On August 5, 1930, a group of men on a sealing expedition made their way across a rarely exposed ice sheet in the Svalbard Arctic Region along the Norwegian archipelago only to discover a scene that was long thought to have been lost to history. While the group, named the Bratvaag Expedition, had intended to hunt seals and study the structure of the glaciers in the area, they instead found themselves unintentionally excavating the remains of the disappeared S.A. Andrée Expedition, which had gone missing in that very region of the Arctic over 30 years before.
The 1897 balloon expedition was intended to be Sweden's opportunity to become the first country to officially explore the North Pole as part of an Arctic Race whose hype and nationalistic fervor in many ways parallelled that of the Space Race of the 1960s. Led by Salomon August Andrée, a Swedish explorer and engineer, accompanied by Nils Strindberg and Knut Fraenkel, the expedition aimed to pilot a hot air balloon from Svalbard, Norway, to either Russia or Canada, passing directly over the North Pole in the process. Tragically, the three men who committed themselves to the S.A. Andrée Expedition never made it back, and their fate was left unknown.
Once their final camp was rediscovered in 1930, the mystery of what truly happened to the lost explorers finally began to unravel, with their bodies, goods, journals, and even film cameras preserved by the icy tundra.
Andrée's First Crew Backed Out Of The Expedition Due To Safety Concerns
Prior to the expedition’s successful 1897 launch, Andrée had attempted one launch prior in 1896.
The 1896 launch was scheduled for a mid-summer day, and Andrée was to be accompanied by two men - Nils Ekholm, a meteorologist, and Nils Strindberg, a physics professor. However, when the launch schedule continued to be pushed back for first days and then weeks due to poor weather, the crew - including Andrée - began to feel discouraged. Once three weeks had passed, the crew determined they must wait to launch until the next summer season.
However, one member of Andrée's crew would not be returning for the next launch. Ekholm had had reservations about the viability of the trip, and after seeing the issues they encountered when attempting the first launch, he decided to back out of the expedition all together. He is believed to have had grave concerns about whether the balloon was capable of retaining enough hydrogen to make the trip. As a result, he was dismissed, and an engineer named Knut Frankel took his place.
Even Newspapers At The Time Questioned The Logic Of The Expedition
At the time of the initial launch attempt for the S. A. Andrée Expedition, on May 11, 1896, many people were already expressing their concerns about its safety and feasibility - including the local and international news circuits.
One such newspaper based out of Albany, New York, The Albany Express, even went so far as to point out the apparent disregard for the crews' safety in the cold aside from the construction of the balloon itself:
How the men expect to protect themselves for fifteen days from the intense cold which they will encounter in mid-air in the regions of eternal winter is not even suggested. It does not seem possible that any amount of furs would suffice. To sustain life upon the ice, where it is at least possible to secure some shelter, is extremely difficult, as experience has taught; in the frail car of a balloon, where the men will be constantly exposed to the intense cold of the open air, it must seem impossible.
In the final line of the January 16, 1896, article, the reporter seems to predict the tragic fate that history would long seek answers to, "it looks as if this expedition will result in the sacrifice of several human lives and nothing more."
Andrée May Have Gone Into The Expedition In A Depressive State
After his first failed attempt at launching the expedition in 1896, the time was finally approaching for Andrée and his crew to attempt their second launch. Sadly, at this same time, Andrée’s mother passed away from an illness unexpectedly.
Having been incredibly close to his mother, particularly after the passing of his father when he was only 16, and having never been married, her passing was especially hard on him. Reportedly, Andrée even wrote that, with her passing, “the only thread which bound me to the wish to live is cut off.”
And while many historians have put Andrée's character into question when debating the fate of the expedition, it appears - based on recovered journal entries - that he at least maintained a guise of positivity in the company of his crew and mourned privately. Later, when they would reach the land upon which they would set up their final camp, Andrée would nickname the camp “Mina Andrée's Place“ in honor of his late mother.
The Bratvaag Expedition Discovered Andrée's Body Near A Frozen River Over 30 Years After His Demise
In August 1930, members of the Bratvaag sealing expedition came across the coast of White Island, a stretch of land on the Norwegian Archipelago of Svalbard. Here, they expected to find a unique sealing opportunity, as the land was often impassable due to glacial hurdles and heavy snow.
When they arrived, they approached a frozen stream where they noticed a piece of aluminum sticking out from the snow. When they retrieved it, they noticed a dark form just below - the boat and body of Andrée.
Andrée’s body was discovered, headless and leaning up against a rock, next to a frozen stream with his crew’s boat in tow next to him. What he had been doing at the stream is unknown, and how he passed in that very spot is up for debate. His body was found with his hunting gun set down directly beside him, suggesting he had not been under threat of any kind, and his journal was curiously wrapped and strategically positioned between his back and the rock against which he leaned to take his final breath. Investigators have suggested that this was intentional and Andrée's attempt at preserving the journal for anyone who might find his body in the future.
The cadavers of the other two crew members, Frænkel and Strindberg, were also located with additional journals and belongings, including film canisters containing the 200 photographs that Strindberg had managed to take throughout their expedition.