eventually Spain got wind of this silliness and sent a small army to shoo the sunburnt, diseased, and miserable Scotsmen away in 1700.
Just seven years later, Scotland signed away its independence with the Act of Union, in a large part due to the financial ruination of the Scottish nobles and merchants who had supported the Darien Scheme.
LIVINGSTONE’S NILE EXPEDITION
Dedicated missionary, explorer, and anti-slavery crusader David Livingstone was one of the Victorian era’s greatest celebrities. He was the first white man to see what he immediately named “Victoria Falls” and one of the first Europeans to successfully cross the African continent. But today he’s known almost exclusively for his worst and most humiliating failure.
After an expedition up the Zambezi River was thwarted by slavers, malaria, and Livingstone’s poor leadership skills, the adventurer assembled a team of freed slaves and local guides to attempt to find the source of the Nile. Things went wrong almost immediately, with most of his team deserting him early on, forcing him to rely on the help of slave traders.
A bout of pneumonia sent him to the town of Ujiji, where the medicines and supplies he had earlier ordered from Zanzibar had all been stolen, and the malnourished and diseased Scotsman was only provided with food on the condition that he eat it in a roped-off exhibition area for the entertainment of the locals.
Welsh-American explorer Henry Morton Stanley was dispatched to try and track down the luckless missionary and was close to giving up until he heard of Ujiji’s unique tourist attraction, at which point he was able to greet one of the only other white men for hundreds of miles around with the famously astute observation “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”
THE ARCTIC BALLOON EXPEDITION OF 1897
Towards the end of the 19th century, anybody who was anybody was trying to conquer the top and/or bottom of the world for their country.
Patriotic Swede Salomon August Andree was particularly determined to claim the North Pole for his King, if only to show uppity Norwegian explorers like the legendary Fridtjof Nansen who was really running things in Scandinavia. Andree had a unique and seemingly brilliant idea for how to do this: instead of trying to navigate the ice in ships or trudge across the snow on foot, he would use the fantastical new technology of ballooning to just sail right across the Pole to Russia easy as you please.
Caught up in a rush of wishful thinking, Andree convinced himself that he would be able to “sail” the balloon with a system of draglines (nope), that the untested balloon design would retain enough hydrogen to at least cross the pole (nuh-uh), and that if worst came to worst, that the amateur explorers would be able to ski back to civilization (not so much).
After less than two days of flight, Andree’s balloon hit the ice near the 83rd Parallel and no amount of ballast-dumping would get it going again. The unlucky crew spent the next three months walking south before dying on the deserted island of Kvitøya.
THE TERRA NOVA EXPEDITION AKA “THE WORST JOURNEY IN THE WORLD”
One of the last of the old-fashioned attempts to reach the South Pole over land, the 1910 British Antarctic Expedition under Robert Falcon Scott was instrumental in convincing nearly everybody else in the world that attempting to reach the South Pole over land was a terrible idea.
While Scott was a capable naval officer with one successful Antarctic expedition under his belt, he made a number of eventually fatal mistakes: relying too much on man-or-pony-hauled sledges instead of dogsled teams, failing to establish enough supply depots, and underestimating the horrific Antarctic winter.
Scott’s all-or-nothing push to reach the South Pole resulted in the dismaying discovery that Norwegian pioneer Roald Amundsen had gotten there almost a month prior, leaving his country’s flag and a polite letter asking Scott to inform the King of Norway if Amundsen didn’t survive the return trip.
Scott and his three comrades ended up perishing only eleven miles south of his most important depot, even after Captain Lawrence Oates quietly sacrificed himself to free up supplies (Scott’s diary records Oates last words before stepping out onto the tundra as “I am just going outside and I may be some time”).
Zoologist Apsley Cherry-Garrard chronicled the overall expedition nine years later in a remarkably frank and even-handed book that he nonetheless entitled “The Worst Journey In The World.”
PERCY FAWCETT AND THE LOST CITY OF Z
Lt. Colonel Percival Harrison Fawcett lived the sort of life that would later become fodder for adventure serials and Indiana Jones movies. Son of a famous explorer, Fawcett ranged the globe on the behalf of Britain in general and the Royal Geographical Society in particular, specializing in exploring the jungles of South America.
Fawcett claimed to have encountered all sorts of bizarre and unbelievable things, ranging from 62-foot anacondas to a breed of dog with two noses, but perhaps his wildest claim (or most fevered imagination) was the existence of a legendary lost city deep in the Brazilian jungle that he named “Z.”
A controversial figure even then, Fawcett set off into the wilderness to chase his mystery city and was never heard from again—unconfirmed rumors and sightings persisted for years, and his remains have yet to be conclusively discovered. Ironically, the Lost City of Z may have been “found” in 2005 as part of the Kuhikugu archaeological site, a complex of twenty orderly towns, villages, and roadways that may have supported nearly 50,000 people as early as 500 AD.
As for the dogs with two noses, skeptics might want to look up the Double-Nosed Andean Tiger Hound before they sneer at Fawcett’s findings.
1996 MOUNT EVEREST DISASTER
Forty-three years after Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary first conquered the highest mountain on Earth, Mount Everest had become the focus of a peculiarly exotic and dangerous tourist industry.
Rich foreigners of varying levels of skill and experience paid big money to the Sherpa locals in order to scale the historic peak, and on the eleventh of May an unprecedented 34 climbers were attempting to reach the summit, causing bottlenecks and delays that meant both parties spent a night near the peak, suffering the effects of a blizzard that was later determined to have depleted the oxygen in the area by as much as 14%.
Eight climbers died that day, the rest suffering painful and disfiguring frostbite burns and pulmonary edemas, but the root cause of the tragedy remains controversial: writer and mountaineer Jon Krakauer blames the use of oxygen bottles and guide assistance for encouraging inexperienced and underqualified climbers (including Krakauer himself, who had no previous experience with altitudes above 8000 meters) to make the dangerous journey. Other guides and climbers argue that altitude sickness lead everyone to make increasingly poor decisions before returning to healthy oxygen levels.
Bafflingly, evidence uncovered by a British climber in 2011 revealed that both climbing groups had access to weather reports that indicated the killer storm would almost certainly hit them, but chose to ignore these warnings.
BURKE AND WILLS EXPEDITION
In 1860, the Australian interior was a vast blank space on European maps, as white settlers clung to the fertile coasts and left the arid inland deserts to the Aborigines. Determined to explore or at least walk across this unknown region, the government of Victoria in Melbourne offered 2000 pounds to whoever could cross the interior to the Gulf of Carpentaria on the northern coast.
Accepting this offer was former police superintendent and incurable optimist Robert Burke, a man with absolutely no experience in living off the land but a limitless supply of self-confidence. Burke set off with a supply train so over-loaded that three wagons broke down before even leaving Melbourne’s city limits, containing such items as dried beef (rather than the more practical alternative of simply driving cattle along the route and butchering them as needed), posh cedar furniture, and for reasons forever lost to history an ornate Chinese gong.
Largely due to the help of friendly Aborigines and the work of experienced guide William John Wills, Burke did manage to reach the Gulf, but on the return expedition he missed rendezvousing with his relief team at Cooper Creek by a mere eight hours.
The relief team bumped into a rescue operation going the other way and turned back, but farcically the combined team missed Burke and Wills again, who had set out on an ultimately futile expedition to the accurately-named town of Mount Hopeless.
THE FORDLANDIA SETTLEMENT
Legendary engineer, industrialist, and crazy person Henry Ford had a bold plan to corner the rubber market and thus establish a vertical monopoly over every stage of his automotive production process: go someplace where there’s rubber, buy all the land, and essentially start a new country.
Strictly speaking this wasn’t a new idea—replace rubber with gold, silver, sugar, or tobacco and you’re describing how nearly all the countries of the New World came into being—but Ford wanted to give it a shot with the revolutionary new technologies of the 20th century and his own idealistic vision of the perfect industrial community.
Fordlandia was established near the Brazilian city of Santarem on 10,000 square kilometers of lush jungle, a small fraction of which was cleared to establish a model American town with bungalows, churches, a hospital, and a power plant. Ford’s restrictive policies (no alcohol, tobacco, or women) and a failure to understand or accommodate local weather conditions, ecological constraints, and social mores meant that the initially promising idea of a modern, industrialized rubber plantation soon collapsed amid rioting and tropical tree blight.
Ford stubbornly kept the project going until the invention and widespread adoption of synthetic rubber in 1945, effectively signaling that the settlement would never manage to recover its initial investment.
Next: Hilariously Misspelled Signs
FRANKLIN’S LOST EXPEDITION
One of the most tragic failures in Western civilization’s centuries-long quest to find the Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific, the 1845 Arctic expedition had nearly everything in its favor—veteran crewmen from the Discovery Service, the time-tested exploration ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror that had participated in James Clark Ross’ famed Antarctic survey years earlier, revolutionary coal-burning engines and central heating systems—except for the man in charge.
Captain Sir John Franklin, a middle-aged Royal Navy lifer, was arguably well-experienced, having participated in three previous Arctic expeditions, but he was the Admiralty’s very last choice after William Edward Parry (tired of the Arctic), James Clark Ross (promised his wife he was done exploring), James Fitzjames (too young), George Back (too uppity), and Ross’ co-captain Francis Crozier (too Irish).
Franklin had little real understanding of the dangers unique to Arctic sailing, and far too much confidence in the untested, inefficient steam drives. Forging east with little regard to his chances at returning and failing to establish anywhere near the necessary number of emergency camps and supply depots, Franklin’s ships disappeared into the pack ice, leaving almost no trace of the 129 men and hundreds of tons of equipment other than scattered Inuit reports of “white men on the ice” and a few cairns and coffins unearthed in the last few decades.
The disappearance of Erebus and Terror fascinate the public to this day, with fictional accounts of the journey appearing as late as Dan Simmons’ 2007 novel “The Terror,” which livens up a tale of starvation and hypothermia with the inclusion of a mysterious naked Eskimo woman and an unstoppable snow-beast.