In the Footsteps of Sir Ernest Shackleton
Shackleton's Antarctic journey of survival is eclipsed by his trip from oblivion to pop-culture phenomenon
Seattle- August 20, 2002
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For decades, the story of Shackleton's odyssey, and its frankly unbelievable outcome, touched whatever is in me that is drawn to wild places. What struck equally hard was the fact that the tale seemed to remain virtually unknown. But in the months since my own journey to South Georgia, I've had time to reflect on how all of that has changed, in a big and weird way. Everything from IMAX films to made-for-TV movies with famous stars has since celebrated the man and his achievement.
But that stormy day on the Fortuna Glacier, there was nothing to do but pull the sled, look around at the occasional rocky spire seen through a hole in the scud, the blue-green glacial icefalls as they tumbled toward the wild Southern Ocean, and feel lucky. South Georgia is a magical place, far from the well-trodden slopes of many modern-day adventures. The solitude and remoteness only emphasize an ineffable grandeur.
As we trudge along, the wind blows ragged openings in the whiteout, and I catch glimpses of Dave Hahn's lime-green wind suit at the other end of my rope. Hahn, the three-time Everest summitter on point for this motley band, checks his GPS unit without so much as pausing. No one wants to stop in these miserable conditions, but Hahn's satellite device will tell him only where he is and where he's been, not where he's going. He'll have to figure that out for himself, and in conditions that are among the worst any of us has ever seen. Al Read, the pioneer American Himalayan climber and venerable director of Exum Guides, called it "the most miserable conditions I have encountered in 48 years of mountaineering."
Things were very different just a few days ago, when the crew of our chartered Russian research ship dared to enter the uncharted waters of King Haakon Bay. By Zodiacs they dropped us off at the very spot where Shackleton landed after his epic voyage across the Southern Ocean. The Russians, who were extremely uptight about being in the dangerous bay, departed pronto for the safety of open water, leaving us on the beach with a pile of gear and a colony of puzzled penguins.
We loaded the packs and sleds and started up the slopes toward Shackleton Gap and the Murray Snowfield. The going was straightforward and that first night we pitched the tents near Trident Ridge, treated to a dramatic full moon-rise over the glacier. It was a magic moment in a place maybe a few dozen humans have ever visited.
The next day brought clouds and wind, but patches of blue sky as well--unbelievably good conditions for South Georgia. We broke camp and worked up to Trident Ridge itself. The high point of the crossing, the ridge is that infamous place with it's five peaks and four cols that presented such difficult route finding problems for Shackleton and his men. But our team was blessed with actual sunshine and good snow conditions. We easily crossed the lowest col in the ridge to begin our descent.
Peter Potterfield, MountainZone.com Staff