Above the Ice


On Travel

Grief and adventure on the path to the North Pole.


François-Auguste Biard, Magdalenefjorden, 1840.

For two weeks in the summer of 2013, I traveled around the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard as part of the Arctic Circle Residency, proceeding up the west coast of the main island, Spitsbergen, and making landfall at tiny settlements and untrammeled beaches at the edge of the known world. At one point, our course took us into a small fjord where we sailed past an abandoned mining town called Blomstrandhalvoya; a research station, Ny-Ålesund, on the opposite shore; and, farther in, two massive glaciers, Kongsvegend and Kronebreen, twin ice masses sliding slowly into the fjord.

The glaciers hug a promontory butte that stands in defiance to these ice sheets, though they are both slowly wearing it away. In a struggle imperceptible to human eyes, the glaciers grind relentlessly against the rock face, carving their inexorable history into its striated face. They could win against this rock, wearing it down over eons into a plain or even a valley, but instead they’re ceding the battle, retreating backward. At some point in the future the promontory will be an island, as the glaciers recede and allow water to spill in behind them.

The sound you hear when you put ice cubes into warm (but not hot) water—that subtle but quick crackling—is the sound all around you in the summer fjords near glaciers. There is ice everywhere in the water, the size of your fist and the size of small islands, and because the water is only a few degrees above freezing, the ice cracks slowly, abundantly. It takes a moment to understand what you’re hearing, because it’s so constant and so low in the air—this soft crackle, like static over a radio.

Next to the noise, there is the wind. Strong, persistent, a wall of bitter blue. Constant: no slack, no gusts, as if from an electric fan. It is utterly cold and utterly fierce. You gaze into the white at the edge of the glacier that gives way slowly to its interior blues, blues of a depth for which there is no word, buffeted by the wind, which streams steadily and directly into you.

Gretel Ehrlich calls glaciers archivists because of their ability to preserve so much history. “Ice cores are time machines,” she writes:

Snow piles up, compresses, and becomes firm, then ice mounds up into glaciers; oxygen bubbles are trapped in the ice, providing samples of ancient atmosphere, of how much carbon dioxide and methane is held within. Records of past temperatures and levels of atmosphere gases from before industrialization are compared with those after—a mere 150 years.

As the great Kongsvegend and Kronebreen slide quietly back into the land, this past record will be gradually loosed from them. “Trapped carbon dioxide is like grief,” Ehrlich concludes, “it has to go somewhere.” All around us, it was going everywhere. The moment when a piece of glacier breaks off and falls into the sea is called calving, and everywhere the calves of Kronebreen and Kongsvegend drifted by, far from silent with the crackling static of the ice. Calving makes a noise exactly like distant thunder or the fall of centuries-old trees. Sometimes you catch the moment of calving, realizing how seemingly small a piece can make so great a sound. Sometimes you miss it, seeing the ice only as it drifts free in the water. And sometimes you hear it and look and see no trace of it whatsoever: the rumbling comes from deep somewhere in the glacier. One unnamed sailor described it more than a century ago:

The song of the sea ice is a very peculiar one, and can scarcely be described so as to convey any clear idea of its nature. It is not loud, yet it can be heard to a great distance. It is neither a surge, nor a swash, but a kind of slow, crashing, groaning, shrieking sound, in which sharp silvery tinkling mingle with the low, thunderous undertone of a rushing tempest. It impresses one with the idea of nearness and distance at the same time and also that of immense forces in conflict. When this confused fantasia is heard from afar through the stillness of an Arctic night the effect is strangely weird and almost solemn, as if it were the distant hum of an active, living world breaking across the boundaries of silence, solitude and death.

I found this quote in Alec Wilkinson’s The Ice Balloon, a recent history of Salomon August Andrée and his attempt to reach the North Pole in his helium balloon, the Örnen, in 1897. After so many polar expeditions had been bedeviled by the shifting, merciless pack ice, ice that crushed ships and proved an unstable terrain for overland crossings, Andrée devised a plan to sail over the ice in a balloon, using trailing lines of guide rope dragged along the ice as a crude kind of rudder. He believed he could reach the North Pole from Svalbard in a matter of hours. He set out from a northern harbor in Svalbard, Virgohamna, in the company of two men, Knut Fraenkel and Nils Strindberg, a photographer. Calamity beset them almost immediately: two of the guide ropes were tangled and lost during launch and the balloon floundered for nearly three hundred miles before crash landing on the ice. On foot, Andrée and his companions spent two months working their way south, hoping to make it back to civilization, before dying on the tiny island, Kitvøya, just east of Svalbard. In 1930 their remains were finally discovered, along with rolls of Strindberg’s undeveloped film.

The most iconic of these is a photo Strindberg took soon after the Örnen had first crashed on the ice; from a distance of twenty or thirty feet, Strindberg captured Andrée and Fraenkel standing beside the half-deflated balloon, their poses indicating neither despair nor horror so much as idle curiosity, as though they were witnessing the thing on display at a world’s fair. Perhaps they still believed their voyage overland would be successful, that they will reach the stores of provisions they’d stowed at Svalbard and nearby Franz Josef Land. Perhaps they did not know yet that they were doomed.

Eagle Deflated

The crash of the Örnen.

I return to that image often, an image of deflation in the fullest sense of the word. Deflate, from the Latin flare, “to blow.” Even if they do not realize it yet, Andrée and his companions are blown out, exhaled. The image now encapsulates a whole history of nineteenth-century hubris and the long-held belief that nature is an easy conquest, a thing to be bested through scientific ingenuity and will.

* * *

Trapped grief is like carbon dioxide; it has to go somewhere. Strindberg’s fiancée, Anna Charlier, never got over his death. She waited for thirteen years after his disappearance in 1897 before remarrying, but in her own way she stayed true to him even then. She was still alive in 1930 when his remains were found and returned to Sweden for reburial, the grief inside her slowly thawing. When she did die, in 1947, she had her husband cremate her body and her heart separately and bury the remains of her heart alongside Strindberg’s, her first and only love.

When I was in Svalbard, grief never felt very far from the surface—nor did the bodies of the dead themselves, which linger rather than decompose. The permafrost is so thick that you can’t be buried very deep; the cold preserves your remains for decades, if not centuries. Residents in the main settlement of Longyearbyen must make arrangements to have their bodies shipped home when they die; in the tiny graveyard of Longyearbyen, there are barely thirty graves, all but three or four with standard white crosses and a uniform plaque, and nearly all dating to before 1940.


Photo: Godot13, via Wikimedia Commons

The markers carry no information but names and dates, and yet they offer glimpses of a story. In some cases, one finds the same date of death in a succession of markers—Konrad Kristofferson, age thirty-seven, Helge Nilsen, age twenty-seven, Nils J. Krog, age thirty-two, Karl Johan Enkvist, age thirty-four, all dead January 3, 1920—a calamity that’s never explained.

In 1918, a succession of Longyearbyen’s residents were wiped out in a single week. Ole Kristofferson, October 1; Magnus Gabrielsen, October 2; Tormod Albrightsen and Hans Hansen, October 3; Johan Bjerk and William Henry Richardson, October 4; Kristina Hansen, October 7. All of them, I later learned, died of the Spanish flu, which must have torn through the tiny mining community that bitter autumn. Because they were buried in permafrost, and thus subject to almost no decay, contemporary researchers thought their remains might still contain frozen specimens of the virus that killed them; hoping to isolate the original influenza strain, scientists exhumed their bodies a few years ago. They were unsuccessful, and while an epidemiologist might regard that as a setback, most of the people I spoke with sounded relieved to learn the scheme didn’t work, as though they’d been afraid they would somehow resurrect the virus.

Svalbard’s pristine wilderness is nearly devoid of human life and would thus seem impervious to tragedy and grief, but stories like these kept coming to me, and kept alive my sense that beneath the topmost layer of ice there were grief and loss waiting. One of our guides, Åshild, told me of a haunted house near Longyearbyen. As I recall Åshild’s story now, the building was a research station in the early 1910s. An expedition was stranded at some point in the ice off the northwest shore, and a group of eleven sailors set off south in rowboats to find help. They made it to this house, where they overwintered. In the spring, a would-be rescue party found two graves outside, but they had hope when they thought they saw a man sitting inside the house at a table. But the man was dead, as were all the others—in natural positions, some in bed, some in chairs. They smelled terrible, but were mostly preserved by the cold. The building is still there, and still in use, though now it’s haunted by these eleven dead sailors. It’s still in operation, it turns out, because it was built above the tree line, where wood is so scarce that not even haunted houses are torn down.

* * *

Weather Balloon

Launching a weather balloon at Ny-Ålesund.

After gliding past Kongsvegend and Kronebreen, we backtracked and moored at Ny-Ålesund, the research station near the mouth of the fjord. It boasts an international cadre of scientists, a small museum, and the world’s northernmost post office—one of the few inhabited settlements in the entire archipelago of Svalbard. At Ny-Ålesund, they launch weather balloons, helium balloons about five feet in diameter, to which are attached Styrofoam coolers full of instruments to track ozone quality, barometric pressure, weather, location, et cetera. The balloons rise about five meters per second, ascending about thirty-five kilometers into the atmosphere before bursting—at which point the equipment stops working and the entire apparatus falls uselessly back to earth. There is a bounty for any that are returned to Ny-Ålesund, but none have ever found their way back.

Salomon Andrée’s legacy is an important part of Svalbard, but here he is eclipsed by another figure, Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian who was far more successful. In the 1920s, Amundsen used Ny-Ålesund as a launching point for two attempts to reach the North Pole by air. “The future of Polar exploration lies in the air,” Amundsen wrote in his autobiography, “and I am cheeky enough to claim that honour for myself as I was the first serious polar researcher who realized this and who practically demonstrated this method’s potential.” Always a canny self-promoter, Amundsen had no problem largely erasing the earlier tradition of aerial polar exploration, though it is true that he was perhaps the first to seriously study the problem rather than simply hurling himself into the polar winds. Before his South Pole expedition, Amundsen spent months calculating how much weight a sled dog could carry, how many provisions each man would need, how many miles a day could be sensibly covered—mathematically determining the maximum efficiency. He stands out against a history of noble but largely romantic expeditions in which brute determination was expected to carry the day.


Roald Amundsen

By the time he came to Ny-Ålesund, he was a few months shy of fifty and had already been the first to traverse the Northwest Passage and the first to reach the South Pole, beating Scott by weeks. The South Pole was a triumph, and what perhaps most will remember him for, but Amundsen was Norwegian: his heart lay in the North. By then Amundsen had begun to refer to himself as the Norwegian version of the Flying Dutchman, “doomed to lifelong travels in the Arctic Ocean.”

His first attempt to take the North Pole by air came in the spring of 1925, via two seaplanes. The journey was financed by his friend and fellow explorer Lincoln Ellsworth, and the two left on May 21, making it eight hours before being forced by weather to land at 83.43 degrees north. The two planes became separated, and it took almost a month before they were able to take off again and return home.

This failure was quickly eclipsed by the successful second journey, undertaken not in planes but in a massive dirigible, the Norge, piloted by the Italian engineer Umberto Nobile. The expedition left almost exactly a year after the first, on May 12, 1926, and crossed the pole at 1:30 A.M. on May 13, landing ultimately at Teller, Alaska.

A journalist who watched the Norge’s launch wrote, “The Arctic smiles now, but behind the silent hills lies death.” At Ny-Ålesund you can buy T-shirts with an Amundsen quote: “Adventure is the result of bad planning.” He’s held up as an example of success, of meticulous planning, grit, and achievement. Not to diminish the heroism of men like him, but I sometimes question the value of these successes. Shortly before leaving for Svalbard, I came across this quote in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, which I returned to often throughout that trip:

There have happened, though rarely, in geographical space, journeys taken northward on very blue, fire-blue seas, chilled, crowded by floes, to the final walls of ice. Our judgment lapsed, fatally: we paid more attention to the Pearys and Nansens who returned—and worse, we named what they did “success,” though they failed. We only wept for Sir John Franklin and Salomon Andrée: mourned their cairns and bones, and missed among the poor frozen rubbish the announcements of their victory. By the time we had the technology to make such voyages easy, we had long worded over all ability to know victory or defeat. What did Andrée find in the polar silence: what should we have heard?

Weather Balloon Ny AlesundWould Amundsen, I wondered, have crossed by balloon if Andrée had not attempted it first? Was Amundsen doing anything but redeeming an earlier failure? Does his story exist as anything other than a shadow of that earlier failure? It’s maybe not the first to succeed that matters, but the first one to attempt—in whose imagination all subsequent attempts, failures and successes, are contained.

As we left Ny-Ålesund, others perhaps carried with them that glorious fling of the weather balloon into the sky, a triumphant gesture to hedge against the doom and apocalypse that were gradually being predicted by its measurements. I was fixated on an earlier moment, as the balloon was being inflated and readied for its one-way journey: it had lain half filled, looking just like Andrée’s Örnen crashed on the ice.

Colin Dickey is the author of Afterlives of the Saints: Stories from the Ends of Faith and Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius.