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Shackleton's Voyage of Endurance
Return to King Haakon
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 expedition
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.

Anker, Messner, and Venables 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.

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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 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.

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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.

Venables 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 up against:

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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.

South Georgia's mountains 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 and snow.

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 Ernest Shackleton.

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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:

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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 its reputation.

Kelly Tyler is Online Producer for NOVA.
With reporting from Alex Taylor.

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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: (1,3) Michael Graber; (2,4) Alex Taylor; (5) Kelly Tyler.

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