Friday, September 30, 2022

Arctic dreams in Autochrome (1)

How the polar pioneers pursued photography in colour – and then sidestepped its challenges

Captain Scott was cool on colour. The Antarctic hero saw to it that, photographically, his expeditions were documented in black-and-white. If colour illustrations were needed at all, they could come from the deft paintbrush of Edward Wilson, the expedition’s doctor.

Yet, in April 1912, probably just a few days after Scott and Wilson breathed their last, a small Swiss expedition took ship for Greenland. Led by Alfred de Quervain (1879–1927), they made the first west-to-east crossing of the island’s ice cap – and recorded their adventures in a trove of colour images. One of these photographs, now preserved for posterity at the ETH Library in Zurich, captures something of the leader’s rugged and energetic personality:

So how did this expedition immortalise itself in colour, more than two decades before the advent of Kodachrome?

When the Swiss explorers reached Godthaab on Greenland’s west coast, de Quervain records that “We had a chance to use the darkroom of the Greenlander Jon Möller to develop our colour photographs.”

We? Who exactly was it who developed those colour images? Skilled photographers were not lacking on this expedition. Its most senior member, August Stolberg (1864–1945), was also the expedition’s most practised and professional photographer. As early as 1888, he’d hauled his camera around the cathedrals of France for a noted series of handbooks on architectural monuments.

August Stolberg (lower right) with the other members
of the Swiss 1912 expedition to Greenland (Wikipedia)

Appropriately for a photographer, his interests spanned both arts and sciences. He’d studied art history in Munich, Zurich, Bern and Strassburg, then a German city, but also attended lectures in geography and geophysics. From 1900, he was active as a scientific assistant in the meteorological service for Alsace-Lorraine.

With his boss Hugo Hergesell, Stolberg took part in Germany’s first piloted balloon flights for scientific purposes. In May 1900, they flew from Friedrichshafen over the Zugspitze and landed in the Tyrol, thus completing one of the earliest transalpine flights.

Later, Stolberg worked in an international committee for coordinating weather balloon observations, also under Dr Hergesell. It was here, in Strassburg, that he made the acquaintance of Alfred de Quervain, who served as the committee’s secretary up to 1906.

Launching a weather balloon in Greenland, 1912

A decade and a half older than de Quervain, Stolberg became a kind of mentor to him. Under Stolberg’s tutelage, the Swiss scientist qualified as a balloon pilot. And in 1909 the two men joined forces to make a first foray to Greenland’s west coast. This experience paved the way for the later expedition. But, as we shall see, he was probably not responsible for the expedition’s colour photos.

In 1912, colour photography was still in its nascent phase. The Lumière brothers of Lyon had patented a mosaic-screen process in 1903, launching it commercially in 1907. Their Autochrome plates continued to be the most widely used way of making colour prints until colour films appeared during the 1930s. And it was an Autochrome that was developed in Godthaab.

Although Autochromes needed much longer exposure times than black-and-white emulsions, one of the expedition’s photographers took at least one more on their journey up Greenland’s west coast. Later in April, the party interrupted their sea voyage at Sarfanguak, where they stayed with David Ohlsen, the local representative of the Danish authorities.

Ohlsen would be critical to the Swiss expeditioners’ success. He had taken upon himself the almost impossible task of teaching them how to drive dog sledges – in less than a month. Yet, in a bootcamp lasting just ten days, he did manage to instil sufficient polar travel skills to ensure their survival.

The company of Ohlsen’s daughters meant a lot to the expeditioners: “Agatha and Igner helped or entertained us with their harmonica playing, a talent possessed by David Ohlsen too,” records de Quervain.

The above Autochrome photo of Igner Ohlsen was made during this visit. An image of Igner would be one of just two colour illustrations to grace the first edition of de Quervain’s book about the ice cap crossing. But, as we shall see, it would not be this one.

The photographer who brought that wry smile – or is it a grimace – to Igner’s lips was Wilhelm Jost (1882–1964). As de Quervain records, “Jost was also an excellent colour photographer, whose most thankful subjects were the Holstensborg beauties in their flamboyant costumes.”

As a glaciologist and expert alpinist, Jost’s role was to stay behind on Greenland’s west coast, together with Stolberg and Professor Mercanton. While de Quervain’s four-man party dashed across the ice cap, this scientific triumvirate would make weather observations and survey a glacier. And to document the latter, Jost would wield a large-format camera to expose plates measuring a generous 13 by 18 centimetres. Researchers are still using some of these images today, as they assess the melting rate of Greenland’s coastal glaciers.

Wilhelm Jost (seated, right) with other members 
of the "Western Party" and two porters, 1912

By early August, de Quervain’s traverse party had completed their traverse, reaching safety at the settlement of Angmagssalik on the east coast. Driving their sledges some 640 kilometres in just 31 days, they had worthily vindicated themselves as graduates of Ohlsen’s crash course in dog handling. Unsurprisingly, they had no time to take Autochromes along the way.

After the traverse team and Professor Mercanton had returned to Europe, Stolberg and Jost overwintered at the Danish Arctic Station in Godhavn. There they completed their series of weather observations, making a total of 120 weather balloon launches into the winter night skies. One balloon, they estimated, may have reached the staggering altitude of 39,000 metres.

Jost also continued to experiment with Autochrome photography. It was during this sojourn that an Autochrome photo showing the first sunrise after the polar night was taken. In 1914, this photo supplied the colour frontispiece for the first edition of de Quervain’s book:

Frontispiece to Alfred de Quervain's
Quer durchs Grönlandeis (1914)

Jost’s sunrise – at least, we assume it was Jost’s – may be one of the most compelling colour images to be made on a pre-1914 polar expedition. Although there could be some competition for that appraisal. 

Autochrome image by Herbert Ponting, 1911
(National Gallery of Australia)

Captain Scott’s talented and energetic photographer Herbert Ponting also experimented with Autochrome. Taken on 1 April 1911, his study of the evening afterglow from Camp Evans (above) makes the most of the dreamy, hazy quality of this new medium.

Alas, Captain Scott was not impressed ...

Friday, September 23, 2022

The dog days of Dr Hans Hössli, MD

Compiling the annual Jahresbericht of the Academic Alpine Club of Zurich can be a thankless task. “We can’t publish the promised report,” fumed its editor two years before the First World War, “because H. Hoessli is too lazy to write it up and says we should just read the NZZ articles.”

Hans Hoessli (left) and other members of the Swiss
Greenland expedition of 1912

Lazy or not, Hans Hössli MD did have a tale to tell. In the autumn of 1912, he and his companions had just returned to Switzerland after making what was only the second successful crossing of Greenland’s icecap.

As the expedition’s doctor, Hössli could be proud that everyone had come through safe and sound. They’d covered 640 kilometres in just 31 days, yet this was more than a sporting feat. “We can be satisfied with our scientific results,” wrote Alfred de Quervain, their leader, pointing to the trove of topographical and meteorological data they’d brought back.

Weather was, in fact, de Quervain’s profession. After studying natural sciences in Bern and helping to discover what would soon be called the stratosphere, he became adjunct-director in 1906 of Switzerland’s national weather service. His first visit to Greenland in 1909 showed him that serious work remained to be done there. A better understanding of the island’s upper atmosphere would help to explain Europe’s weather systems. Besides, the icecap was still largely unexplored.

Indeed, nobody had succeeded in skiing right across Greenland since Fridtjof Nansen in 1888, although several explorers had managed to lose their lives or digits in forays since. When de Quervain proposed a longer, more northerly traverse line than Nansen’s, experts warned that he was biting off more than he could chew.

The Swiss expedition's track across Greenland,
as planned and executed in June/July 1912

Moreover, this privately financed venture would have to be light and fast, to avoid the need to overwinter in Greenland. This would mean starting from the more populated west coast, then navigating with exquisite precision to a pre-placed cache of supplies. This awaited them on the sparsely settled east coast, at a spot where the map could not be trusted. If they didn’t find the depot, nobody would ever hear of them again.

As a scholar and a risk-taker, de Quervain looked for like-minded companions. Besides Hössli, these were Karl Gaule, an ETH Zurich-trained engineer, and Roderich Fick, an architect. A supporting party mustered three additional scientists, who would stay on the west coast and make weather observations. One of these, Wilhelm Jost, a physicist-turned-glaciologist, was a member of the Academic Alpine Club of Bern.

The expeditioners: Roderich Fick, Karl Gaule,
Alfred de Quervain and Hans Hössli (l. to r.)

For his part, Hössli was impeccably qualified. His father was a doctor in St Moritz who’d served many years as the president of the Swiss Alpine Club’s Bernina section. Having himself passed the state medical examinations in 1908, Hössli worked in Basel for Professor Fritz du Quervain, the meteorologist’s brother, and later pursued studies in surgical orthopaedics for a further academic qualification, the “Habilitation”, in Zurich.

Equally to the point, his CV featured an impressive roster of alpine climbs and first ascents. He’d accomplished four new routes just in the summer of 1903, two with the hard-climbing, cigarillo-chomping railroad engineer Paul Schucan, a leading light of the AACZ and two more with Christian Klucker, the veteran guide from Val Fex.

As de Quervain said, “In Hössli, I appreciated above all, besides his skills as an alpinist, his medical and surgical knowledge, which turned out to be very helpful.” Yet that, as it turned out, was scarcely half of the doctor’s eventual contribution to their joint success.

Roderich Fick in one of the expedition's kayaks

To weld his crew together, de Quervain sent them to the Engadine in winter. Given their alpine experience, they took this shake-down trip in their stride. Kayaking was another matter: a practice session on Lake Zurich ended ignominiously after Gaule and Fick went swimming and had to be rescued.

This was not the only “x” in de Quervain’s plans. To get across Greenland during the short arctic summer, they’d need dogs to haul their sledges. Man-hauling them, as Nansen did (after his party had to prematurely eat their pony), would be too slow. But none of them knew how to drive dogs.

Breaking their steamer journey up Greenland’s west coast in late April 1912, the traverse party gave themselves barely a month to learn this difficult art. Instructed by David Ohlsen, a local Greenlander, they soon got to grips with the basics: “If the dog on the right side of the team doesn’t want to pull, don’t hit the one on the left.”

Alfred de Quervain gets to grips with a dog team
West Greenland, May/June 1912

Alas, practice did not make perfect. Learning how to wield a whip like a Greenlander hurt them more than it did the hounds. They were appalled and intimidated by a dog pack’s everyday savagery. But then de Quervain had an extraordinary stroke of luck. His expedition doctor turned out to have an unusual talent for dog-handling.

By default, Hössli also became the specialist in patching up the sledge gear. This skill would prove crucial, as, once on the icecap, the dogs would chew up their harnesses and traces whenever they got the chance. The party ran out of spares half-way across the icecap; after that, their success, not to say their lives, depended on Hössli’s ability to improvise with whatever he had on hand.

The traverse party takes leave of the support group
on the Greenland ice cap, June 1912

We fast-forward to Midsummer’s Day, or thereabouts. A photo shows the traverse party established on the icecap, taking leave from the support group – the expedition doctor, a gentle smile on his face, as in most other photos of him, sits underneath the Swiss flag, flown from an ice-axe.

From then on, the four dog-sledders would be on their own. With the benefit of hindsight, de Quervain would appraise their chances as follows:

“On the one hand, we took great risks. But on the other, we were so exact in devising and working out our preparations that perhaps some interesting but avoidable situations did not occur. Such would have been sensational and not to the credit of a serious undertaking.”

At the time, though, he was asking himself what could possibly go wrong. The answer came the very next day, when two of the sledges broke through thin ice into a glacier lake, complete with dogs and drivers. Only Hössli’s team escaped this “summer-bath”, thanks to some adroit dog-handling by its driver.

Fortunately, all could be retrieved. The sleeping bags stayed dry in their waterproof packing and – to the credit of this serious undertaking – de Quervain had arranged for the all-important supply of matches to be soldered into tins and dispersed between the sledges. His chronometer, vital for navigation, did get waterlogged, but he managed to fix it.

As the expedition settled into a routine, their doctor took on the additional role of quartermaster. As de Quervain records:

“An iron law, whose guardian was Hössli, assigned each one of us his daily ration, measured to the gram and the millimetre. With our cheese alone was he less pitiless. Making an exception to the rule, Hössli distributed it exponentially, calculated on the portion left over. Only on our arrival at the east coast depot – although I am getting ahead of myself here – did the asymptotic cheese curve, owing to our appetites, suddenly drop to zero.”

The iron law also prescribed 40 grams per man per day of salted Danish butter and 125 grams of tinned milk. Trail food included chocolate, dried apples and plums. As on most polar expeditions of the day, the dietary mainstay was pemmican, a mixture of ground-up beef and fat that tasted like soap or, as others said, mixed-up sawdust and Vaseline.

Pemmican fuelled the twenty-nine dogs too. These soon came to recognise the genial doctor as their chief provider and advocate. When, every morning, he crawled out of the tent to relieve himself, the dogs used to salute him by rousing themselves from their beds of snow and raising their own hind legs in unison. Or so Roderich Fick later recalled.

Hössli may have contributed yet more to the team’s success. As in any hard-driven enterprise, a head of interpersonal pressures built up. On de Quervain’s birthday, Gaule led the way to the celebrations holding aloft an ice-axe and a dog-whip – the latter to symbolise their leader’s management style.

As far as history relates, Hössli took no part in this demonstration. Just as he was best able to pacify the riotous dogs, so he may have used these eirenic skills to heal rifts between his human companions. The saintly Edward Wilson, likewise a doctor, had played a similar role in Captain Scott’s ill-fated Terra Nova expedition, which was just then winding down in the Antarctic.

On July 18, Fick spotted a high mountain to the left of their track. This the expeditioners named for Professor F A Forel of Geneva, an eminent limnologist who had helped them to raise funds. There was no question of a closer inspection, of course. The first ascent of Mt Forel would await a later generation of academic alpinists from Zurich.

Three days later, they reached the eastern edge of the icecap. Hössli and Fick now looked after the camp – shooting some of the dogs and caching the meat in case of need – while de Quervain and Gaule went off in search of the supply depot. After a tense few days, they returned to report their success. For a time at least, Hössli could banish his ration book to a far corner of the tent.

It remained to manhandle the sledges down to the coast, and then to paddle southwards down the coast in the kayaks they’d picked up at the depot. On the last day of July, they met a trio of Eskimos, who helped them reach the nearest settlement.

Kayaking to Angmagssalik, July 1912

On their way down Greenland’s east coast, Hössli attended the inhabitants with medical care whenever asked, just as he had done on the inward journey up the west coast. The ministrations of their “Nakorsak” (doctor) helped to earn the party a special commendation from a local official:

This summer on June 9, 1912, members of the expedition reached the inland ice sheet and the Greenlanders loved them, because they were like the Danes; we thank the Supreme Council of Switzerland for having sent us these brave men, and we thank the travellers for having been so good to the Greenlanders. For this, we have a high regard for the expedition. And I ask the Supreme Council to believe that we have treated the expedition well, although it was not Danish.

Arsivik, August 16, 1912
Niels Magnusson”

Back in Switzerland, the expeditioners embarked on a busy programme of public lectures, illustrated with lantern slides. The income they raised from these engagements went to pay off the expedition’s substantial debts. Probably for the same reason, de Quervain published his expedition book with admirable celerity.

Hössli too was prompt in writing up his observations. An article in the 1913 yearbook of the Swiss Ski Association deals with polar expeditions and their equipment. The Swiss Army, he suggested, might benefit from adopting the kamik, a soft Eskimo boot for snow work. In 1914, he came out with a scholarly article on the craniological measurements of Eskimo skulls, building on the ethnographical studies he’d made at remote settlements in East Greenland. The same year, he married Gertrud Haerle, also a doctor of medicine, and two children came along in the next few years.

His academical excursions did no harm to Hössli’s professional career. In 1917, still in his early thirties, he was appointed medical director of the Universitätsklinik Balgrist in Zurich, a top orthopaedic hospital. Just eight months later, the young doctor was dead, a victim of the 1918–19 influenza outbreak. His expedition companion Karl Gaule died during the tail-end of the same epidemic. Within a decade, de Quervain’s traverse team had lost half its members.

A century later, an exhibition at the Swiss National Museum has revived the memory of the expedition's achievements. As before, the doctor’s contribution remains understated. It probably doesn’t help that the AACZ Jahresbericht’s editor never did receive that personal expedition report. In its place, then, we offer this belated tribute to “H. Hoessli”, the Greenland pioneer.


William Barr, “Alfred de Quervain’s Swiss Greenland expeditions, 1909 and 1912”, Polar Record, vol 51, no 259, pp 366–385.

Hans Hössli, «Polarexpeditionen und ihre Ausrüstung», in: Ski, Jahrbuch des schweizerischen Skiverbandes, IX, 1913, pp 4–25.

Hans Hössli, «Kraniologische Studien an einer Schädelserie aus Ostgrönland», Neue Denkschriften der Schweizerischen Naturforschenden Gesellschaft, LIII, 1916.

Stephan Orth, Opas Eisberg: Auf Spurensuche durch Grönland, Malik/National Geographic, 2015.

Lea Pfäffli, «Das Wissen, das aus der Kälte kam: Assoziationen der Arktis um 1912», doctoral thesis, ETH Zurich, 2019.

Alfred de Quervain, Quer durchs Grönlandeis: Die Expeditionen 1909 und 1912/13, Eingeleitet von Peter Haffner Mit einem Nachwort von Marcel de Quervain Mit Fotos, Verlag Neue Züricher Zeitung, 1998. Quotations are from a translation by Alfred de Quervain’s descendants, E. Q. Schriever and W.R. Schriever.

Alfred de Quervain, Across Greenland's Ice Cap: The Remarkable Swiss Scientific Expedition of 1912, with an introduction by Martin Hood, Andreas Vieli and Martin Lüthi, McGill-Queen's University Press, May 2022.

Thursday, September 22, 2022

"Across Greenland’s Ice Cap"

How a ski-tour engendered the English version of a book by Switzerland’s polar pioneer

The Claridenfirn is a genial altiplano of ice and snow within easy reach of Zurich. Google it, as Project Hyakumeizan once did after a ski-tour there, and you’ll find that it has yielded the longest unbroken series of yearly survey measurements of any glacier on the planet – more than a century’s worth of data.

Alfred de Quervain in Greenland, summer 1909

The first to survey the Claridenfirn, back in 1914, was Alfred de Quervain (1879-1927), an uomo universale of Belle Époque scientific circles in Switzerland. A meteorologist by trade, he helped to discover the stratosphere in his early twenties, set up his country’s first network of seismological stations, piloted balloon flights to investigate what would soon be known as cosmic rays, and established the high-altitude observatory on the Jungfraujoch.

But, in Switzerland at least, de Quervain is best remembered for his crossing of the Greenland ice cap. Leaving Zurich in the spring of 1912– around the time that Captain Scott and his crew were perishing in Antarctica – he and his companions took ship in Copenhagen, aiming to achieve the first west-to-east traverse of the central Greenland ice sheet.

Few gave much for the chances of the young and inexperienced Swiss quartet. Yet, in just 31 days that summer, they traversed 640 kilometres of snow and ice, bringing home a trove of scientific results and photographs. Nobody fell into a crevasse or suffered so much as a frost-bitten finger.

Despite this lack of drama, the expedition’s principal sponsor, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, was glad to serialise de Quervain’s expedition write-up. In 1914, these articles came out in book form, as Quer durchs Grönlandeis, making a play on the author’s name.

In the 1980s, the book was translated by de Quervain’s daughter for her children, as her family had settled in Canada. And now, in time to mark the expedition’s 110th anniversary, this English version of de Quervain’s book has recently calved majestically from the McGill-Queen’s University Press as Across Greenland’s Ice Cap.

Like many adventurers, the Swiss expeditioners had weighty debts to pay off. To raise money after their return, de Quervain and his expedition doctor Hans Hoessli toured Switzerland, giving slide lectures to the alpine clubs and anybody else with a taste for tales of polar derring-do. And for added impact, they had their black-and-white glass slides hand-tinted by a professional colourist.

Across Greenland’s Ice Cap republishes more than sixty of these plates, all in full colour – a lavishness enabled by generous support from the Swiss Polar Institute and the Swiss Committee on Polar and High Altitude Research. The book is dedicated to the eminent climatologist, the late Konrad Steffen, who helped to found the Swiss Polar Institute among his numerous other achievements.

By coincidence, the English version of de Quervain’s book came out just at the start of one of the hottest summers on record. In the introduction, two Zurich-based glaciologists, Andreas Vieli and Martin Lüthi, describe how they have used results from the de Quervain expedition to resurvey Greenland’s Eqip Sermia glacier – the starting point for de Quervain’s traverse of the ice sheet.

The melting rate for Greenland’s ice cap as a whole is shocking enough – Professors Vieli and Lüthi compare it to losing more than twice the mass of all the glaciers in the European Alps every year. But the long-baseline data from the Eqip Sermia deliver an additional sting. That is, they “support the view that the Greenland ice sheet was roughly in balance for a century or more before the onset of today’s rapid mass loss.” 

In other words, so far from wasting away gradually over the past century, Greenland has started shedding its ice on a dramatic scale only during the last few decades.

Of course, it’s not only Greenland that has had a torrid summer. Recently, we revisted the Claridenfirn. Since our last encounter, the lake at its foot has doubled in size. Fragments of ice, broken away from the glacier’s front, were drifting on the ash-gray waters. For a moment, before the morning mists cleared, we could have imagined ourselves standing rapt beside some remote Greenlandic fjord, a hundred and ten years ago …


Alfred de Quervain, Across Greenland's Ice Cap: The Remarkable Swiss Scientific Expedition of 1912, with an introduction by Martin Hood, Andreas Vieli and Martin Lüthi, McGill-Queen's University Press, May 2022.