By Dave Hahn
Summer is just around the corner in Antarctica. And so I’m packing my First Ascent gear and prepping another climbing team for adventure. This trip for Geographic Expeditions has been several years in the making and I can’t wait to get it going. Soon enough, we’ll fly way down to Ushuaia at the tip of South America, hop on a ship, and cruise out into the middle of the South Atlantic. South Georgia has nothing to do with Alabama or Florida … and it isn’t a former Soviet republic. It is a hundred-mile-long spine of jagged mountains cloaked in ice and broadside to weather and waves.
A mention of South Georgia is generally enough to get Antarctic historians sputtering, twitching, and salivating. They’ll get busy telling you all about Sir Ernest Shackleton and the legendary ship Endurance back in the good old days.
They weren’t actually good old days, since World War I was raging nearly everywhere else at the time. Shackleton’s team could perhaps count themselves lucky that nobody was shooting at them on the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-17 … but most other things seemed to be going poorly when Endurance was trapped in the ice of the Weddell Sea. After months of drifting, she was crushed by the ice, and her crew took to camping on the ice floes. These eventually disintegrated and the gang got into lifeboats. They were lucky to be alive when they made a tenuous landfall on Elephant Island, but they knew that nobody would come looking for them in that desperately remote place.
South Georgia was more than 800 miles away through the roughest and coldest of oceans, but it represented hope and civilization—of a sort. The whaling industry was going full-bore on South Georgia in those days, and Shackleton saw reaching those bloody factories as a way to save his men. He and five others set sail in the tiny James Caird, one of the open lifeboats they’d already depended so heavily upon. After barely surviving the epic sea journey, they crawled ashore on South Georgia, knowing full well that the factories were on the other side of the island. They’d need to go where no one had been—across the forbidding glaciers and mountain passes, if that was even possible, in order to get a rescue going for the men back on Elephant Island.
Shackleton, Frank Worsley, and Tom Crean set out with little more than a compass heading to go by. They were not climbers, but they were pretty tough … which was exactly what was needed for the marathon they put themselves through. They found a way, reaching Stromness, a factory on the island’s lee side. The rest is history … the rescue got going (it still took a further five months), every man was saved, and Shackleton and Endurance became the stuff of legend.
We’ll go down there for a visit and we’ll hope like crazy that we don’t replicate too many things about the Endurance saga. But we do want to rope up on the lonely shores of King Haakon Bay and to take three days to cross the glaciers and mountains in Shackleton’s footsteps. I’ve tried it before and not always successfully. South Georgia gets some of the most astonishingly bad weather I’ve ever experienced. But it is a place of incredible natural beauty and when we’ve finished with the ice and rock, perhaps we’ll get to enjoy the abundant and spectacular wildlife and further explore the rich history of the place.
In a short time, I’ll get down to Argentina to meet my fellow guides for the trip: the well-known and well-regarded Peter Hillary from New Zealand and my good friend Deirdre Galbraith from Scotland. Our team of six climbers will be there, along with our 90+ shipmates for the three weeks on-board Clelia II. The plan is also to cruise the Scotia Sea, the South Orkney Islands and to visit the Antarctic Peninsula itself. I’ll hope to tell a good story during the trip for the First Ascent site, sending back photos, video, and text from an amazing place.
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