As one of only two expedition survivors, Albanov experienced the slow, painful deaths of numerous companions and witnessed the excruciating physical and mental deterioration of his comrades. In the Land of White Death depicts, to my knowledge, the greatest number of casualties we have yet experienced in an adventure novel. The story’s gruesome details beg the question—How did the survivors, Albanov and Konrad, cope with the continual encounters with death throughout their ordeal? I imagine the imminent threat of death must have consumed their thoughts not only in the Arctic, but after the event as well.
After the death of Nilsen, Albanov discusses in his diary the effect that multiple death experiences have on the expedition members. No one wept for Nilsen; he writes, “It appears we have become totally insensitive; we have seen death so often, it has become our unfailing companion and cannot frighten us anymore” (134). He mentions the danger of succumbing to emotion in such circumstances and his deadened sensibilities after living in deathly conditions for so long. Death, it appears, had become as normalized as daily biscuit consumption.
As we have witnessed in other adventure narratives, life-or-death situations often obscure day-to-day standards of morality. Both Touching the Void and Into Thin Air, for instance, display almost unimaginable acts of self-preservation in which one sacrifices another’s life for his own. In the Land of White Death depicts similar moments of questionable moral judgment: After the irrecoverable physical deterioration of Arhireyev, his comrades left him behind on the ice as to keep up with the rest of the group and not jeopardize their own chances of survival. To justify the decision, Albanov explains, “Such brutal behavior exasperated me greatly at first; then I reasoned that it would have been impossible to take the dying man with them, and even we ourselves could not have helped him. However painful the event, we had to accept the inevitable” (125). Contrary to his description of death as his “unfailing companion”, he describes Arhireyev’s death as painful with evident emotional impact. Perhaps the inner struggle came not from the death itself, but rather the surviving men’s integral roles in leaving Arhireyev behind and inadvertently accelerating his death.