The Fifth Thule Expedition

From the book
This Cold Heaven, Seven Seasons in Greenland
By Gretel Ehrlich
Pantheon Books, New York, 2001, Page 135.

Think you were cold? In 1921 Knud Rasmussen set out on the Fifth Thule Expedition, an epic, three-and-a-half-year journey of 20,000 miles by dogsled all the way across the polar north from Greenland to Siberia. In 1922 one of his men, Peter Freuchen, ran into bad weather on the trail.

"The drifts were alive under my feet and it was impossible for me to follow the tracks. The wind turned into a storm, the storm into a gale," he wrote.

With no shelter, he decided to head into the wind: he couldn't breathe and was frequently blown over. He stopped at a large rock for shelter. There was no chance of building a snow hut - the wind drifts were packed so solidly he couldn't cut through the ice. Trying to stay warm, he walked back and forth, then dug a hole in the snow, got in, and pulled the sled over his head. Soon, he was asleep.

When he woke, he had no feeling in his feet. He tried to dig out but failed. When his hands started to freeze, he took a piece of sealskin, wound it tight, spit on it, and when the spit froze he used it as a digging tool. In the process, his beard froze to the side of the sled. When he finally had the strength to pull it away, much of the skin on his chin went with it.

Lying back to rest, he saw that the snow had begun filling his hole. He needed another digging tool. He had once seen an Eskimo use a frozen dog turd as a snow knife. Lacking the excretement of his dogs (they were lying under the snow away from him), he used his own, fashioned it into a blade, and let it freeze.

A day and a night passed before he dug himself out of his grave. He discovered that he couldn't walk - his feet were frozen solid. He tried to get the dogs hooked up but couldn't, nor would they pull him. They ran away. Freuchen crawled for three hours to camp.

Padloq and Apa nursed him. One foot swelled, then turned gangrenous. They cut a hole in the igloo so he could rest his smelly foot outside. Skin and flesh started to come off, leaving the bones of his feet exposed.

Observing his pain, one of the Eskimo women offered to bite off the ends of his feet, but he politely refused. Instead, he asked for a pair of pliers and a hammer. Sitting up, Peter knocked off the gangrenous stumps by himself.