The Tragic Attempt To Explore The North Pole By Balloon

By Debra Kelly on Friday, September 18, 2015
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“Andree exemplified a conceit that outlived him—the belief, then nascent, that science, in the form of technology, could subdue the last obstacles to possession of the world’s territories, if not also its mysteries.” —Alec Wilkinson, describing S.A. Andree

In A Nutshell

S.A. Andree and two companions made an ambitious attempt to cross over the North Pole in a rather non-traditional way: by hot air balloon. The team was never heard from again, but 33 years after they left, their remains were found by a team of geologists. Also found were their journals, detailing every day of their terrifying march across the ice floes in an attempt to reach a safety that remained just out of reach.

The Whole Bushel

The North and South Poles were among the last great frontiers, and in the 1890s, Sweden was determined to be the first ones to the North. Attempt after attempt had already failed, and engineer S.A. Andree had a different sort of plan for finishing what others had failed: He was going to go by balloon.

He would be risking the lives of only a few people, he claimed, not an entire ship’s crew. Explorers scoffed at him for his non-traditional approach, but with hundreds of miles and countless hours of flight time in balloons, he got the backing of dynamite inventor Alfred Nobel and the King of Sweden, Oscar II.

His preparations were extensive. Andree picked out his companions, a 23-year-old physics professor named Nils Strindberg and a 47-year-old meteorologist named Nils Ekholm. He built a five-story shelter that allowed them to inflate the Parisian silk balloon without worrying about the weather. Made from felt, cloth, and gelatin as well as wood, he wanted to make sure nothing could tear the silk.

The weather didn’t cooperate, though, and before he could take off, he was forced to raise more money to continue financing the trip. Ekholm had lost faith in the plan, saying that it was doubtful at best that the balloon would have enough hydrogen to stay aloft through the entire trip from Denmark, across the North Pole, and into either Asia or Alaska on the other side. He was replaced with 27-year-old engineer Knut Frankel. In the meantime, Andree suffered another unexpected blow—the death of his beloved mother.

They finally launched on July 11, 1897, expecting to make it to the North Pole in 30 to 60 hours, depending on the wind. The last words the send-off team heard from the balloon were the following ominous words from Andree: “What’s that?”

They were never seen or heard from again, but that’s not the end of the story.

Thirty-three years later, a group of geologists landed on the island now known as Kvitoya. They found something grisly: the remains of a decades-old camp, bones, and a set of journals. The pages were soaked, and it was only with a major preservation effort that they were dried, the writing darkened, and the men learned what had happened to the idealistic Swedish team.

There were three different accounts, all of them slightly different. The balloon quickly descended, and they stayed with it for about three days as it slid along the ice. They were 500 kilometers (300 mi) from the pole and an equal distance from where they had started by the time they landed, making for no easy decision. When the balloon finally came to a halt, they were stranded with no hope of getting airborne again.

They packed their gear onto sledges they pulled themselves and set off across the breaking ice. Facing broken ice floes, freezing temperatures, and exhaustion, they killed and ate polar bears for sustenance while they continued to write. Strindberg wrote letters to his fiancee, and in one, he writes, “Oh, how I wish I could tell you now that I am in excellent health and you need not fear for us at all. We are sure to come home by and by.”

A week later, their calculations showed that the movement of the ice was taking them farther and farther from the camp they were trying to reach. The temperature continued to drop, meat became more and more scarce, and snowblindness started setting in. On September 3, Andree gave Strindberg the letters he had been carrying for his colleague’s birthday, written by Strindberg’s fiancee and family. The journal continued until October 8. Andree’s journal ends with a note that the weather had taken a turn for the worse. Strindberg’s journal has one final, cryptic entry dated October 17. It simply reads, “Home 7:05 a.m.”

No one knows what happened to them in the end. Theories include botulism, food poisoning (possibly from eating polar bear meat), dehydration, exposure to scurvy, a bear attack, or an overdose of opium, which they used to dull the pain in their feet. When Andree’s body was found, it was frozen and still wearing his boots, though his head was missing and the flesh had been mostly eaten from his arms and torso. Strindberg still had a picture of his fiancee in his pocket, and she would later request that the ashes of her heart be laid to rest with his remains.

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo credit: Nils Strindberg
The New Yorker: The Ice Balloon
NY Times: Falling Short of the North Pole
Stories in Science: The 1897 Andree Expedition Tries to Balloon Over the North Pole