The Strange, Mysterious Story of the Balloon Expedition to the North Pole

S. A. Andrée and Knut Fraenkel beside their crashed balloon in the arctic
S. A. Andrée and Knut Fraenkel beside their crashed balloon in the arctic

by Wendy Graham

August 5, 1930 — S. A. Andrée’s balloon polar expedition of 1897 seems foolhardy and doomed to failure to modern eyes. The aim, to cross over the North Pole in 43 hours in a hydrogen balloon then journey on to land seems incredible. But this was the age of polar exploration, of new engineering marvels and with the financial support of the Swedish King Oscar II and Alfred Nobel anything must have appeared possible.

S. A. Andrée was a Swedish engineer not a polar explorer. Captivated by balloons since the Chicago World Fair in 1893, he had had his own built to practise in. He was also not without some polar experience, he was part of a 1882–83 geophysical expedition to Spitbergen headed by Nils Ekholm who liked him enough to join his first attempt with the balloon in 1896.

After the delay of a year and preparations that including building a 5-storey house to contain the balloon, Andrée’s expedition set off on the 11th July from Danes Island on the Svalbard Archipelago of Norway. Andrée was 43 years old, his crew of three included Nils Strindberg a 23 year old assistant physics professor and 27 year old Knut Fraenkel, a civil engineer.

Andrée’s balloon lost much of its steering capabilities just after launch when a number of drag ropes fell from the craft and ballast sand was thrown overboard. The remaining ropes could be seen trailing in the water till the balloon vanished out of sight. And that was the last anyone heard or saw of the trio for more than 30 years.

Discovery came on the 5th August 1930 when the Norwegian Bratvaag expedition found remains on White Island, on the Svalbard archipelago, of a headless body, disturbed by polar bears propped up against a rock. Further investigations by a journalist revealed the bodies of both his companions and diaries detailing much of their ordeal. A camera was also found, and 93 eerie negatives developed of their tragic journey.

So what had happened to the expedition and perhaps more mysteriously what actually killed the explorers? Andrée’s diary reveals that at first the balloon kept bumping against the ice and more ballast soon had to be thrown overboard. Three days into the expedition the balloon had gotten too low and its crew got out, having travelled by this time 517 miles, they were then still 300 miles south of the Pole.

Andrée’s team took a week to pack their sledges before setting off for a pre-arranged supplies deposit on Franz Josef Land in Russia. However the team only ended up further west on the drifting ice floes no matter what ground they covered. Injuries and hardship set in, Fraenkel began to suffer from snow blindness by the end of July and a month later he and Andree both had the runs and were taking opium. By the 17th September an injured foot of Fraenkel led to an attempt to set up camp on the ice and they built an ice house, only for it to be destroyed when their ice floe broke up. Finally, they reached White Island in early October. Andrée’s last diary entry is the 8th October and the largely unpacked state of their camp implies they died not long after this.

What actually killed them remains the greatest mystery and the subject of a number of competing theories. Was it botulism, poisoning from their tin cans, vitamin-A poisoning from eating polar-bear liver or even a murder suicide pact through opium or gunshot wounds have all been suggested. Although they had shot and killed several polar bears they did know not to eat the poisonous livers. Their diaries suggest exhaustion but not spirits low enough to end it on purpose and perhaps in the end sheer physical and mental exhaustion was the true cause. The trio had survived 3 months in the arctic, most of it on ice, for which they were only partly prepared. The wonder is that they managed to survive that long.

The remains of the expedition were brought home to Stockholm to a grand procession, where they were feted as national heroes. Modern opinion views their tale with a more critical eye but still marvels at their spirit of adventure, endurance and ultimately tragic end.

Published: May 23, 2018

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