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In the footsteps of Shackleton

My recent Antarctic trip allowed me a digression on South Georgia where I retraced part of Shackleton's epic crossing in 1916.

Crossing South Georgia

Blessed with good weather, the chance to retrace Shackleton's final walk to Stromness whaling station, and safety, was one I could not pass up. For Shackleton it was a 32 mile, 36 hour crossing of a mountainous island which no-one had ever done before. For me, it was an opportunity to follow in a hero's footsteps.

Shackleton had already led his men 346 miles from where their expedition ship The Endurance had sunk, to Elephant Island. By then, it had been 497 days since they had stood on land. He and five others (Frank Worsley the Endurance's captain, Tom Crean, John Vincent, Timothy McCarthy, and the carpenter Henry McNish) had then spent 15 days sailing 800 miles in a ship's lifeboat (the James Caird) from Elephant Island to South Georgia, where they hoped to get aid from whalers based there.

They landed on the south side of the island, in King Haakon Bay, after riding out a hurricane that sank a 500-ton steamer sailing from Buemos Aires to South Georgia. It had been an exceptional feat of seamanship. Unfortunately the whaling stations were on the north coast but Shackleton judged it imprudent to try and sail around. That meant that everyone's lives depended on a successful crossing of the mountainous interior to Stromness Bay, which held a number of whaling stations. Heading into the unknown, Shackleton blithely records in 'South', his record of the 1914-17 Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition, that "I planned...to be guided by the configuration of the country in the selection of a route". He selected Worsley and Crean to accompany him.

Shackleton had originally intended to take a sledge for their sleeping bags and other provisions but it became clear very early on that it would be impractical. They decided to leave it and their sleeping bags behind and carry only a bare minimum of materials for their survival, what Shackleton described as travelling "in very light marching order". They took a cooker and enough fuel for six hot meals only. It was truly 'march or die'. Indeed at one point on the walk, his companions fall asleep and Shackleton, realising if they all fall asleep they will never wake up, lets them sleep for five minutes and then wakes them assuring them they have had thirty minutes.

They set off on May 19th, 1916. As the crow flies, the distance they had to walk was seventeen miles, although they knew that would be unlikely. They ended up covering nearly twice this, across terrain that hardened Norwegian whalers considered inaccessible: "no man had ever penetrated a mile from the coast of South Georgia at any point". At one point on a glacier a fog descended and they roped together for safety. This also allowed them to use an old mountaineer's trick of using the front man as a human landmark for the rear man to steer a roughly straight course by.

En route they dealt with the heartbreak of thinking they were descending into Stromness Bay and then realising they were on Fortuna Glacier overlooking Fortuna Bay, the next bay east of Stromness. Sixty-six years later, a hardened troop of SAS soldiers, attempting to attack the Argentinians in Grytviken from an unexpected direction, would have to be rescued from the Fortuna Glacier in atrocious weather that caused one of the three attempted rescue helicopters to crash. In their poor physical condition, and with equipment only as sophisticated as boat screws in their boot soles for added traction, Shackleton and his men completed a trek that very few have repeated since, even with good nourishment, fitness and equipment. But then Shackleton knew that the lives of himself and 27 men depended on his success. As Apsley Cherry-Garrard so notably put it: "For a joint scientific and geographical piece of organization, give me Scott; for a Winter Journey, Wilson; for a dash to the Pole and nothing else, Amundsen: and if I am in the devil of a hole and want to get out of it, give me Shackleton every time" (The Worst Journey in the World).

Around 6 am on their second day they caught sight in the distance of the distinctive wave-like rock formations of the mountain side above Husvik Harbour. They shook hands. At 7 am they heard the distant, faint sound of the steam whistle summoning whalers to work at Stromness Bay. "Never had any one of us heard sweeter music". They still had some dangerous obstacles to overcome but by mid-afternoon they were introducing themselves to stunned Norwegian whalers at Stromness station. And by the time they returned to England, an epic of legendary endurance, determination and hardship overcome was indelibly inscribed in the annals of polar exploration. Shackleton had more than lived up to his family motto "Fortitudine vincimus". By Endurance we Conquer.

It was, many would argue, the high point of Antarctic exploration. It also marked the end of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration. Technically, the expedition had been a disaster but for Shackleton it was a huge personal triumph. Sadly he was never able to find another challenge worthy of his great character and he died less than six years later, back on South Georgia, as he tried to recapture some of the glory from his earlier days.

But that's another story.

This is just one of the stories from my talk Antarctic Dreams

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