That was all of tangible things; but in memories we were
We had pierced the veneer of outside things. We had "suffered,
starved and triumphed, grovelled down yet grasped at glory, grown bigger in the bigness of
the whole." We had seen God in his splendours, heard the text that Nature
renders. We had reached the naked soul of man.
Between April 12 and April 14, mountaineers Reinhold Messner, Stephen Venables,
and Conrad Anker traversed the remote subantarctic island of South Georgia.
Eighty-four years ago, Ernest Shackleton, Frank Worsley, and Tom Crean crossed
the island, whose mountains and glaciers were deemed impassable, to save their
companions stranded on Elephant Island. It was a breathtaking feat, all the
more astounding for what had come before: Marooned in the Antarctic for 17
months, Shackleton and his men sailed 800 miles in an open lifeboat to arrive
at South Georgia. He was certain of how they had fared so well, later writing:
"I do not wish to belittle our success with the pride that apes humility. Under
Providence we had overcome great difficulties and dangers...."
Stephen Venables, Reinhold Messner, and Conrad Anker arrived at the
Stromness Manager's Villa after the traverse.
Providence was not always so kind. Shackleton, Worsley, and Crean couldn't know
that, during their ordeal, a handful of men struggled with their same lot. As
the Caird braved the Drake Passage, a ship called the Argos that
was bound for South Georgia never arrived. When whalers returned in the spring
to the seasonal whaling station near the mouth of Possession Bay, they found
seven improvised beds and, nearby, a body. Later, wreckage from the
Argos washed up in King Haakon Bay. No one has ever solved the mystery,
but it is thought that the doomed argonauts groped their way toward salvation
along Shackleton's route and failed in the attempt.
As they marked time in Peggotty Camp, waiting for the weather to turn to allow
passage into the interior, Shackleton mused with Worsley over the appearance of
ship's flotsam in King Haakon Bay: "Someday, Skipper, you and I will come and
dig here for old treasure, or perhaps sleep quietly with the other old seamen."
As time slipped away, anxiety for the men on Elephant Island darkened his mood,
and he vowed: "I will never take another expedition, Skipper." But the Sirens
of the South proved too strong. Six years later, he returned to South Georgia
aboard Quest. While she waited in Cumberland Bay to carry him once more
to the Antarctic, his troubled heart failed. Today, Shackleton sleeps quietly,
along with the sage whalers of the Southern Ocean, in the cemetery at Grytviken.
The climbers visit Shackleton's grave in Grytviken.
In tribute, their names are forever graven on the forbidding landscape of South
Georgia—Shackleton Gap, the Crean Glacier, Mount Worsley. Thoughts of the men
were everpresent in the minds of Messner, Venables, and Anker as they retraced
those historic footsteps. As the Akademik Shuleykin sits at anchor off
Grytviken the climbers share their reflections on
Ernest Shackleton will go down in history as a climber. Since I followed his
route across South Georgia, I know what this man was capable of. We three—Stephen, Conrad, and I—have climbed in Alaska, the Alps, and the Himalayas;
we have crossed glaciers and summited big mountains. Together we have many
decades of experience, and even then we had to draw upon all of our instincts
and endurance to cross the cut-up glaciers between King Haakon Bay and
Stromness. On the Crean glacier, the situation was so hopeless that we thought
we would be unable to get through this ice labyrinth. Even then we had
crampons, ice screws, ice tools, and a super-light climbing rope. Shackleton
and his men had none of this equipment. They had only the direction and the
obligation to reach Stromness, the next human outpost, their last hope after 17
months on the ice. This relief was five mountain ridges away.
Unlike us, they had no idea of the difficulties and danger that lay ahead of
them on this last leg of their odyssey. Shackleton realized only that he had to
bring help to the 27 men waiting in miserable conditions at the end of the
world. The self-rescue of the Endurance expedition is a timeless story
of a born loser who in the worst failure grew out of himself, made the going
home of his men a victory of human endurance, innate risk management, and
supreme trust. Shackleton in this saga is the born leader with a heart the size
of a mine, who would rather die than become a tragic hero.
Because of the uncertainty of what might happen next—disorientation,
starvation, freezing in the polar night, hopelessness—the overall sanity of
the group was often in a delicate balance between fatalism and duty.
Shackleton's personality was so strong that he combined these two emotions in a
common hope. The crossing of South Georgia is only the dot on the "i" of a
series of risky steps, mastered obstacles on a long journey back to
Shackleton, who initially set out to best the famous Robert Falcon
Scott who was driven by ego, would become a hero
in a battle with no chance of success. The only possibility to not go crazy
after his total failure was the determination to return home. On this retreat
he regained the self-worth that Scott had taken away during the 1902
The story of Shackleton, who led his men from an ice prison in the south to
freedom in the north, continually at the human limit of suffering and
struggling, is a singular example in the whole of human history. This story
would not be possible in our time. I think that experiences like this are not
even imaginable, so large was the exposure for such a length of time.
I first read about Shackleton's epic crossing of South Georgia 30 years ago,
and ever since then I have wondered what those glaciers are really like. Now at
last I have had the chance to find out.
Stephen Venables and Reinhold Messner pause during the crossing of the Crean
When we set off from King Haakon Bay on Tuesday afternoon, the initial
impression was of a gentle, benign landscape. The sun was shining, the glacier
surface was smooth, and it only took an hour or so to reach the broad saddle of
the Shackleton Gap and see over to the water of Possession Bay, which, in the
moonlight, Shackleton and his companions initially mistook for a great frozen
lake. Then, in the morning, reality began to kick in. The climb up to the first
big transverse ridge was longer than I expected, the crevasses bigger and more
threatening than I had ever imagined. But it was thrilling to see the four
notches in the ridge, described so precisely by Frank Worsley all those years
ago, and the huge windscoop at the side of the glacier, which he said would
easily swallow up two battle cruisers. Unlike Shackleton, we chose the third,
not the fourth notch, and set off down the east side. It must have been nearly
1,000 feet down to the Crean Glacier. At one point, zigzagging cautiously
between giant crevasses, Reinhold said "We are in a trap" but then he headed
over to the right, shouting "Maybe I can smell a way." With uncanny skill, he
did manage to find a way out to the bottom. Looking back up at the slope which
Shackleton and his companions had glissaded down, we knew that if we had tried
to slide the same way, all three of us would have been killed. Even allowing
for the fact that glacial recession has made the slope much more fractured, we
were still amazed by Shackleton's boldness in 1916, launching himself with
Worsley and Crean down that huge slope, without being able to see the bottom.
The Crean Glacier proved to be a labyrinth, a crisscross mesh of deep blue
crevasses. Just before nightfall Reinhold broke his foot jumping over one of
them. Most people would have stopped to discuss rescue possibilities. He just
carried on through the pain, insisting on getting as far as we could before
darkness forced us to stop and camp on the ten-foot square top of a giant ice
Crammed into the tent, warmed by the roar of the pressure stove, sharing soup,
bread, Tyrolean dried pork and a hip flask of Calvados, I thought of Shackleton
travelling without a tent, knowing that if his party were caught out by a
blizzard they would probably die. Our journey was no desperate rescue mission,
and we had all the benefits of modern equipment. Even so, I like to think that
we recaptured something of the spirit of Shackleton's crossing. Despite the
tent, we travelled light and moved fast. There was the same camaraderie and
implicit trust that sustained Shacketon's team. I had heard all about Conrad's
extraordinary climbs. I had known about Reinhold ever since I started climbing
25 years ago. Now here I was, sharing a great adventure with these two people,
knowing that Conrad would find the best route out of the labyrinth—which he
did the next morning.
On that third day, it was thrilling to cross the highest pass, by the "great
domed rock" where Shackleton's team stopped at midnight to gaze down into what
they first thought was Stromness Bay and later realized was actually Fortuna
Bay. We left that final leg of the journey for the next day, coming down
suddenly from a maelstrom of swirling snow to warm sunshine, green moss, and
the joyful trumpeting of penguins on the beach. By this stage Shackleton's men
had already heard the factory whistle at the whaling station, and I could
imagine their mounting excitement as they forced themselves on over the final
low ridge separating them from Stromness Bay. After three days of keeping up
with Anker and Messner (even with a broken foot he moves fast!) I was feeling
quite tired and sore. I felt as though I had covered a huge chunk of difficult
,wild complex country, even though I had had two good nights sleep on the way.
In 1916 they had done the whole thing nonstop. They must have been so exhausted
on this final stretch, driven just by the euphoria of success. In the whole
history of adventure and exploration, there is no more moving incident than the
moment when they reached the final pass and looked down into Stromness Bay.
When we got there I reminded Conrad that this was where Shackleton's men shook
hands for the third time on their traverse. Now there were no steamships in the
bay, no workers on the shore, but we could see some of the same buildings of
Stromness, bathed in sunlight, 1,500 feet
below. That view—that moment of knowing that he had made it, at the end of
his 17-month odyssey, defying probability again and again, surviving against
all the odds—must have been the greatest moment in Shackleton's life.
Messner, Venables, and Anker descend from Trident Ridge.
Eighty-four years have passed since Shackleton, Worsley and Crean traversed
from Peggotty Bluff in King Haakon Bay to the Stromness whaling station. The
traverse of the uncharted area led to the eventual rescue of the 22 men
stranded on Elephant Island. What has changed since 1916?
Perhaps what hasn't changed is more fitting. The constant force of the weather,
lashing in from the South Atlantic, remains the same. South Georgia in the fall
is a dismal, wet place. Rain, snow, wind, sleet, fog, and blizzards move
through with alarming frequency. Sunshine, the elixir of the spirit, is a rare
treat—something that neither Shackleton nor I and my teammates, Stephen
Venables and Reinhold Messner, had very much of.
The physical terrain we traversed is vastly drier than what Shackleton
experienced. To glissade sitting on a coiled rope from the Trident Col, as
Shackleton and his men did, would in today's conditions be disastrous. The
warming our planet has undergone has transformed the Crean Glacier into a
checkerboard of crevasses. The terrain we crossed would not be possible with
the equipment Shackleton, Worsley, and Crean had at their disposal. The
crevasses required climbing techniques that were not developed until after the
Second World War.
Communication is the most dramatic change from my perspective. In this day and
age of satellite mapping, communication, and support, there is little we did
not know about the traverse before setting off. The same machines that allow
this correspondence remove the element of the unknown from any adventure we
embark on. To make it a challenge we eschew the use of radios, GPS devices, and
emergency back-up. Shackleton, as much as he would have wished for it, had none
of this. For all his compatriots in England knew he was sledging to the Ross
Sea. The rescue back-up these men had was their own will and determination. The
remoteness Shackleton experienced will never be possible: We have simply mapped
and researched every nook and cranny on our planet.
The story of the Endurance is, with out question, one of the most
riveting tales of adventure ever. Although Shackleton never attained the goal
he set out on, something greater than crossing the Antarctic continent resulted
from the tribulations of 28 men. The ability to persevere, to keep trying in
the face of insurmountable odds, and the tenacity of the human body and spirit
are vital lessons that supersede time. May the will and determination of
Shackleton motivate our own actions.
Conrad Anker and Reinhold Messner continue filming on a South Georgia glacier.
Note: Although this is the final dispatch of the Online Adventure, the
expedition will remain at South Georgia several more days to finish up filming
before heading back on April 21st to Montevideo, Uruguay.