In 1895, at a London conference on polar exploration, a Swedish engineer named S. A. Andrée declared his intention to reach the North Pole via hot-air balloon. The plan met with derision, and most observers predicted a swift demise for Andrée. Undaunted, the Swede and two fellow aeronauts cast off from the Arctic island of Spitsbergen in a 1.5-ton, 97-foot-tall balloon. They never returned.
More than a century later, Alec Wilkinson brings Andrée and his dream back to life in The Ice Balloon: S. A. Andrée and the Heroic Age of Arctic Exploration (Knopf, $26). The key to Andrée’s plan was the ability to steer; he hoped to use a new rope system to tack against the wind like a sailor. He spoke confidently to the press, but privately he had doubts, which were confirmed upon takeoff—Andrée and his companions promptly lost their ropes, and with them the ability to steer. For three days, the balloon bumped along the ice like a wounded duck, kept down by heavy fog. Finally, 300 miles north of their starting point and 300 miles south of the pole, Andrée and his men abandoned ship. On makeshift sledges, they trekked back to an island in the Svalbard archipelago, where they died, presumably from cold and exhaustion.
Wilkinson, a New Yorker writer best known for his 2007 book The Happiest Man in the World, uses Andrée’s diary—discovered by seal hunters in 1930—to re-create the fatal journey. Wilkinson reminds us that for every Amundsen there were dozens of Andrées: stalwart and slightly foolhardy adventurers in search of the era’s grand prize, knowing that failure was likely. The urge to discover the pole “and settle the mystery of what was actually there,” Wilkinson concludes, “overpowered him, like a temptation one finally submits to.”