Kingdom of Blizzards
November 3, 1999
By Kelly Tyler
We have found the kingdom of blizzards. We have come to an accursed land.
It started with the wind, the same bullying wind that thrust at us during
our zodiac trip (see Stromness).
They are the katabatics, the rushing cold winds that accelerate down South
Georgia's mountains to scour the coast and sea below. But those agitated gusts
before have become a sustained assault today.
On the same bluff where I stood above Stromness,
Shackleton's mountain path at our
backs and the derelict whaling station below, the wind assails us with a new insistence.
We had hoped to film the manager's villa in the town below, but regulations prohibit it.
Assistants Paul Marbury
and Charlie Castaldi brace
cinematographer Sandi Sissel
as she takes a shot of Shackleton's vista. In a moment, whatever held the sleety wind
in check broke free. A sustained blow of an estimated 60 mph hurtles two backpacks
down the bluff. We take the cue to pack up and go.
Skittish interlopers introduced by Norwegian whalers, a herd of reindeer flee the storm.
It's easier said than done, as the wind lifts Sissel and I, the lightest members of
the party, and flings us to the ground. Judging from this, I guess the winds must be
at least 65 mph. From here on, production assistants Mark
and John Mack grip our arms
to keep us grounded. Above the howl, Antarctic guide Simon Abrahams radios ahead
to Rob Forster, who is
headed to Stromness with a zodiac. Now we're lashed by sleety, stinging sheets of snow and hailstones.
The wind whips the sea into williwaws, and tornadoes of spray swirl across the
chopped waters. It's clear from our labored struggle to cover the half mile of
ground to the shore that a four-mile journey by zodiac is impossible. Forster
tells us that the 163-foot Laurel will pick us up; unlike the 236-foot
Shuleykin, she can navigate this smaller harbor. A whiteout obscures the
horizon and mountains surrounding the bay. Through the haze we see the Laurel
emerge, gamely bucking the swell.
Our refuge, the lee of a rock, is poor shelter. The station ruins look
better, but the screaming gale can potentially hurl loose debris with lethal force,
the very reason the government has declared it off-limits, except in an emergency. As
the blizzard rages on, the guides decide the situation qualifies, and they move us
into a partially enclosed shed whose odor betrays the frequenting of elephant seals.
Katabatics winds race down from the heights, scouring the surface clean of all but a few hardy mosses and grasses.
Forster estimates that the winds are hurricane-force. Lulls are only momentary,
and it is clear that the zodiac could possibly flip over.
We huddle in the shed for six hours, when Antarctic coordinator David
Rootes calls on the
radio. The Shuleykin is dragging anchor and will be forced to sail out to sea
rather than risk being driven onto the rocky coast, and the wind has wrenched off
the door of Laurel's bridge. Rootes has been monitoring our situation since
1:00 p.m., and he now tells the guides we should prepare to spend the night at Stromness.
We make our way across the mangled pipes of whale-oil tanks and the derailed
track of the flensing ramps to a small hut that was once the whalers' bathhouse,
now a refuge christened the "Krillton." The British Antarctic Survey has bolstered
its defense with new windowpanes and corrugated-tin walls to keep out weather and
rats, but the raw life of the Norwegian whalers remains evident.
The fury of the storm seeks out every chink in the roughly built house and
infiltrates every corner with a dank chill. A guest book records other more
recent visitors seeking shelter, such as Trevor Potts, who with three companions
completed the 800-mile journey from Elephant Island to South Georgia in a replica
of the James Caird in 1994. The Royal Marines of the HMS Endurance
skiied the South Georgia traverse in 1997, leaving behind an etched piece of native
slate in remembrance. There are photos of a scientific team and remains of canned
British Army rations: beef. ginger sponge. processed cheese. Opening the latter,
we find that repeated freezing and thawing has precipitated salt crystals, and
grit studs the polymer-like substance.
Once the whalers' bathhouse, the "Krillton" becomes our makeshift haven.
Forster and Abrahams have sufficient survival gear and rations to keep us for
several days, so we eat well and settle in. Upstairs, four tiny rooms are lined
with stingy metal cots; we pull the whalers' filthy hard mattresses to cover the
draftswept tile floor downstairs. With sleeping bags and space blankets, the
eight of us pass a restive night, crammed together wearing all of our gear to
fend off the pervasive subzero chill. Outside, an undefinable mechanical grinding
roars through the night, like some immense infernal machine clamoring to life.
At daybreak, our hopes are dashed; the storm has not abated but accelerated.
I step outside and immediately need male ballast to keep from getting blown over.
It is surely blowing at 85 mph. It's about 23°F outside, but the wind-chill at
those wind speeds makes the air temperature the equivalent of well below zero.
Hesitantly, Holden-Hindley and I make our way to a small, weathered house set
off from the metalworks. It is the manager's villa. Wending their way east
from the mountain pass down into Stromness, Shackleton,
Crean came directly
here and appeared before the station manager, Thoralf Sørlle, like an apparition.
Blending in with the storm's lashing snowflakes and hailstones, a group of penguins weather the elements near the abandoned whaling station.
"Don't you know me?" Shackleton asked. Sørlle was puzzled. Friends, he and
Shackleton had spent time together in 1914 on the eve of the departure of
Endurance from Grytviken, but he couldn't place this filthy, bedraggled,
wasted figure before him.
"I know your voice. You're the mate of the Daisy," Sørlle hazarded.
"My name is Shackleton" came the response. At that, Sørlle is said to have
wept. Later, when the whalers heard of the crossing of the James Caird and
the traverse of South Georgia, they came to see him. One veteran of this
hard trade and raw, aching life said, in Norse, "These are men."
That evening, Worsley departed to rescue their stranded companions, but an
unexpected gale started to blow, much like ours, which would surely have
trapped them in the mountains had it caught them there.
The Laurel still stands offshore, waiting. Then suddenly, as quickly as it
blew in, the storm quiets and the sea is calm. After a 23-hour stay, we leave in a
zodiac at 10:00 a.m. Aboard the Laurel, the Chilean crew welcomes us warmly.
Guide Alex Taylor tells
us winds reached 108 mph last night, the worst in the last two years in South
Georgia—and the worse he has ever experienced, even during his years on a s
cientific base on the Antarctic continent. We are grateful to be off terra
firma and back on board the ship, sheltered from the austral spring.
A zodiac picks up the stranded party
after their overnight ordeal. Clockwise from lower left, Sandi Sissel, Steve
Stoke, John Mack, Paul
Marbury, Simon Abrahams, Rob Forster, and Mark Holden-Hindley.
Kelly Tyler is Online Producer for NOVA.
Question of the Day
You're navigating the modern British naval icebreaker, HMS Endurance. You've got to pilot the ship through brash ice or a tabular berg. Which do you choose?
Answer to November 1 Question of the Day:
Your transcontinental journey will be 1,700 miles. The maximum daily distance traveled by the most accomplished explorers is 15-20 miles. The daily food supply for a dog sled party of three men weighs exactly two pounds per man. Your team will also need to pull a sled and essential equipment weighing 180 pounds. Past expeditions have found that the maximum weight a dog sled party can carry is 150 pounds. Is this a good plan? If you don't think so, what would you try?
The math will give you a head start in figuring out what you'll need:
1,700 miles/15 miles per day=113 days
6 lbs. x 113 days = 678 lbs. + 180 = 858 lbs./3 men = 286 lbs. per man.
1,700 miles/20 miles per day=85 days
6 lbs. x 85 days = 510 lbs. + 180 = 690 lbs./3 men = 230 lbs. per man.
Many polar explorers have relied on a second party to lay depots up to the Pole so that they can travel with fewer supplies and hence less weight. This was Shackleton's Ross Sea party plan (see Shackleton's Lost Men), and also the strategy of Sir Vivian Fuchs and Sir Edmund Hillary for their successful transcontinental crossing.
Sound of the Day
Katabatic winds howl:
Get RealPlayer software
View Expedition Maps
Survival Training (October 19, 1999)
The James Caird Embarks (October 21, 1999)
The Roaring Forties (October 23, 1999)
Crossing the Convergence (October 24, 1999)
Arriving in South Georgia (October 27, 1999)
Grytviken (October 28, 1999)
Antarctic Kit: Dressing for Survival (October 31, 1999)
Stromness (November 1, 1999)
Kingdom of Blizzards (November 3, 1999)
King Haakon Bay (November 5, 1999)
The James Caird Sets Sail (November 8, 1999)
Glacier Traverse (November 10, 1999)
Elephant Island (November 11, 1999)
Erebus and Terror Gulf (November 12, 1999)
The Weddell Sea (November 15, 1999)
Visions of Endurance (November 18, 1999)
Return to Elephant Island (November 20, 1999)
Lost at Sea (November 21, 1999)
The End of the Quest (November 24, 1999)
Bound for South Georgia (April 7, 2000)
Return to King Haakon (April 10, 2000)
Farewell to Peggotty Camp (April 12, 2000)
Climbing South Georgia (April 13, 2000)
Stromness Revisited (April 15, 2000)
Reflections on Endurance (April 18, 2000)
Photos: (1-4) Kelly Tyler.
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