Up, Up and Away

Bill Coffin


December 1, 2009

A few years ago, my wife flew over the North Pole on her way to China. When our kids learned of this, they quizzed their mom about what she saw out her window. Did she see Santa's workshop? How many elves were there? Was Santa flying around in his sleigh? Even I had to ask, what exactly did the North Pole look like?

When my wife told me that it was just an endless expanse of white ground, I was secretly disappointed. I guess that deep down I really hoped there would be a red and white barber's pole marking the spot, like I had seen in countless cartoons.

There is something about the North Pole that captivates the imagination and not just during the Christmas season. It is the kind of place that attracts explorers, adventurers and people who have something to prove against one of the world's harshest environments. Surely this was the case in the late 1800s, when much of the Northern Hemisphere was obsessed with exploring the Arctic.

At that time, nobody had laid eyes on the North Pole, so there was much speculation as to what was really there. Most thought there was a polar sea through which ships could navigate. Some even thought there might be a tropical zone that would be a paradise for those able to find it. Thus, the North Pole became the subject of a 19th century space race, with every nation in the Arctic Circle banking its prestige on who could get there first.

Representing Sweden was Salomon August Andree, a patent clerk, inventor and balloon enthusiast who was convinced that dangerous land and sea efforts to reach the pole were unnecessary. He planned to fly a hot-air balloon, along with two assistants, from the island of Svalbard to the pole, then on to Siberia, Canada or Alaska. His plan captured the hearts and minds of his fellow countrymen (including King Oscar II and Alfred Nobel), who collectively bankrolled the expedition. He figured the trip to the pole itself might take two days, but depending on where he landed, it might take a year or more to return to civilization.

Unfortunately, Andree was more Evel Knievel than Steve Fossett. In his previous balloon flights, he repeatedly ended up lost, nearly landed in the ocean and crashed so many times he broke numerous bones. Not surprisingly, Andree's polar expedition was doomed from the start. He had no real idea which way the polar winds would blow and he never even bothered to field-test his balloon (custom made for the trip) prior to liftoff. That it leaked gas from the eight million little stitch-holes in its canvas did not seem to faze him, though one imagines that to a risk manager, that might be the first sign that things were very seriously awry.

Andree and his team brought enough supplies to live for three years in the Arctic but were not themselves seasoned Arctic adventurers and were in no way physically up to the task. And newspapers of the time seemed to know it, as many openly predicted that Andree, while being a very brave man, was also signing his own death certificate. Constant media coverage, marketing and advertising of the mission had made Andree's team international celebrities, and on July 11, 1897, they sailed off into the distance and were never seen alive again.

Their remains were not found until 1930, when it was learned that the balloon crashed almost immediately after takeoff and limped along for another two days before finally coming to rest on the Arctic ice sheet too far from Svalbard to make it back safely, and too far from the pole for the trip to have mattered. For the next few months, Andree and his team slowly crossed the ice back to Svalbard, but by October, they were dead. Nobody knows how, but exhaustion, exposure, food poisoning and polar bear attack are all suspects.

Andree had to have known how many scientists and explorers thought his expedition was a foolhardy one, and yet to him, whether he made it to the North Pole or died trying, the difference was worth the risk. Lest we judge him too harshly, it was the same mentality that led Sir Edmund Hillary to the top of Everest, Chuck Yeager past the sound barrier and Neil Armstrong to the moon. In the long run, what most separates them from Andree is that they managed to come home alive. Like Andree, they too were willing to risk everything and challenge the unknown so that it might one day become familiar. Mundane. An idle view from a passing airliner. And so we go.
Bill Coffin is a freelance writer and former editor in chief of Risk Management.

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