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In the Footsteps of the Arctic Pioneers

by Barbara Godfrey, M.A. (Oxon)

Barbara’s father, aerodynamics scientist Dr Alec Frazer, FRS, was the only Cambridge man in the Oxford University expeditions to Spitsbergen in the 1920s. One of the explorers was Andrew Irvine, who died while climbing Everest in 1924.

A group of 24 young students spent four months in 1992 studying wildlife in one of the world’s most inhospitable regions – the Arctic wastes of Svalbard, an archipelago in the stormy Barents Sea between Norway and the North Pole and two-thirds covered by glaciers.

Their trip was organised by the British Schools Exploring Society as part of its diamond jubilee expedition programme for young people in their gap year between school and university. Three four-month expeditions followed from August 1992 to summer 1993, with the students operating from a log cabin they built from driftwood.Their research included a study of life cycles, over-wintering habits and the feeding ecology of some anthropods, leading to inter-polar comparisons with work by the British Antarctic Survey. As they moved about by skidoo, ski and pulk sledge, snug in feather-light thermal gear and using modern scientific techniques, how many spared a thought for those intrepid British explorers who, 71 years ago, first ventured into the interior of this wild territory with drab and primitive equipment? These pioneers struggled across icy plateaux and soggy snowfields on wooden skis, hauling loads of up to 1,000lb on 9ft sledges with wooden runners which continually became clogged with wet snow and gritty mud or had to be dragged out of mires and crevasses. Cumbersome equipment such as canvas tents, kapok sleeping bags and a 40lb theodolite often had to be carried.

The 17-day expedition which set off on July 21, 1921, was mounted by Merton College, Oxford, under the leadership of George Binney. It made the first major incursions inland to survey uncharted territory, bringing back valuable topographical, geological and natural history data from Spitsbergen, the main island in the archipelago.

A second Oxford University expedition in 1923 did important new work in Spitsbergen and also explored the coastal regions of Nordauslandet (North-East Land), the second largest island – today still wild and desolate, visited only by the Norwegian Polar Research Institute from time to time.

A more substantial expedition the following year made further inroads into Nordauslandet and was the subject of Binney’s book With Seaplane and Sledge in the Arctic. The 1923 four-man sledge party included Andrew Irvine, who a year later vanished with George Leigh Mallory – recently ‘reincarnated’ by actor Brian Blessed in a TV film – on Mount Everest. The sledge party leader was Noel Odell, the last man to see the two climbers just below the summit of the world’s highest mountain. The Royal Geographical Society was given dramatic accounts of the Spitsbergen expeditions by my father, scientist Alec Frazer, the only Cambridge man to take part, who was released from the National Physical Laboratory to act as surveyor with the sledging parties on all three trips. He told of the weird and wonderful landscape of Svalbard, with its ‘crazy pavements piled high with a wild confusion of square cut blocks and columns’, its wicked morasses, ferocious ice cliffs and brown snow bogs. Treacherous crevasses bridged by highly polished aqueducts reflected the diamond sparkle of the icy walls beneath, waiting to claim unwary victims. This incredible landscape had an unearthly beauty which belied a comment by the President of the Royal Geographical Society, after seeing Frazer’s panoramic photographs, that it did not look a very attractive country despite the assurances of travellers who went there. Describing the ‘varied ice sculptures of Central Spitsbergen’, Frazer said: ‘The soft light of midnight enhanced the panorama and appeared to diffuse on a sea moulded of ivory, while the long shadows rested on wax: ice-cliffs cresting the rock faces alone stood out with a metallic lustre in high relief.’ At one place ‘a deep diapason boom’ pervaded the air, which the party traced to a glacial lake in violent upheaval. Spouting whirlpools were shooting thousands of gallons of muddy water into the reservoir and a torrent carried the turbid overflow down to Hinlopen Strait – a spectacular sight which prompted Frazer to name his home near the NPL, Teddington, ‘Hinlopen’. Gentler delights were the sight of Alpine blossoms nestling in snowy crevices, seabirds bustling by the cliffs and lagoons, and Arctic foxes speeding silently by. The hazards and sheer hard toil faced by the sledge parties were enormous. Fog and drizzle were common, and some days it took them 12 hours to drag their loads through the slush, using canvas sails to help get the sledges moving.

In 1921 it was intended to use four husky dogs lent by the Stor Norsk Coal Company to haul the load – but the plan was abandoned when three of the huskies turned on the fourth and drove it out of camp, leaving the team one dog short. In any event it was realised that the extra weight of their food would have countered their usefulness.

Frazer said of the 1923 trek: ‘When not actually progressing through water we travelled over an atrocious sticky surface, which incessantly caked the sledge runners. We vacillated between crampons and skis, discarding the former in the pious hope of preserving our canvas boots, and the latter when the additional embarrassment of a foot of snow plastered to the ski sole became intolerable.’

Binney considered it an advantage to have Irvine and G. Milling, Oxford rowing Blues, in the 1923 team on the grounds that ‘if they could row from Putney to Mortlake they might be able to get across from one side of Spitsbergen to the other’. Irvine, it seems, was also something of an acrobat. On the way north through Norway he performed, according to Frazer, ‘gymnastic hand-pulls and somersaults’ from a weathervane on the top of a 12ft steel mast on a hill near Bodø, to the amusement of local bystanders. Broken ski bindings, blizzards which confined the men to their tent for several days and a hurricane which scattered their belongings down a glacier were only some of the hardships they faced. Clothing on the 1921 expedition consisted of ‘extremely efficient Burberry overall suits’ each weighing about 2 1/2lb – but the men agreed that large pockets would have proved convenient. The 1923 team wore canvas Shackleton boots which deteriorated rapidly and barely survived the journey. Frazer reported that on one occasion Odell, ‘for some inscrutable purpose, had removed both boots and socks, and complained of the cold’. Food rations consisted mainly of the standard Shackleton diet – pemmican (concentrated dried meat), sugar, chocolate and biscuits – plus a goodly supply of Oxo donated by the makers. This fare was supplemented by what Frazer described as ‘more palatable items such as oatmeal, Glaxo and tea’. When cooking was impossible because of blizzards they enjoyed a ‘highly palatable’ cold emulsion of Glaxo and Oxo made with melted snow. The 1921 expedition was scheduled to end on August 25 and the sledgers returned just in time for the midnight rendezvous with the Norwegian sloop after 20 hours’ hard slog on fearsome terrain. The base party hurried five miles up a glacier to meet them, offering the weary travellers chocolate – ‘and the one thing they really wanted was a tin of peaches’, according to Binney. Their hardships were not yet over, however – they suffered a 12-hour severe cyclone on the sea trip back to Tromsø. A fortnight later they were back in London in a stifling heatwave. Julian Huxley, who took part in the 1921 expedition, told the Royal Geographical Society that the explorers had been able to study within one small country what the state of the British Isles must have been at different periods during their emergence from glacial conditions.

The notion that Spitsbergen was a very cold and unattractive place was emphatically refuted by Binney, who told the RGS that given reasonable weather conditions he could imagine no place where one could see the serenity of nature so undisturbed by civilisation.

Today more than half Svalbard consists of protected areas, with three national parks, three nature reserves, 15 bird sanctuaries and three plant reserves. Stringent regulations are in force to ensure the preservation of the environment and historic remains in a region where even small encroachments may have disastrous consequences. They include strict rules for motorised traffic and disposal of rubbish – ‘it is no use burying litter as it is either dug up by polar bears or arctic fox or pushed to the surface again by permafrost’, Mette Bleken, the Governor of Svalbard’s information officer, told me.

British interest in the region dates from Stuart times, when English seamen visited its shores. In the 18th Century Horatio Nelson – later to become Admiral of the Fleet – was midshipman on a vessel which attempted to sail along the north-east coast. Scientific exploration developed gradually from 1823 onwards, culminating in the first important expedition by Oxford University in 1921.Serious explorers still find Svalbard a rich source of interest, and university and school students are among those whose expeditions have been accorded Royal Geographical Society approval. One group studied, among other things, the ecology of reindeer dung; another, for the World Health Organisation, investigated kittiwakes as carriers of the flu virus. Spitsbergen is also beginning to attract tourists seeking offbeat holidays and 30 or so, mostly from the UK, visit the archipelago each year on trips arranged by Arctic Experience Ltd. Svalbard is the company’s most northerly destination and they promise that the rewards are ‘beyond belief’ in this magical land where there are 24 hours of daylight in the brief summer months, with temperatures ranging from -5C to +15C. A wide choice of tours can be booked, from cruises round the coastline – pack ice permitting – to backpacking across the interior of the main island. Experienced walkers who choose a tour based on two fixed camps are told this will ‘avoid the burden of a heavy rucksack’. More ambitious trekkers can go from coast to coast, picking up food and fuel on the way and carrying other essential equipment. The company say the holidays can be enjoyed by young and old of average fitness, who will be able to study the history, geology, botany and wildlife of the region, with the chance to spot polar bears, seals, rare walrus, reindeer, whales and foxes.

These tourists join the select ranks of Arctic fans – among them David Bellamy, the naturalist – who have found beauty, adventure and peace of mind amid the awesome stillness and space of this fascinating region.


A version of the above article was first published in The Lady in 1992.



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