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Shackleton's Voyage of Endurance
Climbing South Georgia
I do not like to set any bounds to the limit of human endurance.
        —Ernest Shackleton
It had been 17 months and some 1,500 miles since Shackleton's ship the Endurance was crushed by the inexorable pack ice of the Weddell Sea. Rescue for his men left behind on Elephant Island was within his grasp; another 22 miles as the crow flies, and he would arrive in the whaling station of Stromness. But to reach this tiny outpost on the north coast of South Georgia Island, Shackleton, Frank Worsley, and Tom Crean would first have to traverse mountains and glaciers considered impassable. On May 19, 1916, they began their trek into the interior, leaving this letter with Chippy McNeish, who would remain behind at Peggotty Camp with two other crewmen:

May 18th, 1916
South Georgia

I am about to try to reach Husvik on the East Coast of this island for relief of our party. I am leaving you in charge of the party consisting of Vincent, McCarthy & yourself. You will remain here until relief arrives. You have ample seal food which you can supplement with birds and fish according to your skill. You are left with a double-barrelled gun, 50 cartridges—40 to 50 Bovril sledging rations, 25 to 30 biscuits: 40 Streimer Nutfood. You also have all the necessary equipment to support life for an indefinite period in the event of my non-return. You had better after winter is over try and sail around to the [north] coast. The course I am making towards Husvik is East magnetic.

I trust to have you relieved in a few days.

Yours faithfully,

E.H. Shackleton

Shackleton's unspoken words, understood by the entire party, were that he doubted the 22 men left behind on Elephant Island would survive another winter.

On Tuesday night, Reinhold Messner, Stephen Venables, and Conrad Anker camped to the northwest of Shackleton Gap, the mountain pass roughly midway between King Haakon and Possession Bays. They had planned to rise Wednesday morning at 3:00 a.m. to begin their approach to Trident Ridge, but it was not to be. Cinematographer and mountaineer Mike Graber, who, along with two mountain guides, accompanied the three climbers to the Trident before backtracking with the guides to the camp, recounted the story as soon as he returned:

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We set our alarms for 3:00 a.m. local time, and at 3 a.m. it was obvious that no one was going anywhere. Because the tents were being pelted by sleet, and it was so windy that it was tearing up little grains of ice off the glacier and blowing those. So everyone tried to sleep, and we looked at it every hour after that. At 3 a.m., again at 4 a.m., 5 a.m., 6 a.m., there was no improvement until about 8 am this morning. At that point everyone brewed up and drank some tea and ate some oatmeal, and the weather kept improving, although overcast and very stormy, slate grey clouds were going across the sky all morning and all day. But we did have visibility, so the climbers at that point decided to push for it. At 10 a.m. they decided to push to get over the Crean Glacier. So they left at 11, and right out of camp there was a heavily crevassed area they were able to find a way through, a second heavily crevassed area about half a mile long right at the base of the slope leading up to the Trident, the three peaks. And they got to the Col [gap] at 1:45 p.m. local time—let's see, that's 2 hours 45 minutes from this camp here at Shackleton Gap.

Trident Conrad Anker (left) and Stephen Venables (right) assess the route to the Trident Ridge.
For Shackleton, Worsley, and Crean, the start was a story of agonizing frustration. For several hours, they climbed steadily, reaching an elevation of 2,000 feet, their malnourished, frostbitten bodies racked with the ache of the unaccustomed exertion. When dawn broke, they puzzled over a lake in the distance, glinting in the morning sun. To their bitter disappointment, they realized their inaccurate chart had steered them wrong; it was Possession Bay, and they had cut over to the coast too soon. Convoluted with glaciers and precipices, the north coast would not allow passage on foot. So they retreated reluctantly into the interior to drive further southeast; hope burned in Shackleton's breast that

news of the outside world awaited us there, and above all, the east coast meant for us the means of rescuing the twenty-two men we had left on Elephant Island.

Eight hours into their traverse, Shackleton and his men reached their first obstacle, the 4,400-foot peaks of the Trident Ridge.

Hear Graber in RealAudio

Shackleton aimed for the lowest of the three passes, hoping there was a route there. As it turns out, on the Crean Glacier side is very, very steep. Then, they came to the next pass to the left, but that had a big crevasse in it, and in fact it's full of crevasses today. But from that pass, from the middle pass, if they looked to the north, where the next pass is, they could see most of that slope and they must at that time have seen that there was enough snow to take them all the way down to the Crean Glacier. Today when we look at that, there are maybe 100 crevasses that stretch all the way across the route that Shackleton took, and I think it's just a result of the glacier flow maybe receding and cracking up then on the upper part of it.

Three agonizing times, Shackleton and his three men made the slow ascent to what appeared to be passes, only to find precipitous drops on the other side. Slowly and wearily retreating, again cutting steps to the heights with the carpenter's adze, their hopes were dashed. Finally, on the fourth ascent, they chose well. But a new danger loomed before Shackleton:

We were now up to 4,500 feet and the night temperature at that elevation would be very low. We had no tent and no sleeping-bags, and our clothes had endured much rough usage and had weathered many storms during the last ten months.

Interior The peaks of the Trident Ridge rise to 4,400 feet.
To him, there was no choice. They coiled the rope, and placing it under them, they sledded down the unknown slope. Half expecting to shoot into a sheer drop, they instead landed in a snowbank, having descended about 900 feet in two to three minutes. They were safe from the mountain's freezing night embrace. For a mountaineer like Graber, such a maneuver is unthinkable:

Hear Graber in RealAudio

I think it was sheer desperation... It wasn't sort of a suicidal move, because I think from their second pass they would have looked over and seen the slopes, and at that time they must have seen it was possible. Today it would be suicide. You would die if you did what Shackleton did. But he must have come over there, it was pitch black, it was nighttime, and he must have thought if we're going to do this, let's, we're going to need God's help to help us along and so whatever happens, happens here. That was an act of unbelievable, indescribable desperation in my mind, in the view of a mountaineer anyway.

Throughout the morning, Messner, Venables, and Anker confronted 30-50 mph winds on their ascent toward the Trident Ridge. With their legendary mountaineering expertise, they had no difficulty identifying the pass between the peaks that afforded the best descent to the Crean Glacier below. Still, their chosen path was so technically difficult it would have been unthinkable to Shackleton and his men:

Hear Graber in RealAudio

Well, this particular slope that drops down to the Crean Glacier, it's at about a 45-degree angle, and it's a mixture of about two inches of rain-aged or rain-hardened snow on top of ice. So the climbers needed crampons and ice axes and they were roped together and, were they to slip, you would immediately start sliding out of control, and below you, are these giant chasms that stretch across. They're anywhere from three feet to 25 feet wide. So for you to slip at the top of this, you would quickly lose control and slide into one of these chasms and probably be killed. So the challenge then, when we come to one of these giant crevasses or cracks, the climbers have to move either right or left to try to find a route around them. And at the very end, they told us via radio, that they were lucky because they got to one crevasse, and they couldn't find a way across it. The bottom was too deep for them to rappel into the bottom of it because their rope, I think, was only about 100 feet, and it wouldn't reach the bottom. But some ice blocks had recently avalanched into the narrowest section of it, and that effectively made a bridge for them that they could rope across, and once they got across that critical crevasse, they were able to then reach easier, lower-angle terrain that lead right down onto the western end of the Crean Glacier.

So it was pretty grim, but they quickly moved through there, and starting down then on the Crean Glacier side, they immediately had to start zigzagging back and forth, because it's extremely crevassed. It took them quite a while—over an hour—to find a route through the crevasses. We last saw them on the Crean Glacier—they dropped down, and they waved to us on the Crean Glacier. That's when we turned around and left, knowing that it would be dark by the time we got back here to this camp at Shackleton Gap.

Reaching the Crean Glacier—later named for Tom Crean—Shackleton and his men trudged onward:

Night was upon us, and for an hour we plodded along in almost complete darkness, watching warily for crevasses. Then about 8 p.m., a glow which we had seen behind the jagged peaks resolved itself into the full moon, which rose ahead of us and made a silver pathway for our feet. Along that pathway in the wake of the moon we advanced in safety, with the shadows cast by the edges of crevasses showing black on either side of us....The friendly moon seemed to pilot our weary feet.

South Georgia glaciers Since Shackleton's time, the glaciers of South Georgia have receded and become heavily crevassed.
But night falls at about 6:00 p.m. for Messner, Venables, and Anker, and the feeble light of the moon at just over half phase is curtained by cloud cover.

Hear Graber in RealAudio

This has been Reinhold's and Conrad's and Stephen's concern all along. If they have no visibility like we have here at Shackleton Gap this morning, there's no chance that they can progress. The terrain is so crevassed, they need to see a ways so that they can see when they come to a crevasse if they need to go right around it or left around it. So if the visibility goes to zero, then they're stuck. They are there until they get a window, a window break in the weather.

The most recent weather forecast that we got off the boat was this morning, and it showed that today would be the best of the next four days. And that was also a big reason why the climbers left today, because they don't need perfect weather, but they need visibility. Without visibility, they're stuck. So they took advantage of today, which was cloudy and started out very stormy and windy, but the ceiling was about 1,000 feet above us here, so they were able to negotiate their way along the glacier and get over the Trident.

Grass Island The climbers' destination, Stromness, is located at the head of Stromness Bay, opposite Grass Island. Shackleton's final obstacle was the mountain ridge to the right.
Wednesday night, the ship steams around to Fortuna Bay, where Mike Graber will hike in with field staff to await the passage of the climbers. But first, Messner, Venables, and Anker will have to cross the Crean and the Fortuna Glaciers.

Kelly Tyler is Online Producer for NOVA.

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

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