Echoes of Shackleton
DARK AND MALEVOLENT, the mountainous seas of the Southern Ocean dwarfed our tiny boat. We battled to keep it at right angles to waves twice the height of our mast, as they regularly broke over us, threatening to capsize the boat. It was late January 2013 and we were three days into a re-enactment of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s incredible 1916 voyage from remote Elephant Island, off the Antarctic coast, to the subantarctic island of South Georgia.
Hypothermia stalked us all – we’d been wet through since yesterday, when the storm first hit. Our polar gear of leather boots, cotton outers, woollen jumpers and animal skins, which matched the kit worn by Shackleton’s crew 100 years earlier, was woefully inadequate in the freezing, wet conditions.
The lack of a keel on our replica of Shackleton’s wooden lifeboat, James Caird, meant only constant vigilance and 1 tonne of ballast in the form of rocks and camera batteries saved us from being overturned. In 2°C water, survival time is less than 10 minutes. Tension was as taut as the guy lines that whistled and thrummed in the gale-force winds.
Assembling the Shackleton re-enactment team
It had been five years since Alexandra Shackleton had asked me to assemble a team to attempt her grandfather’s 1916 journey as he had done it. Shackleton’s expedition has been regarded by many – Sir Edmund Hillary included – as the greatest journey of survival ever undertaken.
Known as Shackleton’s “double”, the journey was first an 800-nautical-mile (1480km) voyage in the 6.7m James Caird across the Southern Ocean. The men then climbed across South Georgia’s mountainous interior to reach Stromness whaling station on the island’s north coast. Here they raised the alarm, prompting the rescue of the 22 men left behind on Elephant Island. Shackleton’s bid to be the first to cross Antarctica on foot had ended with the loss of his ship, Endurance, on 21 November 1915. Endurance had been icebound for 10 months before she sank and his team had not even reached the great frozen continent.
Like Shackleton, I chose a six-man team to undertake the challenge in our replica boat, the Alexandra Shackleton. Built to be nearly identical to the James Caird, with oak posts, larch planking and no keel, she was as small and unstable as her famous forebear.
Our skipper was Nick Bubb, an experienced British round-the-world sailor. Seb Coulthard, from the Royal Navy, was our bosun, or fix-it guy; navigator was Melburnian Paul Larsen – aka ‘Larso’ – a multiple world-record holder, including becoming the world’s fastest sailor last year. Larso’s role was particularly important given that we would navigate the old way, using a compass and sextant, as Shackleton had done. The three climbers were myself; Ed Wardle, an Everest-conquering Scottish cameraman; and Warrant Officer Barry ‘Baz’ Gray, the head of outdoor survival for the elite British Royal Marines.
Starting on 23 January 2013, we rowed due north from Shackleton’s desolate campsite at Point Wild, on the northern side of Elephant Island. Twenty-two of Shackleton’s men had held out here – on little more than a spit of rock and shingle protruding from the massive cliffs – for four months, eating penguins and elephant seals and living underneath two upturned lifeboats. Looking back at the island, one could almost imagine them watching us expectantly in the gloomy half-light.
It was backbreaking work, paddling through the ‘brash’ ice (floating ice fragments), which ranged from basketball- to bus-sized pieces, the breeze catching our sails as we cleared the wind shadow of the mountains. Cliffs of turquoise glacial ice receded into the distance and a white tabular berg, kilometres wide, appeared dead ahead. It was on the northerly bearing we’d hoped would take us to South Georgia once easterly ocean currents had played their role. By nightfall, all that guided us past the berg was the sound of waves crashing against it out there in the darkness.
By day four, the storm that had hit on day two finally abated, leaving confused seas that struck us from all directions. Life on board was vomit-inducing, rough and cold, as the boat rocked violently from 10 o’clock to 2 o’clock, like an out-of-control metronome.
“What’s it like up there?” I asked Larso as he came off his stint on the helm. “Blowing dogs off chains,” he muttered, and fell into the pile of bodies sharing the tiny space to dry himself using the others’ body heat. Five hours of drying-out would be cancelled when you took the helm and the first wave crashed over you, as others baled furiously with the pump or a bucket.
Endurance’s New Zealand-born skipper, Frank Worsley, had called the Southern Ocean the “great grey shroud”.
True to form, it was day five before we caught a glimpse of the sun through the ever-present cloud, and whales and albatrosses were our only company. Each of Larso’s legs was held by a man as he took a series of sightings of the pale disc of a sun from our treacherous, rolling, glassy deck. Holding back sickness he ran the numbers: our latitude suggested we were 300 nautical miles into our journey.
We’d decided to measure latitude, like navigators of old, due to the relative ease of calculation. The goal was to get to 54o south, turn right, and theoretically hug 54o south all the way to South Georgia.
We didn’t see the sun again until a week later when, after a torturous voyage, we were almost upon South Georgia. Strands of kelp in the water and shore birds told us land was close. After a fraught night with the sea anchor down as we tried to remain stationary, the wan dawn light on 2 February revealed jagged, forbidding 200m-high cliffs that were far too close for comfort.
The low cloud stopped us seeing any mountains – so working out our position was almost impossible – and a north-westerly wind forced us to sail south-east, parallel to the coast. Finally, spotting the distinctive hump of what could only be Saddle
Island, we knew Shackleton’s landing spot at King Haakon Bay was close. With success almost within our grasp, the wind swung to the west and blew us directly onshore – in sailing parlance a “lee shore” and very dangerous in a boat that cannot sail upwind.
This forced us to weave through boiling cauldrons of breaking surf, which indicated rocks just below the surface, and so close to cliffs one could smell the dank vegetation. Perhaps aided by the spirit of Shackleton, we scraped around the north headland into King Haakon Bay. It was the closest of shaves.
Shackleton re-enactment: land ahoy
OUR SEA LEGS GAVE way as we plunged into the surf to wade ashore on Peggotty Bluff at the head of the bay. But our elation at having made it was squashed when we realised Nick and Ed had serious cases of trench foot, making their feet so painful they could barely stand, let alone climb.
After five days of weather delays during which we hunkered down on the beach, the other four of us from the Alexandra Shackleton, plus two cameramen who’d rendezvoused with us at South Georgia, set off up the 3km, 40o ice slope that is Shackleton Gap.
Some 300m of climbing later, cameramen Si Wagen told us he couldn’t go on due to severe back pain, and his co-cameraman and climbing partner, Joe French, made the decision to head down with him. Seb and Larso went down with them to the support boat that was positioned on South Georgia’s north coast, while Baz and I relocated to the cameramen’s tent, our commitment to the cause undiminished despite our own tent having being claimed by an 85-knot (157km/h) wind gust. Seb, too, succumbed to trench foot and it was down to Larso, Baz and me to finish things.
It was as if history was repeating – like Shackleton, I was crossing with just two men. A lull in the weather revealed the route ahead, allowing us to take a bearing. “It’s now or never, let’s make it now,” said Baz, summing up the mood as we plunged into the roaring headwind and swirling mist, keen to be moving towards Stromness.
Each man fought doubt as we followed the compass over the crevassed terrain of Murray Snowfield until Trident Ridge loomed spectacularly into view – its imposing black pyramids of rock emerging from the ice cap, the highest 1337m. We descended a 60o slope between two of the Trident peaks, bum-sliding the final 300m as Shackleton had done, to save time and energy.
As we crossed the vast, climate-change-ravaged Crean and Fortuna glaciers, our 30m of rope was all that kept us from serious injury or worse, as we continually plunged through weak snow bridges concealing deep crevasses. After a hard 3km ascent from Fortuna, we reached the last mountain barrier, Breakwind Ridge, which involved a desperate 70o, 400m climb down a couloir from a corniced ridge. Our old boots with screws forced through the soles gave precious little grip, making the descent treacherous – a fall by one would likely pull the others to disaster, too. Finally we skittered down the edge of a waterfall to reach the valley floor and sat in stunned silence for what seemed an age before raising our tired bodies for the push home.
A wade across a shallow glacial lake – left from the receding of Kønig Glacier, which filled the valley in Shackleton’s day – and another 90-minute climb brought our first view of Stromness whaling station. Two hours later we reached it, exhausted, in the failing light. It was 11 February, 19 days after we first set off.
Achieving our goal brought with it emotions that are hard to describe: certainly elation, relief and pride, and a great sense of camaraderie; but also an overwhelming feeling of humility about what we’d done. We’d got closer to understanding what Shackleton went through on the original journey almost a
century ago.But we’d not lost our ship, nor seen the dream of crossing Antarctica slip away, nor lived on the ice for 10 months before the journey, as he’d done.
Little wonder Sir Raymond Priestley, Shackleton’s geologist on his Nimrod Expedition, said: “For scientific discovery, give me Scott; for swift and efficient travel, give me Amundsen; but when you are in a hopeless situation, when there seems to be no way out, get on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”
The full story can be found in Australian Geographic #117.