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Adventures of a Lifetime: L. R. Wager

Wager-001Lawrence Rickard Wager was a geologist and mountaineer who studied at Pembroke College in the 1920s. He made several geological expeditions to Greenland and participated in an attempt on Everest in 1933, coming within 1000 feet of the summit.

Born on 5th February, 1904, Lawrence Wager had an interest in geology from an early age. He grew up near Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire and as a child used to hunt for fossils and minerals in the local lead mines. After the First World War, Wager’s father, who was Headmaster of the secondary school in Hebden Bridge, took his two sons to Trinidad for a year, after which they enrolled at Leeds Grammar School.

In 1922, Pembroke College made the decision to offer three scholarships on the results of the Higher School Certificate. Lawrence Wager was awarded the scholarship in science. At the age of 19, he took up his place at Cambridge to read Natural Sciences. Among other clubs, Lawrence (or ‘Bill’, as his friends at Cambridge knew him) joined the Cambridge University Mountaineering Club, travelling to Wales, the Lakes and Switzerland and becoming President for 1925–6. In July 1926 he was awarded a First in Geology.

After his postgraduate studies at Cambridge, Wager was appointed to a Lectureship in Petrology at Reading University. In January 1930, however, after only one term at Reading, he was invited to join a year-long expedition to East Greenland, led by Gino Watkins. Watkins was based at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge and hoped to discover an air route across Greenland.


The Quest

The British Arctic Air Route Expedition reached the east coast of Greenland in August 1930. Their ship, the Quest, was a sealing vessel previously used by Sir Ernest Shackleton on his final expedition of 1921–22. In a letter to his father, Wager recounts the ‘wonderfully mountainous’ scenery in East Greenland. ‘When we reached Amgmagssalik [now Tasiilaq],’ he writes, ‘we were at once surrounded by Eskimos, the men in kyaks and the women and children in bigger boats holding 20 or 30.’ The party aimed to establish a station 100 miles in on the ice cap, where ‘two poor blighters’ were to be left for a few months to take weather observations.

Wager’s diary describes the hardship of a sledge journey onto the ice cap in November: ‘The blizzard will only let us travel two or three days a week… I spent the morning thinking over the tectonics of the dyke and plateau basalt formation about Kangerdlugsuak. A scheme beginning with thinning of the sial by tension fits the facts pretty well… Have finished Twelfth Night.’ In the end, due to a shortage of supplies, Augustine Courtauld volunteered to man the weather station solo from December onwards while the others overwintered at base camp. The first relief party having failed to locate him in April 1931, Courtauld saw out a five-month stint alone on the ice cap before eventually being retrieved in May, when his station was found entirely buried in snow. Courtauld himself was still alive despite having no food, fuel or light.

Kayaks-001Wager’s most important contribution to this expedition was his discovery of the Skaergaard Intrusion, for which he became famous in geological circles. This layered igneous intrusion comprises several rock types and provides an excellent and clearly visible example of layering as a result of magma emplacement. Wager recognised its importance immediately. Not satisfied with his observations on the 1930–31 expedition, he arranged to return to Greenland in 1932 on an expedition led by the Danish Captain Ejnar Mikkelsen. Wager took his younger brother Hal along as geological field assistant and together they spent a month in Kangerdlugsuak (to the north of modern-day Tasiilaq), studying Tertiary igneous activity and carrying out the first major field work and geological specimen collection from the Skaergaard area.

Upon his return from Greenland in 1933, Wager was invited to participate in an expedition to Mount Everest, led by Hugh Ruttledge. Subsisting mainly on tea, ovaltine and Petit Beurre biscuits, the expedition reached approximately 28,200 feet before turning round due to poor snow conditions. This was the highest point reached in mountaineering at the time, and also set a record for altitude climbing without supplemental oxygen which remained unbroken until 1978. Wager’s diary entry from 30th May, 1933, notes the challenges posed by the altitude: ‘I remember the effect of carrying a sleeping bag from one tent to the other made me pant so much as almost to exhaust me’.

Bill & Phyl-001

‘Bill & Phyl’, 1936

Wager returned to England as something of a celebrity, having climbed as high as anyone in the world at the time. He soon became engaged to Phyllis Worthington, a ballet dancer who was studying at RADA. They married on October 12th, 1934, and immediately set about planning another expedition to Greenland – this was to be the British East Greenland Expedition of 1935–36. Phyllis sent out letters asking for supplies (‘During a long and cold Arctic winter, as you can well imagine, your brandy would be much appreciated!’), managing to acquire most of the necessary equipment and food for free or at reduced rates. She was planning to go with him, as was Hal Wager’s wife, Kit; the inclusion of women required formal permission from the Foreign Office. Phyllis and Kit became the first British women to spend a winter in Greenland.

The Quest, reuniting with Wager for her second trip to Greenland, sailed on July 5th, 1935. In Angmagssalik Wager’s team recruited fourteen Greenlanders (two families) to accompany them to the camp in Kangerdlugsuak and teach them how to hunt, prepare skins and survive in the Arctic. Phyllis writes: ‘[Wager] mapped and collected rock, my job was collecting and pressing plants from every place we reached and cooking the evening meal… Always in the evening, winter and summer, the most important job was painting numbers on every rock sample and wrapping each in newspaper.’ They set sail from Kangerdlugsuak in August 1936 and returned to England.


The house at Kangerdlugsuak

Wager’s account of the Skaergaard expedition was published in Denmark in 1939, coinciding with the outbreak of the Second World War. During the war Wager joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve on a commission, working in photographic interpretation, and served in Murmansk in 1942. He was sent to Scotland in 1943 to train troops in Arctic warfare, a scheme which was abandoned when Churchill decided against an invasion of Norway. Wager was then appointed Chair of Geology at Durham University. In 1946 he became a Fellow of the Royal Society, aged only 42, and in 1950 he was offered the Chair of Geology at Oxford University.

The Wagers moved to South Hinksey, just outside Oxford, with their five children. Three years later Bill Wager made his final expedition to Greenland, with the East Greenland Geological Expedition. On July 21st, 1953, he recorded in his diary: ‘All exhilarated but I felt oddly sad. Beauty greater than I remembered. We are camped on the extreme margin of the Skaergaard. How gorgeous was our last year here.

Work Corner Kangerdlugsuak-001

Bill’s work corner at Kangerdlugsuak

He continued to travel and make geological observations for the next decade, visiting South Africa to research layered intrusions in the Transvaal. In 1959 he visited his former home in Trinidad to study the layered igneous rocks. He died of a coronary in 1965, aged 61. The following year, during another expedition to Greenland, a cairn was built in his memory on the Skaergaard peninsula. Wager’s contributions to geology are remembered today as significant advances in the field.

All photographs are taken from Wager’s biography, compiled by his daughter, Jane Hargreaves: L. R. Wager: A Life, 1904–1965 (Oxford, 1991).

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