Published March 14, 2017
The past was a simpler time, back when any young Briton could embark on daring expeditions to far-flung locales in the name of science, progress, and the British Empire (provided he had enough funds).
That’s exactly what fourteen adventurous young men did in 1930, heading to Greenland with the aim of improving maps of the island’s coastline and gathering climate data in order to find a way of flying straight over Greenland, shortening considerably the route from Canada to Europe.
The members of the “British Arctic Air Route Expedition,” were all in their early to mid twenties. None had much experience of polar exploration, aside from the leader, Henry “Gino” Watkins, who had previously been to Svalbard and Labrador. Nor were they at all experienced cartographers or meteorologists, as Watkins recruited his teammates mostly from among his old Cambridge buddies.
The expedition was sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society, but only symbolically. Most of the expenses were paid by the textile tycoon Stephen Courtauld, uncle to one of the young explorers: Augustine Courtauld, a 26-year-old stockbroker in the City of London.
The Britons meant to set off to Greenland in spring, but a freak accident involving a pet lemur (it’s a long story) meant they couldn’t embark until July—and by the time they had made it onto the ice cap and set up their camp at 2500 meters altitude, it was September and winter was nearing.
This “camp” was no more than a measly tent in the snow, surrounded by an assortment of surveying equipment. The Britons’ plan was to take turns staying in the camp over the winter, a month at a time, but they had greatly underestimated the power of the Greenlandic winter and one of them—Augustine Courtauld—became stuck at the camp in early December.
Courtauld barely had provisions for three months, but his fellow expedition members (who spent the winter hunting seal in Ammassalik on Greenland’s southeastern coast) did not worry much about him until April. They ventured back onto the ice cap only to find that their camp, and Courtauld with it, had completely disappeared into the snow.
They telegraphed Courtauld’s wealthy relatives who, understandably concerned, contacted Dr. Alexander Jóhannesson, an Icelandic professor of linguistics, and one of Iceland’s foremost aviation pioneers.
Dr. Alexander, as he was known, immediately set off for Greenland in search of young Augustine. As the Flight Company of Iceland’s Junkers F.13 did not have sufficient range to fly straight from Iceland to Greenland, the Icelandic Coast Guard’s ship Óðinn sailed with the plane towards the pack ice between the two countries, so that it might take off from the ice.
The rescue mission was covered extensively in the Icelandic press, causing somewhat of a media frenzy, and Icelanders took great pride in the prospect of their own novice aviators heroically rescuing a young Briton stuck in the freezing cold on the Greenlandic glacier.
Stoking Icelandic jingoism was the fact that Courtauld’s family did not seem to fully trust Dr. Alexander, as they had also contacted the great Swedish aviator Albin Ahrenberg, asking for his help. Ahrenberg, who was both more experienced and had far better equipment, immediately left for Greenland as well, and the Icelandic press covered his every move—almost as if this was some kind of a race between Iceland and Sweden.
Unfortunately Icelanders had little reason to boast, as their rescue mission failed completely. For reasons unknown, the Junkers F.13’s engine broke down only minutes after takeoff from the ice. Dr. Alexander had no choice but to make his way home while the Icelandic press called the whole debacle a “great scandal” which had “disgraced Iceland in front of the whole world.”
The great Albin Ahrenberg, on the other hand, safely made his way onto the ice cap—but found Courtauld’s camp empty. While he was on his way, Gino Watkins, the expedition’s leader, had himself managed to find the camp half-buried in the snow, and had already taken Courtauld by dogsled back to Ammassalik.
Turns out Courtauld had been cautious and had plenty of food left. He was rather bedraggled after five months alone on the ice, but was, by his own account, never in any danger—having had “enough tobacco, a selection of novels and a good lamp.”
Upon reaching Ammassalik he sent his worried relatives a telegram, asking them to refrain from sending out any more “hysterical rescue missions.” He returned to Greenland fourteen years later, becoming the first man to scale the island’s highest peak, the Gunnbjørn Fjeld.