Review: Madhouse at the End of the Earth: The Belgica’s Journey into the Dark Antarctic Night, Julian Sancton

Review: Madhouse at the End of the Earth: The Belgica’s Journey into the Dark Antarctic Night, Julian SanctonMadhouse at the End of the Earth: The Belgica's Journey into the Dark Antarctic Night by Julian Sancton
Narrator: Vikas Adam
Published by Random House Audio on May 4, 2021
Genres: Nonfiction
Length: 13 hours 28 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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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 August 1897, thirty-one-year-old commandant Adrien de Gerlache set sail aboard the Belgica, fueled by a profound sense of adventure and dreams of claiming glory for his native Belgium. His destination was the uncharted end of the earth: the icy continent of Antarctica. But the commandant's plans for a three-year expedition to reach the magnetic South Pole would be thwarted at each turn. Before the ship cleared South America, it had already broken down, run aground, and lost several key crew members, leaving behind a group with dubious experience for such an ambitious voyage.

As the ship progressed into the freezing waters, the captain had to make a choice: turn back and spare his men the potentially devastating consequences of getting stuck, or recklessly sail deeper into the ice pack to chase glory and fame. He sailed on, and the Belgica soon found itself stuck fast in the icy hold of the Antarctic continent. The ship would winter on the ice. Plagued by a mysterious, debilitating illness and besieged by the monotony of their days, the crew deteriorated as their confinement in suffocating close quarters wore on and their hope of escape dwindled daily. As winter approached the days grew shorter, until the sun set on the magnificent polar landscape one last time, condemning the ship's occupants to months of quarantine in an endless night.

Forged in fire and carved by ice, Antarctica proved a formidable opponent for the motley crew. Among them was Frederick Cook, an American doctor—part scientist, part adventurer, part P. T. Barnum—whose unorthodox methods delivered many of the crew from the gruesome symptoms of scurvy and whose relentless optimism buoyed their spirits through the long, dark polar night. Then there was Roald Amundsen, a young Norwegian who went on to become a storied polar explorer in his own right, exceeding de Gerlache's wildest dreams by leading the first expeditions to traverse the Northwest Passage and reach the South Pole.

Drawing on firsthand accounts of the Belgica's voyage and exclusive access to the ship's logbook, Sancton tells the tale of its long, isolated imprisonment on the ice--a story that NASA studies today in its research on isolation for missions to Mars. In vivid, hair-raising prose, Sancton recounts the myriad forces that drove these men right up to and over the brink of madness.

Belica in the ice by Adrien de Gerlache
Belgica dans la glace by Adrien de Gerlache

This is a terrific nonfiction account of a harrowing experience in Antarctica during the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. Julian Sancton’s author’s note and notes on sources demonstrate a thorough and dedicated effort to tell the story of the Belgica’s winter trapped in the ice as faithfully and accurately as possible. However, his writing style renders the story as gripping as any adventure film. In fact, I can’t believe this book hasn’t been made into a movie. Surely someone out there has purchased the rights and plans to film it.

This book reminded me quite a bit of Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. I can’t say I had the desire to travel to Antarctica before reading it, and if I did, I’ve been cured—much like Krakauer convinced me climbing Everest is not in my future (not that I wanted to, but after reading Into Thin Air, I really didn’t want to). I knew the crew survived mostly intact because this account existed, but it was harrowing to read, and Sancton kept me guessing how in the world these men would get out of Antarctica alive.

I have to say, Roald Amundsen comes across as a complete and total badass. I don’t know that I would have liked him personally, but no one could argue he wasn’t brave. Look at this dude.

Belica in the ice by Adrien de Gerlache

He’s a complete and total Viking.

I highly recommend this book. Even if you think you are not interested in Artic or Antarctic exploration, trust me, this book is captivating. I also recommend the audiobook. The author clearly enjoyed reading this breathtaking adventure, and his narration added a good deal to my enjoyment of the book.