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Andrée and the Aeronauts' Voyage to the Top of the World

Article #351 • Written by Alan Bellows

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On the 11th of July 1897, the world breathlessly awaited word from the small Norwegian island of Danskøya in the Arctic Sea. Three gallant Swedish scientists stationed there were about to embark on an enterprise of history-making proportions, and newspapers around the globe had allotted considerable ink to the anticipated adventure. The undertaking was led by renowned engineer Salomon August Andrée, and he was accompanied by his research companions Nils Strindberg and Knut Fraenkel.

In the shadow of a 67-foot-wide spherical hydrogen balloon--one of the largest to have been built at that time--toasts were drunk, telegrams to the Swedish king were dictated, hands were shook, and notes to loved ones were pressed into palms. "Strindberg and Fraenkel!" Andrée cried, "Are you ready to get into the car?" They were, and they dutifully ducked into the four-and-a-half-foot tall, six-foot-wide carriage suspended from the balloon. The whole flying apparatus had been christened the "Örnen," the Swedish word for "Eagle."

"Cut away everywhere!" Andrée commanded after clambering into the Eagle himself, and the ground crew slashed at the lines binding the balloon to the Earth. Hurrahs were offered as the immense, primitive airship pulled away from the wood-plank hangar and bobbed ponderously into the atmosphere. Their mission was to be the first humans to reach the North Pole, taking aerial photographs and scientific measurements along the way for future explorers. If all went according to plan they would then touch down in Siberia or Alaska after a few weeks' flight, laden with information about the top of the world.

Onlookers watched for about an hour as the voluminous sphere shrank into the distance and disappeared into northerly mists. Andrée, Strindberg, and Fraenkel would not arrive on the other side of the planet as planned. But their journey was far from over.

Salomon August Andrée
Salomon August Andrée

Salomon August Andrée was reared in an age where men were measured by the breadth of their daring and the length of their mustaches--and he intended to demonstrate that he was an impressive specimen in both respects. As an employee of the Swedish patent office he had established himself as a serious physicist and inventor, but he cemented his reputation for audacity by becoming a self-styled aeronaut--the pilot of manned hydrogen balloons. Balloons were the only mode of manned flight that existed in his day, but the persnickety gas bags were steered by the whims of the winds, which made them ineffective for anyone with a particular destination in mind.

The engineer in Andrée sought to remedy this shortcoming, and he used his personal hydrogen balloon to experiment with solutions. He flew as high as five miles over Sweden, field-testing steering systems while huffing supplementary oxygen from a rubber tube. His experiments led him to believe that the upper atmosphere contained a "magnificent, regular system of winds, which only waited for aerial vessels." Finally by 1895 he developed what he felt was a competent apparatus for converting an ordinary hydrogen balloon into a steerable airship--a proper dirigible. It coupled a system of rudder-like “drag-ropes” with a series of wind-sails to theoretically afford the balloon some degree of influence over its direction.

Andrée began to promote his idea for a balloon-based polar mapping expedition by delivering spirited speeches to scientific assemblies. The people adopted the proposal with patriotic fervor--much glory awaited them if a Swede could be first to reach the pole. A flurry of press attention worldwide ensued, and Andrée had little trouble finding donors for his projected expenses, including large sums from King Oscar II of Sweden and Alfred Nobel of Nobel Prize fame. Adjusting for inflation, Andrée's balloon would be an approximately $1 million enterprise.

Andrée originally intended to launch in 1896--his equipment and men were ready and assembled. However when they test-inflated their new French-made hydrogen bag it was leakier than the French Military Intelligence Service. The balloon was sent back to the workshop for improvements and the mission was postponed. During this time Andrée was harangued by journalists who accused him of outright flimflam, and chastised by scientists who suspected that his steering technique would never work. Despite Andrée's optimistic retorts, his meteorologist and co-pilot Nils Ekholm took the opportunity to part ways with the project, insisting that Physics was more reliable than faith.

The following year the Swedish ship Svensksund brought Andrée and his entourage back to the their remote launch island off Norway, this time with their new-and-improved, three-ply, varnished-silk balloon bag. They started the hydrogen production process by mixing tens of tons of iron filings with fresh water and sulphuric acid. Over an eighty-nine hour period the one-and-a-half-tons of floppy fabric became a semi-rigid lighter-than-air sphere, and Andrée's team declared it flight-worthy. It would still lose some hydrogen in flight as all balloons did, but the loss rate was deemed acceptable.

The <i>Eagle</i> preparing for departure. Some of the carriage is obscured.
The Eagle preparing for departure. Some of the carriage is obscured.

On the 11th of July 1897 the moment seemed ripe for departure. The winds were blowing from a favorable southerly direction. The cramped carriage was packed with several weeks' worth of provisions--neither nook nor cranny went uncrammed.

"Shall we try or not?" Andrée asked his comrades--physics student Nils Strindberg and meteorologist Knut Fraenkel. 700 miles of largely uncharted ocean and ice lay between them and the pole. Another 1,200 miles of the same stretched beyond that until safe landfall would be possible.

Young Strindberg replied, "I consider that we ought to try to attempt it." Fraenkel concurred after a moment of initial evasiveness. As mission leader, it was up to Andrée.

The decisive moment had surprisingly arrived right on schedule. Newspeople from many nations eagerly awaited word whether they would be dispensing praise or ridicule this day. The weight of expectations was considerable as Andrée contemplated whether he preferred to risk injury to his person or to his character. He addressed his ground crew: "Well, now we have been considering whether the start should be made or not; my comrades insist on starting, and as I have no fully valid reasons against it, I shall agree to it, although with some reluctance. Will you, then, send all hands on shore to begin the work of dismantling the balloon-house?"

The workers peeled away the planks of the wooden hangar to reveal the massive hydrogen bubble with its small wickerwork carriage dangling below. Each man in turn made his farewell remarks and handshakes. Strindberg asked one of the men remaining behind to send his love to his fiancée, then climbed aboard to join his crewmates. "I wonder," he wrote in a later letter to her, "if a tear did not tremble on my cheek at that moment."

Knives slashed the anchor lines and the balloon bobbed into the sky. Its sails filled with wind and it flew northward over the sea. The initial few minutes proved eventful. Andrée's experimental drag-ropes entangled on the shore and detached from the carriage. The balloon then lost altitude and splashed briefly against the water as the balloonists pitched ballast from the basket. But soon they succeeded in properly balancing the balloon weight, they lowered backup drag-ropes to replace those lost on shore, and the mighty Eagle soared. Andrée was vindicated--the naysayers and fusspots were rendered mute. The three explorers would soon be about as far from every other human as it was possible to be, taking aerial photos and meteorological measurements in the constant polar summer sunshine.

The <i>Eagle</i> shortly after liftoff.
The Eagle shortly after liftoff.

The expedition had two means of communication: cork buoys designed to carry floating notes back to shore along ocean currents, and a small flock of caged carrier pigeons trained to fly messages back to their roost in Norway. One buoy, dropped just a few hours after takeoff, contained the report:

Our journey goes well so far. We sail at an altitude of about 250 m […] Weather delightful. Spirits high.

A subsequent message-in-a-corky-bottle dropped several hours later merely updated their location and altitude information. A pigeon-based report written two days later contained their position and reported:

"Good journey eastwards, 10 deg. south. All goes well on board. This is the third message sent by pigeon. Andrée."

After these initial cheerful updates, long weeks passed with no further word from Andrée, Strindberg, and Fraenkel. When their balloon failed to appear in the skies of Siberia or Alaska within a few months, columnists worldwide began to hazard all manner of guesses regarding their fate and future. Perhaps they had crashed into the sea, or perhaps they were merely waylaid. Some suggested they were deep in the Siberian wasteland inching back towards civilization. Most crucially, had they visited the pole as planned?

Whaling vessels began combing coastlines for signs of the expedition. Fellow aeronauts took their own balloons and squinted through telescopes to search the edges of the arctic from above. As the weeks waxed into months, and those into years, every fragment of rope or cloth found anywhere in the northern latitudes was scrutinized for evidence of attachment to to the missing expedition. Their mysterious disappearance in an experimental apparatus stirred the popular imagination, and from time to time sightings of a “wandering balloon” were reported in the news. Siberian villagers claimed to have spotted a balloon in 1899, and nearby a hut was located containing three corpses, but they did not belong to the Swedish explorers. In 1902 a missionary in northern Canada relayed reports that Andrée and company had set down on the ice for the purposes of hunting when local "savage Eskimos" fisticuffed, murdered, and mutilated the explorers, but no evidence materialized to support these claims.

Between 1900 and 1926 a number of subsequent explorers made their own attempts to reach the elusive North Pole. A few men even claimed success, but none could prove it. It was not until 1926 that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and his US companion Lincoln Ellsworth finally, irrefutably flew over the northernmost point on the Earth in their semirigid airship Norge on the 12th of May 1926. Unsurprisingly, they saw no sign of Andrée or the Eagle. It had been 29 years since the expedition had disappeared without a trace to become the stuff of Swedish legend.

Amundsen's <i>Norge</i>, a decidedly more sophisticated airship.
Amundsen's Norge, a decidedly more sophisticated airship.

A few years after Amundsen's successful pole vault, on the 6th of August 1930, the Norwegian ship Bratvaag was hunting walruses in the Arctic Sea when they seized a rare opportunity to visit the shores of Kvitøya--also known as White Island--a barren, ice-encrusted crumb of land far north of Norway. Ordinarily the island was inaccessible due to dense fog and dangerous shifting pack ice, but 1930 was an unusually warm arctic summer. As the crew made landfall and chased walruses, two of the crew were startled to stumble upon a small rowboat half-buried in snow near the shore. White Island was not the sort of place one expected to encounter anything man-made. The boat contained an abundance of abandoned supplies, including rifles, ammunition, and cameras. Amidst the equipment they found a bronze boat hook stamped with "Andrée's Polar Exp. 1896".

Here, thirty-three years after their disappearance, were the legendary explorers' belongings. They were nowhere near the North Pole--in fact White Island was at the same northern latitude as the island from which the expedition had departed, but 260 miles due east.

The ship's captain called off the walrus-chase and ordered his men to survey the area. Soon they located more bits of equipment that had been pillaged and scattered by wildlife: a water-logged observation book, broken sections of snow-sledges, binoculars, matches, knives, and navigational instruments. Slightly further inland someone sighted the skeletal remains of an adult human laying on the bare rock, partially covered in snow. Its skull was missing, and its torso had evidently been gnawed upon by polar bears. A monogram located inside the clothing indicated that this was Salomon August Andrée himself. The butt of a rifle jutted from the ice a few paces away.

"The moment was a strange, solemn one," one of the crew members would later write. It was a glittering, cloudless day, and the "great white silence" was interrupted only by the occasional thunder-like crack from an island glacier slipping into the sea. The sailors had stumbled upon the remains of one of the greatest mysteries of their time. Here was the Swedish equivalent of Amelia Earhart crossed with the Abominable Snowman.

A few dozen yards north of Andrée they discovered one other human skeleton, this one having been laid inside a crevice and covered in stones by human hands. A monogram in his clothes and a ring found still round his finger identified him as young physicist Nils Strindberg. The sailors worked in silence to record the exact locations of various objects before collecting them for transport home. They erected a cairn topped with a tall marker pole. With the relics and remains aboard ship, the Bratvaag departed the following day to stay ahead of the encroaching pack ice. They continued their hunting mission, but sent word of their discovery back to Norway via a homeward-bound vessel they encountered at sea. Although Andrée's disappearance was very old news, the discovery was sure to pique interest in Sweden.

S.S. Bratvaag
S.S. Bratvaag

The Bratvaag finished up its hunting mission a few weeks later and headed towards home. When they drew near enough to civilization to turn on their wireless receiver it crackled with urgent calls for them to return to port at once. Apparently the captain of the Bratvaag had underestimated the gravity of their discovery. Given the past few decades of North Pole attempts--including Amundsen’s quite recent success--retrospectives about Andrée had been commonplace worldwide. A "journalistic encampment" was congealing at their small home port of Tromsö, and it was becoming a hive of rumors, hoax-accusations, and platitude-belching dignitaries. Newspeople from many nations eagerly awaited word whether they would be dispensing praise or ridicule this day. When the ship arrived on the 2nd of September 1930, a nephew of Andrée's and a brother of Strindberg's were both among the throngs of journalists and onlookers. Upon verification of the Andrée discovery the Tromsö telegraph office was awash in outgoing reports. No one knew quite how the Andrée trio had ended up on White Island, but their identities were certain.

A Swedish commission took possession of the relics and remains, and an honor guard aboard the Svensksund--the same vessel that had transported Andrée and party to their original balloon departure--escorted the coffins back home amidst flags, parades, and aeroplane flyovers. Back in Sweden investigators began to unravel the remains, peeling away layers of moist clothing that had been colonized by thirty years' worth of algae and moss. Nestled among Andrée's garments investigators found a blue woolen sweater bundled around some object. Inside was a wad of wet grass, and inside that was a thin book. It was sodden and quite moldy, but mostly legible with adequate care. It was Andrée's expedition diary. Investigators immediately began efforts to preserve the pages with blotting paper.

In the meantime more news was received from the Polar sea: A vessel that had set out to follow up on the Bratvaag's findings had discovered other artifacts that had emerged from melting snow on White Island. Among other things they had located Fraenkel's remains; Andrée's missing skull; gold and silver coins; and a metal box full of photographic film.

The Eastman-Kodak film was approximately 32 years past the recommended use-by date stamped on the tin, but once it arrived in Sweden investigators decided to try to develop it anyway. The wet, crumbling silver emulsion had to be dried, and considerable experimentation was necessary to discover a process that could coax usable images from the cartridges. Specialists applied a cocktail of photographic chemicals and images emerged from many of the the frames. Even more surprising, they were not all aerial mapping images, but ghostly stills of men standing on the ice. Mission physicist Nils Strindberg had apparently repurposed the cartographic camera to chronicle their sledge journey. Researchers combined these photos with Andrée's diaries and the mission logbooks to reassemble the story of what ensued after the balloon disappeared over the horizon in 1897.

Andrée's diaries shortly after their discovery on his person.
Andrée's diaries shortly after their discovery on his person.

Editor's note: The following section contains excerpts from Andrée, Strindberg, and Fraenkel's written logs, as translated by Edward Adams-Ray in 1931. This is not the complete record--some sections are omitted for readability and length. Except where otherwise noted the quotations are from S. A. Andrée.

11th of July 1897: Four carrier pigeons sent off 5:40 Greenwich time. We are now in over the ice which is much divided in every direction. Weather magnificent. Best of humors.

12th of July 1897: No land in sight. It is indeed a wonderful journey through the night. I am cold but will not wake the two sleepers. They need rest.

For the first two days of flight the expedition took regular meteorological measurements and photographed the ice and wildlife. On the morning of 12 July the polar winds waned and the balloon hovered stationary for a time. The trio took the opportunity to make coffee using a special apparatus that dangled 20 feet below the car. This kept the cooking-fire a safe distance from the flammable hydrogen, thereby averting undesirable oh-the-humanity moments. The three sat and sipped in their squat wicker booth waiting for the wind.

When the wind did come, other troubles began. Andrée's began to write of frequent "touches" and "bumpings", referring to the gondola coming into jarring contact with the ice as its altitude slowly oscillated between zero and a few hundred feet. They adjusted their buoyancy by tossing more ballast, but this helped very little. The men were unable to sleep nor eat in peace as they hunkered in close, cold quarters watching the ice come and go through the small view hole in the floor. This continued for hours on end, nevertheless Andrée's notes insisted that their good cheer remained intact. Soon a freezing drizzle began to drum upon their hydrogen sphere, drenching the balloon and rendering it too heavy for the breeze. The sagging dirigible was immobile in the sky once again, a thin veneer of ice crackling as it froze to the fabric. Andrée wrote:

Although we could have thrown out ballast, and although the wind might, perhaps, carry us to Greenland, we determined to be content with standing still. We have been obliged to throw out very much ballast to-day and have not had any sleep nor been allowed any rest from the repeated bumpings, and we probably could not have stood it much longer.

It is not a little strange to be floating here above the Polar Sea. To be the first to have floated here in a balloon. How soon, I wonder, shall we have successors? Shall we be thought mad or will our example be followed? I cannot deny but that all three of us are dominated by a feeling of pride. We think we can well face death, having done what we have done.

13th of July 1897: Strindberg seasick. The balloon goes extremely beautifully now the sails have been set so and 110 lbs of ballast have been thrown overboard. The whole is really splendid. An immense polar bear swam about 100 feet right below us. He got out of the way of the guide-lines...He did not try to climb up to us.

The <i>Eagle</i> shortly after landing with a partially deflated hydrogen bag.
The Eagle shortly after landing with a partially deflated hydrogen bag.

By all indications the Eagle's hydrogen was seeping out at a greater than anticipated rate. With compromised gas and ballast supplies the balloon's buoyancy became extremely sensitive to both the warming effect of the sun and the weight of water and ice buildup.

14th of July 1897: Our long guide-line has now broken off. Constant fog. No land and no birds, seals nor walruses. Another touch. 6:20 the balloon rose to a great height but we opened both valves and were down again at 6:29.

8:11pm we jumped out of the balloon.

Although they had flung all things flingable, including the large marker buoy they had intended to drop on the North Pole, no amount of effort could bring about the desired ascent effect. Just 65 hours and 288 miles from their departure the airborne portion of the journey was already over. The Eagle had landed. Her gallant crew was alone in the sea of hostility.

Andrée, Strindberg, and Fraenkel spent the following week preparing for a hazardous journey across the drifting pack ice. None of the three were avid outdoorsmen, but what they lacked in experience they would make up for in obstinance. The men lashed stacks of supplies onto three snow-sledges and stretched balloon-silk across their small emergency boat frame. The trio was aware they were unlikely to return to civilization before winter, but there were a few survivable hidey-holes marked on the maps that could shelter them from the worst of the weather. None, unfortunately, was nearby, and the men would be trudging across vast rafts of fickle, drifting, shifting ice.

After some deliberation the explorers decided to head southeast to Cape Flora in Franz Joseph Land since survivors of an earlier aborted arctic expedition had wintered there. Along the way Strindberg would keep a log of astronomical entries and supplies. Fraenkel would be responsible for meteorological records, and Andrée himself would maintain a record of their general goings-on. They met their first polar bear there by the fallen balloon, and Andrée shot it to supplement their food supply. Strindberg gathered up the camera equipment and they began dragging their sledges towards civilization on 22 July.

The going was difficult. Each man was responsible for 460 pounds of provisions on a light-duty wooden sledge. The ice pack was a treacherous mishmash of slush, high ridges, narrow cracks of open ocean, and near-freezing melt pools. These obstacles necessitated circuitous routes, backtracking, and occasional crawling on all fours "as in the spring of our youth." The explorers carefully cataloged the character of the ice and described their most successful travel strategies. They also took samples of rock, ice, and algae for later study--although their primary mission had failed they intended to do some science all the same.

Strindberg and Fraenkel respectively
Strindberg and Fraenkel respectively

Several passages of Strindberg's letters to his fiancée also survived:

Yesterday evening I gave them (for it is I who attend to the house-keeping) a soup which was really not good, for that Rousseau meat-powder tastes rather bad, one soon becomes tired of it. But we managed to eat it in any case. ...perhaps we must winter here for another year more. We do not know yet. Now we are moving onwards so slowly that perhaps we shall not reach Cape Flora this winter, but, like Nansen [an earlier explorer], we shall be obliged to pass the winter in a cellar in the earth. I do not mind if I suffer hardships as long as I can come home at last.

Strindberg spared his fiancée the worst of the news. The freezing breeze blew incessantly, and the sun never set. Snow blindness and severe sunburn were ever-present torments. Occasionally they had to load everything into their boat to splash across water channels too wide for the sledges and too lengthy to circumvent. Each "night" Andrée, Strindberg, and Fraenkel pitched their tent on the ice and clambered into their single, large sleeping-sack to pool their body heat, wondering whether any bears would come snooping. The heavy sledges tended to tip or slip into the many deep melt-pools, dragging their bearer with them. Andrée wrote:

25th of July 1897: Strindberg fell in and was in imminent danger of drowning. He was dried and wrung out and dressed in knickerbockers.

26th of July 1897: Bear-beef immensely good. Meat 1 hour in seawater then all well. Sledges broken. Iron-sheathing as experiment. Mending and examination of weight and considerable reduction. Strange feeling and great indulgence in food on making reduction.

In order to slow the overloaded sledges' deterioration the expedition decided to abandon about 1/3rd of their food and supplies on the ice. They consumed as much of the excess as possible before moving on.

31st of July 1897: The constant fog prevents us from choosing good road. Ever since the start we have been in very difficult country. The Polar district is certainly the birthplace of the principle of the greatest stumbling-blocks.

One of the men pulling a sledge (probably Strindberg)
One of the men pulling a sledge (probably Strindberg)

...values show that we have driven westwards quicker than we have walked eastwards. This is not encouraging but we shall continue our course to the east some time more, as long as there is a bit of sense in doing so.

2nd of August 1897: The last bear-meat was cut into small pieces so that it might at least look like being a lot. Scarcely an hour after breaking camp we got a new bear. It was an old, worn-out male animal with rotten teeth. I brought it down by a shot in the chest at 125 feet. Tough as leather galoshes.

For the benefit of future polar explorers Andrée cataloged the quality of the various cuts of bear-beef. The filet and ribs were evidently "excellent"; the heart, brain and kidneys were deemed "very palatable"; and the tongue was "well worth taking." Strindberg experimented with ways to fry, boil, soak, and otherwise prepare the bear-meat, and practically every preparation was deemed delicious. Fortunately they declined to dine upon the livers--they had heard the true stories of polar bear livers causing "skin coming off whole body" and occasional death due to vitamin A overdose.

With little interruption in routine or scenery the days became profoundly dull and fatiguing, yet Andrée's pen insisted that their moods were cheery. Bear encounters were alarming, but seemingly manageable. Whenever going was slightly less unpleasant Andrée waxed hyperbolically happy with adjectives such as "paradise" or "magnificent," but these exceptions grew fewer and fewer as pages progressed.

On the 3rd of August, Strindberg's latest lunar observations showed that their slogging had only gained them 33 terrestrial miles. The ice was drifting away from their destination almost as fast as they were walking. Andrée and his companions discussed the situation with "the greatest thoroughness," and decided to head instead for Seven Islands. They estimated 6-7 more weeks of such rough travel to make it there. The going grew even more perilous. The men's poor diet and long days led to dehydration due to diarrhea, and they swigged at opium to combat the misery. Food supplies diminished, as illustrated by Andrée’s bleak but pragmatic advice to future polar travelers:

A little reindeer hair in the food is recommended for while taking it out one is prevented from eating too quickly and greedily.

Andrée also warned of deep fissures in the ice which were nearly invisible in the unending bright glare. To set foot upon one ofttimes meant tumbling arse-over-applecart into a hidden cavity, sometimes necessitating quick intervention lest man and sledge be lost to the "abyss".

About a month after the expedition abandoned their balloon, in the midst of the typical monotonous slog, Strindberg cried out, "Three bears!" A polar bear was silently stalking them with two cubs in tow. It was the first opportunity for food replenishment in a week. Owing to quick rifle work the hungry men managed to maintain their precarious position atop the local food chain, and the trio carved up their spoils. Andrée referred to the polar bears as "wandering butcher's shops", but it was unclear whether he was commenting on the bears' deadliness or deliciousness. On the 18th of August the trio were mending clothes in their tent when they heard a bear just outside the flap. Fraenkel happened to have a gun on hand and his shot spared the expedition from an inconvenient mauling.

23rd of August 1897: Strindberg's sledge badly broken and we could only just manage to mend it. We come slowly onwards and I imagine we shall have to make a late autumn journey to reach Mossel Bay. The ice and the snow on it are becoming as hard as glass and it is difficult to pull the sledges across it. To-day we have tried to go S 45º W as Strindberg's lunar observations showed that we were rather more to the westward than we had imagined.

To-night was the first time I thought of all the lovely things at home Strindberg and Fraenkel on the contrary have long spoken about it.

Growing bored with boiled bear-beef, one night the trio decided to try the meat raw* with a dash of salt. Andrée compared the result favorably to oysters. "Raw brain is also very good," he reported. Next they began using the bears' drained blood to produce "blood pancakes" by combining it with oatmeal and butter. "Quite excellent." Later they dabbled with a soup made from local algae, and Andrée praised Strindberg for this "fairly important discovery".

30th of August 1897: Scarcely had we erected the tent before Strindberg cried out "a bear is on top of us." A bear then stood 10 paces from him. I was lying inside the tent sweeping the floor and so could do nothing but Fraenkel who was outside caught hold of a gun and gave the bear a shot that made him turn, badly wounded. To save cartridges he was allowed to run a bit but at last he had to be finished off with 3 more shots. The situation was photographed and the bear was cut up.

By the 31st of August 1897 the months of uninterrupted sunshine were drawing to a close. Andrée wrote:

The sun touched the horizon at midnight. The landscape on fire. The snow a sea of fire.

Around this same time Andrée, Strindberg, and Fraenkel began to encounter wide, river-like strips of open ocean between the floating continents of ice. This allowed them to cover some distance in their balloon-silk boat.

3rd of September, 1897: It was with a rather solemn feeling when at 1:50 p.m. we began this new way of traveling gliding slowly over the mirror-like surface of the water between large ice-floes. Only the shriek of ivory gulls and the splashing of the seals when they dived and the short orders of the steerman broke the silence. We knew that we were moving onwards more quickly than usual and at every turn of the leads we asked ourselves in silence if we might not possibly journey on in this glorious way to the end.

Alternating between boat travel and sledge travel became yet another entry in their catalog of daily hazards. Andrée complained particularly about the edges of the ice floes which were comprised of a slushy sludge which was difficult to negotiate.

4th of September, 1897: Strindberg's birthday. Festal day. I awakened him giving him letters from his sweetheart and relations. It was a real pleasure to see how glad he was. Strindberg kept his birthday by falling very thoroughly, sledge and all, into the soup. We had to pitch our tent after 3 hours' march and then we had a very troublesome and time-wasting business to dry him and his things. Much of the bread and biscuits and all the sugar destroyed or damaged. It was a pretty great misfortune but its worst side was that it makes life more uncomfortable for us. The accident to Strindberg's sledge did not lessen our festal mood but we were jolly and friendly as usual.

The nightly routine became one of rubbing one another's damaged feet and mending their reindeer-and-polar-bear-pelt sleeping-sack. Ominously, Andrée's previously impeccable penmanship began to tangle, occasionally slipping into indecipherable.

9th of September 1897: Fraenkel's foot is now so bad that he cannot pull his sledge but can only help by pushing. Strindberg and I take it in turns to go back and bring up Fraenkel's sledge. This tries our strength.

During the entire journey Andrée had unfailingly written at least one report per day, but after September 10th the next entry was dated the 16th, skipping about a week.

17th of September 1897: Since I wrote last in my diary much has changed in truth. We labored onwards with the sledges in the ordinary way but found at last that the new-fallen snow's character did not allow us to continue quickly enough. Fraenkel's foot which still did not allow him to pull compelled me and Strindberg to go back in turns and pull forward Fraenkel's sledge too. One of Strindberg's feet was also a little out of order. Our meat was almost at an end and the crossings between the floes became more and more difficult in consequence of the ice-sludge. But above all we found that the current and the wind irresistibly carried us down into the jaws between North East Land and Franz Joseph's Land and that we had not the least chance to reach North East Land.

Strindberg's sketch for 'The Home'
Strindberg's sketch for 'The Home'

Fraenkel's foot is better now but will hardly be well before a couple of weeks. Strindberg's feet are also bad. Our humor is pretty good although joking and smiling are not of ordinary occurrence. My young comrades hold out better than I had ventured to hope.

Possibly we may be able to drive far southwards quickly enough and obtain our nourishment from the sea. Perhaps too it will not be so cold on the sea as on the land. He who lives will see. Now it is time to work. The day has been a remarkable one for us by our having seen land to-day for the first time since 11 July. It is undoubtedly New Iceland that we have had before our eyes. There is no question of our attempting to go on shore for the entire island seems to be one single block of ice with a glacier border.

The scrap of glaciated land lingering on the horizon was White Island. The men considered trying for it, but all of the island edges within sight were towering cliffs of broken-away ice. Furthermore, their latest observations indicated that the large ice floe they stood upon was drifting southwards at an appreciable clip. If their luck would hold for just a few weeks the vast raft of ice would bring them right to a hospitable cluster of islands east of Spitzbergen, Norway.

The 18th of September 1897 was Sweden's "Jubilee Day". The men hoisted their flag, toasted the king, sang the national anthem, and dined on seal meat. Andrée reported that seals had plenty of edible parts to offer, including brains, intestines, liver, lungs, meat, blubber, kidneys, heart, stomach, contents of stomach, and blood. Raw seal fat on bread, he happily informed, tasted of bacon.

Even with the drifting ice carrying them towards land, and occasional access to sea-bacon, substantial shelter was necessary for them to have any hope of survival. Their feet were in tatters, and the nights were growing longer and bitterly cold. Soon the incessantly stalking polar bears would have the advantage. Strindberg drew up plans for a small but sturdy building of ice bricks stacked with slush mortar, and the three men set to work constructing it. As they built up the walls the ever-vigilant Strindberg spotted an incoming bear and shouted warning.

Strindberg and I were a little eager I suppose for each of us missed while on the contrary Fraenkel with his shot gave the bear his death-wound. Great joy. We had increased our supply of food until on in April.

29th of September 1897: Yesterday evening we moved into our hut which was christened "the home." We lay there last night and found it rather nice. But it will become much better of course. We must have the meat inside to protect ourselves against the bears.

The 1st of October was a good day. The evening was as divinely beautiful as one could wish. The work with the hut went on well and we thought that we should have the outside ready by the 2nd. But then something else happened. At 5:30 o'clock (local time) in the morning of the 2nd we heard a crash and thunder and water streamed into the hut and when we rushed out we found that our large beautiful floe had been splintered into a number of little floes and that one fissure had divided the floe just outside the wall of the hut. The floe that remained to us had a diameter of only 24 meter (80 feet) and one wall of the hut might be said rather to hang from the roof rather than support it. This was a great alteration in our position and our prospects. The hut and the floe could not give us shelter yet we were obliged to stay there for the present at least. We were frivolous enough to lie in the hut the following night too. Perhaps it was because the day was rather tiring. Our belongings were scattered among several blocks and these were driving here and there so that we had to hurry. Two bear-bodies, representing provisions for 3-4 months were lying on a separate floe and so on. Luckily the weather was beautiful so that we could work in haste. No one has lost courage; with such comrades one should be able to manage under, I may say, any circumstances.

One of the largely illegible pages from Andrée's diary
One of the largely illegible pages from Andrée's diary

This, unfortunately, is where Andrée the reliable narrator fades away. The pages of his diary that followed were rendered largely illegible by both impregnation of moss and deteriorating writing. The few decipherable fragments of phrases convey that Andrée, Strindberg, and Fraenkel decided to take their chances rowing their tiny boat to White Island out on the horizon. Clearly they survived the crossing and found some exposed shore on which to land. What ensued in their final few days is informed only by speculation and circumstantial evidence--the condensation of fact from the vapor of nuance.

It had been just over two months since the Eagle set down on the ice. The expedition still had weeks’ worth of food on hand. But upon landfall they left most of their provisions in the balloon-silk boat near the shore, suggesting that the three survivors were too weary, ill, or rushed to carry it farther inland. It is also certain that Strindberg perished first, as his remains were buried by Andrée and Fraenkel. Had Strindberg succumbed to cold and exhaustion, expiring in the shared sleeping-sack during the night? Or perhaps one of the local polar bears--themselves in a desperate struggle for survival--had made it past the expedition's rifles and landed a killing blow. Some of the damage to Strindberg’s clothing suggests that he, at least, was probably mauled by a polar bear--and the rifle found jutting from the snow near Andrée’s remains suggests he may have gone down shooting.

Disease might also have contributed to their undoing. The entire expedition may have been stricken with deadly trichinosis from undercooked bear-beef; indeed, later inspection of butchered bear bones at their camp showed some evidence of trichinosis larvae. It is also possible that the indulgence of local livers starting on Jubilee Day sealed their fate with a vitamin A overdose. This would have handicapped them with nausea, vomiting, dizziness, blurred vision, and loss of muscular coordination. Sufficiently severe hypervitaminosis A can also cause hair loss, sheets of peeling skin, and death.

Clues from their final encampment suggest that Andrée and Fraenkel died side-by-side soon after burying Strindberg, their pockets containing bits of memorabilia from their fallen fellow explorer. Considering their poor diet, constant threat of bears, and grief over the loss of Strindberg, some have postulated that they perished from deliberate opium overdose. Regardless, after their death both bodies were thoroughly gnawed upon by local wildlife before being discovered by the Bratvaag over three decades later. The mystery of their final few days is unlikely to ever be resolved with certainty.

On October the 5th, 1930, as the fallen aeronauts' remains were returned to Sweden, the coffins were carried straight through the center of Stockholm, beginning "one of the most solemn and grandiose manifestations of national mourning that has ever occurred in Sweden". The procession was attended by tens of thousands, and the route was festooned in Swedish flags. King Gustaf V delivered a speech. Andrée, Strindberg, and Fraenkel were heralded as heroes, and their coffins were placed on public display in the Great Church in Stockholm for several days, after which they were cremated. A modest placard memorializing the three men still stands on White Island, though reaching the island is rumored to be a difficult journey. Some artifacts from the expedition such as the balloon-silk boat are on display at the Grenna Museum in Sweden.

The expedition's route. Solid line indicates flight, dashed line indicates on foot (click to enlarge).
The expedition's route. Solid line indicates flight, dashed line indicates on foot (click to enlarge).

In the years that followed the expedition, researchers experimented with Andrée's drag-rope and wind-sail steering theories, and found them to be entirely ineffective. This means that the expedition's balloon was captive to the winds from the moment it left the ground, and all of Andrée's conclusions to the contrary were wishful thinking and confirmation bias. Based on some of Andrée's comments leading up to the launch, he may have been beginning to realize that his dirigible technology was not suited for the intended task. But by then his future was captive to the earnest expectations of scientists, journalists, his king, and his countrymen. He could either try for the pole, or be forever condemned as a fraud and a coward by the entire world. So he tried. It is a strange sort of hero who adventures with brazen naiveté, but stranger still are the well-intentioned villains who push them into it.

*Note: Consuming raw or undercooked meats, poultry, seafood, shellfish, or eggs may increase your risk of foodborne illness.

Article written by Alan Bellows, published on 24 June 2013. Alan is the founder/designer/head writer/managing editor of Damn Interesting.

Podcast sound design by Alan Bellows. Podcast narration by Simon Whistler.

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Posted 24 June 2013 at 08:11 am

YES! About time!

Posted 24 June 2013 at 08:11 am

You will NOT leave a stupid comment!!!

Posted 24 June 2013 at 12:31 pm

Congratulations on the new article...
... and, probably more importantly, on getting married. All the best to both of you! :-)

Posted 24 June 2013 at 12:53 pm

What I find most interesting is how long they survived in the harsh arctic conditions, so much so that it appears that even in the end they did not die from exposure to the cold but from other causes.

Posted 24 June 2013 at 01:44 pm

Great Story - Damn Interesting, Indeed!

Posted 24 June 2013 at 04:36 pm


Thank you for an elightening read that leaves me feeling a little 'icky'.

Good brain fodder Sir!


Posted 24 June 2013 at 11:03 pm

Had to start playing "Requiem for a Dream" before reading to the end. Most appropriate music. I'm cold just reading about these tough guys. Romantic scientists trying to show Mother Nature she doesn't set the boundaries.

Posted 25 June 2013 at 12:22 am

Damn. Now I want to see this as a movie, complete with stilted 19th century dialogue and "Sundance Film Festival" logo. Possibly in Swedish with English subtitles. ;-)

Nice work!

Posted 25 June 2013 at 06:36 am

One hell of an article. Nicely long and well-written and of course Damn Interesting. Keep up the good work!

Posted 25 June 2013 at 08:50 am

Adjusting for inflation, Andrée's balloon would be an approximately $1 million enterprise...Nice Alan, really nice :-)
Another truly DI article brother. Keep up the good work and conrats on the wedding vows!

Posted 26 June 2013 at 07:42 am

Damn sad. They deserved to survive.

Ard Ri
Posted 26 June 2013 at 09:12 am

"some have postulated that they perished from deliberate opium overdose"

I truely doubt that men of their caliber would have decided to go down that way. These guys were explorers to the end not Romeo and Juliette. Damn interesting!

Posted 28 June 2013 at 06:35 am

I would say this was the single most "damn interesting" article I've read on the site. I had never heard of the explorers, and it is truly a fascinating journey they took.

Posted 30 June 2013 at 06:37 am

@ HiEv
> "... Now I want to see this as a movie ...."

A quick search finds two movies,
but I don't know if they are obtainable.

En frusen dröm / The Frozen Dream (1997)

Ingenjör Andrées luftfärd / The Flight of the Eagle (1982)

Posted 05 July 2013 at 08:14 am

"Owing to quick rifle work the hungry men managed to maintain their precarious position atop the local food chain"

Classic line.

As always, a DI article. I've read a few other accounts of early polar explorations, both north and south, and am always amazed, inspired (and maybe a little depressed) by the can-do attitude of the people that attempt these outings. Nothing in your article suggests these guys had any more survival skills than the average scientists, yet they made an outstanding showing for themselves. I wonder if we, the average reader, could do as much.

Nice job, and congrats on the wedding.

Posted 12 July 2013 at 12:32 pm


Cool. Thanks!

Posted 25 July 2013 at 02:37 pm

Excellent write! I've been following this terrific font of knowledge since back in '08 and I'm so glad you are still writing. Never a let down. Damn Interesting!

Posted 28 August 2013 at 01:45 pm

I like this website but it needs for more details.
I find it strange that there is no mention of Umberto Nobile in the discovery of the North Pole!
There was a huge debait in the '30 to who the credit of the expedition should go to.
(Please visit:
Umberto Nobile was the Engineer, Designer, Producer and Pilot of the 'Norge' with his team of 5 Italians.
He claimed credit for the enterprise and went all over the U.S. to have his work recognized.

In the article he wasn't not even mentioned!

(Please visit:

Posted 08 September 2013 at 10:49 pm

The first thing I said at the end was "DAMN that was long!".

Terrific read Allan, you never cease to impress with your
beautiful story telling. I was on a journey the entire time, god, what a horrible horrible situation. Bears in the snow for the long haul, and having to sleep through it, horrifying. Is there a movie out there for this very story? If not there should be one. Thank god for Andrees optimism.

NOTE: Bring lots of sugar, salt, bread and matches, but definitely, bring much more than plenty ammunition (oh my god yes).

I might want to try Seal after reading this.

Posted 08 September 2013 at 10:52 pm

GDSquire said: "The first thing I said at the end was "DAMN that was long!".

Terrific read Allan, you never cease to impress with your
beautiful story telling. I was on a journey the entire time, god, what a horrible horrible situation. Bears in the snow for the long haul, and having to sleep through it, horrifying. Is there a movie out there for this very story? If not there should be one. Thank god for Andrees optimism.
NOTE: Bring lots of sugar, salt, bread and matches, but definitely, bring much more than plenty ammunition (oh my god yes).
I might want to try Seal after reading this."

It's actually the september 9th at 1:50 am (my birthday), good birthday read!

peanut buddha
Posted 28 September 2013 at 10:03 pm

What a fascinating article. I've read a lot of adventures concerning 19th and early 20th Century explorers, and continually marvel at how stalwart they were in the face of adversity. This is truly a film synopsis of the good old-fashioned heroic, but doomed, heroes type. Marvellous.

Navdeep Singh
Posted 29 November 2013 at 07:37 am

Wow!!! Very chilling true story. Sad end to their mission, life, struggle. At least they did their best to live. Hats off to them for being brave men.

Posted 30 November 2013 at 12:45 am

Great story. I like the high spirit of Andrée's. Wish we got his journal pages of last few day.

Posted 18 March 2014 at 12:28 pm

A spaeronaut! I love it!

David the Meanest Editor in the World
Posted 19 March 2014 at 12:04 pm

I made a profile and registered just to tell you

"Sea bacon" I am still laughing like a maniac on an ether bender about that.

Posted 23 June 2014 at 08:38 pm

Posted 24 June 2014 at 02:49 pm

Wow great article. Sad ending. I didn't expect them to survive, their idea was too ambitious and their mode of transport too unpredictable to control properly. But their ability to survive that long in such harsh conditions is nothing short of heroic.

I can't imagine the pain their family went through of never knowing the truth of their situation.

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