Book Project «As if Looking into a Fairyland»

Summer 1896: A small steamer is heading from Hamburg to the edge of the known world: Spitsbergen. 45 men and 7 women are on board the ship. They belong to the first polar tourists in history. Among them is Hans Beat Wieland, a young Swiss artist who doesn’t quite fit in with the illustrious party. He doesn’t care much about champagne, tail coats, and fancy dresses. Instead, his interest lies in the unspoiled mountain landscape, in which he sees many parallels to his home country, and which he aims to explore through painting, writing, and hiking. He can hardly wait to shake hands with Salomon August Andrée, the daring Swede who wants to reach the as yet unexplored North Pole in a gas balloon.

Summer 2016: I come across Wieland’s travel journal in an archive. First, I just flip through it, soon I start reading, and eventually, I forget time and place...

This was the initial spark for my project. With my curiosity as a historian and polar guide kindled, I embarked on extensive research. The materials I found and the stories linked to them deserve to be presented to a wider audience. Especially now that we have become aware of the impermanence of the 'eternal ice', and as trips to the fragile polar regions are – somewhat paradoxically – experiencing a boom. Past, present, and future are in dialog with each other – and with us.

My work will come to its conclusion (for now) with a book publication in the fall of 2018. With «As if Looking into a Fairyland» (working title/WT), I would like to take the readers on a journey back into these fascinating pioneering days, when alpinism and (Arctic) tourism were young and wild, with blank spots on the map giving rise to great (hi)stories of discovery. Along the stops of this journey of discovery – which is also reflected in the book's special design – the reader's own reality in the here-and-now is expanded step by step.

Sandra Walser, October 2017

«As if Looking into a Fairyland» (WT)

Far Ahead of Their Time:
Sailing from Hamburg to Spitsbergen
in the Summer of 1896

  • Nonfiction book in the fields of polar exploration and tourism history
  • Approx. 160 pages, numerous color illustrations
  • Scheduled for publication in German by the renowned Swiss publisher NZZ Libro in fall 2018
  • Universal topics: travel, discovery, nature
  • Geographical focus: Switzerland / Germany / Spitsbergen / Norway / Sweden
  • Vividly written, addressed to a broad readership (not an academic publication)
  • Thoroughly researched; the author is a historian and polar guide
  • Takes readers back to the past, but also creates numerous links to the present
  • Playful in its typography and layout; allows for both a text-focused and an image-focused reading, inviting discovery at both levels
  • Starting points for follow-up projects (e.g. exhibition, presentations)

In July 1896, the steamboat «Erling Jarl» sets sail from Hamburg, bound for Spitsbergen. This is one of the first cruises to the high Arctic archipelago. The tour is guided by the resourceful polar hero Wilhelm Bade from Northern Germany, whose aim is to offer more than just the 'sights and people' to his illustrious party consisting of 45 men and 7 women. They are to observe a full solar eclipse in Northern Norway and to witness the launch of what is possibly the 19th century’s most daring expedition: From the edge of the known world, Swedish explorer Salomon August Andrée wants to reach the as yet unexplored North Pole – in a gas balloon!

Young Hans Beat Wieland from Switzerland is aboard the «Erling Jarl» as an illustrator, commissioned by a newspaper. His travel journal, recently discovered in an archive, is highly illuminating with regard to the history of polar exploration and tourism, while also giving insight into the astute and at times entertaining thoughts of a 'mountain dweller' and passionate alpinist, who was far ahead of his time. The people and especially the landscapes of the High North, which he frequently compares with his home country, make a deep impression on his soul. «As if looking into a fairyland», he concludes.

With his documentary sketches, watercolors, and oil paintings, Wieland creates the first significant group of works depicting Spitsbergen. A few years later, he becomes highly popular across Central Europe as a painter of the Alps. 

Based on Wieland's experiences and observations, historian and polar guide Sandra Walser takes us on a journey back into these fascinating pioneering days, when alpinism and (Arctic) tourism were young and wild, with blank spots on the map giving rise to great (hi)stories of discovery. Along the stops of this journey of discovery – which is also reflected in the book's special design – the reader's own reality in the here-and-now is expanded step by step.

Today, Spitsbergen counts about 70,000 visitors every year. The short summer of 1896 not only marked the birth of this booming tourism industry, it also assembled a who’s who of polar research in this – at the time unpopulated – no-man's-land at almost 80° North. The author draws special attention to Wilhelm Bade, tracing his path from being a celebrated survivor of the «Second German North Polar Expedition» of 1869/70 to becoming the father of Nordic and polar tourism. In addition, she examines Salomon A. Andrée and the hitherto neglected first phase of his legendary balloon expedition.

Numerous illustrations by Wieland and rare historic photographs illustrate the volume.





Cast off!
A Homeland Far From Home
It Stinks to High Heaven
Non-Stop to 90° North?
A White Strip on the Horizon
The Fairyland
Turning the Hands of Time
Hilsen fra Spitsbergen
Herr Leutnant, nicht so tief
In the Shadow of the Moon


Hans Beat Wieland – Painter of His Time
Wilhelm Bade – Father of Polar Tourism
Salomon A. Andrée – Engineer in Overflight
SS Erling Jarl – Ice Princess
Spitsbergen – Land of Cold Coasts



Countless people have fallen victim to the 'polar virus' – it happened to Hans Beat Wieland in 1896, and to myself about a hundred years later.

As a tour guide, I like to take my guests on a journey back into the past, while also creating links to our own present. There is a lot of interest in the history of the 'ends' of our planet – if it is told through the right stories. And to do just that is my main motivation.

It is very lucky that the majority of Wieland's illustrations and photos from the journey have survived. Their discovery was the initial spark for my own extensive research, during which I found a variety of valuable materials. They take us back into the Belle Époque characterized by optimism. It is no coincidence that this fascinating period also saw the rise of alpine and group tourism, which provide an important context for the Nordic trip of the «Erling Jarl». This was a journey of visionary character. Today, the same trip can be found – in only slightly modified form – as a standard offering in any catalog for Norwegian and polar cruises.

My main focus are Wieland's astute and shrewd observations. Looking at him and Wilhelm Bade also brings to light compelling aspects relevant to Switzerland and Germany.

Despite its relatively recent history of settlement, Spitsbergen has many stories to tell. But apart from travel guides and classic adventure stories, there are hardly any books in the German-speaking world that deal with the archipelago – despite the fact that a strikingly high proportion of Spitsbergen travelers have come from Switzerland, Germany, and Austria. There is to date no publication that stays relatively close to the current reality while also broadening the view through a historical approach. My book is intended to fill this gap.

One of my main concerns is not to limit the appeal of «As if Looking Into a Fairyland» (WT) to the rapidly growing number of polar fans. The book’s core themes – travel, discovery, nature – are universal, which I hope to convey accordingly. In addition, I want the volume to allow for different kinds of readings, a text-focused as well as a more image-focused reading. The design and materialization of the book are also intended to reveal the experience of a journey of discovery.

Sandra Walser, October 2017

There are several ways to sponsor the project. If you are intested, please feel free to contact me and request a detailed dossier.