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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When we crested Trident Ridge and saw the long sweep of the Crean Glacier rising beside Antarctic Bay all the way to the feature Shackleton called the Great Nunatak, I allowed myself for the first time to be optimistic about our chances of completing his route. And when we reached the bottom of the steep slope, the very one on which Shackleton made his legendary, desperate glissade into the unknown, I casually remarked to Dave Hahn: "You know, we might actually pull this off."
Tempting fate like that was a big mistake. Immediately, everything changed. The legendary katabatic winds of the region roared to life up as we began our long ascent of the Crean. Dave Hahn estimated it was a 50-mile-per-hour wind, Al Read thought 70. I can't say for sure, but it was enough that for the first time in a lifetime spent in wilderness I was blown off my feet. The heavy sleds became kites in the wind, flailing madly around us. Chastened, we pressed on, and managed to get up the tents that night just short of the Nunatak. We were ready when the rain and snow began in earnest later that night.
We passed two days and nights there in an effort to wait out the miserable conditions. But a person could grow old, or die, or both, waiting out bad weather in this place. On South Georgia, we learned, the weather is more likely to worsen than improve. So, getting low on food and fuel, we make the dash for Fortuna Bay and our ultimate destination beyond, Stromness whaling station. The now-abandoned station is where the Endurance party finally reached safety. If we make it to Stromness, we will have walked Shackleton's entire route.
In 12 hours of forced marching, our party traveled from the Nunatak to the beach at Fortuna Bay. We got there not over Shackleton's storied "Break Wind Pass" but down the snout of a glacier that once tumbled directly into the bay but has since ablated sufficiently to provide an ice-fall ramp to beach.
Greeted by a curious band of King penguins and a gigantic elephant seal beachmaster, who eyed us suspiciously lest we have designs on his harem, we got the tents up despite the gale. It was a farce played out in the Antarctic twilight on the shores of a wild and stormy bay, with only the locals for an audience. But it marked the end of the uncertainty, as our ultimate destination was only a half day away.
On November 16 we strolled into the rusting ruins of Stromness. Our arrival at the old whaling station was a moving moment, one with a surprisingly emotional component. One member of our troop, a New Zealand Shackleton scholar, was moved to tears. There was little backslapping or high fives, just a quiet celebration of sorts, not of our own achievement we were mere recreationists in search of adventure but of Shackleton's. His incredible journey was made not for sport, but because his life and the lives of his six-man party depended on his arriving here safely, as did the lives of 22 men still stranded on Elephant Island. Shack did it because he had to, we did it for fun, and, oh, did we know the difference.
Peter Potterfield, MountainZone.com Staff