Trudging across an uninhabited island in the Arctic Circle, a couple of seal hunters make a macabre discovery: the remains of three people. Alongside them lay the deceased’s sparse belongings and the remnants of a camp. It didn’t take the hunters long to realize that they had found a long-lost team of explorers.
Believe it or not, as late as the 1890s, the center of the Arctic was somewhere that, despite numerous attempts, no one had ever reached. Back then, many an adventurer wanted to be the first to stand at the top of the world. Attempts to successfully navigate to the North Pole, though, had generally been taken by dog-pulled sled or through icy waters on a boat. And every single one failed.
Many expeditions failed due to the area’s crushing ice floes or came undone in berg-filled seas. Some were stuck on the ice for many months they were rescued; some never made it back. Searching for the North Pole, then, was a dangerous business.
These repeated failures posed an intriguing dilemma for the curious. If the sea is impassable and the ice too unpredictable, how best to get to the Pole? Step forward Salomon August Andrée. A Swedish engineer, Andrée felt that he’d hit upon the perfect solution…
Born in 1854 Andrée originally came from the town of Grenna in Sweden. Reportedly an intelligent child, he went on to study at the country’s Royal Institute of Technology. Eventually, he would work for the Patent Office’s Technical Department as an engineer. But, at some point, possibly after a trip to America, the Swede had a notion: the best way to traverse the Arctic without having to worry about all that pesky ice was to use a balloon.
Now, by balloon, the engineer didn’t mean jumping into the basket of a hot air balloon and floating all the way to the North Pole. Rather, he had in mind a rigid balloon, filled with hydrogen.
Such an undertaking, though, required two things: a team and a lot of money. Determined to see his idea to fruition, Andrée set about choosing two basket-mates and securing funding. The former took the shape of Nils Strindberg and Knut Fraenkel. The latter was supplied by Alfred Nobel, he of the eponymous prizes, and the Swedish king, Oscar II.
The balloon, ordered by Andrée and christened The Eagle, was made in Paris. Composed of lacquered strips of silk, it weighed more than a ton and stood at nearly 100 feet tall. The engineer even had a special house built for it on Danes Island, the launch location in Svalbard, Norway.
With the expedition planned and the balloon in place, Andrée, Strindberg and Fraenkel took off on July 11, 1897. In the engineer’s estimation, the trip should last six days in total. Unsure whether they would land in Alaska or Asia, he expected to have flown over the Pole within two days. Despite the positive predictions, though, nobody would ever see the trio alive again.
For the next 33 years, the world wondered what had become of the Andrée expedition. Then, in 1930 a vessel carrying seal hunters and scientists made a gruesome discovery on White Island. They had stumbled upon human remains, tattered clothes and what was left of a camp. The engineer and his basket-mates had finally been found. But that wasn’t all that was discovered at the site.
Incredibly, despite the Arctic conditions, some journals, diaries and film canisters had survived the decades. And their contents told of the final months of Andrée, Fraenkel and Strindberg. In addition, the frozen film, preserved by the cans, produced almost 100 images of their ill-fated expedition.
Taken together, the photos and written words tell the story of four hellish months stranded in the Arctic. It seems the journey, beset by bad luck from the start, only became worse. The balloon, according to the journals, flew well for the first few days. But fog soon closed in. Aside from an open flame, fog is a hydrogen balloon’s greatest enemy. And as the weather worsened, The Eagle came crashing down…
The team survived the somewhat bumpy landing and set about readying themselves for an over-land trip. Each man had a sled, crammed with supplies, including a canvas boat, and weighing around 450 pounds. They then set off in search of the nearest outpost. With the ice constantly and imperceptibly moving, however, they were soon off course.
And it wasn’t just the creeping ice floes that caused problems. Dragging heavy sledges across the ice and carefully moving from piece to piece was incredibly hard going. In fact, around three weeks after the crash, Andrée noted in his journal, “We can surmount neither the current nor the ice.”
By mid-September of 1897, winter had begun to close in, and the trio were no nearer to the Pole, never mind home. Hope was in sight, though, as White Island had appeared before them. The men hoped the ice would take them close enough to reach it and began to build an igloo for shelter. Construction took more than a week. Just days after moving in, however, the trio were forced to abandon it when the ice beneath the shelter split apart.
While constructing a second shelter, it seems the men finally spotted some solid ground that they could reach. They immediately moved everything on to White Island, with Andrée naming the new, and as it turned out final, camp Mina Andrée’s Place, after his mother.
Whatever the comparative luxury of sleeping on “fast land,” as Andrée referred to it, the men were still stranded in the Arctic. With winter fully upon them, their last journal entry was dated October 8, 1897. And with it, the trio left one last mystery for the world to unravel.
Although the diaries and film canisters were relatively well preserved, the men’s bodies weren’t so lucky. What little remained of them left few clues as to the cause of the explorers’ deaths. In addition, nothing in the journals or photographs suggests that any of them were particularly unwell or unhappy. So, what finally killed the men who’d survived in the Arctic for so long?
The prevailing theory is that the Arctic winter, combined with deep levels of exhaustion, got them in the end. Despite their scientific preparations, Andrée and his basket-mates had been woefully unprepared for a land-based journey. From a lack of proper clothing, to their fitness levels and the fact that none of them had ever been to the Arctic before, the journey was, perhaps, doomed from the start.
History, for a while at least, judged Andrée a hero for his Arctic undertaking. More recently, though, the Swede has been accused of causing the needless deaths of his companions. Whatever the truth, the men in the balloon have at least found a lasting place in history.