Balloons, Bears and Ice

I’ve long been a sucker for tales of derring-do, especially if polar regions are involved.  Some of the best tales have been weaved around the toughest of times, and a century later we still know relatively little of these far flung and inhospitable outposts.  That said our fears now perhaps revolve around ice-melt, and tourism.

Back in 1897 it was a bit different.  We knew that Antactica was a land mass, but the pole remained a lure, one of the few remaining.  The North was more mysterious, for exploration above the Arctic Circle had centred on the quest for the North-West Passage, and the search for lost questors.

That was when three Swedes; Andree, Fraenkel and Strindberg set off.  They were backed by Nobel, amongst others.  They knew not if the Pole was on land, an island, water-bound or whatever.  In The Ice Balloon, we hear from Alec Wilkinson not only the adventures of these three men, but also of what had gone before in northern times.  Nansen had tried, failed and survived and we hear of the years he spent lost in the frozen wilderness, adrift on floes, before being miraculously found on Franz Josef Land.

We hear too of Greely’s attempt, and of death and the ultimate source of food.  I hark back to reading, as a youngster, Clay Blair’s account of the Andes plane crash and the route to survival.  The eating of human flesh was taken further by those Nantucket whalers adrift in the Pacific, drawing lots to chose the next meal and drawing lots again to select the executioner.  Greely’s party also had to resort to the remains of the dead, so it seems.

But back to Andree.  He had long been a student of the science of balloon travel, but with little interest in polar exploration.    Although it was close on 200 years since balloon design had been patented, it took another 75 years for man to take to the air.  The technology was still in it’s infancy; progress was slow.  He put together his quest as a means to prove the merits of the balloon as a viable transport and so it was that three men in a basket set out to find The North Pole.  As it happened they set records of flight, for both duration and distance, but ……

They didn’t make it.  The balloon stranded between layers of cloud and fog and eventually came down.  They took to the ice, a consequence not unforseen, and they had equipment and plans.  But sledging was tough work and progress was slow.  After three weeks they discovered that their eastward progress across the ice had been matched by the westward drifting of the floe.  So they headed south-east, and drifted south-west.  Food was not a problem for polar bears were plentiful in those days and they were able to shoot their fill; able too to mix the diet with occasional seals and gulls.

We know all the details because Wilkinson has scoured the letters and the diaries.  We do not know what ultimately killed the three men.  They had settled in for a winter on the ice, then the camp broke up, with men and food, sledges and boat, separated by leads of water that had broken through.  It does not look like they died at the claw of the bear; at the end of a gun; or of starvation.  Illness and disease perhaps.

The remains were found only in 1930.  Nansen had died a couple of months earlier, Nobel was gone, one of his famed Prizes awarded to Nansen, for Peace, in 1922.  Greely died in 1935.  The Swedes recovered the remains and there was a parade in Gothenburg.  Today there is a museum, and if ever I’m in Sweden……

It’s a first class account, put together from the notes made by three pioneers who didn’t survive to tell their tale.  We can view it now, with the knowledge of film footage from the Arctic ice today of just how tough the terrain was, how difficult it is to haul a 300 pound sledge over huge lumps of ice, even with all the assistance and technology of the current age.  We know that today the art of the balloon pilot relies hugely on prevailing conditions.  There’s photographs surviving, and a film from Kodak warning that it needs to be used by 1898.

It’s a cracking read, a look back at tough times, exciting times, and tough men, and it’s very well told.

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