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    Augustine Courtauld

    Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies

    001      |      Vol_XV-0195                                                                                                                  

    (J. M. Scott)


            Augustine Courtauld (1904 - ). Member of half a dozen arctic

    expeditions, including Gino Watkins' Greenland expedition of 1930-31,

    during which he maintained the Ice Cap Weather Station throughout most of

    the winter. Augustine Courtauld was born at Bocking, Essex, on 26 August,

    1904, the elder son of Samuel Augustine and Edith Anne (Lister) Courtauld.

    He was educated at Charterhouse and at Trinity College, Cambridge, taking

    his degree in Engineering and Geography. From an early age his favorite

    pastime has been sailing small boats and his efficiency in this sport has

    more than once proved of value to his companions in the North.

            His first visit to the Arctic was a fishing trip to Lapland in 1925.

    The next year he went with J. M. Wordie to the Franz Josef area of East

    Greenland. Courtauld's particular responsibilities were to look after the

    cameras and act as assistant surveyor.

            In 1927, with Francis Rodd (now Lord Rennell) and Peter Rodd he made

    a journey of some ten months duration in the country of the southern Tuareg,

    in Air (French West Africa), and west of the Sahara plateau, doing anthro–

    pological and geographical work. This was his only visit to hot climates

    but it is interesting to suggest that the experience he gained was not

    without value to his later arctic work. A desert has a lot in common with

    an icecap, while the principles of making a running survey are the same whether

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    EA-Biog. Scott: Augustine Courtauld

    one is riding on a camel or a sledge. In 1929, Courtauld again vis i ted East

    Greenland with Wordie and was a member of the Petermann Peak party.

            In England during the early spring of the next year he became one of

    Gino Watkins' closest associates in planning and making practicable the plans

    of the British Arctic Air Route Expedition. In the field his essentially

    individual contributions to this expedition may be tabulated as follows:

    Assistant surveyor to Stephenson, being responsible for the astronomical

    observations, and "skipper" of the refactory outboard motorboat which was

    the map-makers' form of transport during the survey of the East Greenland

    coast between Kangerdlugssuak and Angmagssalik; the occupant of the Ice Cap

    Station during five winter months; the experienced sailor of the 600-mile open

    boat journey from the expedition base near Angmagssalik round the southern tip

    of Greenland to Nanortalik on the west coast. The first and last of these have

    been covered in Watkins' biography, the second will be our main concern.

            Although the expedition carried specialists in all the natural sciences

    which are profitably studied in out-of-the-way places, its primary expressed

    object was to examine this part of Greenland with reference to a future air

    route. Therefore the weather was as important as topography, and it was planned

    that two sets of meteorological observations should be carried on throughout

    the year, at the coastal base and also at a station to be set up on the highest

    level of the inland ice. [ ?]

            Scott's party had established the Ice Cap Station in August. It was

    about 130 miles northwestward from the coastal base and at an altitude of

    8,200 feet. It consisted of a dome-shaped tent, nine feet in diameter and

    six feet high at the apex. It was covered with two layers of windproof cloth,

    one being stretched outside the curved wooden ribs (in much the same way as

    an umbrella is covered) and the other layer of cloth hanging suspended from

    003      |      Vol_XV-0197                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biog. Scott: Augustine Courtauld

    the ribs. There was thus a few inches of air space between the two layers.

    The entrance was by means of a snow tunnell which came up in the floor. A

    brass tube two inches in diameter projected from the apex provided ventila–

    tion. There were no windows or doors. The instruments were naturally set

    up outside [ ?] though near enough to be reached in bad weather. A Primus

    pressure stove provided for cooking and heating; candles and a paraffin lamp

    for light. Difficulties of transportation rules out the possibility of radio


            It was intended that this station should be occupied by two men at a

    time, each pair remaining for six weeks, or somewhat more if sledging communi–

    cation proved difficult. Riley and Lindsay were the first pair, their occupa–

    tion lasting from August 30 to October 2. Bingham and D'Aeth then took over

    until they were relieved on December 3.

            The relieving party, consisting of Chapman, Courtauld, Wager, Leømon,

    Stephenson, and Hampton had left the base on October 27. But their start

    coincided with the beginning of the winter storms which were unexpectedly

    early and violent. The first gale experienced at the base registered at

    129 m.p.h. on the wing gauge before the wind guage blew away. From then

    onward similar gales blew two or three times a week throughout the winter.

            It will be appreciated that this sudden deterioration of the weather

    had a drastic effect upon icecap sledging. The six-man relieving party

    which, as has been said, left the base on October 27, managed to cover only

    15 miles in the first 15 days. On November 11 they were met by Watkins and

    Scott who were returning from their own somewhat difficult southern journey.

    Chapman, who as the only man with previous sledging experience was in charge

    of the party, asked Watkins if he might send back the radio equipment

    intended for the station and three of his men, himself and two companions

    004      |      Vol_XV-0198                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biog. Scott: Augustine Courtauld

    pushing on with only food and fuel on the sledges. Watkins gave him a

    free hand both as to how he reached the station and whether he closed it

    down. Chapman, with Courtauld and Wager, finally reached the station on

    December 3, after 37 days of most exacting travel.

            Since the journey had taken so much longer than had been anticipated,

    much food and fuel intended for the station had been consumed on the way.

    No records of winter icecap travel existed — for no one had previously

    attempted it — but it was evident that it would not be practicable to

    bring up fresh supplies by sledge until the spring. There were not enough

    supplies at the station to last two men until the spring. Therefore the

    choice was between abandoning the station and leaving one man alone. On

    reduced rations a single man could exist until May. Courtauld volunteered

    to remain a t lone. On December 6, Chapman and Wager, with Bingham and D'Aeth,

    started for the base.

            It is possible to give here only a brief factual description of

    Courtauld's experiences during the next five months. His stores consisted

    of: six ration boxes, each designed to last two weeks at full rations;

    26 gallons of paraffin for the lamp and Prismus stove; two bottles of con–

    centrated lemon juice; one bottle of cod-liver oil. His luxuries were

    about a dozen books, some tobacco, and the chocolate in the ration boxes,

    although a good deal of this was found to have been previously extracted.

    Since the station had been first established, a snowhouse had been built

    over the dome-shaped tent. Two other small snowhouses had also been con–

    structed. These could be entered by short tunnels which branched off at

    right angles from the 16-foot-long main entrance tunnel. (The tunnel plan

    was the shape of a Christian cross, the top ending in the tent, the foot

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    EA-Biog. Scott: Augustine Courtauld

    connecting with the outside world, and the arms with the two small snow–

    houses.) Around this trio of shelters a snow wall had been built. A

    Union Jack was planted in this wall.

            Although Courtauld crawled through the main tunnel about a half a

    dozen times a day he found that it was forever being narrowed by drift

    snow. And it became increasingly difficult, in spite of his labor, to

    widen the diameter because the snow was compressed by the pressure of his

    body as he wormed his way through. His digging in any case was hindered

    by frostbite in both fingers and toes. On January 4 a particularly severe

    gale closed the entrance, leaving the tunnel too full of drift to be dug clear.

    Apart from the difficulty of digging in a prone position he had no means,

    except by drinking it, of disposing of the excavated snow. He therefore

    out a door in the roof of one of the snowhouses, closing it with a ration

    box. The general snow level was by now almost up to the roof of the houses

    but this improvised exist worked well enough until, on March 19, a gale from

    an unusual quarter blew a small hole at the junction of the ration box and

    the snow roof. In came a jet of drift, as fine and powerful as if from a

    pressure hose. By morning this snowhouse was full.

            So Courtland out a hole in the roof of the other snowhouse. He blocked

    this also with a ration box, but on this occasion less satisfactorily. For

    the snow level had by now risen well above the roof of the house. Therefore

    the vertical shaft was long, and the "door" had to be near the bottom of it.

    Three days later a protracted blizzard packed such weight of snow into the

    top of the shaft that his exi s t was also closed for good.

            Courtauld was now imprisoned, for to make a hole in the roof of the

    main tent would have been as suicidal as puncturing a boat in mid-ocean.

    Apart from barometric readings, his meteorological records were inevitably

    006      |      Vol_XV-0200                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biog. Scott: Augustine Courtauld

    at an end after over a hundred days of faithful and regular observance.

    This annoyed him. "A man dislikes changing his habits," he write, "and

    this business of the weather had become a very absorbing habit... Now

    that I was prevented from doing my job I naturally felt that I was wasting

    my time."

            His enforced inactivity reduced his appetite and spared his food

    but a serious lack was caused by four gallons of fuel leaking away. At an

    early date he had to use the stove only for cooking, not heating. Later

    he ate food raw and used heat only for melting snow to drink. He could

    only lie in the dark.

            In this context it is appropriate to quote a paragraph he wrote

    within a day or two of his ultimate return to the base. He was referring

    to his experience as a whole: "One cannot be bored living an entirely

    novel life under such interesting conditions. My physical and mental

    condition, the weather, speculation about the work of the expedition and

    the doings of friends at home were subjects that fully occupied my mind.

    I never had the slightest doubt with regard to my relief, though I fully

    realized that it might be delayed."

            In fact the Moth airplane had several times tried to find the station.

    But since the winds were generally strong and variable and the machine had

    only a compass for navigation it is scarcely surprising that the pilot

    failed to see the tops of two weather instruments and the tattered remains

    of the Union Jack, which were all that projected from the desert of snow.

    At the time of the five days' blizzard that finally shut Courtauld in,

    Scott, Riley, and Lindsay were in the Vicinity, according to their observa–

    tions, and beating up and down within a mile of the station. Courtauld was

    007      |      Vol_XV-0201                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biog. Scott: Augustine Courtauld

    finally relieved by Watkins, Rymill, and Chapman on May 5 after having

    been alone for five months and shut in for six weeks. He felt a slight

    weakness due to lack of exercise but otherwise was perfectly fit in every


            To conclude, the following points can be made. Courtauld's vigil was

    undertaken as a result of a considered judgement, weighing what had to be

    done with the means that were available for doing it and the risks involved.

    The station had to be occupied by one man alone, or closed down. The risks

    were: of a physical accident to himself, such as breaking a limb; of the

    tent being destroyed, say by wind pressure or the weight of snow; of no

    relief party being able to find him; of the wild solitude affecting his mind.

    As a careful and experienced traveler he discounted the danger of accident;

    he had implicit belief in the equipment, and the rations too; he had still

    more confidence in Watkins himself. With regard to the fear of solitude,

    this appears never to have weighed with him at all. Perhaps the reason for

    this is contained in the one word, Appreciation. Being possessed of an

    unusual store of this quality he found good and interest in everything,

    while his mind thus occupied had no room for doubt or fear.

            Back at the base, he joined in the discussion about the exceptionally

    high range of mountain which Watkins had sighted in 1930 while flying to the

    northeast of Kangerdlugssuak Fjord. This range had appeared to rise high

    above the 7,000-foot coastal mountains, which were the foreground of the

    view, and might itself be in the nature of 12,000 feet. In that case it

    would be the highest mountain in Greenland, if not of the entire Arctic.

    Watkins thought that it might be impossible to reach this range from the

    coast because the interland appeared too rough for sledging and the dis–

    tance too great for back-packing. It might be necessary to attack the range

    008      |      Vol_XV-0202                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biog. Scott: Augustine Courtauld

    from the rear by approaching it over the icecap from the west coast. This

    problem could not be put to the test during the stay in East Greenland of

    the British Arctic Air Route Expedition, but it provided a very fruitful

    source of argument.

            Courtauld completed the expedition by making, with Watkins and Lemon,

    an open-boat journey from the east coast base near Angmagssalik, round the

    southern tip of Greenland to Julianahaab on the West Coast, a distance of

    some 600 miles.

            Back in England among his books, Courtauld was let to wonder whether

    the mountains Watkins had seen in 1930 might be the legendary landmark

    [ ?] Hvitserk referred to in the old Norse Sailing Directions. Jules de

    Blosseville might have seen the range in 1833 from far out to sea, but he did

    not return to describe it. Amdrup in 1900 could not have seen it because in his

    small boat he had had to hug the coast. No other recorded traveler had ever

    been in the vicinity.

            Naturally Watkins' discovery attracted a good deal of interest. In 1932

    the Scoresby Sound Committee sent out an expedition under the leadership of

    Einar Mikkelsen. In 1933 a second expedition in which the Danish Government

    cooperated was led by Knud Rasmussen. The object of these expeditions was

    not to reach the new mountains but to map the area by a method based on

    oblique photography, which was begun by Michael Spender. With the aid of

    a stereo-plotting machine an excellent map was made from the large number of

    photographs obtained.

            In 1934 the French explorer Charcot (with Lawrence Wager in his party)

    planned to make a dash for the new mountains, now named the Watkins Mountains

    by the Danes, and an Italian expedition was formed during the same year with

    the same objective. But neither of these parties succeeded in reaching a

    009      |      Vol_XV-0203                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biog. Scott: Augustine Courtauld

    suitable part of the coast from which to start their land journey.

            Then Courtauld and Wager planned a joint expedition for the following

    year. Their stated objectives were to make a closer examination of the

    Watkins Mountains, to check the new map, to study the geology and Eskimo

    archaeology of the coast. An actual ascent of the mountains was mentioned

    only as a possibility. L. R. Wager, with his brother H. G. Wager, Dr.

    Fountains, W. A. Deer, P. B. Chambers, Mrs. L. R. and Mrs. H. G. Wager

    were to remain for the winter. Courtauld and Mrs. Courtauld, Jack Longland

    and Mrs. Longland, and Ebbe Munck would remain only for the summer months.

    Women, it will be noticed, were included in the party, an experiment which

    both sexes afterwards described as most successful. One male member told

    the present writer that the feminine influence proved good for morale and

    maintained a laudably high standard of social behavior — much like changing

    for dinner in the jungle. The expedition's ship was the veteran Quest , with

    that experienced ice pilot, Captain Schjelderup, in command.

            Some members of Wager's wintering party set up a base at Skaergaard

    Peninsula at the mouth of Kangerdlugssuak Fjord, and began archaeological

    and geological work, which was designed to be carried on until the following

    season. In the present article only the journey to the Watkins Mountains

    will be described.

            The mountaineering problem was briefly as follows: In the region of

    Kangerdlugssuak, the east coast of Greenland runs almost east and west, with

    only a very slight trending to the North. Although the coast line is chipped

    and contorted like a jigsaw puzzle there are on deep-water indentations other

    than Kangerdlugssuak Fjord. But about 50 miles east of the fjord, and

    running roughly parallel to it, is the Christian IV Glacier, an immense

    river of ice, about ten miles wide and one hundred and ten miles long.

    010      |      Vol_XV-0204                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biog. Scott: Augustine Courtauld

    This flows from the icecap and into the sea at Nansen Fjord. It flows

    directly under the west wall of the Watkins Mountains which are about

    forty miles in a direct line from the coast. Because of the vast size

    of this glacier, Courtauld and Wager imagined that it would be scarred by

    crevasses too big to jump across. Therefore they decided when leaving

    Kangerdlugssuak to sail beyond Nansen Fjord and the glacier and land at

    Wiedemann Fjord, some 45 miles farther east. Using air photographs and

    the map, they had planned a 75-mile route from this fjord to the mountains.

    They calculated that if the country proved too rough for sledging they

    could just make the double journey of 140 miles carrying everything on

    their backs.

            The voyage to Kangerdlugssusk had been extremely difficult, the drift

    ice being exceptionally heavy. But when the Quest started eastward from

    Kangerdlugssuak she found open water along the land and was able to go

    full speed — for a short time. These conditions suddenly changed. A

    strong east wind sprang up, driving the ice against the coast. Captain

    Schjelderup just managed to get his ship into shelter behind Cape Irminger,

    thirty miles short of the mouth of the Christian IV Glacier.

            Although it entailed a radi c al change of plans and a longer land journey,

    Courtauld and Wager decided to start for the mountains where the ship then

    lay. Accordingly, they set out on August 7. The main party consisted of

    Longland, the two Wagers, Ebbe Munck, and Courtauld. The supporting party

    was Fountaine, Chambers, and Deer.

            Striking at first directly inland to gain height, the two sledge

    parties reached the upper levels of the Sorgenfri Glacier, a comparatively

    small glacier parallel with the Christian IV. Sorgenfri means Sorrow-free,

    but the glacier is ill named. After five days the supporting party turned

    011      |      Vol_XV-0205                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biog. Scott: Augustine Courtauld

    back. And two days later the main party found themselves looking directly

    at the Watkins Mountains across the wide expanse of the Christian IV Glacier,

    2,000 feet below them.

            With some difficulty they got down to it and then found to their

    relief that it was virtually uncrevassed. Two days were spent in crossing

    it obliquely, in a northeasterly direction, wearing skis. Then the climb

    was made. The summit was reached after a long and weary ascent followed

    by a lot of step-cutting in steep, hard ice, Munck set up the Danish flag

    on this highest point of Danish territory. Photographs were taken and obser–

    vations made, with the theodolite and boiling-point apparatus which were

    carried. The altitude was later computed to be 12,200 feet.

            A different route was followed on the return journey, the party travel–

    ing much farther down the Christian IV Glacier. Their worst hardship now

    was sunburn and cracked lips. Those who had celluloid instead of the best

    quality snow glasses also suffered slight snow blindness. But the journey

    was completed without any mishap.

            The Quest was rejoined, the wintering party were left at their base on

    August 30, and the rest of the expedition returned to England.

            During the war Courtauld served in the R.N.V.R. — in the Admiralty,

    with coastal forces, and Commandos, in landing craft, destroyers, and corvettes.

    He is now on the Council of the Royal Geographical Society and one of its two

    honorary secretaries. He is a member of the Alpine Club and on the Committee

    of management of the Scott Polar Research Institute. He has also accepted a

    large number of social responsibilities. He is a Justice of the Peace and a

    member of Essex County Council. He and Mollie Courtauld (Montgomerie), whom

    he married in January 1932, have five children.


    J. M. Scott

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