The Ice Balloon by Alec Wilkinson

The image on the front cover tells the story. Seen from approximately 100 yards away, the two men are only visible in a tiny outline. They stand next to a giant balloon, but one careened on its side and out of commission. The stance of the two figures, even at that distance, betrays a sort of forlorn resignation. The landscape is a solid white with not distinguishing features, and stretches beyond the invisible horizon. Clearly things have gone badly wrong, and this story is unlikely to end well.

According to Alec Wilkinson in his new book The Ice Balloon, prior to 1900 roughly a thousand explorers and adventurers had tried to reach the North Pole. Of these, around 250 had returned. Attempts to sail to the pole had failed in the treacherous northern ice, as had efforts to sledge overland. Some expeditions ended mysteriously and catastrophically. The John Franklin expedition disappeared completely, losing two ships and 150 men. Franklin’s widow issued a call for other explorers to help find her husband’s command, resulting in more men being lost in the search than died with Franklin. Even to survive an Arctic trip was an ordeal; to be caught in the North after September meant being forced to overwinter, dealing with sub-zero temperatures in a seemingly endless night as you watched yourself waste away along with your supplies. Inevitably horrors of all sorts occurred, from basic starvation up to murder and cannibalism.

Enter Swedish explorer S. A. Andree with a novel idea: If land and sea had failed to open a route to the pole, then try the air. His mode of transportation would be the hydrogen balloon, which he believed would be swept into the polar winds, reach the pole in a few days, and land triumphantly on the other side of the world. In a stroke the torturous treks to the pole would be abolished.

At first glance this idea seems completely idiotic, and it probably is in hindsight. Unlike hot air balloons, hydrogen balloons are acutely sensitive to the air temperature and density of the gas within the balloon. Something as miniscule as the shadow of a cloud gliding over the balloon’s canvas will cause it to descend. Many polar veterans spoke against Andree’s plan, believing him unable to accomplish such a feat as well as begrudging the possibility of a solution rendering their immense suffering an ultimate dead end. Many others, such as Alfred Nobel, were convinced by Andree’s determination and gladly financed his expedition. For his part, Andree seemed to harbor few doubts, even packing a tuxedo with which to meet the dignitaries who would meet him upon landing.

Andree and two volunteer crewmen took off from an island 600 miles south of the Pole in the summer of 1897. Several mishaps immediately occurred, but the balloon was over the horizon after an hour. Nothing more would be known of the Andree balloon expedition for 33 years.

With The Ice Balloon Wilkinson has written a very good and intriguing story about a brave man who came up with an idea to solve the problem of arctic exploration. As the Andree episode is a bit thin on narrative after a point, Wilkinson conjoins his account of Andree with discussions of several other Arctic expeditions in order to give the reader the full scope of horror experienced by those trapped in the icy wastes. His prose is a bit sparse, but as a result also has some elegance.The overall effect works well, and makes The Ice Balloon a quick and fascinating read. While there are certainly better and more involved books about arctic exploration, this is a good read for anyone interested in the history of exploration, or an astonishing account of an exploit simultaneously courageous and foolhardy.

For questions, comments, or media inquiries please contact James R White

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