Dispatch Number Three
Date: January 4, 2013
Place: Fortuna Bay and Stromness Harbour, South Georgia
Falklands, South Georgia & Antarctica: Dispatch Number Three
Ruins of the whaling station at Stromness Harbour, South Georgia. Photo courtesy of Jens Bludau.
JANUARY 4, 2013
54° 9.4' SOUTH AND 36° 42.6' WEST
STROMNESS HARBOUR, SOUTH GEORGIA
Following in Sir Ernest Shackleton's footsteps 100 years later, our group of intrepid explorers retraced the final leg of Shackleton's epic trek across South Georgia. In the process, we shared, in a very small measure, some of the sights, sounds and emotions that Shackleton and his men experienced a century ago.
Symbolic in nature, the 5.5-kilometre-long hike from Fortuna Bay to Stromness Harbour represents the final chapter in Shackleton's monumental story of survival against all odds.
In May 1916, Shackleton and two of his men set out – without tents or sleeping bags – on a non-stop crossing of the largely unmapped island. Equipped with ice crampons fashioned from screws wrenched from their lifeboat, they arrived in Stromness thirty-six hours later.
In an effort to save time and energy during their 33-kilometre-long crossing of South Georgia, Shackleton and his hiking companions formed a three-man toboggan chain, glissading down an uncharted mountainside.
Our hike from sea level to the 300-metre mountain pass was slow and measured. But, the toboggan ride down the backstretch was wild and lasted mere seconds.
After a hurried session of perfecting my skills at arresting – or, at the very least, impeding – my trajectory down the snow-covered mountainside, I held my breath and plunged, feet first, over the precipice.
Although my backpack acted as a speed retardant, my Gortex™ pants turned into a potent accelerant...
On fire, I raced down the slope.
In my left hand, my walking pole pointed skywards; in my right hand, I gripped my monopod-mounted video camera, recording the wild ride for posterity.
Transported back to my childhood tobogganing days, I hurtled down a slope which resembled – after all was said and done – a double black diamond ski run. My high-pitched screams belied the exhilaration of glissading down the steep slope.
All too soon, the 250-metre-long snow chute came to an abrupt and rocky end. Applying the human brakes before crashing into the rocks, I narrowly missed hitting Scott Davis, one of the expedition's photographers who was strategically situated at the end of the snow pack.
I was sorely tempted to climb back up the mountain. But, a sense of decorum ensued, and I continued the hike towards Stromness, an abandoned Norwegian whaling village located on the northeast coast of South Georgia.
I learned, later, that some of the university geology students had climbed back up the mountain, enjoying the ride for a second time.
The view from the mountain pass was spectacular: Stromness Harbour was littered with sculpted icebergs which were spawned, several years ago, from Antarctica's Ross Sea Ice Shelf. Nestled amongst the icebergs was the Akademik Ioffe, our 117-metre-long, ice strengthened expedition vessel. The rusting remnants of Stromness, complete with industrial whale oil rendering facilities and storage tanks, stood as a stark reminder of a bygone era when whale oil occupied the same energy niche as petroleum does today.
On the opposite side of Stromness Harbour, I identified the sensationally folded, "Z-shaped" sedimentary strata of the Lower Cretaceous age Cumberland Bay Formation. During the island crossing, Shackleton had spied – from a distant mountaintop – these dramatically folded beds which guided him, like a compass, to Stromness. When Shackleton and his men heard the whistle blast, signalling the daily crew change at the whaling station, they knew that safety was within reach.
In November 1915, Shackleton's vessel, the HMS Endurance, was crushed by ice and sank, precipitating one of the world's greatest survival stories. Shackleton's family crest states "by endurance we conquer," a motto which rang true during the two-year ordeal.
Decamped for seven months on an ever-shrinking ice floe, Shackleton and his men set off in three life boats, eventually landing on the inhospitable shores of Elephant Island.
Within a week of arriving at Elephant Island, Shackleton and five of his men set sail for South Georgia in the James Caird, a seven-metre-long lifeboat which was jury-rigged with sails and a canvass deck. Navigating by sextant, they sailed 1,160 kilometres in 17 days, battling towering waves and hurricane force winds in the Scotia Sea.
Heavy sea ice blocked Shackleton's attempts to rescue his 22 men marooned on Elephant Island; three months and four attempts later, all 27 men under his direct command returned home alive.
My toboggan ride was neither monumental nor was it dangerous. Nonetheless, it represented a piece of unfinished business for me: three years ago, while participating in the 2010 Elysium Visual Epic Expedition to Antarctica and South Georgia, I bowed out of hiking from Fortuna Bay to Stromness Harbour.
Exhibiting decidedly non-Shackleton-like behaviour three years ago, my choice of the warmth and comfort of the ship over the Shackleton hike – it was raining, that day, at lower elevations and snowing at the pass – was one that I have regretted ever since.
The wild toboggan ride through history was an emotional experience, for me, and was long overdue.
Shackletons Antarctic Adventure Part 1. Video courtesy of saptakmandal (2010).
Hover your mouse over the markers to learn more.
The black line represents our 5.5-kilometre hike between Fortuna Bay and Stromness Harbour, South Georgia.