Rudolf Island (originally: Crownprince Rudolf Land) is the northernmost land mass not only of Franz-Josef-Land, but thereby also of Europe and the whole Eurasian continent. Its northernmost point is near Cape Fligely at 81°51´ northern latitude somewhere on the northernmost edge of the glacier fronts and therefore constantly changing position with calving and advance of the glacier. Thus, Franz-Josef-Land reaches fairly exactly one degree of latitude (= 111 km or 60 nautical miles) further north than the western neighbouring Spitsbergen archipelago (Ross Island: 80°50´N). The maximal diameter of Rudolf Island is about 27 km.
Rudolf Island is almost completely covered by an ice cap, which terminates almost everywhere in ice fronts calving into the sea, and which reaches up to 460 m above sea level in the interior - with slight growth over the last decades in its northeast, but mostly loss of mass elsewhere.
Just in a few places, some capes and plateau edges peek out of the ice: Cape Fligely in the Northeast, and then on the west coast from south to north: Cape Brorak, Cape Auk, Cape Säulen and Cape Germania. Even the longest icefree stretch of coastline from Teplitz Bay via Cape Säulen to Cape Germania is just a few kilometres long and maximally about 1.5 km wide. In this area, also the former weather and radio station was erected on the icefree plateau above Teplitz Bay.
The few icefree zones show only a very sparse vegetation, with surfaces of mostly rock, scree, or also morass above the permafrost layer. Temperatures above 0°C are restricted to only a few weeks per year.
Wildlife is sparse on Rudolf Island. Polar bears are frequent visitors (thus sometimes also preventing a landing due to safety considerations with a bear at the landing site). Walrusses are rare due to lack of suitable haulout beaches. There are not many birds breeding on this icy and remote island either - a few minor breeding colonies in some cliffs like southeast of Cape Fligely (mainly kittiwakes), fairly good chances for seeing a few ivory gulls and possibly a few snow buntings on the sparse tundra around the former station. A few other birds come over from neighbouring islands, too, for instance some auks.
The two biggest ice-free zones of Rudolf Island are found in its north - both in the northwestern corner from Teplitz Bay via Cape Säulen to Cape Germania, and in the northeast around Cape Fligely. These two areas will be dealt with more in detail further down, regarding history and tourism, including pictures.
Sea: Even in summer, the sea around Rudolf Island is rarely free of dense drift ice and in some summers, a even closed cover of winter ice can survive between Rudolf Island and its slightly more southern neighbours Eva-Liv, Hohenlohe and Karl Alexander long into August.
Rudolf Island was discovered in spring 1874 during the long sledging exploration tour, led by Payer, from the TEGETTHOFF to the North, where it was also named, crossed and mapped with most of the names still in use. Also Cape Fligely was reached - without realizing that they were standing on the northernmost land of Eurasia, because Payer believed to see enormous land masses further to the north ("Petermann Land"), which were proved by later expeditions to be illusions.
The next brief visitor was the sledge group of Wellman in spring 1899, heading for the Pole, but which had to give up and turn back already on the east side of Rudolf Island, because Wellman broke a leg there. Still, he named the easternmost point of this glacier coastline after himself, Cape Wellman.
Due to its northernmost position, the island subsequently gained a certain popularity as a base for advances and other interests directed further north. Teplitz Bay, being the only place of the island where landings were possible on a low and mostly ice-free shore, served the STELLA POLARE expedition (1899/1900) led by Luigi Amadeo di Savoia - Duke of the Abruzzes - as a wintering base for its 1900 attempt to reach the North Pole, which under the leadership of Cagni reached a new northern record of 86°34´, closer to the pole than 5 years before Nansen and Johansen. During its approach in 1899, the STELLA POLARE profited of unusually easy ice conditions: only at 82° N, north of Rudolf Island, they met denser drift ice. The base of this italian expedition was mostly erected on the then permanent land ice stripe extending the beachwall shore line into the bay at that time. This ice has melted away, since, and with it, probably most of the remains of that base ended up in the shallow coastal water, subsequently smashed by the ice.
In spring 1902, the Baldwin-Ziegler expedition reached Cape Auk on Rudolf Island as its northernmost position. Originally, Baldwin wanted to set up his wintering base ideally in Teplitz base in summer 1901 to start from here to the Pole in spring 1902, but harsh ice conditions forced him to establish himself much further south on Alger Island.
The next to utilize Teplitz Bay was the Fiala-Ziegler expedition (1903-05), again with ambitions for the Pole, which, however, had to be given up, as the expedition vessel AMERICA was crushed by the ice during the wintering in Teplitz Bay. One participant, Sigurd Myhre, died during the wintering 1904/05 and his grave is still visible at nearby Cape Säulen (Cape Columns). The Fiala Ziegler wintering base was set up slightly higher on the beach wall. During a visit with the SHOKHALSKIY in August 2011, expedition leader Andreas Umbreit took the opportunity to look between the numerous soviet remains in Teplitz Bay for relics of the two wintering pioneer expeditions on the beach wall and above, and again in August 2012 from the ORTELIUS - with success (see left: images of some of the findings).
Yet another North Pole attempt, though with its wintering base in Tikhaya Bay on Hooker Island, was tried by the Russian expedition led by Grigoriy Sedov in 1914, during which Sedov died and was buried on Rudolf Island.
A contribution by the young Soviet Union to the 2nd International Geophysical Year (1932/33), and at the same time a strengthening of its position in the Arctic, was the erection of a permanent weather and research station on Rudolf Island, on the plateau north of Teplitz Bay - for some time the northernmost all-year land station worldwide. Soon after, this station gained additional significance as an advanced northernmost base for the soviet attempts of opening the high Arctic by means of aviation, most famous for its successful landing on the North Pole with an aircraft in 1937. Little known in the west, this may have been the first expedition actually standing on the ice at the Pole, in case both Peary and Cook should not have been there. To be able to utilize Rudolf Island as an air base, a short runway had to be levelled on the inland ice cap as the only place where this was possible with acceptable use of ressources.
When the second world war reached also the Soviet Union, the station in Teplitz Bay was evacuated in 1941 and after its end, the war-related massive progress of aviation technology made a reopening of the former advanced airbase and station obsolete. Instead, a much smaller new weather and radio station was erected on the plateau above Teplitz Bay, usually manned by a crew of 5, and kept in continuous operation until summer 1995, when it was evacuated as a consequence of the turmoil around the end of the Soviet Union. Since then, the houses and installations are decaying, mostly due to intruding drift snow in winter, which produces humidity and rotting in summer and frost damages in the following winter.
Names: Most names on Rudolf Island were given by the TEGETTHOFF expedition in spring 1874. The island is named after Rudolf, crown prince of Austria, Hungaria and Bohemia at that time. Other spellings: "Rudolph", and in retranslations from Russian sometimes also "Rudolfa". Teplitz Bay: Tepltz in Bohemia (today: Teplice, Czechia) was the birth town of the TEGETTHOFF land exploration leader Julius Payer. Cape Säulen is named after its column-shaped (pillar = germ.: Säule) basalt rock structures. Cape Germania honours the german polar vessel GERMANIA. Cape Fligely August von Fligely was a contemporary Austrian cartographer, while Cape Auk is named after s minor colony of auks breeding there. Along the southern coast, the names Cape Brorak, Cape Habermann, Middendorf Glacier and Cape Rath were given by the TEGETTHOFF expedition, as well.
Cape Wellman on the east side was named by Wellman after himself in spring 1899.
Rudolf Island has been visited repeatedly touristically since the 1990s, both by expedition cruises and in the 1990s also by helicopter voyages from the Russian mainland. Focus is on Teplitz Bay - Cape Säulen area and/or Cape Fligely.
Other sites on Rudolf Island are hardly visited (Cape Brorak, Cape Auk, Cape Germania).
Precondition for a landing is accessibility both of Rudolf Island itself and the landing sites there, which can vary vastly from summer to summer. Regarding sea ice as a possible hindrance, the situation can be anything between no ice at all like in 1995 when the relatively small PROFESSOR MOLCHANOV reached the island without touching any ice, or like in 2003, when even the powerful icebreaker KAPITAN DRANITSYN had no chance to get there even in August due to a still solid winter ice cover on all the channels of northern Franz Josef Land, too time-absorbing to break its way through this all the way to Rudolf Island.
The other aspect is then to get ashore. Often, the shallow water next to the landing beaches is filled with stranded drift ice, preventing a safe landing, and also fog or a bear sitting on the landing site can be hindrances. By helicopter, landings can be easier - in principle, but also then, suitable flight weather is needed, plus a safety backup in case of trouble and if this backup is by boat, the above mentioned hindrances for boats can be an issue, again.
Accordingly, a successful landing on Rudolf Island requires also some luck with favourable conditions. Due to difficult access in many years, Rudolf Island is considerably less visited than the more southerly islands of the archipelago. On average, chances for a visit are higher in August and September, than in July.
Teplitz Bay to Cape Säulen/Stolbowoy
This area in the northwest of Rudolf Island is visited primarily because of its significance in polar exploration: here, practically the whole history of Franz Josef Land is represented, starting right from the TEGETTHOFF expedition via pioneer winterings to the soviet North Pole aviation pioneers of the 1930s to post WWII research station activity. Not even Cape Flora can boast with this continuity (see also previous passage on the history of Rudolf Island).
If by boat, landing is definitely easiest in Teplitz Bay (obvious relics of the soviet period including a shed and fuel storage, less apparent are some remains of the STELLA POLARE and the Fiala-Ziegler expeditions). This is the only place on Rudolf Island with a wider beach (rounded rocks, possibly slippy) and a less steep access to the hinterland. From here, a strenuous walk of more than 1 km over scattered rocks is needed to reach also the remains of the former soviet station on the low plateau to the north, recommendable only for more agile participants, while a group with more mixed physical abilities can be a challenge over this distance, especially regarding polar bear safety (even more so with emerging fog or a need for a quick retreat). From the station, it is a bit less than another kilometer to Cape Säulen with its basaltic rock columns and the nearby grave of Sigurd Myhre (member of the Fiala-Ziegler expedition 1903-05).
Closer to the former station or Cape Säulen, a boat landing is considerably more adventurous than in Teplitz Bay.
By helicopter, landings are easy all over the area - suitable flight conditions and a backup for cases of problem provided (if backup by boat: then drift ice, swell, participants suited for walking to the landing beach become an issue, again).
The other repeatedly visited site on Rudolf Island ist Cape Fligely, first reached by the sledge group of Payer in 1874. The cape bears a recent memorial cross for the Sedov (1914) Expedition and in its vicinity, there is the northernmost land point of both Europe and Eurasia.
A landing is not always possible and suitable only for more agile participants: first, some dense driftice mayx block access to the two narrow beach stripes, west and south of the cape. After this, a fairly steep, ca. 20m high slope of fine loose material has to be scaled, followed by a narrow ridge leading up to the plateau above the cape - same way also back. With a helicopter at hand, a landing on the cape plateau is easy of course - suitable flight weather provided, and a backup solution for eventual technical problems (if backup with boats, then swell, driftice and the steep slopes are an issue, again).
Birdlife: In the rock faces rising from the sea southeast of the cape, some minor bird colonies (mostly kittiwakes) can be observed easily from boats (access provided). At the same time, because of the birds, helicopter flights should avoid these cliffs, by approaching and leaving the cape plateau in a very wide swing via the glacier fronts west and south of the cape.