Big dreams of exploration were not uncommon in the late 1800s and early 1900s. But one explorer may have taken such aspirations to the next level: in 1895, at a London conference on polar exploration, a Swedish engineer named Salomon August Andrée declared his intention to reach the North Pole via hot-air balloon.
You can imagine the laughter in that stately company upon the announcement. However, Andrée was not to be dissuaded. Off he went, with two fellow aeronauts. In 1897, they cast off from the Arctic island of Spitsbergen in a 1.5-ton, 97-foot-tall balloon. Unfortunately—and predictably—they never returned.
It could be said that Andrée’s dream was just a footnote in the annals of big adventure dreams gone bad. But are the craziest exploration ideas truly foolhardy, or are they just the first, necessary steps to more levelheaded adventures into the wild world?
Air and ice
In his 2012 book The Ice Balloon: S.A. Andrée and the Heroic Age of Arctic Exploration, author Alec Wilkinson recreates this fated ice-balloon voyage. Working off of Andrée’s diary that was found by seal hunters in 1930, Wilkinson relates that Andrée thought his dream was achievable because he had a newly designed rope system that he believed would allow him to steer his airship. Upon takeoff, however, Andrée and his crew lost the ropes. For the next three days, then, their balloon bumped along the ice, kept low by heavy fog. Eventually, 300 miles north of their starting point and 300 miles south of the North Pole, they abandoned ship. On makeshift sledges, they hauled back to an island in the Svalbard Archipelago, where they died from cold and exhaustion.
As is well known, U.S. Navy engineer Robert Peary subsequently claimed to have reached the North Pole on April 6, 1909, and Norwegian Roald Amundsen and his party achieved the South Pole on December 14, 1911. Did the bold, almost ridiculous attempts of people such as S.A. Andrée play any part in their Arctic and Antarctica preparations? We may never know.
What comes before
I’d bet that for every successful adventure into the unknown, there are preceding stories of people who tried the unlikely, such as that of Andrée. In fact, I’d guess that crazy attempts are a prerequisite for later “firsts” and accomplishments.
Just think about all those short reels of black-and-white film of the first aviators, who tried to get their wildly designed planes airborne. They usually got their craft off the ground a few feet, only to have it crash yards away, sometimes folding like paper airplanes. Nothing made my mother laugh so much as those early films. She would sit in her chair in front of the TV and watch as one dreamer after another bumped and hopped along the ground—never getting higher than a few feet—and then go to his predictable, hilarious end. As a kid, I found it hard to understand why such disasters (although they rarely resulted in serious injuries; the pilots seemed to always jump out unscathed) were so funny to her.
It occurs to me, now, though, that perhaps these crazy adventures were so amusing because the actual achievement of sustained flight came not so long before her lifetime—during her mother’s—when the Wright Brothers finally did it … well, right. She had grown up with stories of how foolhardy such dreams first were.
It makes me wonder if every big adventure dream starts with a round of laughter, like the one at that long-ago London conference did.
Could having a sense of humor—or at least our friends’ skepticism—be imperative to making our own dreams of exploring come true?
Here’s to your adventures, in whatever corner of the world you find them,