Terrific gales scourge the coasts of this Ice-land of the South, and
on the ranges and uplands the storm demons work their wild will and wreak their
For 12 long days, they waited. Ernest Shackleton, Frank Worsley, and Tom Crean,
along with their three companions, waited on a gravel beach in King Haakon Bay
and longed in vain for the capricious weather of South Georgia Island to calm
long enough to allow a crossing. At night, they huddled under the lifeboat
James Caird, fashioned into a crude hut with moraine rocks and tussock
As dawn broke on Tuesday, Conrad Anker, Stephen Venables and Reinhold Messner
rose at their camp and they, too, awaited the vagaries of weather. After a
night of heavy downpours, 20-knot winds raked King Haakon Bay, and clouds and
dense mist shrouded the peaks of the interior. On the site of Shackleton's
Peggotty camp, named for the proprietor of the boat-cum-house in Dickens'
David Copperfield, they marked time and rechecked their gear. In a few
hours, they hoped to strike out across the mountains and glaciers of the
island, to replicate Shackleton's desperate traverse. The large-format film
crew, which will document scenes from the climb, joined them.
Elephant seals loll on Peggotty Beach, with the saddle of Shackleton Gap
visible on the horizon.
Shackleton, Worsley, and Crean were not alone. Carpenter Chippy McNeish, bo'sun
John Vincent, and able seaman Tim McCarthy sailed the 800 miles to South
Georgia in the Caird, but would remain behind at Peggotty. All
but Vincent busied themselves with preparing the party of three for the
traverse; the agony of 16 days at sea had rendered Vincent virtually catatonic.
McNeish's ingenuity was strained to compensate for the lack of mountaineering
gear. The man who made the Caird seaworthy for its epic journey,
hand-sewing frozen sails and caulking gaps with seal's blood and paint, now set
to crafting their tools. He drove wood screws pulled from the Caird
through the soles of their worn leather boots to provide purchase on the
treacherous ice. Lengths of lath from the decking of the Caird, torn in
turn from their land sledges, became staffs; his cherished adze became an ice
ax. Ninety feet of salvaged rope would serve for belaying. Aside from these
vital tools, Shackleton insisted on travelling light for speed: They would only
carry three days' food, a stove, binoculars, and 48 matches. Worsley's diary
was the sole concession to needs beyond stark survival.
Shackleton, Worsley, and Crean weren't mountaineers as we know it. They were
seamen and they were polar explorers, but they weren't climbers per se, by the
same measure that Stephen and Reinhold and myself are. They went at it very
light, they had a rucksack, had a little bit of food, a small rope, and a
carpenter's adze, and they made the traverse quite quickly. And in doing so
they didn't set up any camps, they didn't carry a bunch of heavy equipment. In
the parlance of climbing, this is known as alpine style, where you go with a
very light amount of gear, and you make a very quick dash. One of the mottos of
it is that speed is safety, and if you go slow you have to take more gear, and
you're susceptible to catching a storm halfway, and it makes it far more
complicated. Even though they didn't know it, they did it in alpine style,
which was quite ahead of the time, and I don't believe they set out and said
"We'll do it alpine style, it's more sporting that way," which is the main
reason why people go climbing now, which is to make it more of an adventure.
They did it out of necessity. They had to get to Stromness, they had to effect
a rescue and to get their comrades off Elephant Island and back to safety. So
it was a matter of necessity that they went fast.
Shackleton drew this map of the route from memory. Husvik and Stromness
should be labelled vice versa; the contour of the coast is incorrect, there is
no bay immediately west of Fortuna Bay. See larger version.
So equipped, in the early hours of May 19, 1916, they rose to strike out into
the unknown. No one had ever explored or surveyed the interior of South
Georgia. Whalers in a handful of seasonal whaling stations clung to the
northern coast, but none ventured inland. For orienteering, Worsley had two
compasses and a crude chart of the island, a blueprint with white tracery that
James Cook had sketched in 1775 and Wilhelm
Filchner had supplemented in 1911. Within these hypothetical borders, the map
What Shackleton and Worsley and Crean did in 1916 was a brilliant bit of
intuitive mountaineering. They sort of felt their way across these glaciers
without any map to guide them. All they had was a coastal chart with many
inaccuracies and their own visual memories of the island from 17 months ago on
their way out to the Weddell Sea. So it was a mixture of intuition, what they
could see on the ground, and these rather vague instructions from the chart.
That was what was so brilliant about what they achieved, they managed to find
the route across. Afterward they produced a sketch map of the route they'd
taken from memory, and the extraordinary thing now is that if you line up the
sketch map, which they did from memory, alongside the modern survey map which
shows all the details of the mountains, they're amazingly similar. It was an
incredible bit of navigation. So we have the benefit of a modern map showing
what the terrain is like, we also have the benefit of their sketch map and
their accounts. And the accounts are very precise, with certain precise
landmarks, like the ridge before Fortuna Bay when Worsley describes it as like
the gap left by a tooth being taken out. And so we're hoping that we will
actually recognize these landmarks as we come up to them. Because they did
leave this very clear account of what they did.
Worsley's diary and Shackleton's sketch—along with a modern chart of South
Georgia, elaborated by the dauntless surveying efforts of Duncan Carse in the
1950s—will guide Messner, Venables, and Anker as they retrace those
legendary footsteps of 1916. But in the constantly changing landscape, they,
too, are walking into the unknown, and will face the same hazards that
Shackleton and his men confronted.
Generally speaking, never in the mountains or in the ice can you exactly follow
the routes of the pioneers, because the weather is changing, snow conditions
are different. They are changing every month, every year, and in the meanwhile
over centuries, the climate changes, and we have to see how it is possible. It
will not be easy to cross this mountain range, but generally we will be on the
same way, because certain ridges we have to cross, otherwise it's not even
possible to go in this area. We think that it may be more difficult today to
cross this island, because snow is less and maybe the crevasses are much more,
but generally we go on this route and seeing his descriptions we will know
where Shackleton actually passed.
Everything is unknown, because here we are in the wilderness, or we are
approaching wilderness, so if the map done by Shackleton is right, from the
summits because the summits do not move, but the glaciers between the summits
are moving, ice is frozen water and also ice is moving. Moving means also that
forces are different, and crevasses are opening and closing, and this time of
the year, the snow on the crevasses is not yet frozen well in. Shackleton
probably had better snow conditions, and we should pay attention so that we
don't fall in crevasses, because it's a very hazardous thing.
Shackleton and his men waded the shores of King Haakon Bay to skirt the
snouts of glaciers en route to Shackleton Gap.
By early afternoon, the cloud cover receded and the winds fell to calm.
Cinematographer David Douglas, who once spent six months shooting on the island
for another film, declared it was the best weather he'd ever seen there. At
3:30 p.m. (18:30 GMT), Messner, Anker, and Venables departed and soon
disappeared from view. From Peggotty Camp, they will follow Shackleton's lead
to Possession Bay, and then on to the 4,000-foot peaks of the Trident Ridge.
From this high prospect, the climbers will get their first glimpse of what the
Crean Glacier holds in store; they expect a broken maze of crevasses.
On Friday morning, May 19, 1916, the weather finally cleared, and the moon rose
bright. At 2:00 a.m., they ate a meal of hoosh—stewed elephant seal—and
surveyed the scene before them. Frank Worsley observed in his diary:
This, with some glaciers, crevasses, treacherous frozen lakes,
cornice-concealed precipices, and deceptively accelerating ice slopes, was the
country that Shackleton proposed to cross, so we had to go warily—to pick a
day of finest, fairest weather, and a full moon to guide our steps by night.
Shackleton was extremely lucky in that they arrived and they were able to start
the departure of their traverse under a full moon, which gave them the ability
to travel at night. And they were also extremely lucky in having great weather,
some of the best weather that they'd had all fall, according to the whalers at
Stromness when they arrived. We'll be just about in the same time, a little bit
before the moon reaches its largest state, which will probably be the
18th or 19th of April, so we'll be a few days before
that, so we'll have the benefit of the moon, and, of course, we've got modern
devices like headlamps which give us a great ease of travel if it's dark. But
the moon overall is probably more important than having headlamps, because you
can see the big picture: where you need to go, if you need to sight off a gap,
and then how you can travel.
At 3:00 a.m., Shackleton, Worsley, and Crean left Peggotty Camp. McNeish and
McCarthy walked with them for 200 yards, until the debilitated carpenter could
hobble no more. And then with numb, aching limbs, the three men began their
ascent to the saddle in the ridge now known as Shackleton Gap, the moon
silvering the snows with a luminescent glow.
Nearly 84 years later, on April 11, the Akademik Shuleykin took leave of
Messner, Venables, and Anker at Peggotty Camp, steaming around to the north
coast to parallel their traverse by sea. The three climbers hoped to break camp
at 3:00 a.m. (6:00 GMT) and head for the notorious Trident Pass; during the
night, clouds descended and the wind rose to 25 knots. A northwesterly gale is
blowing in, expected to intensify on Thursday and Friday.Now, the
climbers are in the last moments of preparation before they leave at 11:00 a.m.
(14:00 GMT). True to Shackleton's spirit, the three men do not carry modern
navigational devices, instead relying on a simple compass, and will carry no
Today, as the traverse begins, cameraman Mike Graber will part from the
climbers and trek out to the ship waiting in Possession Bay to transmit news
from the interior to NOVA Online.