At the Mercy of the Winds–Two Remarkable Journeys to the North Pole: A Modern Hero and a Victorian Romance

David Hempleman-Adams, with Robert Uhlig

Bantam Books, 2002

Reviewed by Jonathan Dore


David Hempleman-Adams is an exemplar of the modern species of professional adventurer, a perhaps inevitable development once the heroic age of exploration was over and the focus shifted to what are, in exploring terms, secondary achievements: not new accomplishments, but old things done in a new way, or in unusual combinations. In 1998 Hempleman-Adams became the first to complete the "adventurer’s grand slam", climbing the highest mountain on all seven continents, and trekking to the North and South Geographic and Magnetic poles. Why combine mountain summits with the Poles, rather than, say, swimming the English Channel or rowing across the Atlantic, or some other arbitrarily chosen feat of endurance? The thing that mountain summits and Poles share is summed up in the name of Hempleman-Adams’s company, Cold Climates Expeditions Ltd. It is as a connoisseur of coldness that he excels, and the minus figures on the thermometer feature prominently in the expedition with which he followed up his grand slam triumph two years later: an attempt to fly to the North Pole by balloon.

Such an expedition cannot fail to raise the spectre of Salomon Andrée, the Swedish scientist who led a three-man expedition in a hydrogen balloon that took off from Dane’s Island, part of the Svalbard archipelago (better-known as Spitzbergen), in July 1897 and flew towards the Pole. Their story forms the second strand of this book, interwoven in alternating chapters with Hempleman-Adams’s story of trying to do the same thing. He too chose to launch from Svalbard, although unlike Andrée he did so with the full weight of meteorological knowledge that it was the worst possible starting point–a launch from Canada or Siberia would, we now know, be much more sensible, both in terms of wind patterns and rescue possibilities. The difficulty must have been part of the appeal, but so also was the knowledge that he was following the route of the man he describes as "the boldest adventurer in history".

Reading the Andrée chapters, it is hard to see how this determined but slightly fusty man could have inspired such devotion, and this sums up the central problem of the book: the two strands of narrative seem to be written in completely different styles, from different viewpoints–as if by different people. As you read on, the truth dawns. Although David Hempleman-Adams is the only name on the cover, the title page quietly adds "with Robert Uhlig". That formula, commonly used when a professional writer ghosts the autobiography of a famous person not noted for their literary skills, here suggests a different division of labour. Hempleman-Adams has, in all probability, written his own sections himself, and Mr Uhlig has written the Andrée sections, I suspect, entirely on his own. The problem for the reader is that the two halves simply do not gel–indeed, there is little to suggest that either author even read the other’s segment before submitting his own. For both reader and reviewer, therefore, this is effectively two separate books.

The contemporary sections are told in the present tense as a straightforward narrative of action. The focus on events, and the relative absence of reflection, contemplation, description, analysis, or contextualization lends the Hempleman-Adams chapters a rather one-dimensional character that, overall, sadly lets down the sometimes sensational nature of what he has achieved. Starved of sleep during his flight, he sleepwalked and woke up to find himself with one leg over the side of his wicker basket, attempting to climb out; only his safety harness had prevented him from succeeding. In the hands of a fine writer, such a narrow escape–redolent of Douglas Mawson hanging from the end of a rope in an Antarctic crevasse, alone and hundreds of miles from base–could have formed a thrilling set piece of psychological and dramatic description. As it turns out, it’s just an episode of panic before he resumes his routine of checking his GPS readouts and getting the latest meteorological updates.

While Andrée is Hempleman-Adams’s inspiration and hero, Robert Uhlig clearly finds one of his companions, Nils Strindberg (cousin of the playwright) a more interesting and congenial character–and, from the author’s point of view, it’s not hard to see why. While Andrée was dominated by his mother, had no romantic interests, and was obsessed by his ballooning expedition to the exclusion of all else, Strindberg, a young physicist and photographer, became involved in a tender romance with an attractive young teacher, Anna Charlier, in the year between the first and second attempts to launch Andrée’s balloon, the Eagle. The story of their tentative courtship and whirlwind engagement is winningly told, and the fact that they parted for the last time with such high hopes for a relationship that was never to be consummated gives their story the piquant edge of human interest that Andrée himself sadly fails to provide. Once the expedition is under way, Uhlig provides a detailed and well-paced account of its brief flight, and the struggle for survival that followed as the three men trekked back south over the ice towards land.

In terms of new research, the most important breakthrough of the Eagle narrative is the first publication in English of a paper (reproduced as an appendix) given in 2000 by Dr Mark Personne, director of the Swedish Poisons Information Centre, on the cause of death of the three men, which seems to have taken place within a few days of their arrival at White Island after nearly three months on the ice. For nearly fifty years the accepted theory has been that they died from trichinosis, contracted from eating infected polar bear meat. By paying attention to the disposition of the bodies when they were eventually found, in 1930, Personne has however concluded that they must all have died within a few hours of each other. Only one (Strindberg) had been interred, so he must have been the first to die. Yet the journals of Andrée and Fraenkel, which show no sign of mental sloth or deterioration in the preceding days, make no mention of his death, suggesting that they themselves died before they had time to record it. They were not in their sleeping bag, indicating they did not even have time to consider themselves ill and retire to bed. Trichinosis is rarely fatal and so, even with weakened victims, is very unlikely to have killed all three within such a short space of time. After carefully running through and excluding several other possible causes, he suggests that the most probable is a case of straightforward, if virulent, bacterial food poisoning: botulism, ingested from the infected carcass of a seal they had shot on the ice and brought with them (mentioned in the explorers’ journals and noted at the scene in 1930, though not tested), inadequately heated during food preparation.

Munching hi-tech rations, food poisoning was one thing David Hempleman-Adams happily didn’t have to worry about. In a helium-cell plus hot-air balloon, he had good control of his altitude but no means of controlling his lateral direction. Relying entirely on endlessly updated weather models and satellite data, interpreted by a dedicated and expert meteorologist and piped through via his control centre, he continually adjusted his height in order to find the winds that were heading in the right direction–due north. Because he was unable to steer, his aim was simply to come within sixty miles, or one degree, of the Pole, yet he managed to get within an amazing twelve miles, a great tribute to his endurance, the skills of his backup crew labouring over their computers, and a healthy dose of luck. Poignantly, as he arrives at his point of closest approach, clouds prevent him from seeing the notional spot on the ice that is his goal, so, realizing the book’s need for some sense of arrival, he substitutes an account of reaching the Pole at the end of the grand slam two years earlier. Huddled in their tent, he and his companion, the Norwegian marine Rune Gjeldnes, watched their GPS receiver and saluted each other in their ritual manner–"God Save your Queen"…"And God Save your King"–as the floating ice silently carried them within ten feet of the earth’s spinning axis.