sexta-feira, 18 de maio de 2012

Cold Cases

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.

 John Franklin

 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. 

Amelia Earhart

One of the most enduring missing persons cases ever is the mystery of female aviator, Amelia Earhart. Born on July 24, 1898 in Atchison, Kansas she was inspired to fly by the exploits of Charles Lindberg who was the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean in May 1927. Amelia Earhart was the first woman to fly solo across the United States in August 1928, and then first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic in May 1932 Her red Lockheed Vega plane hangs at the National Air and Space Museum, part of the Smithsonian Museums, in Washington. The character of Amelia Earhart has a prominent role in the 2009 film, Night in a Museum II, alongside Ben Stiller.

Besides her flying records was also an activist in support of women’s rights and health care. She was teacher, social worker and best-selling author. But she is best known for her flying and support of flying. She was spokesperson alongside Lindberg for the commercial airline company TWA. And she was also a stunt and racing pilot and sponsored by Beech-nut Gum Earhart was only the 16th woman in the United States to receive her pilot’s license. She was married to G.P.Putnam owner of the publishing company though she insisted on always being addressed by her maiden name and never as Mrs. Putnam.

For many Amelia Earhart is remembered more for who she died than how she lived. June 1st of his year will be the 75th anniversary of Amelia Earhart’s departure from the U.S. on her ill-fated round-the-world flight. No one had ever done that before and Earhart was joined by navigator Fred Noonan in the Lockheed Electra plane.

After flying successfully across the United States from California to Florida the pair flew without problem to South America, Africa, India and Asia before the last, long leg across the Pacific Ocean lost in the Pacific Ocean. Somewhere  beyond New Guinea on the morning of July 2, 1937, and near a tiny America territory called Howland Island where they were heading, radio contact with Earhart’s plane was lost.

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.”

The Titanic

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.  

quinta-feira, 10 de maio de 2012

Great Places, Great Explorers (cont.)

The 19th and 20th centuries are full of stories of Geographers and Adventurers traveling round the earth seeking to understand our planet and discover her secrets. As the sciences of geology and geography were developed the more developed countries of the world wished to know things like what were the highest mountains and longest rivers in the world. Nations competed to reach these faraway places first, for national glory and economic advantage too. The most powerful nation on earth for most of the 19th century and part of the 20th century was Great Britain and they believed it to be their god-given right to reach these destinations before all others.

At the beginning of the 20th century the British set their sights on being first to reach the South Pole situated in the middle of the newest continent discovered, Antarctica. But being first wasn’t all that mattered. The British also wished to understand the lands they traveled through, and the people they might meet. British expeditions were usually operated by the Royal Navy and their crew members were naval officers but there was always a scientific group alongside including biologists, botanists and artists. Probably the most famous scientific-expedition of all time was the Voyage of the Beagle from 1831-1836 and the development of the theory of natural selection (or evolution) by Charles Darwin, then a young scientist.

At the end of the 19th century Robert Falcon Scott was Britain’s most decorated sea commander and he led a series of expeditions to Antarctica between 1900 and 1912. Bit by bit be made his preparations to cross the frozen landscape and claim the South Pole for his country.

But little did Scott know but the explorer Roald Amundsen had also set his sights on reaching the South Pole first. Amundsen sought the pole only for the glory of the conquest. To him it was to be a race to the pole. And Amundsen was actually a more experienced and prepared explorer than Scott. On previous expeditions to Greenland and his native Norway he had learned how to service like the Inuit peoples who lived in these regions. He wore bear and seal skin clothing like these people. He also knew how to ski and use dogs to help him travel. Scott, on the other hand, endeavored to do everything the most modern way possible. Instead of dogs and sleds Scott planned to use horses and tractors. His clothing was produced by fashionable outfitters in London such as Burberry.

In the end Amundsen breezed over the Antarctic continent in his dogsleds, reached the pole first on December 14, 1911 and hurried back. Scott’s team suffered problem after problem. The horses died. The tractors broke. And the weather was awful. They finally reached the pole on January 12, 1912 five weeks after Amundsen and were heartbroken to find the spot marked by the Norwegian flag. On the way back Scott’s team was trapped by weather in camp and they died there from the cold and starvation in late March 1912.

After his death Scott became a national hero in Great Britain. Statues were erected everywhere. His only son Peter took his middle name from Clements Markham, president of the Royal Geographic Society who had sponsored Scott’s career and Antarctic expeditions. Peter Markham Scott founded the World Wildlife Fund and gave scientific backing to the Loch Ness Monster. 

Roald Amundsen was also involved in the race for the North Pole, though only for a short time. On his way to the North Pole he learned another explorer had already been there. That’s when he decided to change the direction of his ship and sail for Antarctica, catching Scott by surprise there.

The North Pole was discovered on April 6, 1909 by one of America’s greatest explorers, Robert Peary, and his partner Matthew Henson. Peary had also attempted to reach the North Pole many times before finally succeeding. And like Amundsen he also learned from the local people of the Arctic how to dress, travel and survive in the polar regions. As well he too almost had the triumph of victory taken from them by a rival explorer who said he had reached the pole first. To this day there is still some controversy whether or not Peary truly reached the geographical North Pole. Travel to the poles is affected by something called the magnetic north and south poles. These are points on the earth that compasses naturally point too but are not the true geographic poles of the earth.  

Now the North Pole is quite different from the South Pole. Firstly it is not a continent. It is a frozen sea which can only be approached in summer when channels for ship passage open up and allow access to the region. As well the Arctic is inhabited by people, the Inuit and other cultures. No one lives or has ever lived on Antarctica. In the Arctic there is a great amount of wildlife including Polar Bears, Seals, Whales and Fox. On Antarctica there are only Penguins, birds and some seal species. Think of it this way…the Arctic is a frozen sea surrounded by land; Antarctica is a frozen continent surrounded by sea.   

                   You may be interested to know that you can visit the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, ME.

 Robert Peary’s summer home in Casco, ME is a tourist attraction called the Eagle Island Historic Site.

And MacMIllan Wharf in Provincetown, Massachusetts is named after one of Peary’s fellow arctic explorers, Donald MacMillan, who had a home on Cape Cod for many years.

Next week I will have a blog for you called Cold Cases…stories about explorers that in most cases disappeared while on expedition. We’ll talk about the race to reach the highest mountain in the world, Mount Everest, sometimes referred to as the 3rd pole. And we’ll talk about such famous explorers as George Mallory, John Franklin, Percy Fawcett and Amelia Earhart