Author Alec Wilkinson Explores Arctic Adventures

Lee Polevoi


The Ice Balloon: S.A. Andrée and the Heroic Age of Arctic Exploration

Alec Wilkinson

Knopf, 239 pages


 “Flying over the pole in a balloon seems to have occurred to Andrée on the evening of March 16, 1894 …”


Such was the turn-of-the-century vision of Swedish engineer Salomon August Andrée who, with two compatriots, set out in 1897 to fly to the North Pole via a hydrogen balloon. The plan was to begin the trip as close to 90 degrees north as possible, so the balloon would sail over the pole and come to a landing in Alaska. This breathtaking (and wholly unprecedented) expedition caught the attention of the world, but after the balloon lifted off an island in the Svalbard archipelago, it and the men aboard were never seen again.


Alec Wilkinson, a staff writer for The New Yorker, has written previously about improbable adventurers like Poppa Neutrino in “The Happiest Man in the World.” Neutrino (aka David Pearlman) holds the honor of being the only man to sail a raft built from garbage across the North Atlantic. This is clearly a subject Wilkinson warms to, bringing the same crisp eye and telling detail to S.A. Andrée’s tragic story.


At the end of the 19th century, large swaths of polar territory were still unknown to man. Those who attempted to navigate and survey these areas lived in a world without cell phones, satellite connections, GPS, touch-screen devices and all the rest of our state-of-the-art technologies. They had little beyond an array of fairly primitive tools and an unshakeable belief in themselves to see it through. As Wilkinson notes:

“The path in the Arctic had two ends: arrival or death, which of course was its own arrival. And it was imagined to be the cleanest death, nearly conceptual, a wasting away slowly, an exhaustion relaxing into sleep, it was said; a perishing, an erasure, which was essentially different from a mauling or a withering amid fits of fever or the weakening effects of a larva or a parasite that had worked its way through the bloodstream and the body. A man was believed to have his wits in the Arctic until nearly the end. It was a godly place, fierce and unknowable, the spooky and capacious territory of the imagination …’”


True to its subtitle, The Ice Balloon encompasses more than this quixotic balloon trip. Wilkinson deftly portrays a time when what remained of terra incognita drew “a procession of thrill seekers, god chasers, romantics, pragmatists, visionary dreamers, nomads, criminals hiding where they thought no one would look, withdrawers from more complicated lives, penitents, mourners, long-shot followers, defeated characters hopeful of redemption, careerists, misfits and malcontents ill at ease anywhere but the solitary places.”


One among this motley assemblage was U.S. Army lieutenant Adolphus Greely, whose efforts at Arctic exploration is described at length in The Ice Balloon. For nearly 40 pages – arguably, the most riveting section of the book – Wilkinson follows Greely’s 1881 journey of inconceivable torment and hardship. Sailing aboard a ship named Proteus, he and his men endured nearly three years of hunger, isolation and bitter, limb-killing cold. Add to this a clash of strong-willed personalities and it’s not surprising that lives were lost in the attempt to reach the pole. What was most surprising was that Greeley managed to survive the ordeal.


S.A. Andrée hoped to build on the lessons of Greeley’s ill-fated expedition. Together with Knut Fraenkel, a 26-year-old civil engineer, and Nils Strindberg, a youthful physics professor, they set off in a 97-foot-tall, 3,000-pound silk balloon filled with hydrogen. As it lifted off the island on July 11, 1897, observers “watched it grow smaller, until, after about an hour, it went over some hills and appeared to be lost.”


Nothing more was known about the intrepid travelers’ whereabouts until 33 years later, when a small band of geologists and seal hunters stumbled on an ice-bound camp on White Island. Their discovery of the balloonists’ remains, along with diaries and tins of film, revealed a profoundly sad story. The balloon’s flight lasted three days before coming to earth 300 miles from the North Pole and 300 miles from where the expedition had started. The men managed to survive for several months, feeding off seals and bears they brought down with their rifles, but in time the frigid environment claimed their lives as it had with so many others before them.


Throughout the book, Wilkinson digresses in classic New Yorker fashion, describing at length the many different names for ice (“New ice was called young ice … Sailing ice was ice in an open pack that allowed for a ship to pass. Round pieces of pack ice were pancake ice”) and later, how it felt to spend long winters in the coldest region on earth:


“Ships in the Arctic became a species of dungeon once the winter arrived. Having been built for waters where the climate was moderate, they weren’t well insulated.  Vapors from cooking and the men’s breathing turned to ice on the walls once the warmth from the cooking had dissipated. When the interior warmed again, the ice melted. Water seeped into the crews’ beds and their clothes, then froze once it got cold again. Since the ship had no portholes and a candle might start a fire, the crews lived mostly in darkness. The cold caused them to withdraw into the holds and their beds for weeks, which made everything worse.”


The Ice Balloon captures a time and place unknown to us now and, in elegant, low-key prose, offers an inspiring narrative of exploration and the indomitable human spirit.


Author Bio:

Lee Polevoi, chief book critic for Highbrow Magazine, is completing a new novel.


For Highbrow Magazine


Photo credit: Nils Strindberg (, Creative Commons)


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