Futility Closet book ad

Deep Freeze

In December 1930, 26-year-old British meteorologist Augustine Courtauld volunteered to man an observation station alone in the interior of Greenland. He passed the winter well enough, but his relief party was thrice delayed, and by late March Courtauld’s station was entirely buried in snow. He would spend the next six weeks immured in his hut, above which only the Union Jack projected, and husbanding his dwindling supplies. Most of the time he simply lay in the dark, but occasionally he would light a candle to write in his journal or to read his sweetheart Mollie’s last letter. At one point he listed the pleasures he would “like to have granted if wishing were any good”:

  1. Sitting in an armchair before a roaring fire listening to M. playing and singing.
  2. Eight a.m. on a fine summer morning at sea at the helm of a small boat, a fresh breeze blowing, all sail set with M. and a smell of breakfast coming up to say ‘good morning’.
  3. Just having got into bed with clean sheets and ditto pyjamas.
  4. Bright autumn morning, eating an apple in the garden before breakfast (an enormous one): kippers, poached eggs, kidneys and mushrooms, cold partridge.
  5. Getting into a hot bath.

By May 1 he was out of food and was burning ski wax for light. Five days later, the stove that he used to melt drinking water had just died when “suddenly there was an appalling noise like a bus going by, followed by a confused yelling noise. I nearly jumped out of my skin. Was it the house falling in at last? A second later I realised the truth. It was somebody, some real human voice, calling down the ventilator.”

They pulled him out through the roof and he rode back to the coast on a sledge, reading The Count of Monte Cristo in the sun. He went on to fulfill all of the New Year’s resolutions he had made on the ice cap: to marry Mollie, to buy a house and a boat, to collect a library, and to give up exploring.