The Ice Balloon: The Story of the Disastrous 1897 Expedition to the North Pole by Air
By Michelle Legro
The most famous missing person of the late nineteenth century was surely Sir John Franklin, who disappeared in 1847 with over a hundred crewmen while navigating a section of the Northwest Passage. Over the next thirty years, forty-one expeditions set off to find him, or some relic of his trip, and at the insistence of Lady Franklin, more men had died searching for Lord Franklin than on the original expedition. Eventually, word trickled back that the ships had been caught in the shifting Arctic ice and the men had starved and some had been cannibalized.
It’s been speculated that of the nearly one thousand explorers and crew who have traveled to the Arctic, only a quarter have returned. In an 1895 address to the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences, S.A. Andrée proposed an expedition to the North Pole that would risk only three lives, avoiding the crushing ice floes by using a mode of transportation that promised to be safe, quick, and relatively comfortable.
He would travel by balloon.
The Ice Balloon by New Yorker staff writer Alec Wilkinson is a chronicle of that trip, and of the last generation of romantic explorers who would make the pole their life’s work.
It’s sometimes easy to forget that the Arctic is a sea of ice, unlike its southern counterpart, the solid, windswept land of Antarctica, and the North Pole has many changing faces: the Geographic North Pole (Andrée’s destination), the Magnetic North Pole, and the Geomagnetic North Pole.
The pole travels like a ghost over the Arctic plain, having more in common with a balloon than an ice breaker. It could be on the tip of Greenland, or surrounded by islands, or in open water. It’s slippery to get a hold of, and just as slippery to prove that you’ve held it. Many close calls and many claims plagued explorers for the first part of the twentieth century, when a bad calculation by frost-bitten fingers could mean the difference between glory and obscurity. (The first scientifically-proven expedition to the pole wasn’t achieved until 1926, more than 15 years after the first expeditions to Antarctica.)
In 1896, during Andrée’s first attempt at the trip, there was a festive atmosphere at the launch site in Svalbard, an archipelago in the Scandinavian north. Tourists would come to visit him as he constructed the balloon, and he in turn would give lectures. While preparing the launch, Andrée had two problems. One was that the balloon’s fabric was not sufficiently holding in the hydrogen. The other was Fridtjof Nansen.
For the past three years, Nansen had lived with his crew above the Arctic Circle, and was known as one of the few people who could weather an arctic winter in a tent. Just a few months before he had attempted to reach the pole by skis and set a new record latitude for northern travel. When Andrée returned to Stockholm, he was besieged by Nansen’s glory. But Andrée was a different breed of explorer, his trip was not survivalist, but as Wilkinson describes it, “futurist.” His wasn’t just a plan for a successful exploration, but the beginnings of a new kind of exploration, one by air.
The next year, in 1897, Andrée and his crew returned to Svalbard and quietly launched the balloon, which drifted out over the horizon. An eyewitness reported:
There is profound silence at this moment. We hear only the whistling of the wind through the woodwork of the shed, and the flapping of the canvas… ooThe way to the Pole is clear, no more obstacles to encounter—the sea, the ice-field, the Unknown!
The public gave Andrée a year to reach his destination, then they considered looking for his bones. Andrée had homing pigeons aboard, and false reports of the birds showing up all over the world, including, improbably, Chicago, fueled interest in Andrée’s whereabouts.
The bodies were found more than 30 years later, on a remote island in Svalbard. According to the recovered accounts what happened was this: The balloon sailed north on a bumpy trip for three days before crashing, making it only about half as far as Nansen did the year before. With their supplies intact, the crew of three headed back south.
For three months, the crew pulled three-hundred pound sledges across the broken ice, they shot polar bears and ate them, they celebrated the Swedish Jubilee on September 18th with flags and a special menu, and they took pictures, lots of them, which illustrated a journey of hardship but also good spirits until the end. The pictures also revealed to the world a dreamlike sight: an inflated balloon on its side in the Arctic.
The Ice Balloon is a remarkable account by Wilkinson, not just of S.A. Andrée and his crew, but of all Arctic explorers, some looking for a route, others for the glory of the pole. These were people of a different will, a different mind, and as Wilkinson writes, a different age, now at an end:
It is no observation of my own that the nineteenth century was the last to have been receptive to the enactment of myths… the last to pursue their models and outlines and to feel the rightness of embodying them… The walls of the known, the boundaries were close at hand. It was as if the restraints that men felt in sociable life made them feel compelled out rush into the wild.
Published January 25, 2012