56: Assistants, Sherpas and Locals on Expeditions

Do you know who has the record for reaching the summit of Mount Everest the highest number of times? Some grand moustached Victorian gentleman explorer? Adrenaline junkie American climber? Austrian mountaineer? Nope, it’s Kami Rita, a Nepali Sherpa who has been to the top 24 times. In fact, the highest number of ascents by a non-Nepali or Tibetan is American David Hahn at a mere 15. Okay, 15 times up Everest is impressive, but it is a lot less than 24.

With climbing up mountains as well as exploring and crossing both the Arctic and Antarctic, the lead people, often white American, Canadian or European, get all the glory. However, the assistants, Sherpas and locals who came along for the journey to assist, being there for every struggle and challenge, often get overlooked. No more! In this plog we will take a brief look at some of ‘the help’ who went along on expeditions and often proved invaluable to those journey’s success.

Kami Rita, the Sherpa who has scaled Mount Everest a staggering 24 times, most recently in 2019

Arnarulunnguaq and Qâvigarssuaq Miteq

Knud Rasmussen, a Greenlandic-Danish explorer was the first European to cross the Northwest passage from Greenland to Nome, Alaska. This was part of his Fifth Thule Expedition from 1921-1924. The journey set off with a large group who, along the way, collected archaeological and biological data to bring back home with them. Included in the group was Arnarulunnguag, a 25 year old Greenlandic woman. She was originally meant to travel with the group with her husband, but sadly he contracted pneumonia and passed away shortly before the trip set off. Perhaps needing to feel needed and to have a job, she asked to go on the trip anyways, and was joined by her cousin Qâvigarssuaq Miteq.

Together the party travelled to Hudson Bay. Once there, Knud wanted to set off in a lightweight group to reach Alaska. He took only himself, Arnarulunnguaq, Qâvigarssuaq Miteq and their dog team. The journey took 2 years, crossing uncharted territory in sometimes extremely hostile conditions. Arnarulunnguag didn’t just travel. She prepared meals, prepared and maintained animals’ skins to make warm clothing for the group, and used her knowledge of the climate to build suitable shelters made of peat. Her cousin did much of the hunting which kept the group fed. Though largely forgotten by the world, Rasmussen held her in high regard, stating that she had “that good humour about her that only a woman can instil [and was as] entertaining and courageous as any man when we were out on our journey.”.

Unfortunately, on their return she contracted tuberculosis, and passed away in 1933 at the age of 37. Knud’s greatest achievement, many consider, was his being the first ‘European’ to cross the Northwest Passage. It contributed to his worldwide fame. Yet two others were there with him completing the journey, and it was their knowledge of hunting and building, as well as sewing furs and cooking, that ensured the success of the journey.

Knud Rasmussen, Arnarulunnguaq and Qâvigarssuaq Miteq in 1924 after their expedition (National Photo Company Collection (Library of Congress))


Born in 1832, the Greenlandic native Suersaq (also sometimes known as Hans Hendrik) was involve in many famous polar journeys. When Sir John Franklins famous expedition of 1845 to find a route through the Northwest passage disappeared, many groups were sent out to investigate, either to save the stranded group or if they were too late to discover what had happened. One of these rescue groups, the Second Grinnell expedition lead by American Elisha Kent Kane, hired Suersaq. He played various important roles, acting as a translator and being vital to the hunting efforts. It was him who discovered the sled tracks which led to a group of Franklin’s men who had set off in search of help and had long since passed away.

Whilst on the journey many of the Grinnell expedition’s party started to show signs of scurvy and starvation. Scurvy is a horrible disease, often associated with sailors, resulting from a vitamin C deficiency. Starting with general weakness, the disease can progress to gum disease with teeth falling out, poor wound healing, bleeding from the skin and eventually death from infection or bleeding. Suersaq, realising the danger the men under, redoubled his hunting efforts, spending long periods tracking a wounded caribou, as he knew the fresh meat of this animal would help to cure the scurvy. It did, and the party returned. Suersaq went back to Greenland where he settled down and got married.

However, his journeys were not over. In 1860 he set off on an expedition supporting an astronomer called August Sonntag. Sonntag perished on the journey and Suersaq only just about made it back alive. Despite these hardships he again agreed to support an expedition in 1871, the Polaris expedition. This journey was also ill fated. Led by Charles Francis Hall, many indigenous people were taken along including Suersaq, his wife and four children. The aim was to reach the North Pole. However, first Hall passed away suddenly from apoplexy, bleeding of the internal organs. Their ship was then crushed between the sea ice, and when the remaining group disembarked the boat onto safer ice, the ship broke loose and out of their reach. The group of 18 spent six months floating on this ice floe, which was slowly melting and shrinking. It was up to Suersaq and a Canadian Inuk called Ebierbing to hunt and feed the entire group. Eventually they were saved by a passing sealer.

Suersaq joined one last journey in 1875 on board the HMS Alert, a journey going to the northern most point of Greenland. There were struggles with pack ice, scurvy and even being trapped in the ice for an entire winter. Suersaq’s hunting and knowledge was once again crucial to the survival of the group. After this he decided to retire from exploring.

Suersaq is special in more than his knowledge and skills. He is one of the few Inuit to have kept a diary of his travels, and the first to publish it. Though it may have been censored a little by the Danish publishing house, it provides a valuable and rare glimpse into Arctic exploration from the perspective of someone from that region.

Suersaq by Ida Falander in 1883

Ada Blackjack

The final example, though there are many more, is the story of Ada Blackjack. An Alaskan Native from Nome, she had struggled with poverty and had a son ill with tuberculosis. In 1921, at the age of 23 she was invited to join an expedition led by the Canadian Allan Crawford to Wrangle Island, an island north of the most eastern edge of Russia. No other locals were willing to join the expedition, and Ada feared going alone, but she decided she would as she desperately needed the money so she could get her son to better doctors in Seattle.

Ada, along with the four men set off on the journey arriving in Wrangle Island and setting up camp. They intended to remain for a year, collecting data and in an attempt to claim the island for Canada through settlement. It was Ada’s job to cook and sew clothing for the men out of the skins they hunted. Ada struggled with Piblokto or ‘Arctic Hysteria’, a condition which little is known about, but is though to be brought on by the long dark nights and social isolation. It presented itself in dramatic mood swings, intense anxiety and occasional lethargy. This caused some issues in the group, yet suddenly passed and the party started working well together as a team.

After a year spent on the island a relief party was meant to come pick up the group. However, due to ice conditions it was unable to reach Wrangle Island, and so Crawford’s group were forced to spend a second year there. Game started to become scarce on the island, and the men were becoming weaker. They realised they would not have enough food to last all five of them until the following summer, so Crawford and two of the men set off overland to Siberia to get help.

Ada was left behind with Lorne Knight, one of the most experienced members of the group. He had been steadily becoming weaker with scurvy, and though he initially tried to hide it from the group they eventually realised the trip to Siberia would be too much for him. For a while Ada and Lorne worked together to survive, but Lorne’s condition continued to deteriorate until he was bed bound.

Although she was Alaskan Native, Ada had spent most of her life in the town of Nome and so knew little about hunting and trapping. She had worked as a seamstress so could sew and prepare skins, and knew how to cook, these being her role on the trip. However, as Lorne was unable to leave his bed, she was forced to learn how hunt, spending hours practising her shooting, as well as learning how to set traps and kill catches such as foxes. She was also deathly afraid of polar bears, having heard many traditional stories growing up about how they may eat someone alive who would be trapped in their stomach, still living. With Lorne sick, she had to face her fears and protect the camp many times from polar bears.

Ada tried her hardest for Lorne, doing all the hunting, cooking, repairing, wood chopping etc. that needed to be done. She tried to get fresh meat to help his recover from the scurvy, and often gave him the best bits whilst going without herself, even when she began to show early signs of scurvy. However, poor hunting conditions meant there was not sufficient fresh game, and Lorne eventually passed away.

Ada spend a few months on her own on the island, her only company being a cat that the group had brought with them and who had miraculously survived throughout everything. After spending a total of two years on Wrangle Island, Ada was reached by a relief ship and brought back to Alaska, where she was able to take her son to a hospital and had his health much improved. Crawford’s party who set off on the ice to Siberia were never found. Lorne had kept an extensive diary throughout his time on the island, and when he was no longer physically able to, Ada had tried to keep one for him. Though many indigenous people are overlooked in these journeys, in recent years there has been work to tell Ada’s story. She received a lot of attention on her return but shied from the limelight and remained a very private person throughout her life, yet she grew strong bonds with Lorne’s family who viewed her almost as a daughter.

Ada Blackjack, finally reunited with her son Bennett in 1923 after returning from 2 years stranded on Wrangle Island

There are many tales of Arctic adventure, involving glory and triumph, horror and desolation. Those who undertook these journeys often experienced extremely difficult conditions, physically and mentally, coping with the climate, disease and sometimes lack of food. However, it wasn’t just Europeans or White North Americans on these journeys. They were almost always accompanied by indigenous people, brought along as cooks, hunters and general assistants, without whom survival would often have been impossible. These indigenous or local people, despite having knowledge and experience of the climate, were often brought to regions outside their comfort zone, and as one or two people ended up having to do the job that an entire community would normally do. Many of these journeys are remembered in history. Let’s make sure were remember all the those who contributed to them.

For more info:

To learn more about Ada Blackjack’s life, a book called “Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic” by Jennifer Niven provides a great overview.

The story of Taqulittuq or Tookoolito, another Inuit Arctic Explorer:  https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/tookoolito

An article on decolonising Arctic history: https://www.arctic-relations.info/revisitingarctichistory

Music: kongano.com and Simple Minds

Cover Image: Painting of John Rae, who travelled with two unnamed Inuit to discover the rate of the Franklin Expedition. He was assisted much on this journey both by the Inuit he travelled with and locals who told him where to find the remains of Franklin’s men who had not set out with a sled.

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