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Arctic Explorations: The 1897 Ice Balloon

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There are three words that do not belong together in that title – Arctic, Balloon and Expedition.

Yet in 1897 a Swedish engineer, aeronaut, physicist and ultimately polar explorer Salomon August Andree, commonly called Andree, tried to do exactly that, cross the Arctic in a hydrogen-filled balloon to be the first to reach the North Pole.

If it did not have pictures I would not have believed it.

I knew about the world-wide obsession during the late nineteenth century for reaching the North Pole, first. There was a reason it was referred to as the Heroic Age of Polar Exploration.

I had never heard of this balloon attempt. From the beginning the warning signs were there that this was such a bad idea, but ego, ideology and just getting caught up in the moment of making history won out at the end of the day.

He had enough sense to not do it alone though, he took two others with him on his doomed mission – Knut Ferdinand Fraenkel and Nils Strindberg.

Nils was the photographer and responsible for the photographic record of the trip and Knut was responsible for the written and highly detailed protocols of everything that the participants did.

The photos recovered nearly four decades after they left are downright haunting, yet fascinating and in a sense, strange.

Despite the bad planning to go right along with the bad idea, the journey they took, and revealed in the photos and journals found, is pretty darn epic, even though their journey was cut short.

 "It is quite unusual to float just above the Arctic Sea. Be the first to rise here in the balloon. How soon, I'm curious, will have successors? Whether you consider us for fools, whether they will follow our example? Can not deny, all three we cool feeling of pride. We think that we can put to death after what we have done, Is not it may express a very strong sense of individuality which can not bear the thought of dying a like an ordinary man, forgotten by the next generation? Is it ambition?"[8]

From Andrees Journals

The pictures do not show depressed and defeated men and the writings do not show of any ill will, blame or finger-pointing between them after ninety incredibly stressful days.

Their tale is one of tragedy to be sure but it also speaks of perseverance, inspiration and passion.

The Men Who Thought This Was A Fine Idea

Salmon August Andree

Andree was the one who devised the idea to let the wind power a hydrogen balloon across the Arctic Sea to the North Pole. He is also the one who planned it, fundraise for it and was the poster boy for the expedition. He was also a die-hard balloonist.

It was during a trip in 1876 that he met the American balloonist John Wise and as Andree later wrote “taught him the ABCs” of ballooning and even showed him his shop were balloons were created. Years later he would have a chance to learn about aerodynamics with Georges Besancon. Then years later still he would have a chance to go aloft with Francesco Cetti, a Norwegian balloonist. Of the experience in a balloon he wrote,

'I felt no sense of dizziness, not even when I leaned over the railing at the highest point of our flight and looked right down into the deep,'[8]

Salomon Andree was hooked and for the rest of his life ballooning would be his passion.

Leader of Expedition
During earlier years he had gone on an expedition and during that time he published some scientific journals on air electricity, conduction of heat and on a range of inventions. He was a believer in technology and industry, in inventions and gadgets.

In 1893 with the help of public support, he purchased his first balloon. On one of his first expeditions, out of the nine he took, he found himself drifted out into the open waters, far from shore. He had to make a hasty crash landing on some rocky islands when his balloon started to skim and jump along the water's surface. He was rescued the next day by a fisherman whose wife thought the end of the world was coming when she saw the balloon go down.

On another trip the winds blew him clean across the Baltic to Finland, and during the entire 'ride' he remained convinced he was still in Sweden, travelling over land and the endless water below was a lake, despite hearing the waves.

Andree was a Swede touched by the music of the sirens of the North, he believed his intrepid spirit, ballooning skills and technological background would see him through this crazy idea of his, safely.

Knut Hjalmer Ferdinand Fraenkel

The son of a major in the Army Corps, engineering division, he grew up to become a Swedish explorer and civil engineer. From a young age he was attracted to outdoor sports, activities and living which is no surprise when you grow up in a mountainous region, likely what drew him to exploration as well.

Knut Fraenkel
Following in his fathers footsteps he was preparing to enter the Army engineering corps when his path suddenly veered off in an opportunity to join an expedition that was going to attempt to cross the Arctic in a hydrogen-filled balloon.

He was actually the second choice, originally the meteorologist was Nils Gustaf Ekholm who had concerns and left the expedition before it got started in 1897. In the beginning his role was meteorological based but quickly his role included the recording of everything that went on, in the written word. He was meticulous and detailed, eager and perfect for the role.

He was the only one on the team who had any real significant polar experience[1].

Nils Strindberg

The youngest member on the team and the photographer as well, his main role was to create a photographic aerial record of the arctic, which could be used to not only prove they flew over the arctic, but also in the creation of maps, in which Strindberg

Nils and his Fiancee
was said to be quite brilliant with. Nils also was educated in physics and chemistry and was considered a scientist.

He was the first to die. 

It is his last photos and journals that document the last unknown part of their journey. The letter that he wrote to his fiance Anna Charlier had more than just details of what was going on but also showed a deeply personal side and gave the mission, after they died, a sense of humanity.

Anna when she died, had been married at the time, had her heart cremated separately and buried near Nils.

The Plan, The Popularity, The Problems

The last half of the nineteenth century is often referred to as the Heroic Age of Polar Exploration. Sweden was lagging behind the other countries – like Norway whom they considered to be subordinate to them - and as such had unrealized ambitions.

The Svea Expedition
Political powers, scientific elite and the high social classes felt it was Sweden's due to be the leading country in polar exploration. It was this environment that Andree, a natural fundraiser and a speaker of some persuasion, pitched his far-fetched and relatively crazy idea of using a hydrogen balloon to travel from Sweden to either Russia or Canada and hop over the North Pole while they were at it.

The idea was warmly embraced with patriotic joy by not only the politicians, scientists and elite, but also by the common man. Interest in this project took on a life of its own and seen money roll it from the likes of the King of Sweden Oscar the II, Alfred Nobel, Baron Dickenson and many more. Interest was not just local but also international.

Failure was not an option. This was now a matter of national pride. Ego's, careers and lots of money were at stake.

I think every human being in the world has been so so excited about something that you don't see the problems, the signs of trouble that are crystal clear and Andree was either blinded by excitement, fame and ideology or flat-out ignored all the signals from the beginning that this was not going to work. The problems just kept adding up, and he kept on ignoring them.

First there was the problem associated with ballooning in general, and it was an important part, steering the balloon. The balloon itself was delivered and never tested before being used in the expedition. Access to hydrogen was troublesome and finally the logistical pickle of housing three men, supplies, equipment and beds in one basket.

Balloon Making

He attacked these issues one by one all the while maintaining an upbeat and positive appearance for the news papers and the public. 

He decided to create and test a system he had invented using drag ropes. The use of drag ropes had been done before, but he felt he tweaked it just right and had a solid understanding of it.

Despite feeble and questionable testing, international criticisms - by those who had a long history of ballooning such as France and Germany, both said it was unreliable on its best day – he went ahead and used it anyways. Just like with his earlier ballooning exploits, other people's objections and concern did not hamper his enthusiasm or his plans. 

The balloon he used was first called the North Pole, then it was called the Ornen or the Eagle. When it came time to have the balloon made, it was delivered directly to the site of the launch, Svalbard, and was never tested before being used. When measurements were taken, during preparations, Andree refused to acknowledge the leak they discovered were anything to worry about. It was about this time that the original meteorologist chosen - Nils Ekholm - voiced concerns and refused to fly without a new balloon – one without eight million stitch holes leaking hydrogen.

Transporting the hydrogen to the launch site from Sweden meant thousands of extra dollars in costs and a cheaper alternative was chosen: making their own gas on the Arctic islands they were launching from.

The plan was to fly the balloon for up to thirty days. Special consideration had to be given to the basket that was to hold three grown men, sleeping berths, stores and provisions, scientific equipment, personal gear, camera equipment and guns for thirty days. Not to mention that hydrogen is highly flammable and cooking could not be done in the basket. 

Preparations
The wicker basket was roughly six and a half feet wide and five feet deep. It was similar looking to a circular gondola and held the three sleeping berths, all science equipment and guns, food for four months, a collapsible boat, snow sleds, sails, carriers for the messenger pigeons and an extra thirty-six bags of food for emergency. The stove had to be modified so that it could be dangled twenty-six feet from the basket, but lit from the basket, at a safe distance from the hydrogen. An attached mirror let them know whether it was lit or not.

The 1896 Attempt

The other two companions on this journey were not added till spring summer of 1896 when the first attempt was made. And glaring new issues and problems arose.

Nils Ekholm was an experienced Arctic meteorological researcher and Nils Strindberg was not only a brilliant student in chemistry and physics but also a photographer. A team with scientific and technological skills that would prove highly useful and only add to the chances of success.

One small problem – all the men were bookish, indoor, lack physical prowess and none had any significant training for survival in the Arctic. Only the photographer was young. Andree, in his wisdom felt brains, and not brawn were needed, it was going to be a easy voyage in a basket taking pictures and other meteorological readings.

On June 7th the three of them started the journey to Danes Island arriving early on the 21st. They were held up for four days on the journey to Danes Island and as such, the crew set to work as soon as they arrived.

The Balloon House
The hangar, or balloon house was ninety-five feet long and two hundred feet high, it had been built back in Sweden and then disassembled in chunks to be reassembled at the launch site, it was put back together with bolts – could this be the first ikea type product in history!. Others were unloading the ship of the cargo using logs laid in a path from the ship to the hanger, the equipment was heavy, the terrain not terribly friendly to walking and logs allowed the ship to be unloaded quicker.

Six days after arriving the balloon was ready for launch – they only needed a southerly breeze. But it was not to be, the winds blew steadily north.

We know today that at Danes Island, it is always a northerly breeze. But the information and knowledge on airflow and precipitation in the Arctic only existed in scientific debates and no one knew the answer – so few have been to the Arctic there was no way they could have known.

By August 3rd Andree lamented in his diary,

'Everything is in order, and we are only waiting for a suitable wind….If only nature would contribute its share, the thing would soon be done.'[8]

Time was of the essence and it was blowing away quickly. The short polar season window had closed by August 20th and the camp was packed and loaded back on the Virgo ship that brought them here and they returned to Sweden.

Ekholm after returning home grew more skeptical of the balloons capabilities. His own testing and measurements confirmed, to him at least, that the balloon would not be able to keep enough hydrogen for travel to the North Pole, never mind Russia or Canada. He estimated that the balloon would only last a little over two weeks at most, he told Andree, get a new balloon or he would not be a part of the 1897 attempt.

Andree did not respond with his usual optimism and in fact was deceptive about the concerns of Ekholm. In order to convince Ekholm that the balloon was safe to use he hydrogen planted his tests by adding extra hydrogen to the balloon when Ekholm was not around.

Balloon Preparation

Many modern historians believe this was a sign that Andree himself was snared in the net of his own creation. Media and sponsors – including royalty and big scientific names – followed the expeditions every move, delay and setback. Having been sent off with such clamour, all the money donated for it and nothing came of it. Perhaps worse, was another rival polar explorer[5] returned successful in their boat expedition whereas Andree couldn't even get off the ground. It is not too far a stretch to think he was unable to face the press and admit to flaws in either planning, design or execution.

With the older more critical Ekholm leaving, it only strengthened Andree's leadership when he replaced him with the younger more enthusiastic Knut Fraenkel.

And Andree was dead set on making this attempt successful. He had no problems kicking up the finance campaign and getting subscribers, again.

The 1897 Expedition

Launch, Flight and Landing

There was fanfare when leaving Sweden a second time a year later in 1897 and when they arrived at Danskoya (Danes Island), they were pleased to see the balloon house survived the winters and was in good condition. They set to work once again preparing for the balloons second attempt.

Balloon Leak Test

By July 11th 1897, there was a brisk southerly breeze whipping against the balloons skin and straining the ropes that held her down. All around was hectic activity as the explorers double checked their lists, workers continued to set up and prepare for launch. The final checklist for cargo included, amazingly, fifty-five pounds of chocolate cake and crates of champagne – they were ready to succeed and celebrate.

Andree dictated some last-minute messages to the media, Aftonbladet paper held the rights to the story, another to the King Oscar and a few other supporters. With a steady wind from the south-west, the three explorers climbed into the basket, or car as it was sometimes called, and ordered the support team on the ground to cut the last of the ropes holding the balloon down.

Rising slowly, due to weight, the balloon strode over the water at a low height. The drag ropes that were to be used for steering that hung over the basket and down on to the water and ice as a way to control speed and direction, pulled the supply laden basket lower and with a couple of dips along the water's surface. 

Last Ground Photo

Likely due to all the international criticism of the rope drag system he developed, a new safety feature had been added, reluctantly, and the idea behind it was to allow the occupants in the basket to quick release the ropes in the even they did get tangled or stuck on something and needed to be dropped or disengaged quickly. The safety device was based on a screwing motion, and not having to cut at them.

Unfortunately, when the balloon took off, the friction from the ground caused the ropes to spin and twist causing two of the three ropes to fall off nearly immediately after take off. At the same time the ropes fell the crew could be seen dumping sand over the side in trying to get the basket higher from the water.

At least one thousand six hundred and thirty pounds of weight were shed in minutes of take off. They were not even clear of the launch site yet and the special designed steerable balloon now had no steering, not enough ballast (the ropes and sand) to keep it stable and with the balloons load lightened they found themselves rising to about two thousand and three hundred feet into the sky. Not too terrible a problem this height, had they a balloon that didnt leak but as it was the height only helped the hydrogen-filled balloon's eight million little holes to lose hydrogen even quicker.

1897 Take Off

The people on Danskoya watched the balloon for about an hour or so as it got smaller and smaller.

The balloon did alright for ten hours and twenty-nine minutes, it spent another forty-one hours giving the occupants a bumpy ride, frequently skidding across the Arctic ice. Notes indicate that about ten hours after takeoff the balloon ran into a storm with powerful winds and rain.

Between the wind, rain and cold causing ice to form on the balloon, the not so perfect launch and the upcoming forty-one hour-long bumpy ride skidding across the Arctic ice, Andree figured out they were not going to make it anywhere near the pole. But that is purely my opinion.

The crash was not exactly a crash as much the basket simply ceased to bump along the ice. No one was injured, the birds were alive with only a ruffled feather or two, the sensitive scientific equipment and Nils cameras were undamaged. It was not a crash, it was an unwanted landing. 

When the balloon was airborne it had two means of communication .... buoys and homing pigeons. The buoys were waterproof cylinders that could be dropped over the side and 'float home' and the pigeons were given to them by the newspaper Aftonbladet and were Norwegian trained (thus use to the cold).

Messages were only ever retrieved from two buoys and one pigeon, they indicate co-ordinates, jovial mood and optimistic outlook. The first buoyed was dropped a few hours after take-off and the second was dropped an hour after that. The main difference was the first message stated they were at two hundred and fifty meters altitude, the second said they were at six hundred meters altitude. The one pigeon message that was retrieved, by a steamer who shot the bird to eat and noticed the message attached, indicated that this was the third pigeon sent and the message was dated July 13th and repeated the optimism found in the cylinder messages.

Crash

None of the retrieved messages indicated any problems, any of the issues encountered on launching and there was no mention of the desperate-ness of the situation (unstable balloon, too high, losing to much hydrogen, stormy weather and the constant threat of crashing) that was mentioned in Andrees main diary.

They had covered two hundred and ninety-five miles of air and were now stranded and floundering on pack ice after three days or so of being in being in the balloon – it was July 14th. Three days since launch.

The balloon was well stocked, not for a foot journey, but had things that could be used – extra food supplies, guns, tents, a portable boat and sleds. Andree had even had the foresight to arrange for two extra depots of emergency supplies. Using the sleds, they prepared to move to one of these depots.

Travelling on Foot

They spent a week in a tent at the crash site making decisions about the upcoming trek including what to bring, how much to bring and where to go. They had two options, and interestingly enough the North Pole was not one of them, they could go towards Franz Joseph Land, the larger of the two, or the other direction towards Seven Islands, both having depots of food and ammunition. Choosing the larger one, since they were roughly equal distances from where the expedition presently was

Campsite After the Crash

It was during this week that a goodly portion of the photos taken by Nils were shot, including twelve photos that recreate a panoramic of the crash site.

The balloon had carried a lot of food that was suitable for the balloon but not very suitable for trekking – including cases of champagne, port, beer and much was in cans such as sausages, cheese and condensed milk. Some of it was tossed over in the early stages of the flight when they needed to lighten the load, Andree reasoned it was as good to them on the ground as the sand was.

Having taken essentially everything else, they stacked it up on to three sleds, hundreds of pounds of equipment, food, supplies on each sled that had to be pulled by the men and headed out for Franz Joseph Land, it was July 22nd.

Building a Boat
Within a week, they had to re-sort the supplies as the weight, the ground and the conditions were causing the sleds to break and exhausting the men. Ditching non-essential equipment, some food and other gear they brought the packs weight from over four hundred pounds to just over two hundred and fifty. Though with the loss of food, they had to hunt seals and polar bear along the way and that added considerable weight and effort as well.

By August 4th, they realized they were not getting anywhere and switched directions to head for Seven Islands, the second depot. The terrain was rougher than the previous hike the other way, but it did have open water they could boat in - the boat, not designed by Andree, had no flaws and even Andree commented on how nice it was to use. Part way into their six or seven week journey towards the second depot, the winds turned and made it nearly impossible for them to continue

After two months of hiking, they set up an igloo and camp right there on the ice floe, it was September 12th

From the beginning of this expedition problems plagued it incessantly, the leader Andrees had shown (to us looking back at least) a lack of foresight and was incapable of seeing risks associated with this attempt. And this followed them into the Arctic.

NIls and a Sled
The sleds were built to sturdily and were difficult to move along the bumpy ground of ice and snow, it was a fatal design flaw to ignore the long proven indigenous people's ways and methods of travelling and surviving out in the Arctic. Andree described the area as dreadful with high ridges, channels separating the ice floes and the rough terrain was littered with iced over small ponds.

The clothing they wore was sufficient for a flyover including warm woolens, trousers and oil skins, but was not sufficient for a trek on the ground. They used the oilskins but still reported that the foggy and humid air in the Arctic combined with the barely iced over water pools left them in a constant state of moistness. They had no furs with them.

And these were academics, not rugged northern explorers, or southern ones for that matter. They were not the type to do hard labour. Their understanding of ballooning and the arctic was entirely theory based, they had no significant experience to draw from to survive on the land. Yet despite all that, camp living went well, for about three weeks. They maintained detailed and accurate notes of their time on the floe.

Ice floes can be small broken pieces of sea ice or densely packed ice that can be small in size or vast. Sea ice does not freeze and melt, repeat. It has a life cycle or stages that are seasonal. Regardless its size and how solid it seems to be, ice floes are not frozen land.

Camp Site
On October 2nd, as is the nature of ice floes, it started to break up, right under their hut.

The floe was pressing up against Kvitoya, an island, and that is where they spent the next couple of days moving all their gear to. "Morale remains good", reports Andrée at the end of the coherent part of his diary, "With such comrades one should be able to manage under, I may say, any circumstances.”

Nils books yielded entries for October 2nd, 5th and 6th. Rsepectively “We moved to the mainland”, “We follow the snow storm” and “Moving”. Frankel who had been meticulous, diligent and fanatical about record taking wrote no more notes after October 3 whether personal or observational. Andree's books were essentially destroyed and yielded very little other than fragments of words.

This is their last reliable record.

It's believed they died within days or weeks of getting to the island, no matter what the men had gone through they were meticulous about their notes and maintained them right up until they landed on Kvitoya, thus the assumption of death soon after landing, but really we do not know why they stopped or how they died.

Discovery of Lost Remains

"Posterity has expressed surprise that they died on Kvitøya, surrounded by food, the surprise is rather that they found the strength to live so long" [8]

A Norwegian Expedition in August of 1930 that was studying the seas and glaciers from a sealing vessel called the Bratvaag of Alesund stumbled upon the remains. The team of Nils, Andree and Knut were in an area of land that is often inaccessible to sealing and whaling ships due to a thick polar ice belt that was often wide and hidden by fogs.

The Terrain

However, the summer of 1930 had been unusually warm, it was ice-free and the fog was quite thin; those on the Bratvaag jumped at a rare chance to land on the Kvitoya Island to hunt walrus. Two of the sealers, Olav Salen and Karl Tuvick found a boat frozen under a mount of snow and full of equipment. A boat hook was retrieved and brought back to the ship, it was engraved with the words, Andree Polar Expedition 1896.

Returning to the captain with the hook, he knew exactly who Andree was and his expedition. Captain Peder Eliassen sent the men back to continue searching. They uncovered a journal and two skeletons that were identified as Strindberg and Andree based on the monogrammed letters in their clothing. The Bratvaag had to leave and continue its original mission.

The news hit Sweden of the find. And true to form, the media began its frenzy to be the first to report it. A sealing sloop chartered by news reports attempted to waylay the Bratvaag – likely to get photos of the bodies, artifacts and first hand accounts of the discovery, before anyone else. They failed and missed the boat, so they went to Kvitoya instead.

September 5th they landed on Kvitoya and searched the area ... they found Frankels body and more artifacts including: a tin box with Strindbergs film, his maps and logbook. Like the Bratvaag before them, they turned everything over to a scientific commission of both Norwegian and Swedish governments.

When everything was said and done they retrieved log books, diaries, film and, journals that all filled in the last of the details, despite sitting out in the Arctic for thirty-three years. They also retrieved items from the expedition such as cooking utensils, a hatchet, camera, sleeping bags, one of the sleds with some gear and clothing on it, the stove with kerosene still in it, shotgun and on Andrees body was found a book, pencil and pedometer.

Virgo the Ship Arriving

When the expedition grounded to the ice on July 14, 1897 Strindberg's cameras recorded the constant danger and drudgery of trekking on the ice and ultimately trying to live on it. He took roughly 200 photos over the course of ninety days with his fifteen pound camera; of which ninety-three were recovered. Andree had a main diary, Strindbergs diary and letters to his fiancee which was much more personal and emotion filled than the other two and Fraenkel had kept records of observations, details and personal notes in his meteorological journals.

All of which found its way eventually into a museum. These three men may have failed in their expedition's goals, but they were heroes to the people of Switzerland, despite modern assessments on Andree's character and the faults of the entire expedition from day one.

The three explorers arrived back in Sweden for a grand funeral with honors. Strindberg's then fiancee had waited over thirteen years for him to come home before she remarried. She was unable to attend the funeral and Nils brother, sent the letters he wrote to her before dying, to her.

The three men were interred in the cemetery Norra begravningsplatsen in Stockholm.

Cause of death

In the book Unsolved Mysteries of the Arctic, arctic explorer and writer Steffenson theorizes that Nils died chasing a polar bear possibly drowning in the attempt – based on an assessment of the clothes retrieved, and that both Fraenkel and Andree died of monoxide poisoning from the modified stove. Why else would there still be kerosene in it when found thirty-three years later.

The 1952 book The Dead on White Island, written by Danish physician Ernst Tryde, book theorized that the explorers died due to tainted polar bear meat containing Trichinella parasites. This conclusion came after the doctor and author tested polar bear meat found near the bodies.

The Three Men from  1897 Expedition

Historians have speculated on exhaustion, suicide and hypothermia, but the truth is we have no proof one way or the other really.

Nils may have died by polar bear attack and the other two ate the bear and died from the parasites.

The cause of death is not verifiable any longer and can only be hypothesized. The bodies were cremated without further examination when they returned to Sweden in 1930.

This expedition was foolhardy and doomed from the start, in retrospect I think that is plain. But to survive ninety days with little more than your own wits, no experience to draw from and little of the proper supplies is quite astonishing.

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Bibliography

  1. "Salomon August Andree Biography." Aviation History. 27/09/2014 <Web >
  2. "Photo Collection." Grenna Museum. 26/09/2014 <Web >
  3. Alan Bellows "Andrée and the Aeronauts' Voyage to the Top of the World." Damn Interesting. 27/09/2014 <Web >
  4. David Meyer "Death in the Arctic by Balloon." Guerilla Explorer. 26/09/2014 <Web >
  5. Michelle Legro "The Ice Balloon." Brain Pickings. 27/09/2014 <Web >
  6. "The Andrée Expedition: A doomed experiment." Scott Polar Research Institute. 27/09/2014 <Web >
  7. Ethan Trex " The Disastrous North Pole Balloon Mission of 1897." Mental Floss. 27/09/2014 <Web >
  8. "The Mystery of Andree ." PRISM - Polar Radar for Ice Sheet Measurements. 26/09/2014 <Web >

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