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
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.