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“Some expeditions become legends not because they were a success, but because they were survived. Such is the story of the Belgica and its crew, both doomed to spend nearly a year trapped in hostile polar ice during their quest for the South Pole.
Sancton weaves a brilliant and harrowing tale of humanity and friendship from the journals and logbooks of the Belgica’s crew, their in-the-moment accounts injecting both humanity and abject terror into the narrative. What begins as a haphazard journey of charming, ego-driven explorers becomes a frozen nightmare, a prison of ice that forces them to reckon with the fragility of the human psyche, the limits of their bodies, and their willingness to enact whatever methods of survival they can, no matter how barbaric.
It would be easy to tell this as a tale of adventure, of strong men braving the odds and coming out the other side; what Sancton does, though, delves much deeper. It challenges the reader to see beyond the acts of survival and forces us to bear witness to the human cost of exploration.”
The harrowing true survival story of an early polar expedition that went terribly awry—with the ship frozen in ice and the crew trapped inside for the entire sunless, Antarctic winter—in the tradition of David Grann, Nathaniel Philbrick, and Hampton Sides
In August 1897, the young Belgian commandant Adrien de Gerlache set sail for a three-year expedition aboard the good ship Belgica with dreams of glory. His destination was the uncharted end of the earth: the icy continent of Antarctica.
But de Gerlache’s plans to be first to the magnetic South Pole would swiftly go awry. After a series of costly setbacks, the captain faced two bad options: turn back in defeat and spare his men the devastating Antarctic winter, or recklessly chase fame by sailing deeper into the freezing waters. The commandant sailed on, and soon the Belgica was stuck fast in the icy hold of the Bellinghausen sea. When the sun set on the magnificent polar landscape one last time, the ship’s occupants were condemned to months of endless night. In the darkness, plagued by a mysterious illness and besieged by monotony, they descended into madness.
In this epic tale, Julian Sancton unfolds a story of adventure and horror for the ages. As the Belgica’s men teetered on the brink, de Gerlache relied increasingly on two young officers whose friendship had blossomed in captivity—the expedition’s lone American, Dr. Frederick Cook, the half-genius half-conman whose later infamy would overshadow his brilliance on the Belgica; and the ship’s first mate, soon-to-be legendary Roald Amundsen, even in his youth the picture of a storybook sailor. Together, they would plan a last-ditch, nearly certain-to-fail escape from the ice—one that would either etch their names into history or doom them to a terrible fate at the ocean’s bottom.
Drawing on the Belgica’s crew’s diaries and journals and exclusive access to the ship’s logbook, Sancton brings novelistic flair to a story of human extremes, one so remarkable that even today NASA studies it for research on isolation for future missions to Mars. Equal parts maritime thriller and gothic horror, Madhouse at the End of the Earth is an unforgettable journey into the deep.