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The Arctic Explorer Who Freed Himself from an Avalanche with a Dagger Made from His Own Shit

Peter Freuchen lived the life of a hundred men — winning ‘The $64,000 Question,’ evading a Nazi death sentence and hobnobbing with movie stars. But none of it ever would have happened had he never fashioned that DIY ice poop pick

Shitting your pants in a terrifying situation is completely understandable, but doing so deliberately is something of a rarity. However, the world’s manliest man did just that, using his giant hands to shape his shit into a chisel and living to dump another day.

Peter Freuchen was a man who packed a lot into his life. Born in Denmark in 1886, he was at various times a journalist, an explorer, a filmmaker and an academic. He battled Nazis and won game shows; beheaded bears and hobnobbed with movie stars. He was a big, broad, bearded, barrel-chested bastard, a giant of a man, 6-foot-7 and built like a brick shithouse.

When he was 20, he saw a play about polar exploration and immediately quit his medical studies to sail to Greenland on a steamship, stoking the engine to pay his way. In 1910, Freuchen and his friend Knud Radmussen — already an established Arctic explorer — built the Thule Trading Station in northern Greenland, at the time the northernmost trading post on the planet. Named after an old cartographical term meaning “beyond the borders of the known world,” they used the base as a starting point for a mission across the area known as Peary Land

Peary Land was named after the explorer Robert Peary, who was adamant that it was an island, separated from the rest of Greenland by a narrow channel. Freuchen and Rasmussen set out on dog sleds to test this theory, a 620-mile journey through incredibly difficult terrain. At one point, Freuchen set out on his own from the rest of the party to pick up some supplies that had been left behind, a detour that seemed straightforward enough. However, he got sent off-route by a storm and lost his sense of direction. He decided to get some sleep while waiting for daylight, so he dug a trench to lie in, placing his sled on top of it and bags around the sides to shelter him from the wind. He had killed a bear a few days earlier — because of course he had — and used its skin as a pillow. All good, or so he thought.

Freuchen woke up with cold feet, which worried him. He decided to get up and run around for a while, but found he couldn’t get out — the bag he was using as a door at one end of his trench was unmovable. This concerned him, but not enough to keep him from nodding off again. Waking up later, his feet no longer hurt, which was an enormous cause for concern as it suggested he had frostbite. He still couldn’t move the bag, which was trapped by a giant snowdrift, and when attempting to lift the sled, found it was frozen to the ground around it.

“The snow surrounding me was now ice,” he later wrote in one of his memoirs, Vagrant Viking, “and it was impossible to make the smallest dent in the surface with my gloved hands. I had left my snow knife outside on the sled with all my other tools. I decided to try digging with my bare hands. My hand would freeze but it would be better to lose one hand than to lose my life.”

Matter-of-fact about what might happen to him, he removed his right glove and worked at the ice as best he could. However, he soon had a numb hand to go with his numb feet, and had made no impact whatsoever. He needed a new approach or he would certainly die. Finding a way out of his icy tomb required a miracle — or an incredible idea.

His first plan was to soak the edge of the bear’s skin — ragged where Freuchen had decapitated the animal — in spit, wait for it to freeze solid and use it to chip away at the ice above him. This worked for a while, and he went through several cycles of it — soaking, freezing, hacking, soaking, freezing, hacking — until his mouth was in agony but he could see daylight. 

Getting excited, he misjudged the size of the hole he had made. He pushed his head through it, and his beard — soaked from his heavy breathing, deliberate dribbling and breath-melted snow — immediately froze to the runners of the sled. He had somehow made his situation worse. His body was stuck under the ice, his head stuck out in the open. 

“The intense cold was penetrating my head,” he wrote. “My face was beginning to freeze and would soon lose all feeling.” The only thing he could do was try to wrench his face off his trapped beard. Using what felt like the last of his strength, he managed to pull his face free, losing his beard and large patches of skin in the process, then returned to his frozen subterranean bed, vastly worse off than he had been. Not only was his head now in agony, but he had let more snow in with him, making movement even more difficult, and the bear skin had ended up under his back and inaccessible.

He lay still for several hours, trying to get his strength back and think his way out of his predicament. This is where inspiration struck, and the idea that would in some ways overshadow the rest of his life of achievements was hatched. Just as the tale of fellow Dane Ernst Trier Morch, the foreskin-rebuilding could be reduced to a modern reader to “the Schindler’s List of dicks,” this is when Freuchen’s story became “the 127 Hours of shit.”

“I had often seen dog’s dung in the sled track and had noticed that it would freeze as solid as a rock,” he wrote. “Would not the cold have the same effect on human discharge? Repulsive as the thought was, I decided to try the experiment. I moved my bowels and from the excrement I managed to fashion a chisel-like instrument which I left to freeze.” 

As he waited for his shit-ax to solidify, Freuchen’s hole filled with snow, which he could only remove by pulling it in with him. His space was getting tighter and tighter, but eventually the time was right to put his brown blade to work. As he chipped away at the edge of the hole with his rock-hard turd, he felt blood tricking out of the raw flesh on his face. 

But bleeding, frozen and with hands covered in poop, he managed to inch his way out of his icy grave. A mere three hours of crawling through snow later, he was safely back at camp, where he had to casually cut off a few toes that had succumbed entirely to frostbite. He had escaped death with the aid of nothing but his ingenuity and a big fat dump.

Freuchen’s story has, of course, been questioned over the years. A 2019 paper in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports — entitled “Experimental Replication Shows Knives Manufactured from Frozen Human Feces Do Not Work” — put the older tale of an Inuit man using a shit-knife to kill a dog to the test. The paper’s lead author went on an Inuit-like diet for several days before making knives from frozen shit and trying to cut through pig hide, finding that “instead of slicing through it, the knife-edge simply melted upon contact, leaving streaks of fecal matter.” They concluded that the Inuit story at least must be apocryphal.

However, there is a difference between trying to cut through flesh and bashing the hell out of something — as the paper puts it, “worked substrates in the Inuit and Freuchen cases are different. The Inuit case features the cutting and slicing motions on tissue, muscle and tendon; the Freuchen case presents the pounding and chipping of snow.” 

Freuchen also didn’t go big on his dump tale — it’s one of dozens of terrifying escapades across his career, and is buried unheralded in the middle of one of his books, not really dwelled upon. He lived the kind of life where shit-blading your way to freedom then sawing off a few toes was just something that happened — later incidents included losing the rest of his leg, burying his first wife when the local church refused due to her Inuit origins, escaping a Nazi death sentence and becoming the fifth-ever winner of the top prize on The $64,000 Question. It’s only more recently that the poop story has become what he’s best known for — well, that and featuring (with his third wife Dagmar Cohn) in the greatest couples’ portrait ever. It’s not like he was pushing himself as “the poop guy” or anything.

And if making something up, surely you’d go for something a bit sexier than “shat in my hand”? Plus, hella giant dudes might do shits that are just that smidge denser than the rest of us. So it’s definitely true, the tale of a man who escaped certain death and found salvation in the unlikeliest of places (his butthole), fashioning a life-saving turd-hatchet from it. 

Now that’s good shit.