Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Andree's Arctic Balloon Expedition

On July 11, 1897, Swedish balloonist Salomon August Andree set off on a mission to explore the North Pole via hot air balloon. On board with Andree were his engineer Knut Frænkel and a photographer named Nils Strindberg, who was a second cousin to the playwright August Strindberg.

The journey was cursed, due entirely to Andree's irrational decisions and unpreparedness. He refused to hear advice that the drag-rope steering technique he had invented for the balloon could be ineffective, and as it turned out the question was moot anyhow: the gondola immediately lost two of its three dangling ropes that Andree intended to function as a sort of rudder by providing drag against the ice. The system probably would not have worked well had they not lost the ropes, but without them, the balloon was virtually impossible to steer.

Only 295 miles into the trip, they were forced to make an emergency landing on floating drift ice after encountering storms. From there, they attempted to head East but after two months of trekking, they found they actually gone West because the unstable ice mass they were on was drifting backwards as they moved forwards. This not only wasted two months of time, it physically and mentally exhausted the explorers.

They finally reached the shores of Kvitøya Island but died shortly thereafter. Their diary entries stop just days after arriving on land, and just prior the men had all complained of severe diarrhea - now believed to have been the cause of their deaths, via ingestion of polar bear flesh carrying Trichinella parasites. Another theory is that they committed suicide by overdosing on opium, which they brought with them in plentiful quantity. Indeed, the final pages of the diary become incoherent and seemingly insane.

The expedition became a national mystery for Sweden, much like the Amelia Earhart disappearance is for Americans. For the next 33 years, the fate of Andree and his men was shrouded in mystery. Then in 1930, The Norwegian Bratvaag Expedition, conducting a scientific study of glaciers, found the remains of the Andree expedition.

A tin box containing Strindberg's photographic film plates was recovered, and the photographs were developed from them 33 years after they were taken. The image of the crash-landed balloon below is one of them.

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