Ejnar Mikkelsen: The Danish Explorer Who Defied the Arctic


In 1909, Danish polar explorer Ejnar Mikkelsen embarked on a mission of epic proportions. His goal? To recover the lost maps and journals of a doomed Arctic expedition to the northeast coast of Greenland. Little did he know that this journey would take him on an extraordinary adventure lasting three long years. Join us as we delve into the remarkable story of Ejnar Mikkelsen, a man of unparalleled determination and courage.

The Quest Begins: Peary’s Bold Claim

Ernest de Koven Leffingwell (left), Captain Ejnar Mikkelsen, Dr. G. P. Howe, Ejnar Ditlevsen. Staff of Duchess of Bedford. Anglo-American Polar Expedition. Canning district, Northern Alaska region, Alaska. 1906. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Our story commences in 1891 when American explorer Robert E. Peary mapped the eastern coast of Greenland. He believed he had discovered an island, which he named Peary Land, separating it from the mainland. This claim set the stage for a fateful expedition in 1907, led by determined Danish sailors who sought to dispute Peary’s assertion. Among them was Ejnar Mikkelsen, a man destined for greatness.

Trapped in the Icy Embrace

In August 1909, Mikkelsen and his crew found themselves in a dire situation. Their ship became ensnared in the unforgiving grip of Arctic ice, some 200 miles away from where they believed their predecessors had met their tragic end. Mikkelsen, initially accompanied by six men, was soon abandoned by all but one inexperienced crewmate. Together, they endured the harsh Arctic winters, battling frostbite, scurvy, and the ever-present threat of predatory wildlife.

Source: Netflix

The harrowing ordeal of Ejnar Mikkelsen and his loyal companion Iver Iversen would later inspire the Netflix movie “Against the Ice,” attempting to convey the sheer magnitude of their hardships in the early 1900s.

The Seafaring Youth of Ejnar Mikkelsen

Ejnar Mikkelsen’s affinity for the sea began at a young age. Born on December 23, 1880, in Vester-Brønderslev, Denmark, he grew up surrounded by tales of Arctic adventures and unprecedented discoveries. His passion for exploration was ignited, leading him to set sail on his own at the tender age of 14. In 1896, he undertook a remarkable journey, walking 320 miles from Stockholm to Gothenburg, in an attempt to convince Swedish explorer Salomon August Andrée to take him on an Arctic balloon flight.

Fate intervened, sparing Mikkelsen from Andrée’s ill-fated expedition, which tragically ended in the deaths of all three passengers. In 1900, his journey led him to join Sir George Carl Amdrup’s expedition to eastern Greenland, marking the beginning of his illustrious career as an explorer.

Trials and Triumphs

Mikkelsen’s explorations took him on various expeditions, including a groundbreaking 500-mile journey to survey an inaccessible coastline in 1902, a cartography role in Evelyn Baldwin’s expedition to Franz Josef Land, and a daring 1906 Arctic expedition with a shoestring budget.

During the 1906-1907 Anglo-American polar expedition, Mikkelsen and Leffingwell’s encounter with the local Inuk Sachawachiak people would prove fortuitous. They learned essential survival skills, such as driving dogs across the ice, which would later be crucial for Mikkelsen’s survival.

The Fateful Expedition to Recover Lost Maps

Ejnar Mikkelsen and Iver Iversen on the day before they left the rest of the Alabama expedition. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The ill-fated Danmark expedition of 1907, led by Ludvig Mylius-Erichsen, Niels Peter Høeg-Hagen, and Jørgen Brønlund, aimed to prove Greenland’s unity as a single, exclusive Danish island. However, they relied on Robert E. Peary’s incomplete maps, leading them astray in the Arctic’s unforgiving terrain.

Alabama, the ship of the Alabama Expedition to Eastern Greenland 1909/1910, in her winter harbour at Shannon. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In a display of patriotism, Ejnar Mikkelsen couldn’t refuse when British newspaper magnate Lord Northcliffe offered to finance a 1909 expedition to locate the lost explorers. Mikkelsen secured Danish funding for the mission, assembling a crew and setting sail aboard the 45-ton sloop Alabama, powered by a 15-horsepower engine.

Trials and Tribulations

Mikkelsen faced numerous challenges during the expedition, including an alcoholic mechanic, infected sled dogs, and a delayed arrival in Greenland. Their troubles reached a climax when the wooden sloop became trapped in the ice of Shannon Island, miles away from their destination. Forced to establish quarters on land, the crew faced a daunting prospect, being 200 miles from the site where Mylius-Erichsen had reportedly wintered before his tragic end.

Battling Against the Ice

Ejnar Mikkelsen and Iver Iversen’s tenacity knew no bounds. Leaving the ship in March 1910, they embarked on a relentless search. By May, they discovered Mylius-Erichsen’s diary, confirming that Peary Channel did not exist. However, their struggles were far from over.

Summer’s arrival brought melting ice, and it took them eight grueling months to return to the ship. Their hardships included resorting to eating sled dogs for survival and experiencing daily hallucinations after their loyal companions perished.

Upon returning to the Alabama, they discovered their shipmates had abandoned them, finding passage home on a sealing vessel. Mikkelsen and Iversen had to endure two more brutal winters in Greenland, relying on abandoned rations and evading predatory wildlife.

The Triumph of Endurance

Their quarters on Shannon Island became inadequate for the harsh winter ahead, so they constructed a small cottage using timber and planking from the wreckage of the Alabama. In a moment of providence, the Norwegian steamer Sjøblimsten rescued them on July 19, 1912.

Legacy and Beyond

Enjar Mikkelsen in 1912. Source: Arktisk Institut

Ejnar Mikkelsen’s thirst for adventure persisted. In 1924, he led an expedition to the remote Sermersooq municipality in eastern Greenland. He went on to establish Scoresbysund, one of the most remote inhabited places on Earth. In 1932, he led the “Second East-Greenland Expedition” to study the geological area between Cape Dalton and Kangerdlugsuak.

Mikkelsen’s extraordinary adventures found their way into numerous books, one of which was adapted into the Netflix film “Against the Ice,” starring Nicolaj Coster-Waldau as Mikkelsen and premiering on March 2, 2022.


Ejnar Mikkelsen’s life was a testament to the indomitable human spirit and the insatiable thirst for exploration. His incredible journey, marked by resilience, determination, and unwavering patriotism, is a source of inspiration for generations to come. With a Danish patrol vessel and Greenland mountain range named in his honor, Ejnar Mikkelsen achieved the fame he had dreamt of as a child.

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