S. A. Andrée and Knut Frænkel with the balloon on the pack ice, photographed by the third expedition member, Nils Strindberg. The exposed film for this photograph and others from the failed 1897 expedition was recovered in 1930.
In August of 1930, a Norwegian sloop, the Bratvaag, sailing in the Arctic Ocean, stopped at a remote island called White Island. The Bratvaag was partly on a scientific mission, led by Dr. Gunnar Horn, a geologist, and partly out sealing. On the second day, the sealers followed walruses around a point of land. A few hours later, they returned with a book, which was sodden and heavy, its pages stuck together. The book was a diary, and on the first page someone had written, “The Sledge Journey, 1897.”
Horn rode to shore with the Bratvaag’s captain, Peder Eliassen, who said that two sealers dressing seals had gone looking for water. Crossing a stream, the sealers found “an aluminum lid, which they picked up with astonishment.” Continuing, they saw something dark protruding from a snowdrift—a canvas boat, and in it a boat hook stamped “Andrée’s Pol. Exp. 1896.”
Not far from the boat was a body that was leaning against a rock. The body was frozen, and on its feet were boots, partially covered by snow. Very little but bones remained of the torso and the arms. The head was missing and clothes were scattered about, leading Horn to conclude that bears had disturbed the remains. He and the others carefully opened the jacket, and when they saw a large monogram “A.” they knew whom they were looking at—S. A. Andrée, the Swede who, with two companions, had ascended, on July 11, 1897, in a hydrogen balloon to discover the North Pole.
Andrée's Arctic balloon expedition of 1897 was an effort to reach the North Pole in which all three expedition members perished. S. A. Andrée, the first Swedish balloonist, proposed a voyage by hydrogen balloon from Svalbard to either Russia or Canada, which was to pass, with luck, straight over the North Pole on the way. The scheme was received with patriotic enthusiasm in Sweden, a northern nation that had fallen behind in the race for the North Pole.
Andrée ignored many early signs of the dangers associated with his balloon plan. Being able to steer the balloon to some extent was essential for a safe journey. But there was much evidence that the drag-rope steering technique Andrée had invented was ineffective. Yet he staked the fate of the expedition on drag ropes. Worse, the polar balloon Örnen (The Eagle) was delivered directly to Svalbard from its manufacturer in Paris without being tested. When measurements showed it to be leaking more than expected, Andrée refused to acknowledge the alarming implications. Most modern students of the expedition see Andrée's optimism, faith in the power of technology, and disregard for the forces of nature as the main factors in the series of events that led to his death and those of his two companions Nils Strindberg and Knut Frænkel.
After Andrée, Strindberg, and Frænkel lifted off from Svalbard in July 1897, the balloon lost hydrogen quickly and crashed on the pack ice after only two days. The explorers were unhurt but faced a grueling trek back south across the drifting icescape. Inadequately clothed, equipped, and prepared, and shocked by the difficulty of the terrain, they did not make it to safety. As the Arctic winter closed in on them in October, the group ended up exhausted on the deserted Kvitøya (White Island) in Svalbard and died there. For 33 years the fate of the Andrée expedition remained one of the unsolved riddles of the Arctic.