Friday, February 3, 2012

The Ice Balloon

Come January, I usually start getting a little nostalgic for the winter everyone back home on the east coast seems to be suffering through grumpily. This year was no different, so I decided to chill myself vicariously--the best kind of chill--by indulging in a little polar exploration from my armchair. Fortunately, Alec Wilkinson's The Ice Balloon arrived just in time to allow me this indulgence.

The history of polar exploration is largely a history of successive catastrophes. From Sir John Franklin's ill-fated attempt to find the fabled and, it turns out, utterly impractical Northwest Passage to Robert Scott's stubborn demise in Antarctica, the poles have withstood a great deal of human ingenuity and determination. Wilkinson's account of S.A. Andree's ambitious and novel attempt at the North Pole--he was the first to try it using a balloon--is the chronicle of another disaster, but one that comes alive in the telling with an unexpected degree of suspense.

Andree is presented as the first non-Romantic explorer, one whose faith in science and technical progress led him to believe almost dogmatically in the success of his expedition. (He was so confident of his success, in fact, that he brought a tuxedo along with him, certain he'd have reason to don it for a celebrated return to civilization.) And, in the story as Wilkinson tells it, it seems Andree had sufficient reason to believe in the success of his voyage.

By weaving into the narrative covering Andree's attempt--which includes several poignant biographical sketches--other episodes from the "golden age" of polar exploration, Wilkinson presents not just a vivid biography of a man, but of the obsession of an age and the characters who acted out the often harrowing consequences of that obsession.

Visit this page for more photographs of Andree's doomed expedition (which were discovered nearly 40 years after its mysterious demise).

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