Mysteries are nothing without people. After all you can’t have a mystery unless someone is mystified. And people themselves can also be mysteries. “He’s a mystery to me”, we sometimes say, don’t we? Today I want to talk to you specifically about people whose disappearances are considered mysteries.
Last week we talked about Antarctica and the Arctic, and the explorers who raced to reach the North and South Poles. Long before the United States was created European explorers sought out a way to travel by ship around the North American continent. Once again led by the British, they wished to find a shorter trade route around North America without having to sail south around the dangerous and distant Cape Horn at the bottom of South America. Long before the Panama Canal was constructed to cross quickly and safely from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans navigators were searching for a passage above North America through the Arctic Sea from the Atlantic to the Pacific. After all, global trade circulated between the more developed nations of the north… between Europe, North America and Asia. So why did travel always have to be around the south then, below South America, Africa and India? There had to be a better way.
Long before the geographic and political races for the Poles explorers were seeking what was called The Northwest Passage, a route from the northwest Atlantic Ocean, around Greenland and through the usually frozen Arctic Sea to the Bering Sea and Asia. Countless expeditions were mounted over the centuries before, guess who, Roald Amundsen finally found a way in 1906 between the oceans through the maze of ice and islands of the Arctic, albeit in a boat barely 70 feet in length called the Gjoa. But it was Amundsen who did it before anyone else.
· Amundsen was first to find the Northwest passage and first to the South Pole. He later died in a balloon accident trying to be first to cross over the Arctic by air. What a life, huh?
In 1845 a great expedition was mounted by the British and led by Captain Sir John Franklin, a popular British naval commander and experienced arctic explorer. As on three previous expeditions to the Arctic Franklin expected his ship to get stuck in the ice pack at some point and his crew to pass at least one winter locked in the Arctic as they explored channel after channel in search of the ones that would add up to the Northwest Passage.
Unfortunately Franklin’s two ships, the Terror and Erubus, once frozen in that first winter, could not withstand the incredible force of the ever-shifting icepack and was eventually crushed. Franklin had no choice but to abandon ship and seek an overland (or over-ice) escape southwards to populated whaling stations and Inuit Indian villages he knew off. He never made it. And neither did any of his men. Franklin and his crew of 128 disappeared. Only years later was it determined they had died one by one on the frozen arctic sea. They died of starvation, cold and most oddly of all, perhaps of food poisoning from the canned food they had brought with them to eat.
Numerous rescue expeditions were mounted to find Franklin and his men. Some of these expeditions disappeared as well. Finally several graves were found and some information about Franklin’s fate was revealed. Autopsies performed in the 1980s on the bodies of three sailors who died early on and were given a Christian burial revealed unusually high levels of lead in the bodies. The source was the lead used to seal the thousands of cans of preserved food they had prepared for them in England before departing. A bad job of soldering, or closing the tin cans with a lead bead, had resulted in lead leaking into and spoiling the food. In an effort to survive Franklin and his men had only killed themselves. Perhaps the cold and starvation killed some; perhaps it would have killed them all eventually, so far from safety were they after all. But there is certainly a strong argument to say the majority were weakened considerably by lead poisoning and this contributed more than anything else to their premature deaths in the arctic cold.
Mallory & Irvine
Mount Everest is often called the third pole, the other two being of course the North and South Poles. It is the highest mountain in the world. Located in the Himalayan Mountains north of India on the Chinese border this colossal mountain has obsessed and horrified climbers and explorers since it was first sighted and mapped in the early 19th century. Its western name is taken from Sir George Everest, British Surveyor-General of the India, charged with mapping the borders between India and China between 1829 and 1843. Its local name is Chomolungma, “Goddess, Mother of the Earth”, and it is the sacred mountain of the Tibetan and Nepalese people who live in the valleys surrounding her. We have already spoken about the legend of the Yeti, or Abominable Snowman, a mystical man-monster said to dwell in caves amongst the nearby mountains and who protects the mountains against those who would defile them. To this day ascetics, or holy men, from local monasteries are also said to live and pray amongst the frozen mountain peaks. Foreign visitors and climbing parties are encouraged to seek blessings from the local monks before venturing up toward the heavens, a place the locals evade, a place supposedly for the Gods only.
The first serious expeditions to explore and perhaps climb Mount Everest took place in the years following the First World War. Britain in particular saw the conquest of the mountain as part of the healing process after the senseless slaughter of a generation of young men in the trenches and fields of Western Europe between 1914 and 1918.
George Mallory was the finest climber of his generation and had honed his skills amongst the hills and crags of Wales and the Alps Mountains of Switzerland. When asked why he wished to climb Everest, his famous answer was, “because it is there.” In 1924 he was in his early 40s. It was his third expedition to Everest and likely to be his last chance at the mountain before middle age caught up with him. At least that’s what he told his young wife, Ruth, and their children back home in England. On this last expedition his climbing team included a young Cambridge College athlete named Andrew Irvine, nicknamed “Sandy”. After weeks trekking, scouting, climbing and camping the day finally arrived when these two men were finally high on the mountain and ready to make their final push for the summit through what is called the Death Zone, the level of altitude where the oxygen is so thin a human can only last a short period of time before succumbing to altitude sickness and certain death.
Through a telescope Mallory and Irvine were last seen at about 1pm on June 8, 1924 “going strong for the summit” before a cloud enveloped them and they disappeared forever. Mallory and Irvine were never seen again, and to this day the question remains, were these two men the first to summit Everest 30 years before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953? The question may never be answered for certain but there is evidence to support both sides of the claim.
The climbers were seen above the final hump before the summit peak, fellow climber Noel Odell claimed. If that were true the final walk to the summit is fairly level and straightforward. They would not have failed then. On the other hand if they were actually below this final hump (now called the Hillary Step) it has been shown by the modern climber Conrad Anker that this little bit of climbing is the most difficult bit on the mountain to overcome. Anker has claimed that it took his supreme effort to overcome this particular pitch unaided by ladders or rope, as would have been the case with Mallory and Irvine. Anker judges that Mallory and Irvine would simply not have had the technical, or physical, strength to complete this part of the climb and would have been turned back there if not earlier by altitude, sickness or injury.
Incredibly in the early 1990s the body of George Mallory was found by Ankar hundreds of feet below the probable point where he apparently fell from below the summit and died. But was he heading up to or down from the summit when he fell? His broken body remains to this day on the mountain. And somewhere else nearby is the body of Sandy Irvine, his partner. Curiously the pocket camera Mallory is reported to have carried with him to photograph the summit was not found on his body. Nor was a letter to his wife he promised to leave at the summit if he made it. This is one mystery that may never be solved conclusively.
Evidence suggests there were problems or misunderstandings with the plane’s radio navigation system and they probably ran out of gas and crash-landed in the sea. But were Earhart and Noonan killed immediately, or did they survive for some time on some deserted island without ever being found? Despite extensive searches over the years no conclusive evidence as to how they crashed or died has ever been found. The remains of Amelia Earhart and her navigator, and the wreck of their Lockheed Electra, still lie somewhere in the Pacific waiting to be found. As Tom Crouch, curator of the National Air and Space Museum says, “the mystery is what keeps it interesting. Amelia Earhart is our favorite missing person.”
On the moonless night of April 14, 1912, 100 years ago, during her maiden voyage from Southampton, England to New York City, the luxury ocean liner H.M.S. Titanic, City struck an iceberg at full speed 400 miles from Newfoundland, Canada, In less than 3 hours she began to sink 2and1/2 miles into the freezing North Atlantic Ocean where her wreck lies today. Of some 2200 people aboard 1500 died that night.
When the first distress signals were sent out using the Morse code telegraph system invented by Gugliermo Marconi the new distress signal SOS was used for the first time by assistant wireless operator Harold McBride. Save Our Ship- 3 dots-3 dashes-3 dots- is a message anyone could be taught to remember. Officer McBride survived the sinking of the Titanic. The elegant, white-bearded captain, Edward Smith, did not.
The mighty Titanic was the greatest ship ever built, and her owners claimed she was unsinkable. Her builder, Thomas Andrews, was less sure. “Let the Truth be known,” he said while the ship was being constructed. “No ship is unsinkable. The bigger the ship, the easier it is to sink her.” He too did not survive the sinking while the owner‘s son, J. Bruce Ismay, did.
But how exactly did the unsinkable Titanic sink? After all, Andrews had constructed her to withstand even a head-on collision with another boat. Perhaps if she had hit the iceberg that sunk her head-on she would not have sunk. However, after the iceberg was sighted, the Titanic had not been able to steer clear of it altogether because of her speed. The iceberg struck the ship on her side and tragically ripped a 300 foot hole across no less than six of her forward airtight compartments that served to float the ship. Andrews, never imagining such a scenario, had designed the Titanic to withstand the flooding of only five compartments. Once the sixth was ruptured there was no stopping her from flooding and sinking. The only thing that could be done was attempt to save her passengers.
The closest ship that received her distress signals that night was the USS Carpathia which only managed to reach the lost ship an hour and a half later at 4am on April 15. Only 705 survivors were found alive in lifeboats. The rest had died quickly- tragically though mercifully- in the 28 degree water because there had not been enough lifeboats for them.