The discovery was made by chance on Kvitøya by participants of this year's Svalbard Cruise, near the place where Andrée's expedition to the North Pole met its demise under mysterious circumstances in the winter of 1897.
"It is located at the campsite," said Snorre Haukalid, a cultural heritage and archeological advisor for The Governor of Svalbard. "It is not confirmed that it stems from Andrée's journey, but it looks old."
The mitten, knitted with a thin wool, is protected by heritage laws and the cruise passengers left it untouched at the site. The governor is now planning to retrieve the garment next summer so it can be studied more closely.
"We go there each year, but there is often a lot of snow covering the ground," Haukalid said. "If we do not get it in 2016, we'll try again in 2017."
A warm summer and a lots of snowmelt on Kvitøya is probably why the mitten was found now, according to Tora Hultgreen, director at Svalbard Museum and a participant on the cruise. The mitten was in a pit, only a few dozen meters from the place where Swedish expedition leader Salomon August Andrée and engineer Knut Frænkel were found dead after wrecking their balloon and spending more than two months fighting their way across the ice to firm ground.
"According to the drawings from those who first found the remains of the expedition, an overturned sled lay where we discovered the mitten," Hultgreen said. "It was full of different objects such as guns, ammunition, weapons and clothing."
If it is a previously undiscovered remnant from the expedition 118 years ago, Hultgreen said it may help solve one of the biggest expedition mysteries in history: what happened to the three men after they arrived at Kvitøya? What killed them?
"There are 14 different cause-of-death theories that have been suggested, about everything from suicide and frostbite, polar bear attacks and lead poisoning," she said.
"Maybe there are some traces in the mitten that help us find out? Maybe there's some blood traces? Maybe we can find out whose mitten it was, using DNA analysis? It has been found fingernails in mittens before," Hultgreen said.
Shooting for the moon
The expedition was doomed from the start. Delayed one year, Andrée, Frænkel and photographer Nils Strindberg departed July 11, 1897, from Virgohamna in northwestern Spitsbergen in the hydrogen balloon Örnen. Their goal was to reach the North Pole.
"At it's time, it was like a moon-landing attempt, with major sponsors like Alfred Nobel and the Swedish king," Hultgreen said. "They attracted attention worldwide."
On July 11, they finally got the southern wind they were waiting for. They cast off. Almost immediately everything started to unravel.
"After just a few hundred meters there was a control device that came loose and fell on the ice," Hultgreen said. "The balloon continued, and they never came back."
The first remains were found 33 years later on Kvitøya by the Bratvaag Expedition which – led by Gunnar Horn from the Svalbard and Sea Ice Survey (later renamed the Norwegian Polar Institute) - were out on a scientific expedition. Diaries from Andrée's expedition portrayed some dramatic months.
"After three days, the balloon crashed on the ice at 82 degrees north," Hultgreen said.
The expedition had set out emergency caches both at Sjuøyane, north of Svalbard, and Kapp Flora at Frans Josefs land, where Fridtjof Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen had been the year before. But the ice and currents led them in the wrong direction. Their equipment made travel difficult. They had bad clothes and weapons, and no skis.
"They were unprepared, and had instead taken with them anything and everything," Hultgreen said. "They packed, for example, tuxedoes, gala gloves, and a cash box with rubles and dollars. If the balloon landed in America, they were confident that they would be invited to see the president. And if they ended up in Russia, they were confident that they would meet the tsar."
But the reality on the ice was completely different than champagne at the White House. Every day was a struggle for existence. A plan to spend the winter on the ice went - literally - into dissolution when the sheet disintegrated.
Death on Kvitøya
After 75 days, on Oct. 5, they finally reached solid ground on Kvitøya. Little is known about what happened next, other than things went horribly wrong.
"The diaries of Andrée and Frænkel end Oct. 7, while Strindberg has a short text ten days later," Hultgreen said. "He wrote that there was snowstorm."
Strindberg was the first to die, and the only one of the three who received a tomb.
"We know he died first because his diary was found among Frænkel's items," Hultgreen said. "And the medallion he wore around his neck, which contained a lock of hair and an picture of his girlfriend, was found in Andrée's pocket."
No one knows who was the next to die or what they died of. The diaries are incomplete and polar bears ravaged the bodies, which were later cremated. It is therefore not possible to examine their remnants with modern methods. Hultgreen said she believes we will never get a clear answer on what really happened.
"No, I doubt it and that makes the story extra fascinating," she said. "I think the explanation is complex and has many components."