Monday, January 11, 2021

Nonfiction Audiobook: Labyrinth of Ice


 I used the hardback cover image because the Goodreads image for the audiobook was really lousy!

Title: Labyrinth of Ice: The Triumphant and Tragic Greely Polar Expedition
Author: Buddy Levy. Read by Will Damron
Publication Info: Audible Audio 2019, 13 1/4 hours. Hardback St. Martin's Press, 2019. 400 pages. 
Source: Library digital resources

Blurb (Goodreads): 
In July 1881, Lt. A.W. Greely and his crew of 24 scientists and explorers were bound for the last region unmarked on global maps. Their goal: Farthest North. What would follow was one of the most extraordinary and terrible voyages ever made.

Greely and his men confronted every possible challenge—vicious wolves, sub-zero temperatures, and months of total darkness—as they set about exploring one of the most remote, unrelenting environments on the planet. In May 1882, they broke the 300-year-old record, and returned to camp to eagerly await the resupply ship scheduled to return at the end of the year. Only nothing came.

250 miles south, a wall of ice prevented any rescue from reaching them. Provisions thinned and a second winter descended. Back home, Greely's wife worked tirelessly against government resistance to rally a rescue mission.

Months passed, and Greely made a drastic choice: he and his men loaded the remaining provisions and tools onto their five small boats, and pushed off into the treacherous waters. After just two weeks, dangerous floes surrounded them. Now new dangers awaited: insanity, threats of mutiny, and cannibalism. As food dwindled and the men weakened, Greely's expedition clung desperately to life.

Labyrinth of Ice tells the true story of the heroic lives and deaths of these voyagers hell-bent on fame and fortune—at any cost—and how their journey changed the world.

My Review:
A worthy addition to my growing pile of books on polar explorations and way-out-there travel/survival! I don't think I even knew about this expedition, though as a key US exploration and one that seems to have given a push to understanding the arctic, I probably should have.

When reading about 19th-Century exploration I am often intrigued and maybe a bit put off by the mix between desire for scientific knowledge and the desire for some kind of glory that has nothing to do with science or knoweldge. This expedition was no exception. The drive to gain "furthest north" seems to have been mostly about national pride, and yet all those efforts to reach the North Pole also served a genuine purpose: debunking the idea of the "warm polar sea" and learning the real nature of the Earth's poles.
Greely's party collected vast amounts of data on weather, geology, geography, and more, and perhaps the most amazing part of this amazing survival tale is that the data survived, including the extensive diaries kept by most of the men as part of their duties (i.e, they were always meant to be part of the data, not private diaries, though many seem to have written pretty private stuff). Their records provide a baseline for some of our current studies of how climate change is affecting the arctic.

Initially I wanted more analysis of what went wrong, and whether Greely should have stayed put at their more secure camp instead of taking to the boats and moving south. But I think the author's dismissal is correct: for Greely, a military man from his mid-teens, not to follow orders (even his own) would be unthinkable. They followed the plan. In the end, whose fault it was is less important than the information they brought back. 
I do wonder if anyone has studied what made some of the men give up or even go mad while others were able to remain strong, even as their bodies gave up (I think there was a suggestion that some studies have been made). The author raises and then essentially ignores the questions of whether cannibalism occurred, which I also think is the right choice. The accusations tarnished the survivors' homecoming, but ultimately it doesn't matter, unless perhaps for those psychological studies!
Damron's excellent reading definitely adds to the feelings of growing tension and "you are there" immediacy.

My Recommendation:
Anyone who has an interest in the history of arctic exploration and scientific discovery should read this. If you just like tales of endurance and rising to meet challenges, that will do too. Warning: there are some grim parts and graphic descriptions of the results of starvation and freezing.

FTC Disclosure: I checked Labyrinth of Ice out of my library, and received nothing from the writer or publisher for my honest review.  The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising." 


  1. This sounds like an interesting true story but it might be too graphic for me.

    1. It did get a bit graphic in a few places! I really didn't want to know so much about gangrene...

  2. Hi Rebecca - we've had a programme on Franklin's expedition to try and establish the North West Passage ... and which was about the ship the 'Erebus' ... they must have been a horrible scientific expeditions and trying to find out what happened in the early expedition. I think I'll forego exploring more ... but it's good that these sort of books are written and the records researched. Thanks for this informative review - Hilary

    1. Those early explorers did seem to spend a lot of time figuring out what had happened to the earlier explorers!


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