Fol­low­ing Shack­le­ton

Adventure - - Contents - By Tarn Pilk­ing­ton

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.


RIGHT: Shack­le­ton's grave

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.

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