British-Russian firsts in High Arctic

Posted by Lindsay Griffin on 20/07/2011
Mt Augustine from the north west. Maxim Bouev

An eight-member British-Russian team has summited the last remaining unclimbed high mountain in the middle section of a tributary of the Woolley Glacier east south east of Gunnbjornsfjeld, the highest peak in the Arctic

Led by Ian Barker and Mark Basey-Fisher, expedition members Warren Allen, Julian Cooper, Mark Morrison, Sebastian Sloane (all UK), Maxim Bouev (Russia/UK) and Andrey Pogudin (Russia), first made a successful ascent of Gunnbjornsfjeld (aka Hvitserk, 3,694m), the highest of the Watkins Mountains in East Greenland, via the South West Ridge.

It was the first time this summit had been reached by Russians.

Although they had initially planned to follow their ascent with attempts on the second and third highest mountains, Dome (aka Qaqqaq Kershaw, 3683m) and Cone (aka Qaqqaq Johnson, 3,669m), the team was lured by an unclimbed 3,000er just to the south east of Gunnbjornsfjeld base camp.

The peak had been identified and photographed in 2009, and then attempted in 2010 by a Tangent expedition led by Paul Rose. That year deep soft snow forced retreat.

This season the team left an advanced base camp on the glacier and climbed a steep, heavily crevassed couloir that was threatened by large seracs. Once through this bottleneck they reached the base of the short South South West Ridge of the unclimbed peak and were immediately faced with another problem.

An 18m rock tower barred access to the crest above, and the group spent two hours climbing its left edge over snow and mixed ground (60°), before a more amenable crest led to the summit - estimated to be around 3,150m.

After returning to base camp there was much animated discussion on a name. Eventually it was decided to call the peak Mt Augustine Courtauld after the first ascensionist of Gunnbjornsfjeld in 1935. At present this name must remain unofficial.

Born in 1904, Courtauld was also a member of the British Arctic Air Route Expedition and from December 1930 - May 1931 lived alone at 2,600m on the Greenland Icecap collecting meteorological data that would later prove to be of exceptional value in establishing the northern Great Circle air route from Europe to America.

Several attempts were made to replenish Courtauld's food supplies, and to evacuate him, but all failed due to awful weather conditions. Eventually, after he had been in residence 150 days and had severely rationed minimal food and fuel for almost a month, expedition members led by the legendary Gino Watkins managed to rescue Courtauld by dog sled. For his work Courtauld was awarded the Polar Medal.
 


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