On the afternoon of July 11, 1897, the Swedish visionary aeronaut S.A. Andree left an island in the Spitsbergen archipelago in a hydrogen balloon in an attempt to be the first man to reach the north pole, the world’s last mysterious destination. The money to build the balloon and equip the expedition came mainly from the King of Sweden and from Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite and the man who established the Nobel Prizes. Andree, an engineer, had spent two years designing and having built a balloon for the task. He had planned for a trip of six days and designed a balloon with a safety margin of 6:1, meaning that he expected the balloon would remain aloft for thirty days, twice as long as a balloon ever had. Andree’s balloon, built in the finest workshop in Paris, was a hundred feet tall and the most modern craft of its kind, with more than seventy innovations in design and practice. It took an hour to disappear from the view of the people who watched from the shore - carpenters, technicians, members of the Swedish Navy who had assisted with the launch.
Journalists from every modern nation in the world followed the launch. The headline on the front page of The New York Times said, “Andree Off for the Pole.” He had two basket mates, Knut Fraenkel, an outdoorsman and young engineer, and Nils Strindberg, a twenty-four year old physics teacher and the godson of the writer and playwright August Strindberg. With favorable winds, Andree had expected to arrive at the Pole in about fifty hours. He planned to anchor if he could, and collect samples then continue and land either in the Yukon or Siberia and walk to civilization. He had provisions sufficient for two years, assuming he also killed bears. The notion that he could spend the winter in the Arctic had been supported by the Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen’s overwintering in 1895. The first message received from the balloon by carrier pigeon gave Andree’s position as roughly halfway to the Pole. Nothing else was heard from him. He and Frankel and Strindberg became the first men to disappear into the air.
Thirty-three years later, a sealing boat, stopping at a remote island in the Arctic Ocean found their last camp, along with the diaries they had kept of their march across the ice and the photographs they had taken, revealing the path of what had been a long slog through what another explorer described as “the realm of death.”
Alec Wilkinson has been a writer at The New Yorker since 1980. He is the author of ten books on topics including the West Indian men who cut the sugar cane crop in Florida to fishing in Alaska and the former honorary member of the Explorer’s Club, David Pearlman, who called himself Poppa Neutrino and built a raft from things he found on the street in New York City and sailed it across the North Atlantic, becoming the first man to cross the Atlantic on a craft made of garbage. Wilkinson’s honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, and a Lyndhurst Prize.
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