IN­SPIR­ING EX­PLOR­ERS

The wind wrenches my heavy pack side­ways. With knees and toes pressed in­ward, so my skis form a wedge, I fight des­per­ately to main­tain bal­ance and con­trol. But be­fore I fully re­cover, an­other gust strikes, whip­ping my skis out from un­der me and throw­ing m

Say Yes To Adventure - - Features - WORDS: Tom MacTav­ish IMAGES: Tom MacTav­ish, Rob Stimp­son and James Blake LO­CA­TION: South Geor­gia

Tom MacTav­ish

THE SCENE AROUND me seems apoc­a­lyp­tic. The pass we are try­ing to cross has be­come the tube of a gi­ant vac­uum-cleaner, and we're stuck in­side. Sting­ing missiles of ice and rock pep­per my body and moun­tain guide Kevin Nicholas, thrown to the ground not five me­tres in front of me, is only pe­ri­od­i­cally vis­i­ble through wave af­ter twist­ing wave of bil­low­ing snow. Per­haps it is the sound that is most fright­en­ing – it's that gi­ant vac­uum-cleaner again, and it sounds like it's suck­ing on some­thing too big for the tube.

For a mo­ment I lie there, stunned by the force of na­ture. I think of all those tales of po­lar ex­plor­ers des­per­ately grap­pling with the el­e­ments, and I re­alise that here – now – these sto­ries are tak­ing on an en­tirely new mean­ing. I pick my­self up, ski poles spread wide for sup­port, and fight my way across to Nicholas and the other four mem­bers of our team. To­gether we're at­tempt­ing a cen­ten­nial re-cross­ing of Sir Ernest Shack­le­ton, Frank Wors­ley, and Tom Crean's fa­mous 55-kilo­me­tre route across the sub-Antarc­tic is­land of South Geor­gia. It was on this same pass that the three men saw the old whal­ing sta­tion at Strom­ness far be­low and shook hands, know­ing they would fi­nally be safe. As I stare through ice crusted storm hoods and gog­gles and into the wide eyes of my com­pan­ions, how­ever, I can see that we haven't yet reached that point of safety.

Sean Brooks, the other moun­tain guide, starts ges­tur­ing and shout­ing wildly. I can­not hear a sin­gle word, but I can guess what he's say­ing – we need to tran­si­tion to cram­pons and ice axes and get off this pass fast.

Clip­ping free of my skis and sit­ting on them for fear that they'll fly off the side of the moun­tain, I be­gin fit­ting cram­pons. The six of us are vir­tu­ally side by side, but the wind en­tombs us with our thoughts – mine are with Shack­le­ton, Wors­ley and Crean. As the heat is stripped from my body at an alarm­ing rate, I can't help but won­der what such weather would have meant for them and the 25 others left be­hind on Ele­phant Is­land whose lives de­pended on their suc­cess or fail­ure. On the 20th of May 1916 – 100 years ago – English­man Sir Ernest Shack­le­ton, New Zealan­der Frank Wors­ley, and Ir­ish­man Tom Crean stag­gered into the whal­ing sta­tion at Strom­ness, South Geor­gia Is­land. In do­ing so, the three men si­mul­ta­ne­ously com­pleted not only the is­land's first cross­ing but also what Sir Ed­mund Hillary de­scribed as “prob­a­bly the great­est sur­vival story in recorded his­tory". In­deed, their is­land cross­ing was but the fi­nal act in an epic jour­ney which be­gan when their ship, the En­durance, was crushed by pack ice some 2,000 kilo­me­tres away. It's a story with all the in­gre­di­ents of a ‘ boys' own' ad­ven­ture – south­ern ocean sail­ing, undis­cov­ered po­lar places, des­per­ate cir­cum­stances, prob­lem-solv­ing ge­nius and lucky es­capes. More­over, Frank Arthur Wors­ley was one of our own, which makes the story part of the her­itage of our na­tion.

Wors­ley was born in 1872 in the then sleepy coastal set­tle­ment of Akaroa. Be­fore leav­ing, our team made a

pil­grim­age to the old Wors­ley fam­ily farm. These days the land is un­der the stew­ard­ship of in­spi­ra­tional con­ser­va­tion­ist Hugh Wil­son, but in Wors­ley's time, it was a typ­i­cal pi­o­neer­ing prop­erty. His was a child­hood I could well imag­ine; a mix­ture of hard phys­i­cal work and dar­ing pas­times. His days on the farm were the build­ing blocks of a re­mark­able life of ad­ven­ture, which in­cluded his time as cap­tain of the En­durance. Although eas­ily over­looked, his con­tri­bu­tion to the sur­vival of Shack­le­ton's crew was piv­otal. It is per­haps best en­cap­su­lated in an ex­change be­tween him and Shack­le­ton at the be­gin­ning of their jour­ney from Ele­phant Is­land to South Geor­gia. Hud­dled at the helm of their lit­tle lifeboat the James Caird, Shack­le­ton said: “Do you know, I know noth­ing about boat sail­ing?” to which Wors­ley replied: “It's al­right Boss, I do.”

In the be­lief that epic sto­ries of ex­plo­ration are of en­dur­ing value, the New Zealand Antarc­tic Her­itage Trust, an or­gan­i­sa­tion with a mis­sion to con­serve, share and en­cour­age the spirit of ex­plo­ration, has set it­self the task of keep­ing such sto­ries alive. With this goal in mind, the Trust chose to take three young ex­plor­ers, rep­re­sent­ing the na­tion­al­i­ties of Shack­le­ton, Wors­ley and Crean on a com­mem­o­ra­tive ex­pe­di­tion to South Geor­gia with the aim of shar­ing their ex­pe­ri­ence with others. How does one reach and in­spire the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion with such tales when Face­book and Twitter in­creas­ingly over­throw tra­di­tional sto­ries and fire-side anec­dotes? Their chal­lenge be­came my chal­lenge, when, as part of my se­lec­tion pitch to rep­re­sent Wors­ley, I promised to share our South Geor­gia ex­pe­di­tion with the small town South Is­land schools that I had at­tended.

But as I stood, con­scious of my re­ced­ing hair­line, in front of classes of eight-to 14-year-old Kiwi kids to in­tro­duce our South Geor­gia ex­pe­di­tion, I couldn't help but pon­der what I was hop­ing to achieve. What rel­e­vance do the ex­ploits of Shack­le­ton, Wors­ley, and Crean have to these young peo­ple? Would I be able to con­vey the in­spi­ra­tion I felt and would they lis­ten? I was still con­tem­plat­ing these ques­tions as I set off for South Geor­gia, car­ry­ing a Ham­p­den School tea towel as a ‘sur­ro­gate' for the kids. Thunk! I shrank as the wheelhouse door slammed shut be­hind me. In a room where one could hear a pin drop that must have sounded like a canon. Dur­ing the pre­vi­ous 72-hour jour­ney we'd been a rau­cous bunch, but now the ship had grown silent in an­tic­i­pa­tion. We were en­ter­ing King Haakon Bay. Cough­ing as the dag­ger-cold air pricked at my lungs, I leaned on the bul­warks and gazed for­ward. Dulled by days in the lonely ex­panse of the South­ern Ocean, my senses sud­denly went into over­load. Chin­strap pen­guins por­poised to port and star­board and a van­guard of South Ge­or­gian cor­morants steered us to­ward pointed peaks and snow-plas­tered walls of rock

that reared out of the ocean like the tur­rets and ram­parts of a mys­ti­cal white cas­tle. It was a place of raw beauty, and it also evoked a strong sense of the past. As our ship squeezed del­i­cately into the bay's up­per reaches, I imag­ined the fast lit­tle James Caird sail­ing ahead. Recog­nis­ing the same glaciers, is­lands and kelp reefs that Wors­ley sketched onto his map 100 years ago, I was aware that very few peo­ple since had reached its lonely shores.

The ele­phant seals, too, are still there. Our zo­diac taxi, laden with skis and climb­ing equip­ment, nosed onto a flat shin­gle beach lit­tered with them. Wors­ley had noted their pres­ence with en­thu­si­asm, writ­ing that “the hoarse, cough­ing, rau­cous roar of the bull seal ele­phants – pashas of the harems – told us the food would be plen­ti­ful. I con­fess to be­ing some­what alarmed by the pres­ence of these mon­sters and has­tened past a bat­tle-scarred bull that had fixed me with his gi­ant red eye. As the re­treat­ing zo­di­acs be­came dis­tant specks, it was a strange sen­sa­tion to be left on that beach know­ing that our only trans­port home was about to sail to our ren­dezvous on the other side of the is­land. But with whom was I to share this iso­la­tion? There was Nigel Wat­son, Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor of the Antarc­tic Her­itage Trust and Ex­pe­di­tion Leader and James Blake, an An­glo-Kiwi film­maker and ad­ven­turer who had been raised by his fa­ther – the late Sir Peter Blake – on bed­time sto­ries of Shack­le­ton. There was Lieu­tenant Sinead Hunt, who, like Tom Crean be­fore her, proudly serves in the Ir­ish De­fence Force and then there were Brooks and Nicholas, two skil­ful and sea­soned Antarc­tic moun­tain guides with One Ocean Ex­pe­di­tions. The com­pany was re­as­sur­ing.

Noon had come and gone when we fi­nally got un­der­way, and, although later than hoped, we skimmed quickly across the sur­face with our light­weight tour­ing skis and syn­thetic climb­ing skins. Such equip­ment, com­ple­mented with cram­pons, ice axe, avalanche gear, har­ness, and syn­thetic climb­ing rope, are the ne­ces­si­ties of the mod­ern ski-moun­taineer. But here, on re­mote South Geor­gia, our packs were fur­ther laden with camp­ing and sur­vival equip­ment and food for four days. I won­dered what Shack­le­ton, Wors­ley and Crean would have made of our tough, tech-savvy ap­proach, or, for that mat­ter, our late start.

By com­par­i­son, they set out at 3am on Fri­day 19th May 1916 car­ry­ing just a sawn-off car­pen­ter's adze, 90 feet of rope and food for three days. Although the ship's car­pen­ter McNeish had skil­fully used screws from the James Caird to give their boots trac­tion on ice, Wors­ley writes that they were very quickly sink­ing up to their knees in deep snow. Nonethe­less, with straps start­ing to bite into my shoul­ders, I de­cided that while they might have been jeal­ous of our skis, they'd have been mighty glad to have avoided our heavy packs!

Our first taste of South Geor­gia's no­to­ri­ously hos­tile weather came that same af­ter­noon as we crossed the Mur­ray Snow­field. There, re­lent­less squalls drove cur­tains of freez­ing cloud and re-sus­pended snow that trans­formed my com­pan­ions into ghostly sil­hou­ettes. When thick sea fog en­gulfed the orig­i­nal party in a sim­i­lar lo­ca­tion, Wors­ley wrote: “Never have I felt so puny, nor re­alised so clearly the help­less­ness of man against na­ture…” I couldn't agree more, and we were nav­i­gat­ing with the lux­ury of a GPS and map! I felt no big­ger ei­ther when a mo­men­tary clear­ance re­vealed our sur­round­ings – a vast, icy waste­land that had us lost like six com­mas in the mid­dle of a blank white page.

That night the wind was fright­en­ing. In an­tic­i­pa­tion we'd sought the only shel­ter there was – a be­he­moth of a moun­tain that stood at the south-east cor­ner of the Mur­ray, its gloomy black flank tow­er­ing over us like the Gates of Mor­dor. My cam­era lens cap had be­gun freez­ing shut be­neath my jacket as we rushed to for­tify our tents in the fail­ing light. We buried our skirt­ing flaps with snow, used skis rammed in ver­ti­cally as tent pegs, and at­tached our guy-ropes to ski poles that we'd buried deep in the snow. But it was not the an­chors that I wor­ried about as the wind tore through our camp that night. Rather, it was the re­silience of the poles that would bend down and slap me on the back with each gust and the strength of the tent fab­ric which cre­ated a noise that Blake likened to the sound of a launch­ing space shut­tle. In the morn­ing, my first sight was Blake's eyes streaked with rivers of red. I guess he was as pleased as me that the night was fi­nally over.

Our view that morn­ing was one out of his­tory – the Tri­dent Moun­tains. It was this crenelated row of crags sep­a­rat­ing the Mur­ray from the

Crean Glacier that was the scene of Shack­le­ton, Wors­ley and Crean's fa­mous slide. In search­ing for a safe route to pass through, the three men had cho­sen the right-most notch and climbed, only to find, in Wors­ley's words, “precipices and ice­falls, with no pos­si­ble de­scent.” Forced to re­treat, they'd been re­pelled twice more be­fore they found them­selves stand­ing at the fi­nal notch. Now it had grown late, and a com­bi­na­tion of gath­er­ing dark­ness and sea fog ob­scured what lay be­low. De­cid­ing that to stay at that al­ti­tude through the night would bring cer­tain death, Shack­le­ton in­structed that they strad­dle each other “and slide in the fash­ion of youth­ful days.” Of the bum slide, Wors­ley wrote that “the slope was well-nigh pre­cip­i­tous and a rock in our path – we could never have seen it in the dark­ness in time to avoid it – would have meant cer­tain dis­as­ter.” Iron­i­cally, the three men de­scended the steep­est route down.

With the ben­e­fit of mod­ern

car­tog­ra­phy and the ex­pe­ri­ence of Nicholas's pre­vi­ous cross­ings we headed for the right-most notch. As I looked down at con­vex rollovers and the fore­bod­ing blue depths of gi­ant crevasses, I un­der­stood why one might be tempted to seek an eas­ier way. Nonethe­less, with care­ful route se­lec­tion, we were able to ski an easy gully sys­tem down onto the gi­ant Crean Glacier, which lay be­low.

Two things struck me as I con­tem­plated Shack­le­ton, Wors­ley and Crean's de­scent route from be­low. The first was that it was not as steep as I'd per­haps imag­ined it'd be. At about 35 de­grees the slope is the equiv­a­lent of an ex­pert ski run on a ski field. Per­haps more strik­ing, how­ever, are the rocks that now dot their de­scent route. Their emer­gence was linked to glacial re­treat. In a re­cent study that an­a­lysed the ad­vance or re­treat of 103 of South Geor­gia's 160 glaciers dur­ing the pe­riod 1950s to 2010, it was found that 97 per­cent had de­clined. It was also dis­cov­ered that the av­er­age rate of re­treat had in­creased more than four-fold dur­ing that same pe­riod. It's a sober­ing thing to see first-hand that even the world's most sparsely-peo­pled po­lar places have now been re-shaped by the cold hand of hu­mankind. As­cend­ing the Crean Glacier was a strug­gle. I was re­minded of New Zealand's deso­late Fox and Franz Josef Glacier névés on the West Coast of the South Is­land as the ac­cu­mu­lated snows of yes­ter­year gave way to the ocean on our left and rugged peaks on our right. But af­ter a cou­ple of hours of ski­ing to­wards a nunatak that ap­peared to re­cede at the same pace, I re­alised that we were con­tend­ing with a land­scape on an en­tirely dif­fer­ent scale. Shack­le­ton, Wors­ley and Crean had plod­ded the same glacier on the evening of the 19th un­der the lu­mi­nous glow of a full moon. By this stage they'd been on the move for up­wards of 16 hours and ex­haus­tion was tak­ing its toll. Ev­ery 20 min­utes the three men would col­lapse in the snow and lie spread-ea­gled on their backs for two min­utes. Oc­ca­sion­ally they'd break for a lit­tle longer, and, dig­ging a pit in the snow, set their Primus to work on a pot of hoosh – a lard-based an­ti­scor­bu­tic con­coc­tion that had been their pri­mary source of sus­te­nance since leav­ing Ele­phant Is­land. Without mugs, they'd lie around the cooker and dip their spoons into the pot. Wors­ley de­scribed it as an 'eq­ui­table ar­range­ment,' although Shack­le­ton ac­cused Crean of hav­ing the big­gest spoon, to which he replied, “Holy smoke, look at Wors­ley's mouth.” It is the fur­ther mea­sure of the wis­dom of these men that they man­aged to main­tain a sense of hu­mour de­spite their cir­cum­stances. Late in the day, we'd re­moved our skins and were ski­ing down the gen­tle grade of the For­tuna Glacier. We were look­ing for an off­shoot glacier

that'd take us to our planned camp­site on the beach at For­tuna Bay, but a strange pot­pourri of sun and heavy snow­fall was mak­ing nav­i­ga­tion dif­fi­cult. I sug­gested to Nicholas, rather im­pa­tiently, that I was sure our tra­jec­tory would be too far to the left. Mo­ments later, how­ever, he led us through a veiled gap in the crevasse field and onto a sad­dle di­rectly above For­tuna Bay. Ap­par­ently I don't quite pos­sess the nav­i­ga­tion skills to match the man I was there to rep­re­sent. Aware of our ab­so­lute iso­la­tion, we'd skied very care­fully down from the Tri­dents. But here, above For­tuna

Bay, with a firm sur­face and the joy of a stir­ring sun­set, I al­lowed my skis to dance a happy jig all the way to the con­flu­ence of glacier and beach. Though the down­hill ski­ing won't be one of the first things that comes to mind when I think of our ex­pe­di­tion in years to come, the beach on which we dis­mounted from our skis most cer­tainly will be.

Never in my life have I felt more like an alien in­truder than I did on the crowded beaches of South Geor­gia. The ocean that sur­rounds the is­land is home to the most con­cen­trated phy­to­plank­ton bloom in the South­ern Ocean, and, ac­cord­ingly, the as­sem­blies of wildlife are just stag­ger­ing. That night in For­tuna Bay we ate our meal be­side clus­ters of tuxedo-clad king pen­guins and then lay in our sleep­ing bags and lis­tened – awe-in­spired – to the nasal roar of bull ele­phant seals. Still some­what wary of these slug-like mon­sters, I re­mem­ber com­ment­ing to Blake that they sounded quite close. He replied that I wasn't to worry be­cause “Wat­son and Hunt's tent is be­tween those ele­phant seals and us.” We tra­versed For­tuna Bay the fol­low­ing morn­ing with squalls of snow set­tling like ic­ing su­gar on the bis­cuit-brown fe­male ele­phant seals that lay slum­ber­ing above the tide. At one point we paused to re­move our ski boots to cross an icy cold stream, and I watched a gang of vul­ture-like gi­ant pe­trels squab­ble over the corpse of an ele­phant seal pup. Mur­der­ous squawks broad­cast their ruth­less deed, but the adult seals didn't stir. Here, sur­vival seems to squeeze out the sen­ti­ment. Although we'd no­ticed the weather be­gin to change, none of us had an­tic­i­pated quite how strong the wind would be­come on that fi­nal pass into Strom­ness. The mood of the team was that we'd prob­a­bly com­pleted the hard­est part. One se­nior mem­ber had even been heard to ut­ter the fa­mous last words “noth­ing can stop us now!” As it turns out, noth­ing did. As we de­scended from the pass and out of the vac­uum cleaner – the fe­roc­ity of the wind tem­pered a lit­tle by ev­ery down­ward step – the re­lief amongst our team was pal­pa­ble.

Fol­low­ing a team em­brace and a cel­e­bra­tory nip of ‘Shack­le­ton's whiskey', I sur­veyed the re­mains of Strom­ness whal­ing sta­tion. It had a ghostly ap­pear­ance that was am­pli­fied by gale force winds which car­ried shrouds of dirty snow and forced shrieks from the ram­shackle build­ings. Look­ing past a se­ries of old ware­houses I could see a derelict house and it was here that Shack­le­ton, Wors­ley and Crean had found Tho­ralf Sor­lle, the sta­tion man­ager, a man with whom they'd so­cialised 18 months be­fore. It had been some dis­tance from Strom­ness when Shack­le­ton, Wors­ley and Crean started to be­lieve that they might just make it, but re­al­is­ing that a break for sleep would prob­a­bly merge into death, they'd trudged on through the night. At 7am, ap­proach­ing For­tuna Bay, they heard the un­mis­tak­able sound of the whal­ing sta­tion's morn­ing wake-up whis­tle. It gave them a new lease of life which car­ried them down the slopes “so steep… that we felt an un­rea­son­able fear, when­ever we lifted our heads from the snow, that we would fall out­wards and down,” across For­tuna Bay, and over the fi­nal pass to Strom­ness. It was, in Wors­ley's words, “a ter­ri­ble-look­ing trio of scare­crows” that fi­nally pre­sented them­selves to Sorelle at

3pm on 20 May. Af­ter a mo­ment of si­lence Shack­le­ton had asked “Do you know me?” to which Sorelle re­sponded “No". When the un­recog­nis­able men fi­nally ut­tered their names one can only imag­ine the goose­bumps that arose on the Nor­we­gian's skin. Here were three men that he must have long since given up for dead.

Back on our ship, and tucked up in my warm bunk that night, I had time to re­flect on our ad­ven­ture. All six of us re­alised the se­ri­ous­ness of the weather on our fi­nal cross­ing into Strom­ness. We recog­nised that, in spite of spe­cial­ist equip­ment, we would have been in sur­vival mode had that wind struck us on the ex­posed and shel­ter-less glaciers of days one and two. As for Shack­le­ton, Wors­ley, and Crean – al­ready weak­ened by 16 months of des­per­ate sur­vival and with clothes held to­gether by safety pins – such weather would surely have spelled dis­as­ter.

It struck me then that we'd been given a first-hand glimpse of the re­mark­ably fine line that Shack­le­ton and his men had walked be­tween suc­cess and fail­ure. It was a line they walked, not just on South Geor­gia, but right from that un­for­tu­nate day when sea ice crushed the En­durance. Un­ques­tion­ably they had in­cred­i­ble luck – for ex­am­ple, a weather win­dow on South Geor­gia – but that luck would never have been re­alised if they hadn't been pre­pared to keep push­ing in the face of seem­ingly in­su­per­a­ble odds.

For more in­for­ma­tion on the ex­pe­di­tion to South Geor­gia, in­clud­ing the route map, visit www.nzaht.org.

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