At 11:00 a.m. on April 12, in the teeth of a northwesterly gale, Reinhold Messner, Stephen Venables, and Conrad Anker descended the Trident Ridge, a range of 4,000-foot peaks overlooking the Crean Glacier. Four hours into their traverse of South Georgia Island, they surveyed the series of glaciers that would dominate their journey, 15 miles long as the crow flies:
And the glaciers have also much more crevasses. People who traversed this island in the last decade, they say so, and global warming—since the sea will surely be warmer than a century ago—is interfering. With glaciers more broken than in Shackleton's time, it means we have to maybe do a long way, long circuits around dangerous places.
(L to R) Messner, Anker and Venables walk across Murray Snowfield to reach Trident Ridge.
Yeah, we descended the Trident, and it was really broken up, far different than what Shackleton and Worsley and Crean experienced 84 years ago. The effects of global warming...there have been quite dramatic changes in the glaciers. And we went down, and we were making good time, so we got down to Crean Glacier, which was known to be quite cut up and difficult travelling, and we made it through there. About halfway through the very convoluted crosshatched, crevassed area, we have crevasses that run in both directions. So we had a checkerboard, if you can imagine, and each little checkerboard is a small pedestal of ice and then there's probably 10 to 15-meter-deep crevasses all around you. Travelling is not a matter of walking along a flat, it's weaving in and out of all these crevasses. And in the middle of all this is where we set up our first camp. And it was quite fine, it started out being overcast and it snowed, and then around 3:00 in the morning the snow turned into rain and the rain turned into wind.
Messner descends from Trident Ridge onto the Crean glacier.
In 1916, snow heavily blanketed the blue ice of the glacier. Clad in wet, weathered rags and smooth-soled shoes, Shackleton and his men plodded sometimes hip-deep, watching sharp-eyed for crevasses. Worsley thought that the largest could swallow a battleship. They had no tents or sleeping bags, but the light of the full moon guided their way through the night.
The tempestuous weather made it clear that Messner, Venables, and Anker would need to camp on the crossing. They carried a light tent, and by Thursday night, prepared to camp once again on the Crean Glacier.
We set off in the second day, and I was sort of thinking, "Well, how are we going to get out of here?" We were hidden in this labyrinth of ice. And we didn't know how long it was going to take to get through to the other side. But in fact, well, we had Conrad leading the way in front, and he's a brilliant route finder, and within an hour or two we got out of the worst of the most contorted area of the glacier and then things got a lot easier. And after a while we were walking along a fairly smooth surface. Then we got into another zone of crevasses, but it was easier terrain where you could zigzag backwards and forwards and find your way through.
And Reinhold was definitely the secret weapon.
And then we continued up over a big pass heading to the right of what Worsley and Shackleton described as the great dome-shaped nunatak. Nunatak is like a rock island coming up out of the ice. It's a huge landmark. It was very obvious that we were spot on the route. And we made our way past the nunatak, and again, there were more crevasses, and we were often having to zigzag back and forth to find a way through these caverns. And then we gradually started descending the far side, gently down onto Fortuna Glacier. And the thing that amazed me, was this big, big, mountain country and these glaciers, just stretching for a very long way and with descriptions from 1916 and with the help of a map, you have a pretty good idea of where you're going. But then you think, they were doing it effectively blind, and instincts and their memories of the island, and finding their way through. It's just staggering what a feat of navigation they achieved.
To the northeast, a glimpse of water shimmered. Shackleton, Worsley, and Crean joyously celebrated their arrival at Stromness Bay. But as they slogged onward, they realized the terrain was giving way to another glacier, the Fortuna. Their hopes were dashed as the end withdrew from their grasp and they continued in devastated silence. Twenty-six hours into the traverse, they had seemingly reached the bounds of their endurance. Malnourishment, frostbite, dehydration, and sheer exhaustion had taken their toll. They stopped for a respite from the raking winds and snow. In Shackleton's words,
Within a minute my two companions were fast asleep. I realized that it would be disastrous if we all slumbered together, for sleep under such conditions merges into death. After five minutes, I shook them into consciousness again, told them that they had slept for half an hour, and gave the word for a fresh start.
The Crean Glacier, with Antarctic Bay to the north and Fortuna glacier in the distance to the east.
On Friday morning, Messner, Venables and Anker woke at their camp on the Fortuna Glacier:
This morning we woke up to a very unique phenomenon—if you're in the mountains a lot you see it every now and then—it's a ground blizzard. Above us it was blue sky, but for probably the hundred meters above us it was blowing snow, which had been carried for a great distance, so it was very sharp and angular. It feels like little pins flying against your face. And it obstructs your vision, so you can't see where you're going. So every now and then you get a break in it and you have to get a point on the horizon to which you want to go, where we really didn't know exactly where we going to go. And we had to guess that the break would allow us safe passage off the Fortuna Glacier, and into Fortuna Bay. Travelling through all of this and then getting to the point where we were able to descend down into Fortuna Bay and then traverse along the horseshoe around Fortuna Bay and in front of the Konig Glacier and then up over the pass where Shackleton had gone and then down into Stromness.
Not long after they saw the distinctive z-shaped rock strata in the mountains above Stromness Bay, Shackleton hushed Worsley and Crean:
At 6:30 a.m. I thought I heard the sound of a steam-whistle. I dared not be certain, but I knew that the men at the whaling-station would be called from their beds about that time. Descending to the camp I told the others, and in intense excitement we watched the chronometer for seven o'clock when the whalers would be summoned to work. Right to the minute the steam-whistle came to us, borne clearly on the wind across the intervening miles of rock and snow. Never had any one of us heard sweeter music. It was the first sound created by outside human agency that had come to our ears since we left in December 1914.
But their trials were not over. The descent, from 2,000 feet, would not be easy. With adze and rope, they picked their way laboriously downward. Signs of habitation tantalized them along the way, first reindeer tracks, then the glorious sight of a whale-boat in Stromness Bay.
We had been out for three days, seeing this as the culmination of 17 months, this extraordinary odyssey. They defied all probability. (satellite interruption) Reinhold, Conrad, and I have all experienced very moving moments coming down from a great climb, and that feeling of catharsis and relief and euphoria. And even on this trip, after three days, it was very emotional seeing Stromness whaling station. And then thinking that those three men- they saw that after this incredible journey that lasted for 17 months and they realized they finally made it. It's almost beyond words to describe the euphoria they must have felt. I just always wondered... I mean, I've know about this story for fifteen years, I always wondered, well, what did it actually look like, when they looked down on the bay and saw the whaling station. And finally to see it for myself was fantastic.
The only way down for Shackleton and his two companions was through a swollen stream channel, through which they were forced to wade waist-deep, until it reached a 25-foot waterfall. One by one, they slid down the rope through the icy churning waters. Now, they threw caution to the winds, and discarded stove, adze, and rope one by one.
Messner, Venables, and Anker arrive in the abandoned whaling station of Stromness at 3:00 p.m. on Friday April 14.
"Shivering with cold, yet with hearts light and happy, we set off towards the whaling-station," Shackleton later wrote. Faced with civilization for the first time in 17 months, they realized with a start how they must look, hair long and matted, faces blackened with the sheen of blubber soot, clothing in rags. Worsley hastily produced some safety-pins and tried to pull his tatters together, to little avail, as two boys they encountered on the outskirts of Stromness fled in terror at the sight of them. Finally, their 36-hour journey ended at the manager's villa, where Shackleton had dined before leaving South Georgia aboard the Endurance. Mr. Sorlle, the manager, appeared.
"Well?" he asked.
"Don't you know me?" I said.
"I know your voice," he replied doubtfully. "You're the mate of the Daisy."
"My name is Shackleton," I said.
Immediately he put out his hand and said, "Come in. Come in."...Within an hour or two we had ceased to be savages and had become civilized men again.
Two hours later, a snowstorm curtained the island. They would have perished had they been delayed any longer on the traverse.
Shackleton, Worsley, and Crean were welcomed heartily by the whalers, who immediately sailed with Worsley for King Haakon Bay to pick up McNeish, McCarthy, and Vincent at Peggotty Camp. The relieved men didn't recognize Worsley in his groomed state. The whalers, hardened veterans of the Southern Ocean, vied for the honor of embarking the Caird, and carried her reverently aboard. That evening, they celebrated in Stromness. One whaler came forward, a wizened elder of the trade, and in his native Norse, spoke a paean to these sailors who forged the Drake Passage in the Caird, then crossed the forbidding island. With emotion, he said in tribute, "These are men."
The manager's villa in Stromness whaling station.
Yet Shackleton could not rest. Twice, he sailed aboard ships to Elephant Island, and twice the seas and inexorable pack ice turned these vessels back where the Caird had passed. Finally, on August 30, 1916, the Chilean ship Yelcho breached the island's frozen barricades, and Shackleton was reunited with his crew. He had saved every soul aboard the Endurance.
It was a moment hard to describe. Pain and ache, boat journeys, marches, hunger and fatigue seemed to belong to the limbo of forgotten things, and there remained only the perfect contentment that comes of work accomplished.
Aboard the Akademik Shuleykin on Friday evening, the climbers reflected on the traverse, as the ship swung and rolled at anchor in the buffeting winds.
Even in the most demanding climbs I've ever done I never got close to what these guys were doing. They were at the edge of what was humanly possible. They were out for so long and so far away. There were a few moments in climbing that were certainly serious, and that were very scary and full of adventure, but there's no way. What Shackleton and his crew endured is beyond what I think anyone nowadays would be able to do.
Well, Shackleton and Worsley both wrote about Providence smiling on them and about their good fortune. I think people make their luck through... it was their extraordinary ingenuity and determination and inspired leadership that those people ever got to South Georgia in the first place. And they certainly deserve that little bit of luck they had on the last leg of that incredible journey.
Note: Due to the storm at South Georgia, satellite communications were intermittent.
Check back on April 18 for final thoughts from Messner, Anker and Venables on their historic journey.