Falling upwards, p.32
Falling Upwards, p.32Richard Holmes
Meanwhile, Andrée purchased two of the latest Carl Zeiss cameras, reminding Nils that the ‘photometric survey’ of the Arctic from the air would be a scientific first, quite unlike anything achieved by Nansen. Much torn in his loyalties, both emotional and scientific, Nils eventually decided that honour required him to continue with the second expedition.
In spring 1897, after interviewing many candidates, Andrée replaced Dr Ekholm with Knut Fraenkel, a much younger man and a very different type. This choice may have confirmed Ekholm in his worries about the nature of the journey being undertaken. Like Andrée, Fraenkel was an engineering graduate of the Royal Technical Institute, but his main accomplishments were athletic. A youthful giant of immense strength and stamina, he was a fine gymnast, a mountain climber, an adventurer who had helped in his father’s roadbuilding business in the north of Sweden. He was extroverted and good-natured, and turned out to be an excellent cook. At twenty-seven years old, he towered over the small, elegant Strindberg, and was much stockier than Andrée. But he accepted his authority, and evidently admired him far less critically than Dr Ekholm. Like Strindberg, he hurried off to learn ballooning in Paris, and despite some severe crash-landings, came back more enthusiastic than ever.
On 29 April 1897, just before the second expedition was due to sail for Spitsbergen, Andrée’s beloved mother Mina died. The loss of this most important emotional tie for Andrée, now aged forty-two and still unmarried, may in some sense have loosened his last links with the earth. When Nansen wrote him a warm letter wishing him all luck, saying how much he admired what he was undertaking for Sweden, he also sounded a note of caution, quoting Macbeth: ‘I dare do all that may become a man; who dares do more is none.’ In the most tactful way, Nansen suggested that Andrée should not allow himself to be driven to take ‘unreasonable risks’ by patriotism, or any other influence: ‘It is in drawing this boundary that true spiritual strength reveals itself.’ Like a good mountaineer, Andrée should know when to turn back; or even when not to start.29
Andrée secretly added a codicil to his will, which included an ominous sentence: ‘I write on the eve of a journey full of dangers such as history has never yet been able to show. My presentiment tells me that this terrible journey will signify my death.’30
The new expedition reached Dane’s Island on 30 May 1897, repaired the balloon hangar on the bleak foreshore, and reinflated the balloon, which was now rechristened Örnen – the Eagle. Apart from this symbolic change – perhaps suggesting a triumphant flight, rather than a declared destination – all Andrée’s equipment, even his fine cotton handkerchiefs, remained emblazoned with the red insignia ‘Andrées Pol. Exp. 1896’. For nearly six weeks they waited for the wind from the south. Finally, on the morning of 11 July, the barometer dropped and a cyclone arrived, bringing low grey cloud. It blew temptingly northwards across Virgo Bay, in a series of sharp blustery squalls. The final preparations took less than four hours, and were hurried. Andrée made a point of taking both Strindberg and Fraenkel aside, and asking them individually if they agreed to launch. Strindberg was notably impatient to leave, although there was some discussion about waiting for the wind to settle its direction and strength. But after two years Andrée was not to be restrained, and ordered the downwind side of the wooden hangar to be cut away with axes. Now there was no turning back.
At exactly 1.43 p.m. they shook hands, released a tangle of restraining ropes, and launched the huge balloon.31 The Eagle rose with slow dignity, just cleared the hangar with a slight bump, then sailed magnificently out across the grey, choppy waters of the bay, heading a perfect due north. Everyone cheered and waved. The navigation sail was already billowing, though the complex cluster of trailing guide ropes made the balloon look curiously awkward. One of the journalists remarked that it was more like a long-legged spider than a soaring eagle. A photograph records this iconic moment, and was later enhanced as a photo-illustration that was published by Life magazine, and around the world.
Then, in a few seconds, the mood shifted. It was noticed that the balloon was flying very low, at little more than sixty feet. The ropes dragged a broad wake of dark disturbed water behind it, but several of them appeared to be dropping away. What no photograph showed is what had happened in the first sixty seconds of the flight. As the Eagle rose, the lower sections of the guide ropes had begun untwisting their metal screw connectors. Even before the ends reached the water, they fell with a rattle onto the foreshore.
It was later found that the ropes had been coiled neatly on the ground outside the hangar, rather than stretched out straight along the shingle. They had simply twisted round and round as they were pulled into the air, and finally disconnected themselves. It was a classic case of a brilliant technical design failing at its first practical application. A workman saw this with a shout, but Andrée did not discover it until some minutes later, as he was already preoccupied with something else.
The Eagle was failing to rise any higher. Slowly it began to dip towards the surface of the bay. Within a few hundred yards the basket was skimming and catching the water. Clearly the hurried ‘weighing off’ inside the protected hangar did not correspond to the blustery conditions outside. Ironically, the huge, powerful Eagle had not been released with enough initial lift. For a moment this seemed quite playful, and the workmen back on the shore still cheered. But in a few more seconds the basket was kicking up a bow wave, sinking deeper into the icy sea, and looking as if it would actually submerge. Alarmed, Andrée ordered a quick offload of ballast. In the emergency it seems that his two inexperienced crew, eager to obey their commander, immediately threw out four bags of gravel each, far more than necessary.
The Eagle was seen to jerk sharply, then leap clear of the waves and sail upwards, streaming water and trailing its shortened guide ropes high into the air. The workmen cheered again. It was only then that Andrée could see that he had lost most of his vital navigation system in the first few moments of the launch. The balloon soon rose over the coastal hills, and disappeared from sight, still climbing. Eventually it reached over two thousand feet, far higher than Andrée had ever intended to fly, and the automatic Giffard valve began releasing gas. Below them they could see the first ‘finely divided’ ice floes and the ‘beautiful dark-blue colouring’ of the Arctic Ocean. Just before they left the northernmost tip of Spitsbergen, Strindberg dropped a departure message for Anna Charlier in a canister. It was never found.
From now on the history of the expedition has four main written sources, which do not always tell quite the same story. The primary one is Andrée’s official diary, which is in effect the captain’s log. The next is Fraenkel’s logbook, which consists mainly of meteorological observations. The third and fourth are Nils Strindberg’s almanac, which mixes navigational with private records, and finally Nils’s extended love letter to Anna, nine pages written in shorthand, which he intended to deliver on his return as a form of wedding present.32 But there would be a fifth, unwritten source, perhaps the most eloquent of all: Nils Strindberg’s Zeiss photographs.
At first the launch mishaps seemed comparatively minor, almost comic. The crew had drunk champagne, and were in high spirits. One of Nils’s early almanac entries describes how he climbed into the hoop to admire the view, and the following cheery dialogue took place: ‘Look out, Fraenkel!’ ‘What’s up?’ ‘You’ll get a shower-bath!’ ‘All right!’33 Evidently Nils was happily urinating. The balloon found its new equilibrium at around a thousand feet, and stopped losing so much gas from its automatic valve. The wind was carrying them briskly north, though also several degrees eastwards. Still hoping eventually to adjust their course with the sails, Andrée had all hands splicing new full-length trail ropes from what remained of the originals. But he was relaxed enough to go below for an Arctic siesta.
All that first afternoon of 11 July the ballooning was smooth, sunlit and bucolic. They were thrilled by the sense of entering so swiftly and so easily into the unknown land of ice
It was only later, when he had time to make his calculations, that Andrée realised how much vital ballast they had lost. Adding together the eight hastily-emptied sacks of gravel (450 pounds) and the disconnected trail ropes (1,160 pounds), it amounted to rather more than 1,600 pounds, or one-third of their total ballast. As ballast equals flying time, this immediately shortened the balloon’s possible endurance in the air by as much as half.35
There was also the problem of why the balloon had descended into the water in the first place. Possibly it had not been ‘weighed off’ properly. Possibly its sails had caught an unlucky downdraft of wind across Virgo Bay. Or possibly the balloon was leaking, and simply lacked lift, exactly as Dr Ekholm had feared. If so, this would require some radical rethinking of the journey. While Andrée lay below in his bunk, pondering these problems, Fraenkel prepared food, and Nils began photographing. He also started keeping a plotted chart of their course.
‘Our journey has hitherto gone well,’ Andrée entered briskly in his first recovered message, dropped by buoy at around 10 p.m. on 11 July. ‘We are still flying at an altitude of 250 metres [830 feet] on a heading at first North 10 East, but later N. 45 East. We are now well in over the ice field, which is much broken up in all directions. Weather magnificent. In best of humours … Above the clouds since 7.45 p.m.’ It was signed as a team: ‘Andrée, Strindberg, Fraenkel’.36 Amazingly, there is no mention of the lost ballast ropes, or any comment on their increasingly eastward heading. Until midnight on 11 July the balloon continued to fly high and stable at around one thousand feet, but also continued to turn eastwards. In fact, by 1 a.m. on 12 July it was flying due east, no longer heading north at all. Nevertheless, up till then progress had been little short of astonishing. By the end of the first twelve hours they had covered some 244 miles, which was genuinely impressive. A sledge would have taken three weeks at best to cover the same ground.
At around 1.30 a.m. on 12 July, the loss of gas suddenly began to make itself felt. Entering a cloud, the balloon lost the warming influence of the sun and sank steadily into a new world: that of Arctic ground fog. From then on, conditions changed dramatically. Within four minutes the Eagle had dropped from eight hundred to sixty-five feet, and for the first time since Spitsbergen one of the shortened drag ropes touched the ice. The balloon would never again rise above three hundred feet.37
The crew did not know this, but their mood darkened. Nils noticed a huge, blood-red stain on the ice, where a polar bear had made a kill. It seemed ominous.38 They could now see that what appeared relatively smooth and benign from a thousand feet was actually a surface of fearful irregularity, with twenty-foot humps and gullies of ice, sharp edges and rugosities, where the ice pack had stacked and compacted under huge wind and submarine pressure.
At the new low altitude, the balloon slowed to almost walking pace; worse, it gradually turned completely around and started to drift westwards. They were virtually retracing their steps. Throughout the day they threw out more ballast, including, at 4.51 p.m., the biggest buoy, originally intended to mark the Pole itself, or at least their furthest point north. Significantly, it was thrown overboard ‘without communication’. This also suggests their change of mood. Immediately afterwards, the basket actually struck the ice forcibly, ‘several times in succession’.39 By 5.14 p.m. they had had ‘eight strikes in thirty minutes’. This was menacing.
Throughout the remainder of 12 July, the Eagle’s speed and prospects steadily deteriorated. They were no longer advancing towards the Pole at all. Another of Andrée’s key concepts, the ‘steady summer breeze towards the Pole’, had failed to materialise.
As they sank into the freezing fog, the sun disappeared altogether, and their horizon closed down claustrophobically, with visibility reduced to less than a mile in all directions. Their voices came back to them with a dull, muffled echo. It grew much colder. The ice no longer glinted and shimmered, its blue and white beauty replaced by a dreary, featureless grey. This gave Nils’s cameras nothing to focus on, producing photographs without depth or scale. ‘The snow on the ice a light dirty yellow across great expanses,’ noted Andrée. ‘The fur of the polar bear has the same colour.’40
Nils found himself waiting for the basket’s next strike, each one shaking the wickerwork and vibrating up through balloon’s entire rigging, making the canopy snap and creak overhead. He described this with an expressive term: ‘the balloon’s stampings’. It was as if the Eagle was putting its foot down, angrily demanding to kick clear of the hostile world of ice. Should they try to anchor, and wait for a better wind? Should they expend yet more precious ballast, and try to ascend above the fog? Uncertain what to do next, Andrée again went below to take stock and sleep on the single bunk. Nils and Fraenkel were left on watch.
At some point Nils climbed into the balloon hoop to be alone, and to write his letter to Anna. His thoughts went both into his almanac and into his letter, though with slightly different emphasis in each. In the letter he was determinedly cheerful: ‘12 July. Being up in the carrying ring is so splendid. One feels so safe and so at home. One knows that the bumps up here are felt less and this allows me to sit calmly and write to you without having to hold on … Andrée is lying [below] in the basket cabin asleep but I expect will not get any proper rest. The sun vanishes in the fog.’41
Nils’s later almanac entry gives an optimistic account of their progress during the earlier part of the day, when the sun still partially shone through the fog. But the misdating of the entry ‘12 June’, instead of July – suggests an element of distraction in his thoughts.
12 June 21 hours 5 minutes o’clock … This morning the height of car was 60 metres [190 feet] when the fog lightened enough to allow the sun to peep through. Every so often patches of blue sky. A refreshing sight after all the ‘stampings’ during the night. The carrying power of the balloon also increased finely. I wondered if we will make a high-level journey?
But by the time Nils wrote this entry, just after nine o’clock on the evening of 12 July, the chances of returning to a ‘high-level journey’ were slipping away. The balloon was growing heavier every hour with moisture from the freezing fog, and the lifting power of the remaining hydrogen was reducing as its temperature dropped: ‘Hard and continuous bumps against the ground resulting from the fog that weighs us down.’ Nils also noted that the wind direction had swung further round, ‘90 to 100 degrees’, and was now threatening to blow them almost due west. Finally, at about 10 p.m., they stopped moving altogether – one of the drag ropes had become caught beneath a block of ice. At least temporarily, they were completely stuck – ‘fastened very well’, as Nils pointedly put it. Perhaps initially it was something of a relief. But now their progress did not look so impressive. After twenty-two hours’ flying, they were supposed to be over halfway to the Pole, but they had not reached even 82 degrees North. They would remain stuck for the next thirteen hours.42
From these entries of 12 July, it is possible to conclude that Nils had begun to have doubts about Andrée’s balloon technique. He might have begun to wonder if the trail ropes and sails should be abandoned altogether. Perhaps they still had enough spare ballast to throw out, and let the Eagle fly freely into the Arctic sunlight? Once higher up, beyond one or even two thousand feet, the hydrogen would expand in the heat, the lift would rapidly increase, and the balloon would come to life again. By adjusting the Giffard valve, they could find a new ballast equilibrium and risk ‘a high-level journey’. They could finally take the glorious chance of a free flight across the Pole.
Andrée wrote in his journal soon after the others had gone below:
11.45 p.m. [12 July] Although we could have thrown out ballast, and although the wind [now blowing due west] might perhaps carry us to Greenland, we determined to be content with standing still. We have been obliged to throw out very much ballast today, and have not had any sleep nor been allowed any rest from the repeated bumpings, and we could not have stood it much longer. All three of us must have rest, and I sent Strindberg and Fraenkel to bed at 11.20 o’clock, and I mean to let them sleep until 6 or 7 o’clock [on 13 July] if I can manage to keep watch until then.
There was no hint in this entry of any dissension. The determination to ‘stand still’ seems to have been mutually agreed between the three of them, as a team. Yet the feeling that they ‘could not have stood it much longer’ suggests a certain tension. Andrée also added a curious reflection: ‘If either of them should succumb it might be because I have tired them out.’44
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