The Shackleton Crossing

October 6, 2017

Ernest Shakleton, Tom Crean and Frank Worsley made their legendary crossing of the South Georgia ice cap in May 1916, one month before mid winter. Bitterly cold with few daylight hours this epic journey took them 36 hours of almost non stop labour before they arrived at the whaling station in Stromness and could get help to rescue the 2 men left in King Haakon Bay on the west side of the island. Shakleton then had to begin the search for a suitable vessel to take him back to Elephant Island where the remainder of the expedition were waiting in hope that Shakleton and his team had survived the 850 nautical mile journey across the most feared stretch of water on earth in a 20 foot open rowing boat that had been fitted with a mast and makeshift deck.

 

Much has changed in the last 100 years not least of all the size and shape of the ice cap and glaciers that the three men had to cross. The glaciers are in retreat, the winters are dryer with less snow blanketing the island.

We had chosen to arrive three to four weeks earlier than most commercial trips in the hope that we would find snow down to shore level. Sadly this was not to be with the east side of the island bare and rocky and the snow line some distance inland.

 

The government of South Georgia also impose strict bio security regulations that meant we could not head straight to King Haakon Bay as we approached but had to go first to Grytviken to be checked in and and given our bio security briefing.

 

Sadly this robbed us of the most settled spell of weather we were to experience during our month long visit, the rest of the time the constant stream of low pressure weather systems would provide few opportunities to make a ski tour crossing that is now usually done in four days.

 

With time running out and no weather window in view we decided to begin our trip from Possession Bay on the north east coast and make our way up to the Shakleton Gap overlooking King Haakon Bay and make our journey in three days not four.

 

Bjorn, Alex and I landed and skied up to the Murray Snowfield in fading light as the cloud base dropped and the wind built. We got a brief glimpse into King Haakon Bay before the clouds closed in completely and it started to rain! It then rained almost non stop for the next 36 hours, 900 metres above sea level on an ice cap! We passed the site of the usual camp 1 and continued on to make camp under The Trident where it stopped raining briefly but started to blow around 30mph making getting the tent up a challenge.

 It rained all night and was still raining next morning as we broke camp in zero visibility and made our way over zig zag pass and along the ice cap to a small gap through the Wilkens Peaks and on to the Kohl Plateau where we made our 2nd camp, still raining!

It had felt like we had been skiing under a cold wet shower all day and the rain made the snow conditions very heavy and hauling our dry bags harder than it should have been. We broke camp the following morning in high winds and driving snow, the surface on the top of the Konig Glacier was extremely icy and got worse as we descended. The glacier had receded over 100m since Bjorn and Dan made this trip in 2014 and the bottom section was open and stony blue ice.

 

The choice then was to make the 4 km slog across the terminal moraine to the beach where we were to be picked up three times to reduce our 40kg loads or just go for it and make it once, rucksack on the back and the haul bag wedged between skis and head. Hating scree, I chose the latter and arrived on the beach around 11am just as Novara came into the bay.

 

With an onshore wind and big swell the challenge now was to find a suitable pick up spot with waves crashing onshore along the curving bay. There seemed to be fewer breaking waves to the extreme left and right so being closer to the right I chose to head that way first. With Fur Seals growling as I passed and two huge Elephant Seal bulls fighting for territory, each covered in blood, I picked my way along the high water mark towards a suitable pick up spot only to discover a stream flowing down from the glacier blocking my way. Not wanting to retrace my steps I attempted to ford the fast flowing stream but it was too fast and too deep and I just managed to maintain my footing.

 

Reluctantly and with the load getting heavier by the minute I began the trudge back along the beach getting washed off my feet in the surf when a Fur Seal got a little too close for comfort. Wet cold and tired I threw my gear into the dinghy and headed back to base camp Novara for a hot shower and warm meal.

 

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