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Doomed 1897 balloon expedition a lively read

by Robin Mckie

The Observer

In August 1930, the Norwegian ship Bratvaag, carrying a party of scientists and seal-hunters, moored off the tiny Arctic island of Kvitoya. Few humans had ever set foot there — it is extremely remote and usually surrounded by thick pack ice. A couple of sailors began to explore and stumbled on a boat, protruding from a snow drift. Inside they found books, shotguns and instruments. Outside were human remains.

THE ICE BALLOON, by Alec Wilkinson. Vintage, 2013, 256 pp., $15.95 (paperback)

One corpse was wearing a jacket with a monogram that revealed its owner’s identity: S.A. Andree, the Swedish explorer who, with two companions, had set off 33 years earlier, on July 11, 1897, in a hydrogen balloon to discover the North Pole. The men’s diaries showed they had fallen well short of their goal and had perished in October that year, trying to make their way back to civilization.

The bodies of Andree and his companions, Knut Fraenkel and Nils Strindberg, were eventually brought back to Sweden where they were accorded a lavish state funeral. Their remains were cremated without proper medical examination, however, and the omission has since fueled wild speculation about the causes of their deaths. They were well-armed and supplied when they perished. So what killed them?

Suggestions have included suicide, polar bear attacks, scurvy, botulism and lead poisoning from contaminated tinned food.

To his credit, Wilkinson downplays such speculation. As he notes, the three men had dragged extremely heavy sleds over treacherous ice floes for three months when they reached Kvitoya. “The sailors from the Bratvaag … decided that they had died of cold and exhaustion,” he says.

“The Ice Balloon” is a lively read and is at pains to paint Andree in a reasonable light, previous biographers having suggested his expedition was foolhardy and badly planned. In truth, it was no different from so many other fatal polar expeditions of the day.