Peter Matschek, Gold Mine Processing Associate, recommends Madhouse at the End of the Earth by Julian Sancton.
This book is the true story about the experiences of the crew of the Belgica in their attempt to be the first ship to reach the magnetic South Pole. The captain, Adrien de Gerlache, was from an aristocratic family of Belgium; one of his ancestors was one of the founders of the Belgian nation. His brother, father, grandfather, and a long line of de Gerlache men all had careers in the military, but he had no interest in a military career.
Instead, de Gerlache had dreams of sailing the seas, which he had harbored since he was a child. When he was 28, he was able to put together an expedition under the guise that it would be a scientific endeavor, when in fact it was more for glory for Belgium as well as himself.
This expedition was beset by problems from the start, so by the time they finally left Argentina, they were over a month behind schedule. de Gerlache had hoped to reach the magnetic South Pole and return to Argentina before the sea froze over.
However, when the time came to either abandon the trip and head back north or continue, he decided to forge ahead so he could obtain the fame he sought (he lied to the crew about this). As luck would have it, they became stuck in the ice before reaching their goal and had to endure an entire winter trapped in the cold and dark.
The book details the decline of the crew’s physical as well as mental health as a result of the isolation, boredom, and lack of good nutrition. To make things worse, when the sun did finally return, the ice didn’t let the ship go, and it looked like it would remain that way through the next winter. The hopes of the crew were dashed and one became insane and another one died.
I liked this book since it went into detail of the dynamics between the captain and the crew. Usually the captain’s decisions are law, but when his health declined, some of the crew went ahead with their own ideas of survival.
The doctor played a pivotal role in the survival of the crew. He was helped by a man named Roald Amundson, who would go on to become one of the world’s most accomplished polar explorers (he was the first to reach the South Pole). He used this trip to test ideas of exploration and survival in polar climates.
This book was written based on the journals and notes from the crew and the ship’s logbook and is used as an example of what happens to humans in complete isolation. In fact, NASA uses it for research on isolation for future trips to Mars.