For many New Zealanders a journey into the areas lying deep down in the southern latitudes is high on the bucket list. We have, as a nation, a close affinity and awareness with Antarctica with our presence in the Ross Sea region at Scott Base and the support network provided to the US and New Zealand Antarctic programmes from Christchurch. A number of Kiwi adventurers have also created a strong history for us to identify with. Spanning now over one hundred years to include Frank Worsley, the Dunedin born navigator who guided Shackleton successfully to South Georgia Island and Sir Ed Hillary driving a Ferguson tractor to the South Pole as part of the 1958 Trans Antarctic Expedition. For Kiwi guides and instructors the desire to “head south” is as strong as ever. Most of us got our first opportunity to see Antarctica working for either the New Zealand, US, British or Australian Antarctic programmes. With the growth of Antarctic tourism - especially to the Antarctic Peninsula, there are now many more opportunities and therefore Kiwis working on a number of ships and yachts. This past southern summer I ran into a number of people who were employed as guides working from ships around the Antarctic Peninsula region or further north in the South Atlantic on South Georgia Island. Most were guiding skiing, climbing, kayaking or snowshoeing or traversing South Georgia via Shackleton’s route. Some have been in the game a while having completed many seasons whilst for some it was their very first time. Most would universally agree that once you have experienced these places it takes a hold of you – the incredible wildlife, the landscapes, the seemingly never ending summer daylight, and the wild southern ocean combine to really get under your skin.
One of the most recent people I caught up with is Anna Keeling, an IFMGA guide who spends her life between Castle Hill Village (near her hometown of Christchurch) and Utah. She had just completed an expedition with fellow guide Phil Penny of Wanaka. Called “In the Footsteps of Shackleton,” the expedition is run by Aurora Expeditions based on the ship the Polar Pioneer. As it’s names suggests, it follows Ernest Shackleton’s route from the Weddell Sea to Elephant Island and onto South Georgia Island. Anna describes her experience as “simply incredible and immensely satisfying. The entire expedition went incredibly well and we achieved our main objective which was to cross South Georgia Island with our four clients following Shackleton’s route from King Haakon Bay to Stromness. It was great to work with Phil – it was his second year in a row on this trip and last year the weather was not as cooperative as this year - so they did not get to complete the full crossing” – so it was great to be able to complete it with Phil this year. Anna’s had South Georgia and the Peninsula on her list as “the places” she most wanted to experience in her lifetime. “My partner Scott went to the Peninsula working as a cameraman aboard the yacht Australis a few years previously. His footage of the mountains and wildlife are simply stunning and I just had to get there. I had been lined up the year before to guide with Phil and Tarn Pilkington but a family illness meant I had to withdraw last minute. Jane Morris jumped in and I was stoked for her to get on the trip. And in a weird twist of fate/déjà vu I was called on to replace Jane this year after she was injured by rockfall whilst guiding in NZ. “ For Anna it was a chance to guide in some of the most challenging and remotest locations on earth. The trip starts in Ushuaia Argentina, a busy port town that has grown from a small town into a large sprawling hub serving the cruise industry to Antarctica. “The area reminded me a lot of home as there are some stunning mountains nestled above the Beagle Channel and the pockets of beech forest look just like home. Leaving in the early evening we cruised down the Beagle and met our passengers and ran through the lifeboat drill. “It’s pretty cramped fitting everyone into the lifeboats – it was all pretty jovial with some what if toileting jokes etc. I’m sure everyone had in the back of their minds that the famous Drake Passage would be reached late in the evening and things were about to get a little more real.” The stretch of ocean between Cape Horn and the Peninsula is around 600 nautical miles or roughly 1000kms and is usually crossed in most ships in two or so days. Intense weather systems circulate along these latitudes often creating extremely strong winds and resultant huge stormy seas. They were aptly called the furious fifties and screaming sixties by the early mariners. Despite suffering bad seasickness on the family yacht as a child. Anna commented that “the passage itself was pretty good – the seas weren’t huge at all. I took the seasickness medication early on Phil’s advice and stayed well the whole way over. “ The expedition normally heads into the Weddell Sea as this is where Shackleton’s journey started with the loss of the ship “Endurance”. Heavy sea ice had crushed the Endurance and Shackleton and his crew were forced to flee across the pack ice dragging lifeboats in what was to be the start of one of the most epic survival stories of all time. And even in late summer this year the ever changing Weddell ice caused a change to the original plans to follow Shackleton’s route and explore the outer Weddell. Anna reported that “our Expedition Leader Stephen Antsee made the call early to change the whole schedule and head for the western side of the Penisula. “Phil was stoked as he had visited both sides of the Peninsula and was much keener on the climbing opportunities on the western side.” Time and weather permitting the first landings after crossing the Drake Passage are in the South Shetland Islands which lie just over 100 kms off the Peninsula itself. Anna recalls the “excitement amongst the passengers as we saw the distant peaks from the ship”. “After a couple of days at sea everyone is ready to get ashore. Those shining white peaks looming up above Livingstone Island looked totally amazing. We got to climb one of the smaller peaks that Phil decided to name “The Bishops” whilst the other passengers took in the Chinstrap penguin colony at Half Moon Island. Pretty straightforward glacier travel and a pitch or two of steeper climbing to the summit. Our five clients were all blown away by the views so we were off to a flying start. And to cap off our first day we went across to the volcanic caldera of Deception Island and climbed Mt Pond. Deception is an amazing place where volcanic steam rises from the black sand beach created by underlying geothermal heat. This eery atmosphere seems somewhat fitting for a place where thousands of whales were slaughtered.” The Peninsula is usually reached later that evening or early the next day after crossing the Gerlache Strait. Anna commented on her first sighting as being particularly impressive. “Now we were really here – the actual continent was right in front of us off the bow. The huge glaciated mountains soar straight out of the sea – it’s really mind blowing.” We sneaked in a morning climb on Bryde Island which Phil had climbed a couple of years ago with Tarn. On a good day, Phil told me, we get two climbs in – looking around I could easily see how. The options for climbing and skiing seemed endless. You could spend a month skiing and climbing on this one island! After the morning climb, we touched the continent at Argentina’s Brown Base, did the polar plunge then we managed to fit in another awesome climb on Ronge Island. If all that wasn’t enough, there was a pod of maybe 50 humpback whales as we left the strait.”
Guides coming to this area for the first time have a lot to learn. The glaciated mountains and the surrounding bays often littered with remnant pack ice or icebergs present a whole unique set of hazards. Currents and winds can push ice around and therefore all landings must be assessed to ensure you do not end up trapped on land by ice. Strong katabatic winds descending from glaciers can develop extremely quickly producing gale force winds and change flat calm seas into a vicious short chop - making travel by inflatable boats very difficult or unsafe. Icebergs can overturn or glacier terminals can “carve” off sending tons of ice crashing into the sea resulting in large swells or waves crashing into shorelines, inflatable’s or kayaks. “Phil was very meticulous in his planning for our excursions ashore. We worked closely with the Expedition Leader to ensure we made the right calls on weather and ice conditions. We also carried an emergency cache of tents and food should we get trapped ashore if conditions changed.” Many of the ships visiting the peninsula spend their time plying a 200 km stretch from Charcot Bay to just south of the Lemaire Channel. This region is popular for good reason. It is generally more sheltered offering good access to penguin colonies and viewing of various whale and seal species. There are a number of bases from a variety of countries that can be visited. Most ships also offer a variety of activities from snorkelling to kayaking and skiing to diving so when combined with all the wildlife viewing passengers are kept busy with multiple landings everyday (as conditions permit). Anna found the guiding days somewhat different to the norm. “The schedule for the climbers was pretty hectic. We squeezed in a few more climbs as we headed north along the peninsula and saw some pretty incredible wildlife and had plenty of early starts and late finishes. Having enough daylight is not an issue as the days are long – its just having the time to fit in the meals amongst all the activity.” The expedition includes around eight days at sea as there are plenty of miles to cover from Argentina, down to the Peninsula, up to Elephant Island, across to South Georgia and finally reaching the Falklands over the 18 total days. The sea voyage to Elephant Island gives the clients a break from climbing and a short time to relax. Anna welcomed the sight of Elephant Island but was dismayed by it’s bleakness: "We couldn’t land at Elephant Island due to a large swell. But simply being near Cape Wilde where Shackleton left the majority of his men gave us an appreciation of how absolutely harrowing it must have been to live for months under upturned lifeboats. It’s one of the most the most dismal places I’ve ever seen. They lived on a promontory between glaciers. Brown and grey were the dominant colours.” It takes another two days and a half days to cross the Scotia Sea to reach the island of South Georgia in a modern ship. Shackleton and his crew of five men spent sixteen days in a converted lifeboat named ”James Caird”. The conditions at sea were appalling and Frank Worsley’s ability as a navigator saved them from certain disaster. With only a few sightings by sextant over the sixteen days, it is regarded as one of the most epic feats of navigation. Anna contrasted her experience with the luxuries of modern ship travel with the James Caird. ”On the ship we have the luxury of navigation by GPS instruments with internet on tap to look at weather forecasts whenever we want. What they achieved was simply incredible.” Shackleton and his men made landfall at King Haakon Bay and waited several days before starting the final leg of their journey. They crossed unchartered territory over glaciers and mountain passes to reach the whaling station of Stromness nearly 50 kms away. With no maps and using improvised mountaineering equipment they added another chapter to what was already a list of incredible accomplishments. Now named the “Shackleton Route” it has become a sought after goal for many mountaineers. Anna reflected on what Shackleton and his men had achieved. “We arrived to some poor weather so changed our plan to start from Possession Bay on the other side of the island. When we did get underway we had a great forecast for two days so were confident our timing was spot on. It’s hard to believe Shackleton just set out with no maps at all – just a rough idea of how they would get to Stromness. We had topographic maps and a pre-programmed route on our GPS which can allow us to travel in poor visibility.” The Shackleton Route itself is not particularly difficult for most experienced mountaineers. As an island in the southern latitudes it does have some extreme and very changeable weather. It is not to be underestimated even with a good forecast. A number of expeditions to South Georgia have been thoroughly spanked by extremely high winds and poor visibility. Anna’s group had some good luck “We were incredibly lucky with perfect weather -a ridge of high pressure crossed the island at just the right time. The crossing itself was pretty straight forward as good snow cover had remained from the previous winter. Probably the highlight for me was being able to casually walk off the Fortuna Glacier and arrive at Fortuna Bay to be greeted by dozens of King Penguins and fur seals. The day was perfect - just us alone in this remote place to soak it all in. We sat in the sun for hours watching the wildlife and waiting for the ship.” The final section of the crossing is from Fortuna bay to Stromness which is non- technical, so several ships have this as an excursion available to most passengers. This allows those keen on a shortish walk over Stromness Pass to participate in the adventure and experience a part of Shackleton’s epic journey. Anna was impressed by the level of interest. “Most of the passengers joined us - I was blown away by how many people, regardless of age and ability, did the final section. There were certainly a few tears and plenty of hugs and smiles when we finally reached Stromness – it was extremely satisfying to share this moment with our clients and the other passengers.” South Georgia Island is one of the most incredible places on earth. Abundant wildlife teems around its shores due to the rich feeding grounds in the surrounding seas. Glaciers pour from its mountainous valleys reaching the bays where penguins and seals gather in unbelievably large numbers to literally cover the beaches. In one of our recent phone conversations Anna told me how hard it is to communicate to people back home just how amazing the place is – “pictures don’t convey your own experience at all well. It’s one of those places you just have to experience yourself – I loved it and I want to return to see it all again. This whole expedition has left me hankering for more.” Aurora Expeditions run several trips a year to the Antarctic Peninsula and South Georgia. Climbing, ski touring and snow shoeing are some of the activities available.
OPPOSITE PAGE: Camp site near the Nunatak between the Crean and Fortuna Glaciers - camp sites are exposed and vulnerable to the extreme winds from storms that cross South Georgia.