S.A. Andrée’s Failed Polar Expedition

Alex Johnson


Content Writer

Around the turn of the millennium, the “found footage” genre of horror film gained some traction. I’m not a big fan, but I get it: The Blair Witch Project was made on a scant $60,000 budget and made $248.6 million at the box office. If you’re a studio exec, well, that’s pretty dang cool.

But I’m not a studio exec, so I don’t care about that. What I care about is staving off the existential dread by gorging on compelling content. And movies are my favorite content.

Found footage flicks do a couple of things well. For one, they remove some of the plot armor from the main characters: only the camera needs to survive to tell the story.

The other cool thing: The documentary quality, even when it’s phony, gives the impression that you’re watching characters who are already dead. It’s like you’re watching a movie starring ghosts.

Left to right: Nils Gustaf Ekholm, Nils Strindberg, and S.A. Andrée.(Note: Nils Ekholm, AKA: “The Luckiest Guy in this Picture,” dropped out of the exhibition and was replaced with Knut Fraenkel.)

But, even when it’s done right, it’s no match for the real thing.

In 1930, a Norwegian sloop called the Bratvaag found a few things while sailing in the Arctic Ocean: a diary, an aluminum lid, a canvas boat beneath a snowdrift, and a polar-bear-ravaged, headless body. The body wore a jacket; inside the jacket there was a monogram—“A.”

The explorers knew who it was: Salomon August Andrée, the Swedish engineer who was last seen in 1897 — 33 years earlier—attempting to cross the North Pole in a hydrogen balloon with two companions. While all three men died, 93 photographs that document their doomed expedition survived.1

A Quick Float Over a Frozen Hellscape

That was the plan, anyway. But why?

The North Pole was a Holy Grail for boundary-pushers in the 19th century. Why? Conquest! Bragging rights! It was like the race to the moon in the 20th century. The destination was useless, colder than hell, and barren, but somebody needed to put a flag on it—or at least on the ice floating over it.

The Örnen, at launch, not quite taking off.

The North Pole didn’t require a spaceship, which was good, since they didn’t have those in the 1800s. What they did have were whaling ships, sleds, skis, manpower, and manpower’s best friend, dogpower.

But, by 1897, none of those things had worked. See, the North Pole isn’t a landmark, it’s just latitude 90 degrees north. That’s in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, where there’s no landmass—just floating ice drifts.

So, you needed to find it aboard a ship, it seemed. The only problem was that the massive floating ice drifts tended to crush ships and sailors. The shifting floes also made traversal over the ice deadly.

Imagine you’re hiking across an ice floe with your team when the sheet separates just long enough for a comrade to fall beneath. He shouts, but is swallowed as the ice closes again, and the survivors are left there in white silence. What a morale buster, right?

S.A. Andrée had a fresh idea that just might negate these risks. Rather than trying to sail through the ice or walk on top, he’d float over the whole thing in a hydrogen balloon.

Andrée hatched his plan around the age of 40, and presented it to his peers in 1895. He figured that, due to the regularity of the trade winds, even a non-dirigible (i.e., you can’t steer it) balloon could be used to cross the North Pole. As an engineer, Andrée’s primary goal was to demonstrate the balloon’s effectiveness for reaching the unreachable. He wanted to improve exploration to expand our understanding of the natural world. In other words, his ambitions were scientific—this wasn’t a stunt.

The Örnen, heading away from Svalbard.

That said, you gotta stuntify your science if you want sponsors. Andrée picked the North Pole because it caught their attention. Andrée believed he could cross the Atlantic in a balloon, but nobody really cared—the Atlantic had been crisscrossed plenty already. But the North Pole? So far, it was unreachable. Reaching it would be exciting, even if you couldn’t give a floating f*ck about non-dirigible balloons.2

Andrée’s plan assumed a relatively quick trip, too, and it would have to be—nobody had stayed aloft in a hydrogen balloon for longer than 15 days. His calculations predicted a 43-hour trip to the North Pole, followed by a landing in Alaska or Asia six days later, at which point he’d walk to civilization, if he had to.3

The Expedition

Despite a wonky flight plan with a landing zone so large that it included two continents, Andrée found a couple of volunteers to join him on his trip: team members Nils Strindberg, a newly engaged physics professor, and Knut Fraenkel, a 26-year-old civil engineer, joined Andrée to make history. Their vessel was the Örnen (The Eagle): a 97-foot-tall balloon, made from layers of Parisian, varnished silk, filled with hydrogen, and the basket suspended beneath it.

“Relax, it’s gonna be fine: hydrogen’s the most abundant element in the Universe!”

To keep time in the air to a minimum, the balloon was launched from Svalbard—a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean about halfway between Norway and the North Pole—on July 11, 1897. The New York Times wrote a front-pager celebrating the event with the headline, “Andrée Off for the Pole.”

And that’s the last anyone saw of them, until the geologists and seal hunters aboard the Bratvaag discovered their remains in 1930.4

Things Go South in the Great White North

The expedition’s problems started at the launch when the balloon struck something as it left the balloon house. It then rose and drifted across the harbor, but soon began to descend, dipping until the basket hit the water. Andrée and his crew were forced to dump nine bags of sand—which they had planned on keeping—in order to raise the basket out of the water and maintain flight.

“So what do you think for dinner tonight? Bear?”
“Ya, sure. Bear’s good.”

Despite the rocky start, the balloon disappeared over the horizon, but it was worse for the wear: the crew had dumped nearly 500 pounds of sand overboard, which would have been used as ballast. Andrée had also planned to drag sandbags along the ice from ropes attached to the basket—he intended to use this drag to maintain some control over Örnen’s trajectory. The day-one f*ckup wasn’t a great omen for success in a climate that doesn’t tolerate mistakes.

Andrée and his compadres stayed in the balloon for almost three days, but it never reached its planned cruising altitude. The plan was for the balloon to float around 250 meters above the surface of the ice, which would keep it above the fog and below the clouds, where the party could see well enough to navigate.

In reality, the balloon provided just enough buoyancy to move with the wind while the basket bumped along the ice, no matter how much weight Andrée’s team dropped overboard. Eventually, Andrée landed Örnen on the drifting pack ice. They had made it about halfway—300 miles from their launching point, with another 300 to go to reach the North Pole. And that’s not including the return trip to civilization.5

This one’s either Nils Strindberg, or an undead snow-wight pulling a sled.

From the landing, the three men continued on with a makeshift boat and ashwood sledges. But things weren’t all doom and gloom, despite their early failures. The men, who had rifles, were able to hunt so many bears that they could gorge on six pounds of meat per day. All three continued to keep diaries and record their surroundings. Nils Strindberg even wrote letters to his fiancée—which suggests they either expected to might make it out alive, or that they totally lost their minds and figured they’d find a magic post office that sends mail south via narwhal. I lean toward the former. After all, these guys were optimistic enough to believe they could fly a hot air balloon over the North Pole, no problem, so walking out should’ve been cake.

By the end of September, though, winter was setting in. The three Swedes built a house from blocks of ice, but were forced to abandon it when the surrounding ice started to crack. They got to work on a second house, but it was never finished. The men had lasted fewer than three months before the Arctic took them.6

Lost and Found

We don’t know exactly how the three men died—even the most dedicated empiricist can’t write their own posthumous death report. There have been some theories that the guys died of trichinosis (an infection caused by roundworm), from binging on polar bear meat. But the men didn’t write about trichinosis symptoms in their diaries. My guess is if you’ve got nothing to do but have trichinosis and write in a diary, you’d write about the trichinosis in the diary. These guys didn’t.

The most likely cause of death? Probably exposure to the elements. The bodies were then likely taken apart posthumously by scavenging bears—a bit of poetic justice for all those six-pound bear burgers.7

Speaking of exposure, the crew of the Bratvaag found cameras and film, among other things in the dead men’s camp. While some of the film was overexposed, 93 photographs were able to be recovered. These photographs—along with the diaries—are the true legacy of S.A. Andrée, Nils Strindberg, and Knut Fraenkel.8

This looks like a scene from some kind of nightmare, right?

They didn’t make it to the North Pole, and they definitely didn’t make it home. But they’ve left us with the ghastliest vacation slideshow of all time.

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Notes 📌

  1. Wilkinson, Alec. (2010, April 19). The Ice Balloon: A doomed journey in the Arctic. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/04/19/the-ice-balloon
  2. Wilkinson, Alec. (2010, April 19). The Ice Balloon: A doomed journey in the Arctic. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/04/19/the-ice-balloon
  3. Wheeler, Sara. (2012, January 27). Falling Short of the North Pole. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/29/books/review/the-ice-balloon-s-a-andree-and-the-heroic-age-of-arctic-exploration-by-alec-wilkinson-book-review.html
  4. Wheeler, Sara. (2012, January 27). Falling Short of the North Pole. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/29/books/review/the-ice-balloon-s-a-andree-and-the-heroic-age-of-arctic-exploration-by-alec-wilkinson-book-review.html
  5. Wheeler, Sara. (2012, January 27). Falling Short of the North Pole. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/29/books/review/the-ice-balloon-s-a-andree-and-the-heroic-age-of-arctic-exploration-by-alec-wilkinson-book-review.html
  6. Wheeler, Sara. (2012, January 27). Falling Short of the North Pole. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/29/books/review/the-ice-balloon-s-a-andree-and-the-heroic-age-of-arctic-exploration-by-alec-wilkinson-book-review.html
  7. Wheeler, Sara. (2012, January 27). Falling Short of the North Pole. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/29/books/review/the-ice-balloon-s-a-andree-and-the-heroic-age-of-arctic-exploration-by-alec-wilkinson-book-review.html
  8. Meier, Allison. (2014, January 31). Andrée Balloon Crash: A Photographic Journey through the Most Surreal Arctic Disaster. Retrieved from https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-andree-balloon-crash-a-photographic-journey-through-to-most-surreal-of-arctic-disasters

Additional Resources

  • Meier, Allison. (2014, January 31). Andrée Balloon Crash: A Photographic Journey through the Most Surreal Arctic Disaster. Retrieved from https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-andree-balloon-crash-a-photographic-journey-through-to-most-surreal-of-arctic-disasters
  • Wheeler, Sara. (2012, January 27). Falling Short of the North Pole. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/29/books/review/the-ice-balloon-s-a-andree-and-the-heroic-age-of-arctic-exploration-by-alec-wilkinson-book-review.html
  • Wilkinson, Alec. (2010, April 19). The Ice Balloon: A doomed journey in the Arctic. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/04/19/the-ice-balloon

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