Top 10 Most Doomed Expeditions of All Time

Script written by Clayton Martino.

Sadly, there are many explorers who were lost or died on expeditions – or worse. Whether it was Henry Hudson’s doomed bay expedition, Percy Fawcett’s Lost City of Z or the 1996 Mount Everest disaster when over 30 people died the same day while trying to reach the summit, these are some of the most doomed journeys ever. WatchMojo counts down ten famously doomed exploration expeditions in history.

Special thanks to our users Sleep Stranger and urbanwatch69 for suggesting this idea! Check out the voting page at WatchMojo.comsuggest/Top%20Ten%20Expeditions%20That%20Went%20Horribly%20Wrong

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Script written by Clayton Martino.

Top 10 Expeditions Gone Horribly Wrong


These tragic tales may have you second-guessing your desire for an adventure! Welcome to WatchMojo.com and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 Expeditions Gone Wrong.

For this list, we’re looking at some of the most notorious explorations that didn’t go according to plan, and remain cautionary tales.

#10: Burke & Wills Expedition

During the mid-19th century, South Australia’s government put out a reward of 2,000 pounds for anyone who could cross the south-north interior of the Australian continent. Two men named Robert Burke and William John Wills took on the challenge of traveling across Australia, a distance of over 2,000 miles. Despite having no exploration experience whatsoever, Burke was selected to head up the expedition of 19 men. While the team did reach the Gulf, their return trip coincided with monsoon season, and they faced vitamin deficiency. Overall, seven men died, including Burke and Wills, with only one man surviving to come back to Melbourne.

#9: 1996 Mount Everest Disaster

Climbing Mount Everest is a significant feat, but almost 300 people have died attempting to reach the summit. One of the worst disasters occurred on May 11, 1996: over 30 people were attempting to reach the summit on May 10th, causing a backlog of climbers waiting for ropes to be fastened. The delay resulted in an oxygen shortage, slowing the climbers even further. By the time several of the groups had started to climb down, weather conditions had declined, and the teams found themselves in the middle of a blizzard. Several died, including expedition leader Rob Hall, who had reached the summit of Everest four other times during his life.

#8: The Darien Scheme

Through the late 17th century, England was dominant in terms of trade, and Scotland lived in its shadow. Desperate to prove its worth, Scotland sought to create a colony on the Isthmus of Panama on the Gulf of Darién, named “Caledonia.” The colonization got off to a rough start, however: they began with 1200 settlers, but soon lost 10 people per day to disease and sickness. After eight months, the surviving 300 people deserted the colony, but many were disowned by their families upon return. A second expedition was launched, unaware of what had happened the first time. It suffered a similar fate and resulted in the near financial ruin of the country.

#7: Percy Fawcett’s Lost City of Z Expedition

Unlike some of the other entries on our list, Percy Fawcett was a seasoned and successful explorer; in the early 20th century, he made several expeditions through South America. During his research, Fawcett formulated an idea about a “Lost City of Z” in Mato Grosso, Brazil. Together with his son and his son’s friend, the team set out on April 20, 1925 to locate this city. Fawcett communicated with his wife for over a month before vanishing. While no one knows exactly what happened to the men, some assume they were killed by native tribes in the area. Sadly, nearly 100 people have died in subsequent attempts to uncover the truth about his demise.

#6: Pánfilo de Narváez’s Mexico & Florida Expeditions

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. In the case of Pánfilo de Narváez, however, perhaps he should’ve learned from his first experience. Narvaez first failed to stop Hernán Cortés from taking over Mexico, even though his army was triple the size of Cortés’. This embarrassing failure somehow earned him the opportunity to go occupy Florida. Narvaez left Spain in 1527 with five ships and 600 men. However, a severe storm destroyed several of the ships, and those who made it to Florida weren’t given a warm welcome. With numbers decimated, Narváez planned to return to sea. Another storm prevented that, however, and killed even more men, including Narváez. In fact, only four people lived to tell the tale.

#5: Henry Hudson’s Bay Expedition

The Hudson Strait, River and Bay are all named for this English explorer. But Hudson’s main aim was to find a route in the Northwest Passage to reach China, and he tried to do so multiple times. He set out on his final voyage in 1610, making it as far as James Bay before getting caught in the ice. When spring came and Hudson and his crew were freed, Hudson expressed his intention to continue his search. This didn’t sit well with the team, who just wanted to go home. The crew ultimately mutinied, leaving Hudson, his son, and seven other men stranded in a small boat in the middle of Hudson Bay.

#4: S. A. Andrée’s Arctic Balloon Expedition

Many people have tried to reach the North Pole, but few have attempted to do so via hydrogen balloon. But that’s exactly what Swedish explorer S. A. Andrée attempted in 1897. The goal of the expedition was to fly from the Svalbard archipelago to Russia or Canada, with his planned route taking him over the North Pole. Andrée’s high hopes were dashed two days after takeoff, however, when the hydrogen leaked out of his balloon, leading it to crash on the icy sea. Although Andree and his two companions were not injured in the crash, they were ill prepared to handle the harsh journey southwards across the ice, and all three soon perished.

#3: John Franklin’s Lost Expedition

An experienced explorer, Sir John Franklin captained an expedition consisting of two ships and 128 other men to voyage the last unexplored part of the Northwest Passage in 1845. Through extensive research after the fact, it became clear that both ships got stuck in the ice off King William Island in 1846, stranding the entire expedition. Several crewmembers died while on King William Island, including Franklin himself who perished in 1847. The rest died while attempting to walk toward the Back River in Canada’s Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

#2: Donner-Reed Party

One of the stranger expeditions gone wrong on our list, this group of American migrant pioneers was conducted by George Donner and James F. Reed in 1846. 87 people undertook this arduous journey, hoping to cut down on the distance by taking a shortcut, but this decision led to their doom. The rough environments caused the destruction of multiple wagons and a loss of cattle. Relations within the group became tense, and Reed himself was ejected from the party. In November, the colonists got shut in near Truckee Lake by insurmountable snow. After being trapped for four months, only 48 of the original 87 ended up arriving in California. Many of them had eaten their dead companions for sustenance.

#1: Terra Nova [aka British Antarctic Expedition]

We’ve already had two disastrous Arctic expeditions on this list, but attempting to explore the opposite pole has proved just as difficult. The Terra Nova Expedition began in 1910, headed by Captain Robert Falcon Scott, who had successfully led an expedition to the Antarctic just six years prior. Despite obstacles, Scott and his team reached the South Pole on January 17, 1912. The return journey, however, took a toll on the group, and eventually claimed all their lives. A huge drop in temperature and the failure of the dog team to reach the group essentially sealed their fate. In Scott’s journal, the final thing he wrote on March 29, 1912 was “The end cannot be far.”
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