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TraveLit--A blog about travel literature. 

     Even with the best of maps and instruments, we can never fully chart our journeys.

Book Review

Two Against the Ice: A Classic Arctic Survival Story and a Remarkable Account of Companionship in the Face of Adversity
By Ejnar Mikkelsen. Translated from the Danish by Maurice Michael. Foreword by Lawrence Millman. First published in 1955. Steerforth Press, 2003, 206 pp.

“Terrible trips make for excellent reading,” says Lawrence Millman in his foreword to Two Against the Ice, by the great Danish Arctic explorer Ejnar Mikkelsen. As a longtime reader of disaster journeys, I can only agree. These trips don’t have to take place in icy lands. I was certainly gripped by Cooper’s Creek, Alan Moorehead’s account of the Burke and Wills expedition into the center of Australia. But there’s no question that many of the greatest terrible trips have been set in Arctic or Antarctic regions. Think of the journeys of Shackleton, Scott, Mawson—and add Mikkelsen to the list.

Mikkelsen seems to have been destined for the north. When he was a youth, already an adventurer working on ships in the Far East, an Indian in Calcutta, he says, “foretold me a future in a land so white and desolate that he had never imagined anything like it.” This proved to be true. In the north, he found his calling: he went on to explore Greenland, Siberia, Alaska. “What are you to do,” he asks, “when you have been born with eternal unrest in your body and are drawn to none but those parts of the world that sensible people regard as fit only for fools?”

In Two Against the Ice, Mikkelsen’s mission was to retrieve the papers of three Danish explorers who died on a 1906 expedition to northeast Greenland. Supported by the Danish government, he and a small crew sailed to Greenland in 1909 on a ship most inaptly named the Alabama. When the shipmate with whom he planned to hike inland developed frostbite early on, he agreed to take on a volunteer instead: Iver Iversen, a mechanic with no Arctic experience.

Only one chapter in the book is called “Things Get Worse,” but many chapters might bear that title. The two men struggle with violent weather, crevasses, ailing dogs, and near starvation. Mikkelsen gets scurvy. Both get vitamin A poisoning from eating their dogs’ livers. When they finally arrive back at their ship, now deserted, they face not one but two more winters on the ice, when summer passes and no boat comes.

Mikkelsen is a fine writer, and he conveys not only the physical setting and stresses, but the psychological experience as well: the desolation of enduring three sunless winters, the fears, in starvation, that one might be willing to eat one’s companion, and the reliance on that single companion for 865 days. The relationship between the two men, as they obsess about food, find solace in the foxes they adopt as pets, and develop—and share—an alternative life in the world of dreams, is every bit as gripping as their amazing feat of survival.

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