When almost every tale about the Arctic has been told, when the major explorers have been assessed and re-assessed, when even the most obscure bit-players have been drawn into the light, what is a polar-minded author to do? Publishers can be such tiresome sticklers for novelty, always hankering after books to fire off into some perceived gap in the market. Failing that, they often insist on reputational piggy-backing — the author following in the footsteps of a legendary explorer, urgently intuiting the past, like a cross between a hiking holiday and a séance.
Alec Wilkinson ignores the fashionable justifications. His book does not blare out new revelations and he distinctly does not follow in the footsteps of his subject — quite sensibly, as his subject is Salomon August Andrée, the daring (or, some thought, delusional) Swede who tried to fly to the North Pole in 1897 in a hydrogen balloon. (Andrée promptly vanished into the mist and was never heard of again, at least until 1930, when his remains were found on a barren Arctic island.) Anyway, Andrée’s expedition has already been re-enacted and surpassed by the extraordinary David Hempleman-Adams, who in 2000 became the first person to succeed where Andrée failed.
Wilkinson’s book is really driven by personal curiosity, as he explains. One day his wife found a photograph in a ‘slim English book’ called Ballooning, captioned ‘Andrée’s balloon on the ice’. ‘Who was Andrée, I wondered?’ writes Wilkinson. ‘How had he come to be standing beside this ruined contraption, and where was this forlorn place? What had he intended? And what happened to the men in the photograph?’ The Ice Balloon seeks to answer these questions, which have been posed and answered countless times over, but Wilkinson wants — and fair enough — to pose and answer them for himself.
He begins with a brief history of the early exploration of the far North, which, it must be said, contains some quite worrying errors. For example, the classical navigator Pytheas did not ‘live in the third century BC’. Neither did Alexander the Great and Aristotle. There are a few slips of this order and they troubled this reader at least.
However, by the 19th century, Wilkinson is on firmer ground. He sets the scene for Andrée’s particular disaster by describing a few preceding fiascos, such as the Franklin and Greely expeditions, which degenerated into suspected cannibalism. He is adept at interweaving primary sources, mainly explorers’ diaries and letters, into a gripping narrative.
Andrée’s idea was to let the prevailing winds blow a hydrogen balloon from Svalbard over the North Pole towards Russia, Canada or Alaska, he hoped. Fridtjof Nansen, the Norwegian explorer, had recently gone further towards the Pole than anyone else by allowing his ship to be trapped in the Arctic sea ice and drawn north by the current. (Though a ship was a rather more tried and tested mode of Arctic transport than a balloon.) Andrée gained powerful support from the King of Sweden and Alfred Nobel, among others. Yet after an initial, abortive attempt, one of Andrée’s team, Nils Ekholm, decided the enterprise was doomed. Undeterred, Andrée replaced him, and in July 1897 he set off from Svalbard in the same balloon (‘the Eagle’), with Nils Strindberg and Knut Frænkel.
They drifted north for two days, the balloon lost hydrogen, sank, they crash-landed on the frozen ocean. They spent the next three months struggling towards land. In early October they arrived on Kvitøya, Svalbard, where they died. Wilkinson writes: ‘When they died isn’t known … what killed them isn’t known either, or even if they died from the same cause.’ Another ‘peripheral mystery is the order of their deaths’. There have been many theories, from the media speculation immediately following Andrée’s disappearance to Ernst Tryde in the 1950s, who argued that they died of trichinosis from uncooked polar bear meat, to Per Olof Sundman’s docu-novel, The Flight of the Eagle, which pours a fair amount of scorn on Andrée, to Hempleman-Adams’s more sympathetic version of events, At the Mercy of the Winds.
If Wilkinson does not add much that is new to the story, he re-tells it with panache and compassion nonetheless. He ends with a poignant image of Andrée as an idealistic young man, ‘lost in thinking about the currents of the air’. With this, he touches on the pathos and suicidal daring of so many expeditions of this period. Confronted by the unknown territories around the Pole, explorers sent themselves off, as we now send probes into space, searching for anything, committed to discovery at any cost.