Men wanted: for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter
cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return
doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.
—Ernest Shackleton, recruiting ad for Endurance
Five days into the journey, the Akademik Shuleykin nears South Georgia
Island, slowed by crosscurrents off Argentina. The unpredictable Drake Passage
has been almost unnaturally calm, giving climbers Reinhold Messner, Conrad
Anker, and Stephen Venables and the film crew a chance to make final preparations
for the expedition. They will soon arrive in King Haakon Bay to begin their
climb, the same spot where Ernest Shackleton, Tom Crean, and Frank Worsley once
waited to begin their own traverse. On May 19, 1916, the three men stood on the
rocky, glacier-razed shores of the bay and gazed east, into the unknown
interior of South Georgia Island. Clad in worn shoes and rags, they had been
marooned for 17 months in the Antarctic. Alone, with no hope of rescue, they
journeyed 800 miles in a small wooden lifeboat across the most treacherous
waters on Earth to save their fellow crewmen. But their journey wasn't
over; first they would have to climb the mountains and glaciers of this
uncharted island, which most considered impassable.
Frostbitten, malnourished, and weak, they weren't mountaineers by any means,
but they were driven by a determination to save the men still on Elephant
Island. Crean and Shackleton were veterans of two polar expeditions; they first
met on Scott's 1901 Discovery
expedition. Worsley had done some climbing in the Alps and New Zealand, but his
home was the sea. He had just shown his seamanship to be breathtaking,
navigating the 21-foot James Caird over 800 miles across the Drake
Passage to land on South Georgia.
Conrad Anker, Reinhold Messner and Stephen Venables sail aboard the
Akademik Shuleykin to South Georgia Island.
As the Akademik Shuleykin plies the unpredictable waters of the Drake
Passage, just north of South Georgia, Messner, Anker, and Venables contemplate
Shackleton's South Georgia traverse. Messner has been called the world's
greatest living mountaineer, with some 100 first ascents in his career.
He was the first to climb all the world's 8,000-meter peaks (that is, those over about 26,400 feet).
In 1989-90, he
became the first to fulfill Shackleton's unrealized dream of crossing the
Antarctic continent on foot. Messner is awed by what Shackleton accomplished.
I put it all together at once, because I think the South Georgia traverse, like
we are doing it, is a very small part. He and his men, they were exposed for 17
months in the most difficult part of the world thinkable. And I'm still sure
that Shackleton's Endurance expedition with the sailing and dramatic
going home, was the greatest adventure ever, not only of the last century, it
was the greatest adventure ever. And it's very interesting to see how
Shackleton fails in his attempt to cross Antarctic continent, but it's more
interesting to see how he was able, with his perfect leadership, to bring home
his 28 men.
Anker checks his gear for the crossing.
Conrad Anker has made a specialty of climbing the most technically challenging
terrain, from the icefalls of Alaska and Antarctica to the big walls of
Patagonia, from mixed climbs in the Alps and Russia, to the massive peaks of
the Himalaya, to record-setting ascents in Yosemite. In May of 1999, as a
member of the Mallory & Irvine Research Expedition, Anker discovered the
body of George Mallory, who disappeared on Everest
in 1924. Anker has looked to Shackleton as an inspiration since he first read
the story as a boy.
The key inspiration I find in Shackleton is that the whole group stayed
together, they always had each other's safety in mind, they operated as a team.
And Shackleton was a leader who got in there and mingled with his crew and he
was part of it and shared the work load, he'd offer up food if someone needed
it, and he made very good decisions, there wasn't any aloofness or
stratification between the leaders and the people that were out there doing the
work, so he was part of the men and doing the classic leading by example. I
think there's a great lesson to be learned from that. I think that's probably
the most inspiration I draw from Shackleton.
Stephen Venables joins a training session for the climb.
Stephen Venables, too, first encountered Shackleton's story early in life. In
1988, Venables was part of a team pioneering a new route up Mt. Everest's
notorious Kangshung Face, and ultimately reached the summit alone with no
supplemental oxygen. He is not only renowned for his pioneering climbs in the
Andes and the Himalaya, he is a noted writer who has received literary awards
for his eloquent works on mountaineering. His childhood fascination with
Shackleton brought him to South Georgia in 1989. He knows well what the team is
I'm particularly happy to be coming to South Georgia because I came here 10
years ago, so I feel a particular fondness for the island. When I came here
10 years ago, we were exploring the southern end of the island and making
first ascents of the big peaks down towards the southern tip of the island,
so I haven't actually been on the terrain of Shackleton's traverse at the
northern end. But I've experienced the island and its incredible blizzards,
these blizzards that just seem to hit you from nowhere, and it's a very
dangerous changeable maritime climate. And there were times 10 years ago, we
had a tent destroyed by the wind, we had plastic storage barrels blow out to
sea, there was one occasion skiing along a glacier when we were being blown
flat on our faces and we had to take our skis off because we couldn't stay
upright in the wind. So I think I have a reasonable idea of what to expect.
And certainly that trip 10 years ago, that expedition that I was on,
reinforced my respect for what Shackleton and Worsley and Crean achieved in
crossing the island. And also reinforced the sense, that sense of Providence
which they mentioned in their accounts, Providence for once smiling on them
and giving them 36 hours of clear weather, the only clear weather break that
winter, which enabled them to make their crossing safely. It was a
combination of incredible determination, experience, leadership and that vital
bit of luck at the crucial moment.
The mountains of South Georgia's interior loomed large before Shackleton
and his men.
The storm-lashed crags loomed terrifyingly in the mind of Captain Frank Worsley,
a seaman at heart, as they waited for a break in the incessant stormy weather to
set out on the crossing:
The hell that reigns up there in heavy storms, the glee of the west gale
fiends, the thunderous hate of the grim nor'wester, the pitiless evil snarl of
the easterly gales, and the shrieks and howls of the southerly blizzards with
ever oncoming battalions of quick-firing hail squalls, followed by snow
squalls, blind a man or take away his senses. The wind fiends, thrown hissing,
snarling, reverberating from crag to crag, from peak to precipice, hurtle
revengefully on to the ice sheets, and clawing, biting, gouging, tear out great
chunks and lumps of ice to hurl them volcanically aloft in cloud dust of ice
The climbers are watching the weather closely; polar coordinator David
Rootes radios regularly for weather data from
stations along the Antarctic Peninsula and research ships like the RRS
First and foremost of the challenges that we'll be experiencing on the
Shackleton traverse will be the weather. The weather at these
latitudes is bad, particularly when you have a maritime climate, and you have
mountains that rise up to 2,900 meters, which is 9,600 feet at the summit of
Mt. Paget and this landmass creates quite a change in topography. Any moisture that's
coming there is going to be thrust up and resulting in strong winds and an
increase in precipitation. So the weather's going to be our main adversary.
After that, with the travel on the glacier, we need to be heads up about the
conditions we're going to be experiencing, the state of the crevasses as we
travel on them, and always being mindful of trying to weave the safest route possible
through the glaciers as we approach from King Haakon Bay to Stromness Bay.
But as with Shackleton and his men, time is precious:
We'll go there and have a few days to wait, maximum one week. We have to wait
for good weather, we have to wait for maybe a little bit of moonlight.
Shackleton had it to start very early, but you never know if maybe in the
middle of the traverse, mists are coming in, bad weather is coming in, so we
are stuck and have to wait, we have to hope the weather gets better, because
without visibility, at night and with mist, it's not possible to go on a broken
glacier. It's full of crevasses, it's too dangerous.
In the night, the Drake Passage suddenly bestirred itself to its accustomed fury, with
winds shrieking from the southwest at 45 knots and a steep swell breaking
over the bow. Now, bergy bits
clash against the
hull of the ship with a deep grinding metallic clang. At 8:30 Greenwich
Mean Time, there is a hushed dialogue in Russian among the Shuleykin's crew, as
their eyes remain riveted on the radar and the spotlight beam piercing the
dying darkness ahead for icebergs. The ship struggles to gain the northwest
corner of the island, but just 15 miles away, visibility is too poor for a
sighting. On the eve of the traverse, South Georgia Island gives a hint of
Kelly Tyler is Online Producer for NOVA.
With reporting from Alex Taylor.