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Shackleton's Voyage of Endurance
Farewell to Peggotty Camp
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 fury...
        —Frank Worsley
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 grass.

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.

Seals on beach 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.

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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.

Memory map 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 was vacant.

Hear Venables in RealAudio

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.

Hear Messner in RealAudio

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.

Glacier 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.

Hear Anker in RealAudio

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 satellite phone.

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.

Kelly Tyler is Online Producer for NOVA.
With reporting from Nick Lewis.

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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)

Images: (1-3) Kelly Tyler; (4) From South by Ernest Shackleton; (5) Alex Taylor.

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