Ernest Shackleton left England for Antarctica in August 1914 just as the winds of the first world war were beginning to gather. He arrived at Grytviken on South Georgia Island in the south Atlantic on Nov 5,1914. He was about twelve hundred miles from the Antarctic continent. Ninety-six years later I set foot on South Georgia and began to absorb the immensity of his journey.
Ernest, as leader of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, had set out to cross the Antarctic continent from west to east, a trek that in the end was not successfully completed until 1958.
His ship, the Endeavour, a barkentine, built in Norway, boasted a coal-fired steam engine, a top speed of 10.2 knots and a bow that was over four feet thick. None the less, after a month of preparation in Grytviken on South Georgia, the vessel set sail and was promptly caught in a gale. By the end of January 1915, it was firmly stuck in the sea ice two hundred miles from Vashel Bay.
For ten months the crew tried to free the ship, ate penguins and seals and endured the cold of the black polar night. They wandered, by the power of the wind and the ice, in the Wendell Sea and eventually moved all provisions onto the ice when the water began to pour into the ship and the pumps failed.
Living on the ice was hard, very hard. On November 21, 1915 the Endurance sank.
The twenty-seven crew members set off for the Palmer Peninsula dragging their life boats across the ice. It was a journey equivalent to the distance between New York and Pittsburgh! Cracks and leads were constant threats and their destination plans were modified as the ice broke up and the winds changed. The new destination became Elephant Island, 120 miles to the north.
For four long months they watched their food dwindle, the dogs die and the cold and wet continue. After five and a half months on the ice, it finally broke up under their feet and the crew clamored into the three open boats. Overcrowded, unable to sleep, with little food and water, they struggled against the elements in clothes frozen stiff. Disappointed again and again, the currents took them farther from their destination and then storms brought them closer.
On April 9, 1916, this epic journey brought the boats to Elephant Island. Here on a tiny, shingled beach, backed by high cliffs and exposed to the full force of the sea, they set up a temporary camp using the overturned hulls of the boats as shelter.
On April 24th, Shackelton, Captain Frank Wolsley, an able seaman named, Tom Crean and two other sailors set out to find South Georgia. This part of their journey is itself legend. Twenty-two men were left behind. Their rescue depended on the five making it safely across nearly 900 miles of open ocean in the Cairn.
After ninety unthinkable days, they were beginning to believe they would not make it to South Georgia and were contemplating setting course for Deception Island, in the Antarctic Peninsula. The gales of the south Atlantic screamed on relentlessly. They were constantly wet. Historical records report that the men had an angry determination that they deserved to make this journey successfully. Who would argue with them?
With their water gone, and fog moving in, hope was beginning to dwindle. Then a clump of seaweed and a cormorant were sighted. Then the cry “Land” echoed across the universe.
Relief was short lived as they reconnoitred that they were on the wrong side of the island, a hundred and thirty miles by sea from Stromness, their destination. Over the 10,000 foot mountains, it would be 29 miles. No one had ever crossed this land before. So with screws in their shoes to act as cleats, Wolsley, Shackelton and Crean struck out for Stromness.
They tied themselves together as they descended the glacier and when the fog rolled in. The ridge was so cold they descended before they froze. Progress was maddeningly slow so they chose to throw caution to the wind and slide down the mountain only to find that they were still not near Stromness but rather at Fortuna Bay, west of Stromness.
Again, somehow, they found it within themselves to turn to the mountain, find another pass and plod uphill. Fighting sleep for fear that they would freeze, the three saw the hills of Stromness in the morning light. The first sound of the outside world greeted them as the steam whistle at the whaling station woke the men there. It had been seventeen months since Shackleton last heard a sound from the outside world.
Shackleton, Wolsley and Crean stumbled down the steep ravine through the waterfall to make it to the valley. Three hours later, the station foreman, Mathias Andersen saw three small boys running in terror towards him and behind them three men walked slowly forward — dirty, bedraggled, in rags. As workers at the whaling station lined the route, the motley crew made its way to Thoralf Sorelle’s house. The men were received with awed silence and then tears. Shackleton and his men, who were believed lost, were found.
It took three attempts to reach the members of the crew who had been left behind at Elephant Island. They were finally rescued on August 30,1916. Everyone survived.
On November 29th, 2010 I set out from Fortuna Bay to walk the last 5.5 km of Shackleton’s journey into Stromness. After landing a Zodiac amidst a colony of unhappy fur seals, I started the climb from Fortuna Bay.
The incline was steep but nothing compared to the mountains that I could see across the bay. Seals lay in the hillocks and tall grasses and grunted as I passed. As I paused to catch my breath at the top of the first incline, I could see the ship that had brought me here disappearing out of the Bay. It wasn’t like watching the Endeavour being devoured by the ice but it did give me an eerie feeling. We had been told that once we committed to the walk we were just that– committed. There was no turning back. But I have to admit that I was sure they would come back for me, a wayward tourist, if I REALLY couldn’t do it. They would come back, wouldn’t they?
It was sunny and bright as the group crested the first hill and the mountains came into better view. Decked out in gortex and other miracle fabrics, I was cosy. –quite a difference from the garb worn by Shackleton by the time he reached this hill.
Strong winds pushed and pulled me as I kept moving forward one step at a time following in a line of adventurers. It was spring for me and as I gazed around I wondered what would it have been like on this mountain top in May!
As the view of the valley spread out before me and the remains of the whaling station at Stromness became visible, I could only imagine what went through the heads of Shackleton, Wolsley and Crean. No, really, I could not imagine. I wanted to think that somehow I knew, I understood. But really, I could only be touched by the honour of being there and walking in their footsteps.
In the valley a braided river made its way to the sea. Reindeer wandered the flats. Off at a distance, there was a waterfall believed to be the one that Shackleton used to get down to the valley. I worked my way back and forth fording riverlets and trying, without success, to keep my feet dry. More than once I reversed my course and tried a different crossing. I chuckled out loud when it dawned on me that there was no direct route to Stromness for ANYONE!
As I neared the mouth of the river, the ruins of the whaling station lay to my right. A seal colony had established itself there and they wandered at will. Signs and wire kept visitors at a safe distance from the decaying structures as this is not one of the stations that has been preserved or even made safe. Sheets of metal flapped in the breeze and could easily have taken flight. The seals didn’t seem to see the site as a danger but they didn’t seem too happy with my intrusion either. They reared up and made angry noises as they charged towards me.
Their unfriendly behaviour made me decide it was time to head for the landing site on the beach. Of course the zodiacs were aground on the other side of a swiftly flowing stream. My crossing was good for a double soaker!
As the zodiac headed towards the repositioned ship, I peered back at the whaling station. In my mind’s eye, I saw three men in tatters, who against all odds were slowly making their way across the beach.
I was in awe of their accomplishment.
Note: The version of Shackleton’s journey that is summarized here was drawn from the work of Alfred Lansing in his book entitled Endurance:Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage to the Antarctic, Carroll & Graf Publishers, New York, NY, 1959.