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Shackleton's Voyage of Endurance
Glacier Traverse
November 10, 1999
By Kelly Tyler

Location: Drake Passage Wind: 20 knots, NNW
Latitude: 55 degrees 17'S Air Temp: 31°F
Longitude: 36 degrees 53'W Water Temp: 37°F
Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you.
        —T. S. Eliot, "The Wasteland"
It was a wide, rocky strand, populated by a raucous colony of elephant seals. High above the sound on both sides were blue crystalline glaciers, like some mighty river rapids frozen as they flowed through the black mountains of South Georgia. Sounds like thunder and shotgun cracks resounded uneasily, then a serac collapsed and tumbled down the glacier face.

Shuleykin in Haakon Bay The Shuleykin anchored in King Haakon Bay for filming.
Tracing the end of King Haakon Bay in a zodiac, Tim Carr and director George Butler recognized Peggotty Bluff and the beach below from Shackleton's description. (See QTVR of Peggotty Camp.) This is the place he left his three ailing men, Chippy McNeish, Tim McCarthy, and John Vincent, to recover while he, Frank Worsley, and Tom Crean set out to trek across the seemingly impenetrable mountains and glaciers of the island's interior to reach help. It was the only choice he could imagine. "Over on Elephant Island, 22 men were waiting for the relief that we alone could secure for them," he wrote. "Their plight was worse than ours. We must push on somehow." Their incredible boat journey had landed them, against all odds, on South Georgia. But it was the uninhabited south side, where no one would ever find them. The few inhabitants lived on the north side, in a handful of whaling stations. The men were too spent to sail north again.

It seems improbable that Worsley, having just completed perhaps the most daunting open-boat journey of all time across 800 miles of the storm-tossed Drake Passage, could be intimidated by anything. But the mountains and glaciers ahead were foreboding to this man of the sea, who later wrote in his book Shackleton's Boat Journey:
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 and snow.
Penguin Current residents of Peggotty Camp include gentoo penguins, which Shackleton's men depended upon for sustenance.
Just days ago, our film crew ventured east from Peggotty Bluff, following in the footsteps of Shackleton, who ascended a great glacier at the termination of the sound with his companions. Shackleton's men travelled as lightly as possible, risking all to travel more quickly: three days' food, no sleeping bags, a Primus stove, rope, and an adze to chop ice. Our crew landed survival gear to camp for several days, in case the forbidding weather trapped them on land. This time there would be no shelter, as there was at Stromness (see Kingdom of Blizzards).

Mountain guides Simon Abrahams and Nick Lewis, both longtime mountaineers, led the way, reading the glacier to identify the safest area for filming. "A glacier is like a flowing river, and stresses develop where it's squeezed around obstacles," says Abrahams, a climber for 16 years. "Crevasses tend to occur around these stress areas and get concealed by snow bridges." For filming, they chose a location close to the windward edge of the glacier that would consist of compacted snow, and they looked for the tell-tale discoloration and shallow dipping of snow covering crevasses. The film crew—cinematographer Reed Smoot, Scott Hoffman, and Tim Lovasen—climbed steps cut with an ax up to a chiseled filming platform, where they were clipped to ice screws for safety.

IMAX filming The large-format film crew shoots on a glacier bordering King Haakon Bay (left to right, Dominic Cunningham-Reid, Tim Lovasen, Scott Hoffman, Simon Abrahams, Reed Smoot, and George Butler).
The three climbers, dressed in period costume, roped themselves together tautly to minimize falls. Lewis led the way, breaking the snow surface ahead with a walking stick to feel for depth. Suddenly, the stick broke through, and Lewis called a halt to filming while he explored the surrounding area. It was a crevasse; he edged off and steered them in another direction. Filming continued safely, and King Haakon's changeable weather lulled enough to allow the crew to get back to the Shuleykin for the night.

Our brief foray was but the beginning of Shackleton's long journey. With their minimal equipment, including screws that McNeish drove into the soles of their shoes, Shackleton and his two companions labored exhausted almost 30 miles over unthinkably difficult terrain. "By our standards, they weren't very well equipped or trained, but they did pretty well," says Abrahams. "They had good judgment and incredible luck." Shackleton, for his part, attributed their astonishing success to something else: "I know that during that long and racking march of 36 hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia, it seemed to me often that we were four, not three." Worsley and Crean, uncannily, felt the same. When T. S. Eliot read Shackleton's account, he was inspired to write the passage at the head of this dispatch.

Three climbers Nick Lewis leads Chad Burtt and Bob Wallace up the glacier to recreate Shackleton's climb for the large-format film.
We are now at sea again, sailing southwest into the heart of the Drake Passage. The sun sets well after 10 p.m., with a lingering band of coral haze limning the wide sea. The presence of South Georgia's only permanent residents, Tim and Pauline Carr, warmed and animated the island. There will be no human company where we are going.

Kelly Tyler is Online Producer for NOVA.

Question of the Day
Your ship is sinking. What kind of supplies do you try to salvage from the ship first?

Check our next dispatch for an answer from guest commentator Lt. Jonathan Fuller, RN, Hydrographic Survey Operations Officer aboard HMS Endurance.

    Previous Questions

Answer to November 8 Question of the Day:
Your ship is sinking. The commander of the expedition allows each crewmember to take two pounds of personal items each, in addition to essential clothing. What do you take with you?

Knowing how difficult it would be for his men to discard precious possessions, Shackleton set an example at the outset. With his men assembled around him, he threw his gold watch and several gold coins onto the ice, along with his silver brushes and dressing cases. He even discarded the ship's Bible, having torn out the Twenty-third Psalm and the following verses from Job:
Out of whose womb came the ice?
And the hoary frost of Heaven, who hath gendered it?
The waters are hid as with a stone
And the face of the deep is frozen.

Sound of the Day
Gentoo penguins calling:
    RealAudio: 28.8 | ISDN | 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: (1,2) Kelly Tyler; (3,4) Rob Meyer.

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