The Disastrous North Pole Balloon Mission of 1897


Reaching the North Pole was an international obsession during the late 19th century. Various countries devised plans for becoming the first to reach the pole, but no journey was as fascinating (or as doomed) as Sweden’s S.A. Andree’s mission to cross the Arctic in a hydrogen balloon.

To understand what went wrong with Andree’s mission, we first need to discuss early ballooning. The balloons of the day were certainly exciting for riders, but they had a fatal flaw as vehicles for exploration: nobody had figured out a good way to steer them yet. Once a balloon was up in the air, it was at the mercy of the wind and simply drifted. As Sweden’s most prominent balloonist, Andree had put quite a bit of thought into this conundrum.

Andree eventually sidestepped this problem.

He devised a scheme to steer the balloon by suspending ropes from the basket and dragging them on the ground. The weight of the rope and the friction it generated as it dragged across the ground would enable Andree to steer his balloon. After a series of test runs, Andree became convinced he could steer a hydrogen-filled balloon across the Arctic and over the North Pole.

Andree’s idea captured Sweden’s imagination, but building the balloon and buying the necessary equipment and provisions would be an expensive task. Luckily for Andree, some of Sweden’s biggest names opened their wallets; he received large contributions from King Oscar II and Alfred Nobel to build his balloon, the Eagle.

Andree found two additional crewmembers, engineer Knut Fraenkel and a young photographer named Nils Strindberg. The three set sail in their balloon on July 11, 1897, from Danskøya, an island in the Svalbard archipelago.

Astute readers have probably realized that they’ve never seen a balloon that is steered via drag ropes. There’s a good reason why you haven’t; the method is wildly ineffective. The three drag ropes on the Eagle didn’t even work long enough for the balloon to fully clear its launch area. The balloon drifted into a downward draft almost immediately after taking off and nearly dipped into the icy water. Andree and the crew had to dump sand overboard just to keep the balloon afloat.

The loss of the needed ballast was problematic, but there was even worse news for the Eagle. In just the few moments the balloon had been afloat, all three drag ropes had managed to twist and fall off. In other words, Andree no longer had any way of steering the balloon.

The lost drag ropes would have offered at least some modicum of steering ability, but they were also needed as ballast. After losing more than 1000 pounds of rope and several hundred pounds of sand in the botched takeoff, the balloon developed a tendency to rise too high above the ground. These high altitudes sped up the leakage of hydrogen from the balloon, and after just 10 hours the balloon had lost so much gas that it was frequently bumping and skidding across the Arctic ice. The balloon finally crashed 65 hours into the trip.

That final crash was fairly gentle, and all three crewmembers and their equipment were unharmed. The balloon had been equipped with provisions, guns, tents, sleds, and even a portable boat in case of an emergency landing. Andree had also arranged for two extra depots of emergency supplies to be left for the men on the ice. The crew piled hundreds of pounds of provisions and equipment on the sleds and began the arduous trek to one of the depots. Strindberg used his camera to snap photos of the crash and the team’s progress.

The same lack of foresight that plagued the aerial part of the mission continued into the journey across the ice. None of the men were exactly what you’d call rugged arctic explorers; they were scientists and engineers who had planned on drifting across the North Pole while seated in a basket. Their clothing wasn’t warm enough for the hike. Their supplies were woefully inadequate, although they were able to feed themselves by shooting polar bears and seals. Their sleds, which Andree had designed, were so rigid that they made traversing the ice needlessly difficult.

Worse still, the ice was drifting away from the depot rather than towards it; much of the group’s forward progress evaporated in the face of the backward drift. They eventually decided to reverse course and head for the second depot, but shifting winds made that destination similarly hopeless. After nearly two months of futile hiking, the crew decided to set up a winter camp complete with a makeshift igloo on an ice floe.

This plan worked reasonably well for thee weeks, but in early October the floe began to break up. The crew moved its supplies to Kvitøya, a nearby island, and hoped to winter there. The move to the island is the last reliable record left by the crew. Their cause of death isn’t clear – historians have speculated that the men fell from eating tainted polar bear meat, exhaustion, or hypothermia – but the three crewmembers didn’t survive for more than a few days after moving to the island.

Meanwhile, nobody back home knew what had become of the three men. They obviously hadn’t made it back across the pole, but their fate was a great mystery. It took over three decades for other Arctic dwellers to find the crew of the Eagle. In 1930 the crew of the sealing ship Bratvaag discovered a dilapidated campsite, the remains of the three explorers, their journals, and Strindberg’s undeveloped film.

The seal hunters carried the remains of the three men back to Sweden, where the crew of the Eagle were celebrated as heroes. Amazingly, 93 of Strindberg’s 240 photographs were salvageable, and combined with the crew’s diaries and journals they make an eerie record of the men’s demise and the dangers of unprepared travel through the Arctic Circle.

See more photos of the expedition here. We came across this story while perusing Reddit's Today I Learned section.