Lange: Lost expedition to the North Pole

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(HOST) One of commentator Willem Lange’s favorite winter pastimes is to read summer adventure stories. Recently, he ran across one that describes an attempt to reach the North Pole in 1897 – by air.

(LANGE) It was probably the weirdest expedition ever launched. Its leader had admitted before starting out, he held little hope of survival. They took carrier pigeons so that some word of their fate might be preserved. Then they disappeared for 33 years. Their journey has been romanticized in a novel, a movie, songs, and music cycles.

Lost explorers were nothing new. Of the Viking ships that followed Leif Ericsson to Greenland, over half disappeared. John Franklin’s two stout ships ships disappeared into the icy maw of the Northwest Passage in 1845, and still haven’t been found.

A nationalistic exploring furor exploded at the end of the Victorian Age. The Norwegian Roald Amundsen got to the South Pole and through the Northwest Passage. The English reached the South Pole, too, but in second place, and died on the way home. The Americans Peary and Cook both claimed to have reached the North Pole. Both claims are most likely spurious.

Salomon Andreé, a Swedish balloonist, proposed to reach the North Pole by hydrogen balloon. His enthusiasm trumped science and common sense. When he claimed all high-latitude winds blew straight north and would waft him to his destination, nobody wondered aloud which way all those converging winds would blow once they got there. The plan was to cross the pole to Alaska, assisted by a sail and steered by ropes dragging across the ice.

Experts considered the prospects of success nearly nil. The huge balloon leaked badly; its manufacturer advised postponement. But Andreé and his crew took off from Svalbard on July 11, 1897.

We know now that the flight lasted three days. Plagued by leaks and ice on the balloon, they sank lower and lower until they crashed.

No sign of them was found for 33 years, till a Norwegian vessel landed on White Island, east of Svalbard, and discovered their bodies. One had been carelessly buried; the other two were dressed in their furs. Andreé had preserved his oilcloth-wrapped journal inside his anorak.

They’d killed polar bears and seals for food. But they recorded joint pains, intestinal cramps, and diarrhea. Their camp showed they’d been very weak. Except for illness, they could have survived the winter and in spring sledged to safety. What had happened?

It’s one of the fascinating mysteries of the Arctic. The most popular theory is that all three died of trichinosis from eating half-cooked polar bear meat; carcasses found at the camp contained the parasites. Others think the speed of their decline and death was caused by botulism, sometimes found in seals. Their bodies were cremated upon their return to Sweden, so no one will ever know for sure. They fell far short of their goal, but came so close to making it back! Andreé was lionized as a hero. It’s ironic he probably had to die to achieve that distinction.

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