The final stage in Sir Ernest Shackleton's struggle to reach civilizationand thus save the Endurance crewwas the historic 26-mile crossing of South Georgia Island, which had never before been traversed.
With Frank Worsley, Tom Crean, Tim McCarthy, Chippy McNeish and John Vincent, Shackleton had sailed more than 800 miles in the lifeboat, the James Caird, surviving 17 days in the world's stormiest seas. Departing from uninhabited Elephant Island, where they had no hope of rescue, their destination was a whaling station located on South Georgia Island.
While the men found South Georgia, which was considered the proverbial "needle in the haystack," they were forced by thirst, a broken rudder and a leaking boat to land at King Haakon Bay, which was located on the uninhabited south side of the island. Realizing that the boat could not successfully circumnavigate the island, with its rocky coastline and rough waters, Shackleton formulated a desperate back-up plan: He, Worsley and Crean would traverse the mountains and glaciers of this island to reach Stromness whaling station.
With provisions for just three days, screws in their boots for traction, threadbare clothing and no sleeping bags, the three malnourished, frostbitten, exhausted explorers set out to cross South Georgia at 2 a.m. on May 19, 1916, hiking by the light of the full moon. The terrain was rough, and the interior of the island had never been charted. The three men were roped together, with Shackleton in the lead and Worsley navigating. After several miscalculations, the three had to retrace their steps, finding themselves back where they had been several hours earlier, fatigued and frostbitten.
They faced a dilemma. Night was falling, they were making little progress descending the slopes, and they would freeze to death at their high altitude. With nothing to lose, and the lives of their 25 companions in their hands, they took a risk: they slid down the steep slope. "We seemed to shoot into space... For a moment my hair fairly stood on end," Worsley later wrote.
They proceeded through the night. In the morning, they heard a whistle sound from Stromness, which confirmed that the whaling station was still manned. By mid-afternoon, after 36 hours of travel, they walked into Stromness. Covered in blubber smoke, with long hair and beards, the three men, who'd spent months at Stromness at the beginning of the Endurance expedition, were not recognized when they arrived. After identifying themselves, they were treated to grand hospitality and hot baths, pleasures they had missed since they had left this island 17 months earlier.
Worsley immediately departed to rescue their three companions at King Haakon Bay. In August 1916, in a borrowed ship, Shackleton, Worsley and Crean returned to Elephant Island to save the 22 remaining men.
The Climbers' Traverse
The three world-renowned climbers compare their traverse of South Georgia Island with that of Shackleton, Worsley and Crean:
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 I are.
They went at it very light: They had a rucksack, a little bit of food, a small rope and a carpenter's adze, and they made the traverse quite quickly. In doing so, they didn't set up any camps; they didn't carry 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. Our goal was to do it in as similar a style as they did it.
Even in the most demanding climbs I've ever done, I never got close to what these guys were doing. They were at the edge of what was humanly possible. They were out for so long and so far away. There were a few moments in climbing that were certainly serious, that were very scary and full of adventure. What Shackleton and his crew endured is beyond what I think anyone nowadays would be able to do.
Generally speaking, in the mountains or in the ice, you can never exactly follow the routes of the pioneers, because the weather is always changing, the snow conditions are different [and] the climate has changed. You end up generally on the same route because [there are] certain ranges you have to cross, otherwise you cannot get there. We think that it may be more difficult today to cross this island, because there is less snow, and there are more crevasses, but generally we followed his route, and, following his descriptions, we know where Shackleton actually passed.
I think the South Georgia traverse, as we did it, is a very small part of the Endurance experience. He and his men were exposed for 17 months in the most difficult part of the world. I'm still sure that Shackleton's Endurance expedition, with the sailing and the dramatic return home, was the greatest adventure ever. It's very interesting to see how Shackleton failed in his attempt to cross the Antarctic continent, but it's more interesting to see how he was able, with his perfect leadership, to bring home his 27 men.
As we set off on the second day, I was thinking, "How are we going to get out of here?" We were hidden in a labyrinth of ice, and we didn't know how long it was going to take to get through to the other side. But we had Conrad leading the way in front, and he's a brilliant route finder, and, within an hour or two, we got out of the worst of the most contorted area of the glacier, and then things got easier.
Now, because of global warming, the glaciers have become more broken, and the crevasses are melting and shrinking. Pitching our tent the second night in quite a wild blizzard, the tent being battered by the wind, all of us damp and cold, you really thought, "If we were out there without a tent, we probably wouldn't survive for very long." It really hones your appreciation for what they did in 1916.
Reinhold, Conrad and I have all experienced very moving moments coming down from a great climbthat feeling of catharsis and relief and euphoria. Even on this trip, after three days, it was very emotional seeing Stromness whaling station and then thinking that those three men saw Stromness after this incredible journey that lasted for 17 months, and they realized they finally made it. It's almost beyond words to describe the euphoria they [must have] felt.
Interviews with Reinhold Messner, Stephen Venables, and Conrad Anker by Kelly Tyler.
Photo Credit: © 2000 Stephen Venables
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