The Arctic Grail
The Arctic Grail: The Quest for the Northwest Passage and The North Pole, 1818-1909
by Pierre Berton
“He had, apparently, sat down quietly in the snow, leaned back against a rocky projection, and, impassive and unemotional to the end, quietly and perhaps gratefully awaited death.”
Thus Pierre Berton describes the denouement of Salomon Andrée’s ill-fated attempt at reaching the North Pole by balloon in 1895. He and his team left Spitzbergen on July 11th and were aloft for barely a day before the balloon began dragging along on the ice. By the 14th they were stopped and forced to trek south hoping to reach the Franz Josef Land archipelago. But ice drift forced them back towards Spitzbergen where they finally made it ashore on a outlying island with little hope of rescue, and where they ultimately died. Their story would have been lost altogether had not the crew of a whaling ship discovered their remains in 1930, complete with diaries and photograph negatives.
Berton’s book is the definitive guide to the Arctic’s great age of exploration in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It is replete with detailed maps outlining all of the major expeditions.
Not all the stories are quite as grim as Andrée’s of course; most are quite heroic. Still, Berton does not spare criticism of those who refused to adopt the means and techniques of survival that the native Inuit demonstrate, so it is by no means a mere collection of hagiographies.