The Ice Balloon

By ALEC WILKINSON

At the opening of the 20th century, the North Pole lay unreached. Over 1,000 men had given the pole their best shot, by ship and sledge, without success, while 751 of them died in the trying. Only one team had the audacity to make the attempt in a balloon. They died, too.

 Commanding the balloon was S. A. Andrée, a thirty-three year old Swede. Andrée was an engineer by training and a firm believer in lighter-than-air travel. He had run the numbers. Leaving from the Spitsbergen archipelago, he and his two compatriots would float the 600 miles to the pole in forty-three hours. A week later they would make landfall in Asia or Alaska, or maybe even San Francisco. Andrée packed a tuxedo just in case. You’ve got to admire his moxie – even as you wince at the fate-tempting presumption. The year was 1897.

Andrée is just the kind of eccentric traveler to whom Alec Wilkinson takes a shine, someone who confronts the world on his own terms because he can’t imagine doing it any other way. Wilkinson tells Andrée’s story in The Ice Balloon with economy and finish, light on its earthly feet while sharply administering the piquant stab that attends so many accounts of  polar exploration.  Time and place snap into focus: the North Pole, a land of severe, sacred purity, a capricious territory where romance, trial, and mysticism merged, and the pole was at its pitiless heart; the late-19th century, when selfless heroism was still on the table and the mood still “receptive to the enactment of myths.”

Though more is known about the Andrée misadventure than might be expected, it doesn’t quite convey the full misery of Arctic travel, so Wilkinson fills in the gaps with the aches and stings of other expeditions, which make for fine, grim reading as debacle trips over fiasco. There are Adolphus Greely’s 1881-1884 Ellesmere Island troubles — “Elison’s frostbitten fingers fell off.”; “To rest before leaving, Rice shared a sleeping bag with Linn, who was dead.” And Fridtjof Nansen’s errant quest nine years later: “Johansen grabbed the bear by the throat.” On the plus side, there were more northern lights than you could shake an ice axe at, and sunlight streaming ‘through icebergs as if through a prism, turning them different colors.”

Andrée’s expedition left both journals and diaries, but their formal doughtiness doesn’t give a peek into what had to be a nightmare. The balloon was a disastrous conveyance, rising and falling, bumping along the ground, and finally dumping the men to hell-and-gone in the high Arctic. “Our position is not specially good,” Andrée writes when he learns they must spend winter on a crumbling ice floe. “Joking and smiling are not of ordinary occurrence.”

Wilkinson makes the most of these scant means. He draws a gatheringly bleak picture — accompanied, amazingly, by a few existential photographs taken by the expeditionaries — to play against Andrée’s stiff upper lip. But shortly after Andrée and company found a tatty island on which to rest their weary bones, the words stopped. They vanished into thin air, much as the men had thirty-three years before their headless bodies were found — “bears had disturbed the remains” — which was about thirty-three years more than Andrée had expected to be gone.