Death in the Arctic…by Balloon?

In 1897, Salomon August Andrée concocted a daring plan to become the first man to reach the North Pole. Along with two other men, he climbed into a giant hydrogen balloon and set sail from Sweden. But unfortunately, they never reached their destination. What happened to the lost SA Andree expedition?

Crashed Balloon from S. A. Andrée’s Arctic Balloon Expedition of 1897
Photographed by Nils Strindberg (1897)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The SA Andree Arctic Balloon Expedition

In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, countries around the world competed against each other to be the first to reach the North Pole. In many ways, their efforts were similar to those that surrounded the moon landing race of the 1960’s.

At that time, Sweden was a virtual unknown in the world of polar exploration. So, when SA Andrée began fundraising for an expedition to the North Pole, he found an eager audience. His plan was to fly a balloon across the Arctic Sea. On the way, he hoped to pass near to or directly over the North Pole. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences agreed to fund the entirety of his expedition. Luminaries such as King Oscar II and Alfred Nobel also donated to the cause.

SA Andree’s Expedition Vanishes?

On July 11, 1897, SA Andree launched his balloon. Accompanying him were Nils Strindberg, a physicist, chemist, and photographer, along with an engineer named Knut Frænkel. For a short while, nothing was heard from the expedition. Then, a pigeon was shot as it landed on a Norwegian steamer. Upon closer inspection, a message was discovered.

“The Andree Polar Expedition to the ‘Aftonbladet’, Stockholm. July 13 12.30pm, 82 deg. north latitude, 15 deg.5 min. east longitude. Good journey eastwards, 10 deg. south. All goes well on board. This is the third message sent by pigeon. Andrée.”

This message represented Andrée’s final communication. The expedition’s disappearance became an enduring mystery that wasn’t solved for another three decades.

Knut Frænkel and Nils Strindberg from the SA Andree Expedition stand over a Dead Polar Bear
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Discovery of SA Andree’s Lost Expedition?

On August 5, 1930, the crew of the Norwegian vessel Bratvaag landed on Kvitøya, a normally inaccessible island in the Arctic Ocean. They quickly discovered Andrée’s and Strindberg’s skeletons, along with a boat, equipment, and a journal. A later expedition uncovered Frænkel’s remains along with photographic film, a logbook, and maps.

The film and journals told a horrifying tale. The balloon lost hydrogen quickly and crashed after just two days. The men spent the next three months attempting to work their way south, fighting inadequate clothing, poor provisions, and difficult currents. Eventually, they camped on a large ice floe and allowed it to carry them south. However, the floe broke up as it bumped into Kvitøya, forcing the three men to move their camp to the island itself. At that point, Andrée’s diary entries grew increasingly erratic and its assumed that he along with his companions died a short while later.

What killed off the SA Andree Expedition?

Although the bodies were recovered, the mystery of what actually killed the explorers remains unsolved. In his book, De döda på Vitön, Ernst Tryde suggested that the men ate undercooked polar bear meat, causing them to expire from trichinosis. Others point to vitamin A poisoning, carbon monoxide poisoning, lead poisoning, scurvy, botulism, suicide, polar bear attack, hypothermia, and/or general malaise. The most recent work on the subject, performed by Bea Uusma Schyffert, indicates that at least Strindberg died from a polar bear attack.

“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.” ~ Rolf Kjellström

The expedition was ill-fated from the beginning. There were plenty of danger signs even before the launch, all of which were ignored or even covered up by Andrée. In many ways, Andrée appears to be a victim of his own success. His fundraising campaign created tremendous publicity and media pressure. With such expectations, its possible that Andrée felt like he had no other choice but to follow through with his original, poorly-conceived plan. He paid the ultimate price for doing so, as did Nils Strindberg and Knut Frænkel.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

Although the expedition was foolhardy in retrospect, it deserves to be remembered for another reason. Armed with little more than their own ingenuity, Andrée, Strindberg, and Frænkel managed to survive an astonishing three months in some of the toughest terrain known to mankind. Working together, they successfully steered a course south and if it hadn’t been for a run of bad luck, might’ve made it to safety. Yes, their story is one of tragedy. But its also one of inspiration and of perseverance.

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