Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Splendiferous Balloon Escapades of S.A. Andree

If you are trying to be the first person in the world to get to a certain place on Earth- and these places do still exist; there are mountains still unclimbed, though they're obviously becoming rarer and rarer, and less and less worth climbing- it is as a rule incredibly dangerous. There's almost to a man a very good reason why nobody's been there yet. There's no local support structure; if you get stranded and in deep trouble, you're pretty much on your own. This is still to a degree the case with Mount Everest even though it's been climbed so many times that there are established camps along the most popular routes up (on the Nepal side, there's base camp and four higher camps; the Tibetian side sees a base camp, advanced base camp, and four higher camps). When someone dies on Everest, they're normally left where they drop.

The thing is, when you're trying to reach one of these places, the general rule is you have to lay a foot on it in order for it to count. To do otherwise would be kind of cheating. You might also wish to be in full control of your movement; you never know when a freak wind gust might screw you over.

Basically, don't be S.A. Andree.

The first to reach the North Pole's in a bit of dispute. Some say Robert Peary of the United States in 1909 (alongside American Matthew Henson and Inuits Ootah, Seeglo, Egingwah and Ooqueah); some say Roald Amundsen of Norway in 1926, who flew over it with American Lincoln Ellsworth (though Amundsen himself doesn't); some say a Soviet party in 1948 containing an indeterminate amount and assortment of people.

What's important for our purposes, though, is that all of these happened after Andree's foray in 1897. This, of course, meant Andree was attempting to be the first. This was also prior to the Wright Brothers' flight at Kitty Hawk, so planes were not an option. Working ones, at least.

Andree would go in a balloon.

Why a balloon? Andree was a balloonist. He rode in balloons. The quest for the North Pole did not concern him so much as the determination to prove balloons could go to these places. This is a fine way of thinking if this is a place someone has actually gone before; someone who has simply made it there by any means necessary. In fact, this line of thinking works best when the destination has been reached repeatedly and you're trying to prove that your mode of transport can get there too.

This does not work so well if you're trying to be the first to get there, period. Style points aren't a concern.

But, fine. A balloon it is. A mode of transport Andree had only been at for five years, taking his first balloon ride at age 38 in 1892. A mode of transport originally intended for a flight from Africa to South America to see how long a balloon could stay aloft.

Between 1893 and 1895 he would go up in a balloon 12 times, after which he started to publicize the North Pole attempt. Most who heard of it were optimistic and encouraging, perhaps due to whimsy, perhaps because it wouldn't be them in the damn thing. Most had not seen Andree's previous voyages, in which he was routinely thrown around by the wind, slammed into coastal rocks, and once thought the Baltic Sea was just a big lake and that he was actually over land even though he saw a lighthouse and some breakers.

Andree would end up with ample funds for the voyage- think the equivalent in today's money of about a million dollars- including a full-on media frenzy (up to and including board game) and a top-of-the-line balloon. Andree placed his faith as far as steering into drag ropes, which were intended to drag along the ground and make some parts of the balloon go slower than others, allowing it to turn by way of sails Andree had attached. Modern balloonists have described Andree's steering mechanism as, to put it nicely, a bunch of crap.

But never mind all that. Time to pick a crew for what had been dubbed Ornen (The Eagle). And there was no shortage of suckers- er, people to pick from. Andree selected fellow Swedes Nils Ekholm and Nils Strindberg, both of whom were brilliant scientific minds, but neither of whom had anything in the way of survival skills. Andree didn't figure survival skills were all that necessary. After all, this was only the North Pole, not one of those breakneck expeditions over the Baltic.

Ornen was delivered directly to the hangar at Danskoya on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard without so much as a test flight, and in 1896, the attempt was made.

Well, the first attempt, anyway. This was everybody's introduction to how the winds would actually be behaving up there. And the winds were howling. Not that it would have mattered much; Ornen was leaking at a disturbing rate due to eight million stitch holes that would not seal. It would get aloft, but it would not stay aloft. The balloon was designed to stay aloft for 30 days; Ekholm figured it was only good for 17 at best. The winds never allowed Ornen to get airborne; but unless Andree got himself a better-sealed balloon, he was not going up in it. This was something Andree was not prepared to do; the media pressure had been crippling and he couldn't bear to not only come back to southern Sweden empty-handed, but to ask for another balloon to boot. Ekholm was out.

Knut Fraenkel, a hiker and civil engineer from Karlstad, Sweden, was in.

Take 2 was on July 11, 1897, and this time the winds were better; good enough to go. Andree, Strindberg and Fraenkel set off.

This was more or less the last anyone back home heard of them, up to and including an early version of National Geographic, which back in 1897 was not a magazine but a real, honest science journal, established only a decade earlier in 1888. National Geographic had something of a handle on how things would turn out nonetheless; it states that "Many eminent geographers have regarded this expedition as an impracticable if not absolutely foolhardy enterprise". The article, published sometime after takeoff, also notes Ekholm, the one who backed out, who figures that Ornen would have come down somewhere between the Pole and Franz Josef Land, and that the group would start making their way towards a preestablished safe haven there. From here on in, though, for absolute information, we rely on expedition notes, which are extremely thorough.

This is how we find out that, within minutes of takeoff, the drag ropes were dumped. The drag ropes that were supposed to be the balloon's steering mechanism. Andree had added some screw holds so as to more efficiently get rid of any ropes that got caught on the ground, but the ropes had decided all at once that they hated the screw holds, and they mostly had to go right away. Also gone was 210 kg of sand, dumped to get Ornen up out of a close encounter with the water, but when the ropes went out as well, the balloon shot up to 2,300 feet, and the lower air pressure encouraged Ornen to leak faster than ever.

Essentially, now we have a very leaky balloon with three people and no steering, headed for, if all goes well, the North Pole.

Then it rained.

Then the rain froze as ice on the balloon. On the plus side, that will plug up some of those airholes.

Needless to say, the balloon did not stay aloft for 30 days. It did not stay aloft for 17 days. It lasted 10 hours and 29 minutes, followed by another 41 hours of what was essentially hopping, coming to a final stop 2 days, 3 hours, 29 minutes after takeoff.

The good news: everybody was unhurt and all the remaining equipment was fine.

The bad news: we have three people stranded someplace or other in the Arctic with little-to-no survival skills. They had a gun- which they would use frequently for hunting- but some of the food had been thrown overboard as ballast. (They did, however, keep the alcohol on board.) The North Pole was out of the question now. It wasn't even brought up anymore. Now it was a matter of heading for some sort of sanctuary, and they knew of two: Cape Flora in Franz Josef Land to the east, and Seven Islands back at Svalbard to the west. Seven Islands was much, much closer, but maps back then were pretty terrible, and they decided to head for Camp Flora.

Just as Ekholm had predicted in National Geographic.

About a week later, they noticed that the ice drift was making them virtually run in place, and on August 4, they started trying for Seven Islands instead.

The terrain wasn't any good that way either. Sometimes they had to crawl on all fours. And when they turned towards Seven Islands, the wind turned to push them away from that as well. The Arctic was positively merciless. They continued to push, but made no headway, and by September 12 it was clear that neither of the safe havens was to be reached. They decided to winter on an ice floe, building a hut out of water-reinforced snow.

The Arctic was not done with them yet. Not only did the ice floe launch itself south, but when the floe neared the island of Kvitoya, it cracked up directly underneath the hut. There was little choice but to gather up what was left of the supplies and make landfall on Kvitoya.

To the very end, Andree seemed determined to at least leave a good-looking corpse for the public. The last coherent entry in his diary reads "Morale remains good. With such comrades as these, one ought to be able to manage under practically any circumstances whatsoever."

It's figured that everybody died a few days later.

If it's any consolation to Andree, the original Africa-to-South America trip he had planned wouldn't have gone any better. There wouldn't have been any place to land the balloon. There would have been no hopping, no skidding along the ground before a final stop, just one big splash. And when the remains were found- in 1930- the crew was, in fact, treated as heroes by a nation that, as it had turned out, had lost the race to both of the poles.

They even built a museum exhibit for them, the Andréeexpeditionen Polar Centre in the Grenna Museum in Granna, Sweden, Andree's hometown.

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