It can sometimes be easy to lose perspective when talking about historical events. Once timelines stretch beyond the horizon of our own recollection, they tend to get fuzzy. Most people would be surprised to know, for instance, that Cleopatra’s lifetime was actually closer to ours than it was to the construction of the pyramids, or that the Tyrannosaurus Rex is further separated from the Stegosaurus than it is from mankind on our planet’s lengthy timeline.
It’s because of that weakness that we tend to lose sight of how recent a development mankind’s dominance of the globe truly is. Back in 1897, a mere 72 years before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, we weren’t even sure if it was possible to reach the North Pole. At the time, our species was still relegated to exploring the furthest reaches of our planet by ship and foot, but one man had a crazy idea: what if we tried exploring by air?
Salomon August Andrée, a Swedish explorer that was well aware of how many previous efforts to reach the North Pole had failed, envisioned coasting across the Arctic skies in a balloon, reaching the North Pole in whatever state it may be (at the time, no one was sure if it was on land, sea, or ice) and returning with tale of his incredible sights along the way. At the time, balloons had already been used in aviation for years, but none had ever remained aloft for more than 15 days. Andrée sought to double that feat, inventing new contraptions he claimed would allow his balloon ship to travel “at cross-purposes to the wind” if it had to along its journey from Sweden to Alaska directly over the pole itself. The plan had plenty of critics, but it also garnered some noteworthy support, including Alfred Nobel (inventor of dynamite and creator of the Nobel Prize) and the Swedish King Oscar II, who helped to fund the endeavor.
Andrée’s hydrogen balloon was made in Paris out of layers of varnished silk. All told, it measured nearly 100 feet high and weight a ton and a half. The explosive nature of the hydrogen that carried it aloft was mitigated, Andrée believed, through doing things like mounting the air ship’s cooking stove outside the basket he and his crew would ride in. Impossible as Andrée’s goal seemed at first glance, when he and two crewmates (Knut Fraenkel, a 26-year-old civil engineer and Nils Strindberg, a physics professor) took off on July 11, 1897 from an island in the Svalbard archipelago, it was beginning to seem like they might actually have a chance at succeeding.
One witness wrote, “For one moment then, between two hills, we perceive a grey speck over the sea, very, very far away, and then it finally disappears.”
That day would be the last any of the three men were seen alive.
More than thirty years later, a Norwegian sloop (single-masted sailing ship) named the Bratvaag stopped at the remote arctic White Island. The ship was splitting duty between seal hunting and a geological expedition headed by Dr. Gunnar Horn. Surprisingly, on the second day at White Island, it was the hunters, rather than the scientists, that returned to this ship with a noteworthy discovery: a handwritten diary with an ominous title: “The Sledge Journey, 1897.”
The seal hunters reported finding the diary after coming across an aluminum lid in a steam. They hadn’t expected to find any signs of humanity on the remote and unforgiving island, but as they continued along their way they also came across a canvas boat adorned with a stamp that said “Andrée’s Pol. Exp. 1896.”
It wasn’t long before they found the body of Salomon August Andrée, leaning against a rock, partially submerged in snow. His head was missing, but inside his jacket they found a large monogram: “A,” for Andrée. Eventually, accounts of the team’s tragic end would be found from all three explorers. Fraenkel’s notes were mostly scientific, recording things like meteorological observations. Strindberg also recorded scientific observations about the night sky, alongside letters to his fiancée, Anna Charlier. In those letters, Strindberg seemed tragically certain that they would survive the ordeal and he’d return to her.
Andrée himself kept two journals which serve as the most thorough account of events. Early in the journey, he wrote:
It is not a little strange to be floating here above the Polar Sea. To be the first that have floated here in a balloon. How soon, I wonder, shall we have successors? . . . We think we can well face death, having done what we have done. Isn’t it all, perhaps, the expression of an extremely strong sense of individuality which cannot bear the thought of living and dying like a man in the ranks, forgotten by coming generations? Is this ambition?”
Only 65 hours after first taking flight, the crew finally chose to abandon the balloon. It had taken them far off course repeatedly, soared to heights the men had felt too dangerous at some points, while dragging along the ice at others. Exhausted and hungry, their journey by balloon ended after they had traveled some 570 miles… but only about 300 of those miles had been in the right direction. They found themselves stranded some 300 miles from where they began, 300 miles from the North Pole, and with little hope of rescue.
Undaunted, the men strapped sledges (like sleds) to their backs, each weighing between three and four hundred pounds, and dragged them Southeast, where they hoped to find a supply drop they had arranged for a vessel to leave behind in case of an emergency on Franz Josef Land. This hearty crew, made up of two engineers and a physics professor, managed to hunt and eat the Arctic’s most formidable land predator, the polar bear, to fuel them along the journey. Despite walking for upwards of ten hours each day, they averaged only about three miles on the best of them.
Through it all, Andrée continued to capture the beauty of his surroundings, even as their health began to fade. On August 31st, more than a month and a half after they had departed, he wrote of what he saw, “The sun touched the horizon at midnight. The landscape on fire. The snow a sea of flame.”
On September 28th, snowfall had given them the material they needed to finally construct a makeshift shelter. They piled up snow and poured water over it to harden it, fashioning a makeshift igloo they slept in for less than a week. On October 2nd, as they slept, the ice sheet the shelter was on cracked, flooding the small shelter with ice water. The men managed to escape before setting about recovering as much of their supplies as they could before it all drifted away. Even then, these men maintained their spirits the best they could.
“No one had lost courage; with such comrades one should be able to manage under, I may say, any circumstances,” Andrée wrote that day. His last entry came only six days later. The crew had made their way onto an island, constructed another shelter, and for a brief moment, felt relief. The last entry reads:
It feels fine to be able to sleep here on fast land as a contrast with the drifting ice out upon the ocean where we constantly heard the cracking, grinding, and din. We shall have to gather driftwood and bones of whales and will have to do some moving around when the weather permits.”
To this day, no one knows how the men died. Some have postulated the they died one by one from different dangers presented by the harsh Arctic: drowning, injuries, or infection. Others have theorized that their poor diet, failing health, and exhaustion may have made them turn on each other. Still more attribute their ends to simple exhaustion and exposure. One of their toenails, recovered from inside a sock, revealed high levels of lead in their systems, but not enough to account for poisoning. Likewise, Andrée seemed to take effort to save his diaries for posterity before he died, suggesting that he was not in a state of panic, but rather of somber acceptance, as the last bits of life left him.
On October 5, 1930, 33 years after first departing, the remains of Salomon August Andrée, Knut Fraenkel, and Nils Strindberg finally made it home. Five planes and five more destroyers escorted them for the final leg of their journey.
Once they reached Stockholm, King Gustaf V said, “In the name of the Swedish nation, I here greet the dust of the polar explorers who, more than three decades ago, left their native land to find an answer to questions of unparalleled difficulty.”
Ultimately, although the endeavor was a failure, the courage and determination of those three men in the face of insurmountable odds still represents the best of us. Victory isn’t the only standard by which to grade heroism through the lens of hindsight: strength of will, camaraderie, and a willingness to sacrifice for something larger than yourself are also important factors.
It would seem that, despite their best efforts, Andrée foresaw his demise long before he ever set foot in the balloon.
“In the Arctic,” he wrote in 1895, “the cold only kills.”