As Britain faced a heatwave, the Observer’s architecture critic found himself between Norway and the North Pole, exploring icy Svalbard on an epic trip for artists and writers
In a tragicomic photograph to be found on the internet, a hydrogen balloon lies sideways on the sea ice, somewhere North of Svalbard. Still inflated, it clings to its spherical dignity, while the ropes that connect it to its upended basket describe elegant. It is a dark silhouette against a horizonless surround, in which the white ice of the foreground grades into a lightly greying sky.
The two men posing by the basket and the one behind the camera don’t have long to live. They will make it across the ice back to land but, with inadequate provisions and equipment, will die there. It will take some decades before their remains and their camera are found. Such was the fate of the 1897 expedition, brave to the point of idiocy, in which the Swede SA Andrée tried to fly to the north pole. He used a steering system that was almost certain not to work, and he set off in his newly made balloon without final checks for leaks.
What if we couldn’t stand each other, on this vessel alone on icy seas? Agatha Christie would have loved the scenario
The Arctic doesn’t give a damn about us. If it could have a preference, it would want us dead
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