"Two Against the Ice" is a first person Arctic survival story by Ejnar Mikkelsen, published in Danish more than 45 years after the event. The English translation was published 48 years later (2003).
The story started in 1906. A young Dane named Mylius-Erichsen led an expedition to explore the coastline of northeast Greenland, uncharted territory at that time. Two years later a telegraph message advised Denmark that the Greenland coast had been surveyed but Mylius-Erichsen and two of his men had become separated from the main party and had perished. Their bodies, together with Mylius-Erichsen’s diaries, had not been recovered.
This news drew the attention of Ejnar Mikkelsen, a fellow Danish explorer. Mikkelsen, who had left school at the age of 13 to spend three years working on ships in the Far East, was fascinated with the Arctic. Before the age of 30 he had been a member of others’ explorations in Siberia and Greenland and had led his own two-year expedition in Alaska.
His Alaskan sojourn ended in disaster. His crew deserted him to hunt for gold, his ship was crushed in pack ice, and his sled dogs turned rabid. Back in Denmark, he had little success in recouping his losses with articles and lectures. When Mylius-Erichsen's ship returned to Copenhagen with its flag at half mast, Mikkelsen decided to raise financial backing for a trip to Greenland to retrieve the diaries.
The fundraising was successful and a ship, the “Alabama” was purchased and outfitted. Mikkelsen sailed from Denmark in the summer of 1909, the first stop being at the Faroe Islands to load a cargo of sled dogs and a Greenlander guide. The dogs, shipped from an inhabited part of Greenland, had not withstood the voyage well and had to be destroyed. The Greenlander had contacted pneumonia and was left in a hospital ashore.
The "Alabama" deviated from its planned course, calling at Angmagssalik in lower Greenland to buy more dogs. It then developed engine trouble which the shipboard mechanic was unable to repair. The "Alabama" managed to reach Iceland. Fortunately, a Danish inspection ship in harbor there had among her crew a skilled mechanic, Iver Iversen, who volunteered to join the Mikkelsen expedition.
From this inauspicious beginning, things got worse. Arriving on the Greenland coast late in the season, the five expedition members were unable to start any extensive exploration. A 3-month sled trip at the end of the year incapacitated one man with frostbite. In 1910 Mikkelsen and Iversen set out on a longer sled journey, leaving the three remaining crew members with the ship. The chapter subheads hint at continual trouble : "Crevasses in the inland ice - Unsafe surface" - dogs die of exhaustion - worries about provisions" - "snow blindness" - scurvy and its consequence".
Page after page, the reader is struck with the thought, "What next?" And page after page, the inherent patience and perservance of Mikkelsen and Iversen shine through. Summer comes and they sled through slush. Expecting to find provisions at one of Mylius-Eichsen's caches, they are disappointed to discover everything covered with fungus. A bear eats Mikkelsen's diary. They arrive back at the ship to find it has broken up in a storm and the wood used to build a tiny hut for shelter, but their three shipmates have been rescued by a passing ship.
The book contains a section of photographs - beautiful, grainy shots of somber young men, of tents pitched in a wasteland of snow, of ice and slush and dog sleds. There seems to be a dog in every photo - sprawled on deck, seated in the foreground of a landscape, hitched to the sled traces.
The dogs gradually disappear, each death providing a scant meal for the remainder of the team. Mikkelsen and Iversen dream of women, discuss politics, try to remember card games for two players. They are faced with spending a third winter alone and the necessity of traversing the 1,300 miles to the nearest settlement of Angmagssalik. Through it all both men keep their sanity and a sense of humor.
It is difficult for a writer to be objective in a first person chronicle. Mikkelsen, who wrote this at the age of 75, looks back with the wisdom and experience of a lifetime. His work is a tribute to the indomitable human spirit.
Two Against the Ice - Steerforth Press - ISBN 1-58652-057-7