Watkins Mountains, Mt. Augustine Courtauld (ca 3,150m)
North America, Greenland, East Greenland
In the second half of May, a Tangent expedition led by Ian Barker and Mark Basey-Fisher (U.K.), with Warren Allen, Julian Cooper, Mark Morrison, Sebastian Sloane (all U.K.), Andrey Pogudin (Russia), and I made the first ascent of a peak in the Gunnbjornsfjeld group.
First, though, from our base camp at 68°54.319' N, 29°43.5' W, we made the year’s first ascent of the highest mountain in the Arctic, Gunnbjornsfjeld (Hvitserk, 3,694m). The usual route following the southwest ridge does not keep to the crest throughout, but skirts a rocky section by climbing out left on the west face. However, inclement weather had made these slopes dangerous, and we were forced to climb on or close to the crest (ca 50°). Pogudin and I became the first Russians to summit Gunnbjornsfjeld.
Initially we also planned to attempt the second and third highest summits, Dome (3,683m) and Cone (3,669m), but we instead became interested in a 3,000+m summit southeast of the Gunnbjorns base camp. It was the last remaining unclimbed high mountain in the middle section of a tributary of the Woolley Glacier. The peak had been identified and meticulously photographed in 2009 and attempted the following year by Paul Rose’s expedition, which was defeated by deep soft snow.
We attempted the mountain on May 28 from a high camp at 68° 54.336' N,
29° 37.151' W. In the lower part the route ran through a steep, heavily crevassed couloir, threatened by huge seracs. After leaving this avalanche-prone bottleneck, we reached a saddle at the base of the south-southwest ridge, where we faced another obstacle, an 18m rock tower. We climbed the left edge over snow and mixed terrain, using rock protection in cracks. We spent two hours on this section, where the angle rose to 60°. Above, an easy climb up the final, exposed crest led to the summit, which we estimate to be 3,150m.
On our return to base camp there followed a hot dispute on an (unofficial) name for our peak. Eventually we decided on Mt. Augustine Courtauld, after a hero on the 1930-31 British Arctic Air Route Expedition and member of the party that made the first ascent of Gunnbjornsfjeld in 1935.
From December 1930 to May 1931, Courtauld lived alone at a Greenland Icecap station, gathering meteorological data that would later be of exceptional value in establishing regular air traffic between Europe and America via a northern route. Several attempts to relieve Courtauld or replenish his food supplies by aircraft were thwarted by horrendous weather. Eventually, 150 days after Courtauld’s arrival at the station, expedition leader Gino Watkins and other members of his team managed to reach the site by dog sled and relieve Courtauld, just as his food and fuel were running out.