Apart from a rich wildlife, Spitsbergen has also played a very important role in the history of Arctic exploration, and at various places on the islands it’s possible to visit a number of fascinating sites used in the past as jumping-off points for expeditions to the North Pole, which is just 750 miles or so further to the north.
At the northwestern tip of the islands, extremely remote Danskoya Island was the site of a truly remarkable attempt by a group of Swedes, who hoped to become the first to reach the North Pole – travelling in a hot-air balloon! Salomon Andree and two fellow explorers took off from here in 1897 in a hydrogen-filled balloon, hoping that the winds would carry them over the Pole. Needless to say, the canopy of their balloon soon became weighed down with frozen ice, and the balloon crash-landed. After surviving for around 3 months out on the ice, the brave Swedish explorers inevitably died. 33 years later, their bodies were discovered along with their possessions, including photographic film, which was developed, poignantly showing their last moments alive.
30 years later, on 11th May 1926, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who in 1911 had become the first person to the South Pole, took off with 16 crew in a hydrogen-filled airship, the ‘Norge’, from the remote settlement of Ny Alesund on Spitsbergen. The mast to which the airship was moored can still be seen in Ny Alesund today. Within just half a day Amundsen and his crew flew over the Pole, becoming the first explorers to have undoubtedly reached the North Pole.
Three earlier American expeditions to the North Pole, including two expeditions overland, one led by Frederick Cook in 1908, and the other by Robert Peary in 1909, and one expedition by aeroplane, led by Richard Byrd earlier in 1926, claimed to have reached the North Pole first, but all their claims are now very strongly disputed.
main image: S. A. Andrée’s balloon before takeoff on July 11, 1897