by Al Read
South Georgia is a huge, wildly spectacular ice mountain massif. It soars out of the icy depths of the Southern Ocean 1,000 miles east of the southern tip of South America. A rugged spine of glacier-covered peaks, South Georgia is cold, wet and racked by ferocious winds. The tiny island is in the direct track of deep atmospheric depressions that roar through the Drake Passage between Terra del Fuego and Antarctica. Average annual temperature is near freezing and snowfall and rain of four inches a day is common. Millions of fur seals, tens of millions of penguins and other birds, and hundreds of thousands of sea lions inhabit its shorelines.
In mid-April 1915 explorer Ernest Shackleton’s ship with 27 members of his expedition became locked in the polar ice in the Weddell Sea just off the Antarctica. In the spring, as the ice warmed and drifted north, the ship was crushed. The party used the lifeboats to get to Elephant Island, a desolate, uninhabited atoll at the edge of the Antarctic Peninsula. There they were stranded. Shackleton and five others crammed into a lifeboat, sailed across the frigid Scotia Sea 800 miles, and miraculously reached South Georgia two weeks later. With great difficulty they landed on the island’s uninhabited west side at King Haakon Bay. Frostbitten, exhausted, their clothing embedded with crusted sea salt, it was not feasible to set sail again in the wind, currents and huge seas to one of the whaling stations on the island’s east side, the only human habitation. To get to there they faced the daunting challenge of crossing unknown mountains and crevasse-riddled glaciers without equipment. Unstoppable, Shackleton beached his boat and with two others made his daring traverse of the island. Thirty-six hours later, without sleep or rest, they reached Stromness whaling station. The story of Shackleton’s epic survival and his subsequent rescue of his crew back on Elephant Island (not a single crewmember was lost) is one of history’s great sagas of high adventure.
In November 2000, Geographic Expeditions’ traverse of South Georgia Island successfully repeated Shackleton’s crossing. Under the leadership of Dave Hahn, Jim Sano, Jim Williams, Mark Tucker and myself, fifteen Geographic Expeditions clients skied and snowshoed across the glaciers to Stromness. It was the first successful guided expedition ever to retrace Shakleton’s route.
After sailing five days from Ushuaia, Argentina, the world’s southernmost city, we landed on the west side of South Georgia at King Haakon Bay. Rough seas and gale force winds can make this channel extremely hazardous, but luckily it was calm for us. Once ashore, we roped up into five parties and climbed on skis and snowshoes, each of us carrying a large pack and pulling a sled, five miles up onto the Murray snowfield at 2,100 feet where we made camp on the ice. The next morning we climbed to a pass over the famous Trident Ridge, three great spires marking the head of the Crean Glacier. A steep slope from the pass plunged down to the Crean 1,500 below. This is the crux of the route and where Shackleton slid into the unknown. When he arrived, night was approaching. The slope was shrouded in fog, iced and crevassed. Shackleton could not see to the bottom, but for him, his party, and the remainder of his expedition back on Elephant Island, it was life or death. He had to make it across the island or everyone would perish. He and his comrades sat on their rope in single file, put their arms around each other and pushed off. They hurtled like a bobsled down the ice into the fog and the void. Miraculously they survived.
For us there was snow, which enabled us to lower our sleds and kick steps down to the glacier. But first one of our members, Bill Rohm, planted the Explorer’s Club flag on the pass in commemoration of the crossing. Gail force winds greeted us on the Crean, but we knew after crossing the Trident, to turn back was not feasible. After another camp, the weather deteriorated. A ferocious wind blasted us with icy rain mixed with sleet and snow and turned into a whiteout. There was not enough food and fuel to wait out the storm. In some of the most miserable conditions I have experience in 48 years of mountaineering; we crossed to the Fortuna Glacier at 2,400 feet. Four miles later we made the decision not to cross Breakwind Pass but to try to escape by descending the front the Fortuna Glacier to the sea. This was unknown and never before done. The glacier could have ended in a vertical glacial front calving into the ocean. We would have had to go back, which could have spelled catastrophe in the horrendous weather.
We took the risk and descended down through the crevasses, and finally reached the beach in a total wind-driven downpour of drenching sleet. We unroped, pitched tents and got out of the dangerous cold and wind. There had been only a few two-minute rest breaks that day. A longer stop or a mishap, however minor, could have meant possible hypothermia for some and, because there is no possibility of rescue on South Georgia, a potential disaster. We called in our ship and shortly after dark we were in the Zodiacs and back on board, a luxury Shackleton could never even have dreamed of.
The next day, at dawn on a beautiful morning, we landed again and skied and snowshoed over the final pass then down and across snow-covered tundra. We were greeted at the abandoned Stromness whaling station by the loud bleating and chaos of mating sea elephants and fur seals. Delightfully curious penguins waddled up as if to congratulate us.
Having done the crossing, our admiration for Shackleton and his men is even greater than it was before. We had Marmot equipment and a GPS, but also the knowledge that a route across the mountains was even feasible. Now that it is over, and we are warm and comfortable, most of us long again for the adventure. Geographic Expeditions will repeat Shackleton’s South Georgia crossing in November 2009. Exhausted as I was, Jim Williams and I will probably go back. If you want to come along with us and be part of this incredible journey, call Exum Mountain Guides at 307 733-2297 or email us at exumguides.com