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The Ice Balloon: S.A. Andrée and the Heroic Age of Arctic Exploration by Alec Wilkinson

September 8, 2012

It’s hard to appreciate the sense of danger and adventure that surrounded a trip to the North Pole just over a century ago. It seems quaint today, in our world where we can fly to the other side of the globe in a day, or dispatch search and rescue helicopters to locate a ship lost at sea. But in the late 19th century, getting to the Pole was on par with Columbus sailing off toward the western horizon or the first astronauts being blasted into space. The Arctic was the unknown, and there were a lot of strange ideas floating around about it. Would there be strange magnetic fields? Apocalyptic winds? Some believed there was a tropical sea at the North Pole. Others believed there was a vast cavern through which one could enter the hollow Earth.

The South Pole is inhospitable, but at least it is located on land. The North Pole resides under a frozen sea, which means that, as many explorers have discovered, the landscape literally moves under them and the ice floes could easily open to provide a ship’s passage one moment then close to crush that same ship the next. In the late 19th century, conventional thinking was that it would require the right combination of ship, dog sled and luck, to successfully reach the pole. Then came along a Swedish balloonist, S.A. Andrée, with a rather unconventional idea: he would attempt to reach the North Pole by hydrogen balloon.

Andrée’s balloon expedition, which launched in 1897, could probably be covered in a long article, but Wilkinson includes stories of other expeditions that give context and set the stage for Andrée. While those are interesting, the two best moments in the book are Andrée’s.

The first is the description of one of the balloon’s test flights. As one would expect, a balloon is more or less at the mercy of the wind. But Andrée was working on a system, similar to that of a sailboat, with which he could partly control his speed and direction, including an anchor that he could lower and drag through the ocean below the balloon. Pretty high tech.

But my favorite moment of the book is the relatively short period during the expedition when the balloon is actually aloft with Andrée and his two companions. It’s a simple but somewhat magical moment as they drift quietly over the frozen terrain, heading into a territory that very few had ever seen, with a vantage point that nobody had ever had, looking down on the ice floes and polar bears, drifting farther and farther into the vast frigid wilderness. It must have been a moment similar to the first astronauts looking out of their space capsule and seeing earth from space.

The most difficult part of this story is the story itself. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that Andrée and his men did not make it to the North Pole. Their balloon came down two days after launch, 300 miles from the North Pole. The men gave a good go at surviving in the Arctic, hauling around sleds more than twice the weight that any experienced Arctic explorer would recommend, trying to navigate on drifting ice floes, fighting off polar bears and subsisting on what they could. Their journals tell of their trials. But nobody knows exactly how they met their end. In fact, for 33 years after they disappeared, what happened to them was one of the great unsolved mysteries. Then their bodies were found, and there were just clues, no real answers. So while the concept was fantastic, the adventure itself was ill-fated. Which makes for a plot that is somewhat anticlimactic.

Andrée and one of his companions standing next to their downed balloon.


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