Falling upwards, p.34
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       Falling Upwards, p.34

           Richard Holmes

  The following day, 3 October, it became clear that the perilous condition of the pack ice would force them to land on White Island after all. They had journeyed approximately 190 miles across the surface of the ice from the Eagle’s landing point. But owing to the ice pack’s drift, their position was still about two hundred miles east of the nearest supply dump on Spitsbergen, and well over three hundred miles west of the Cape Flora dump on Franz Josef Land. In both directions lay open Arctic Ocean and lethal pack ice. White Island was now their only hope.

  It was a bleak one. Their binoculars revealed a low, windswept, stony and utterly inhospitable shore, partially crusted with snow. Behind it in the ever-fading light reared the looming glacier. But it was still land. They were very weak, yet somehow they managed to transfer all three sledges and most of their remaining equipment, in what must have been a series of half-swamped boat journeys, from the splintering ice floe to the island. They had just enough strength to establish a camp, but it was only about a hundred yards up the beach. The best they could do was find a long, flat shelf of rock, about three feet high, parallel to the beach and facing out to sea. Beneath this they could shelter from the offshore wind, but only when sitting or lying with their backs against it. They were now reduced to the most elemental state of survival.

  They arrived in a snowstorm, and the effort clearly exhausted them.62 They did eventually manage to build a kind of makeshift hut, projecting just a few feet above the rock shelf. But much of their equipment remained scattered and disordered around the campsite. One of the sledges was never properly unpacked, and was left part of the way down the beach. Their written records effectively ended here. Fraenkel had already stopped keeping his scientific observations several days before they built the igloo on the ice floe, and never resumed them.

  Andrée’s diary is fragmentary, and finally incoherent, after the last great effort of reaching White Island. But there is one note that suggests he decided to name their last shelter after his mother, ‘Camp Mina’. Another broken entry runs: ‘bad weather and we fear … we keep in the tent the whole day … so that we could [work] … on the hut … to escape …’ Perhaps the most strangely eloquent of all is an observation of the gulls which continually flew over their heads. Once these big birds had seemed symbols of freedom and escape: white, airborne and graceful spirits. But now they swooped low, and seemed vicious, noisy and hostile, like vultures: ‘They fight, scream and struggle … seem jealous of us … no longer give the impression of innocent white doves … but of outright birds of prey … carrion [hunters] …’63

  Nils Strindberg took no more photographs, or at least none that have survived. Nor did he write again to his beloved Anna Charlier. But his indomitable almanac contains six last entries. They are all very short, but provide a final thread of narrative, and prove that the crew of the Eagle were all still alive in mid-October 1897.

  2nd October. Our ice-floe broke close to the snow-hut during the night.

  3rd–4th October. Exciting situation.

  5th October. Moved to land.

  6th October. Snow-storm. Reconnoitring.

  7th October. Moving.

  17th October. Home 7 o’clock a.m.64

  Probably only Nils, with his irrepressible youth and sense of adventure, could have described the sighting of bleak White Island, in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, as an ‘exciting situation’. Or their exhausted wanderings around the beach as ‘reconnoitring’. Yet he leaves the mystery of where they all were in the ten days between 7 and 17 October tantalisingly unexplained. Where were they ‘moving’ to? And why did they then come back ‘home’ at so precise an hour? Andrée’s diary fragments throw no light on this either.

  The word ‘home’ has a particularly haunting presence in Nils’s almanac. It subtly changes its meaning throughout the four months of the expedition. It is first used to describe the Eagle’s gondola, and especially Nils’s favourite position up in the balloon hoop, where he feels ‘so snug and so at home’. Later, when they are down on the ice, it is used to associate the idea of Anna ‘sitting comfortably at home’ in Sweden with himself sitting alone on a sledge dreaming of her. Then, when they build the igloo in September, this also becomes ‘home’, the basket of the imaginary ice balloon that will eventually float them back to safety in the spring. Finally, ‘home’ seems to become the bare shelf of rock, looking out to sea, on White Island, Camp Mina. ‘Home’ – with its precise time entry – is the last complete word Nils ever wrote. This is where the last great romantic balloon expedition of the nineteenth century finally came to rest.


  Yet exactly how the Eagle expedition ended only emerged a generation later, when modern aeroplanes already dominated the sky, and balloons seemed a half-forgotten relic of the past. No news had been received from the expedition after Andrée’s early messages dropped from the balloon in July 1897, saying that all was well. A number of searches had been launched between 1898 and 1900, some financed by Swedish newspapers, but all without result. The crew’s fate was a complete mystery, and with the upheaval of the First World War it largely faded from public consciousness.

  Then, quite by chance, in 1930 a Norwegian whaling ship, the Braatvaag, anchored for twenty-four hours off the beach at White Island. A shore party casually wandering along the shingle where the snowline had retreated were astonished to come across the half-buried remains of one of the Eagle’s sledges. After further searches in the snow, two bodies and various documents were found. As with Captain Scott’s doomed South Pole expedition of 1912, all journals, diaries and letters had been deliberately wrapped up and set aside, preserved by the Arctic cold. Most precious of all were Nils Strindberg’s sealed tins of exposed photographic film. Through all their hardships he had never abandoned them.

  Shortly after, a second expedition carefully uncovered, mapped and recorded the whole campsite. The scene they finally established was this. The skeletons of Andrée and Fraenkel, much pulled about by polar bears, lay within the driftwood frame, constructed beneath the shelf of rock, that Nils had described as ‘Home’. Fraenkel lay flat, with open boxes of medical equipment scattered around him. Andrée was half-propped against the rock, a loaded rifle at his side, and their small kerosene cooker neatly placed on the section of rock shelf just above his left shoulder. The cooker still contained traces of kerosene. When pumped and lit, it burnt steadily.

  Supplies of tinned food, fuel and ammunition littered around the camp showed that they had not starved. But much equipment had never been unpacked. Death must have come quite soon, through exhaustion, illness or hypothermia, or a combination of all three. The disposition of objects suggested that Andrée had died last, having administered what medical aid he could to the dying Fraenkel, and then taken up his final half-sitting position as captain on his last watch.

  But what had happened to Nils Strindberg? Further investigation of the rock shelf revealed a natural fissure about six feet long, thirty yards or so to the west of the camp. It had been carefully filled with large, flat stones to make a kind of cairn. Beneath them was the body of the third member of the Eagle’s crew. It was Nils Strindberg’s grave. It had been lovingly and laboriously constructed, at what must have been a terrible cost to the dwindling physical reserves of his two comrades. Indeed, the effort may well have hastened their own deaths. From this it was clear that Nils, the youngest and most cheerful member of the expedition, had died first. What effect this must have had on Andrée and Fraenkel can only be imagined. It may have meant the end of all real hope of survival. But the immense care they took with his body and his personal effects showed how much they valued him to the end.

  They wrapped up his letters to Anna, as well as a gold locket with her miniature, and his almanac. After what must have been a most difficult decision, instead of leaving Nils’s engagement ring on his finger, they removed it and placed it with the letters. One of Salomon Andrée’s last acts was to put all these precious objects, together with Fraenkel’s observat
ion journal and his own unfinished diary, in meticulously sealed wrappings, which he placed next to his own body where they might eventually be found.

  As the final remnants of their camp were collected and analysed in 1930, it became clear that the driftwood frame of their shelter had once been covered by some sort of fabric. Closer inspection proved that part of it was cloth from the Eagle. So the last thing Andrée’s eyes rested upon may have been the silken balloon canopy, billowing overhead in the Arctic wind. He may even have dreamed that he was still flying.


  My cluster of balloon stories appears to end here, down on the lonely winter ice, in gathering cold and darkness, with only death and failure, and falling hopelessly to earth. It might seem very far from those sunlit freedoms of the upper air, the glorious hope and ‘hilarity’ with which the whole dream began. The Eagle’s story certainly makes for a tragic conclusion. In its own way it might appear a strange modern replay of the original Icarus myth, with polar frost replacing solar heat, in Nature’s revenge for mankind’s eternal hubris.

  I for one, surely a hardened biographer, have never been able to get Nils and Anna’s heartbreaking story out of my head. Anna, incidentally, left Sweden for America, and although she eventually married, she left instructions that her heart should be buried separately with Nils’s remains when they were found.1 Indeed, the experience of the lovers and spouses of balloonists, those who remained on the ground, ‘with their hearts in their mouths’, has yet to be investigated and told.

  But of course Andrée’s expedition was very far from being the dead end to the overall ballooning story. Viewed from a proper aerial perspective, something revolutionary had been achieved. Over the brief hundred or so years between 1780 and 1900, through the extraordinary courage and recklessness of such men and women, the momentous idea of manned flight itself was at last established, after a hundred thousand years of human evolution. To fly, to inhabit the upper air, to claim our beautiful airy kingdom, could no longer be dismissed as a greedy human aberration, an unnatural trespass upon forbidden territory. It had become instead a proper dimension for the exercise of scientific genius and imagination, a new stage in our planetary evolution; and, one might hope, in our planetary self-knowledge. There truly was, as Félix Nadar put it with his exceptional gift for encapsulating and promoting new concepts, Le Droit au vol – ‘The Right to Fly’.

  The mechanical business of flight itself was certainly now handed over, via the airship, to the heavier-than-air machine, and within the next hundred years, to the rocket, the satellite, and ‘ultimately’ to the spaceship. Though neither the Apollo programme nor the current Mars missions are themselves the end, either. There will undoubtedly be further extensions in the forms of interplanetary – if not intergalactic – travel within the next hundred years or so; provided we do not burst our fragile planetary balloon in the meantime.

  But the history of balloons has taken a different, and in some ways more subtle and provocative, path. Extreme ballooning, champagne ballooning, was itself only a phase, and dwindled away in the interwar years. But since the 1960s, ballooning has been reborn with the growing popularity of hot-air ballooning, and, it must be said, with its comparative cheapness and safety. Charles Green and the Tissandier brothers would certainly have approved of this development. It has emerged as a breathless form of tourist attraction, flying regularly over historic sites at dawn or dusk; and has become a major international sport, far outpacing the original Victorian ‘recreational’ coal-gas balloons; and like many modern sports transforming the old ideas of national rivalry.

  Balloon fiestas in America have become as popular as book festivals in England; Colorado matches Cheltenham. Both attract increasingly large and knowledgeable crowds, and produce an infectious atmosphere of carnival. Indeed, it strikes me that there are several similarities. For example, the idea of the ‘book launch’ and the ‘balloon launch’ (events which Guy de Maupassant was perhaps the first to combine), with all their associated elements of excitement and possible disaster, have many factors in common. Perhaps balloons attract a more sportive, though not necessarily a more youthful, following than books; though both sets of devotees are impressively expert and enthusiastic.

  On the other hand, ballooning requires no translation services, and major events take place annually all over Europe, and now increasingly in Africa and India. It might be said, even as Victor Hugo claimed, that the free balloon implies free airspace, an absence of hard borders, and therefore is democratic in its assumptions. Geo can belong to Demos, as François Arago pronounced with a flourish. There are now numerous international balloon fiestas all around the world, as at Velikie Luki, Russia; Rajasthan, India; or Lisburn, Ireland.2

  Balloons are still used for many modern scientific observations, both peaceful and warlike. There are high-altitude weather balloons. There are balloons for surveying archaeological sites: ‘buried’ towns, or lost medieval villages, or Iron Age forts. There are military drone balloons, used for example by the US Army in Afghanistan. There are balloons or blimps used for advertising, such as the famous Michelin balloon, or Airabelle herself, who simply advertises milk. There are even modern tethered balloons used to study our environmental impact on the globe, such as those employing low-level automatic cameras over coral reefs.3

  There is still a fascination with balloon records and ‘firsts’, often quixotically promoted as scientific research. In 1932, Professor Auguste Piccard, launching from a site near Zurich, rose to 53,149 feet in a pioneering form of pressurised gondola. Subsequent altitude and free-fall (jumping from balloons) records continue to be pursued. Colonel Joe Kittinger jumped from a balloon nineteen miles up over Florida in 1960. Most recently, in October 2012, Felix Baumgartner jumped from 127,852 feet, in a specially pressurised spacesuit, adding to the drama by having the whole event broadcast on live television and over the internet. He remained in free fall for over four minutes. One wonders what Jacques Garnerin would have made of that.

  Horizontal records also continue to be challenged. The first crossing of the Atlantic by balloon took place, as we have seen, in 1978. The first non-stop round-the-world balloon flight, by Breitling Orbiter 3, succeeded, after many perils and disappointments, in 1999; the bright-red kevlar pressure-cabin gondola is preserved in the Air and Space Museum, Washington, DC. The first crossing of Mount Everest by balloon was achieved by Leo Dickinson in 2009, and produced the most awe-inspiring photographs.

  But it should be clear by now that this book is not a conventional history of ballooning. In a sense, it is not really about balloons at all. It is about what balloons gave rise to. It is about the spirit of discovery itself, the extraordinary human drama it produces; and to this there is no end. It also explores how a single, counter-intuitive scientific discovery – that hydrogen can be weighed against atmospheric air – can have such huge social and imaginative impact. In this, it is about the meeting of chemistry, physics, engineering and the imagination.

  My own lifelong fascination with balloons still puzzles me, ever since that original, childhood flight of fancy. I have written this book partly to find out why this is so. As indicated in some of my footnotes (and footnotes should be like little baskets of helpful provisions slung below the main machine), I have made a few hot-air balloon ascents myself. But this has always been as a passenger, never as a pilot. I think it is the idea, the upwards possibility, as much as the actual activity that attracts me. My heart leaps up when I behold a dragon in the sky.

  I have mentioned some of my most memorable flights in France, America and Australia. But I also fondly recall the characteristic romance of a beautiful late-September flight, in the dusk over my home county of Norfolk, when the earth darkened below us, and the stars began to come out overhead; and we slipped down to land in a sweetly perfumed field. A field that turned out to be occupied by a large herd of shadowy, but distinctly inhospitable, prize Norfolk pigs.

  A Chronological List of Classic Balloon Acco
unts, Both Fact and Fiction


  The Marquis d’Arlandes, ‘The First Mongolfière Ascent with Pilâtre de Rozier’, 21 November 1783

  Dr Alexandre Charles, ‘The First Hydrogen Balloon Ascent’, 1 December 1783

  Vincent Lunardi, ‘My First Aerial Voyage in England’, September 1784

  John Jeffries, ‘Across the Channel with Monsieur Blanchard’, January 1785

  Laetitia Sage, ‘The First English Female Aerial Traveller’, 1785

  Major John Money, ‘A Balloon Flight from Norwich to the North Sea’, 1785

  Tiberius Cavallo, FRS, A Treatise on Aerostation, 1785

  Thomas Baldwin, Airopaedia, 1786

  Jean-Pierre Blanchard, ‘My First Balloon Ascent in America’, 1794

  Jacques Garnerin, Three Aerial Voyages, 1803

  Rudolf Erich Raspe, The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen, 1809

  Mary Shelley, The Last Man, 1825

  Jane Loudon, The Mummy!, 1827

  Edgar Allan Poe, ‘The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall’, 1835

  Monck Mason, Aeronautica, 1838

  John Poole, ‘Crotchets in the Air’, 1838

  Edgar Allan Poe, The Trans-Atlantic Balloon Hoax, 1844

  Henry Mayhew, ‘A Balloon Flight Over London’, 1852

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