Eighty years ago, Watkins set about mapping the Arctic for a possible UK - Europe - US air route, in his own care free way
If PG Wodehouse had conceived a trip to the frozen north, it might have been something like the British Arctic Air Route Expedition of 1930-1. Led by dapper, jazz-addicted mountaineer Gino Watkins, and staffed mainly by public school misfits in their early 20s, the group trained by eating fist-sized lumps of high-fat sledging rations at dinner dances – and then running home through the streets of Mayfair.
Watkins’ mission captured the carefree spirit of the times. Air travel was in its glamorous infancy, and the hunt was on for a stepping-stone route from Europe to America via the Arctic. Watkins planned to spend a year in and around the Greenland ice cap, mapping the terrain and capturing the meteorological data vital for overflying aircraft.
The resulting expedition combined low farce with grand heroics. On arrival at the remote Inuit outpost at Angmagssalik, the explorers were intimately inspected for signs of venereal disease by the Danish magistrate, before setting up their gramophone and doing the Charleston with the locals (three of the group later took Inuit lovers; one fathered a child.) Their huskies got loose and rampaged through the basecamp; their two Gypsy Moth planes were constantly breaking down. Communication with London relied on an amateur radio ham in northern England: one repeated request for suet pudding resulted, months later, in the delivery of a suit.
Meanwhile, serious work was undertaken. From their base on the coast, Watkins discovered the mighty range of mountains that now bears his name, and later undertook a 1,000km open boat voyage around southern Greenland, hunting seal to survive.
To achieve their main goal, a party struggled up a chaotic glacier nicknamed ‘Buggery Bank’, and established a weather station deep on the barren ice cap. It was a challenging journey even in summer, but as the weather deteriorated it became ever harder to relieve the two-man teams staffing the station – so one of the group, August Courtauld, volunteered to overwinter there alone and without a radio.
Expecting to stay for three months, he was cut off by annihilating 200km/h blizzards for five, and spent the last six weeks trapped in his tent by snow, in total darkness, on starvation rations. ‘I am completely buried… There is now precious little to live for,’ he wrote in his diary, before being finally rescued by Watkins and announcing – as if Wodehouse had scripted it for him – “Thank God you’ve come. I’m perfectly fit.” It was a different age.
Jeremy Scott’s highly recommended account of the expedition, Dancing on Ice is out now in paperback