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Dave Hahn Recounts the Shackleton Traverse — Part One
Posted on April 6, 2013

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Eddie Bauer First Ascent guide Dave Hahn regularly jets around the globe to locations from Denali and Everest to Antarctica. He’s seen some spectacular vistas, tackled some serious peaks, and experienced adventure in its most visceral forms. Hahn participated in the expedition to recover George Mallory’s body on Everest, and, no big deal, he has climbed the world’s tallest peak more times than any non-Sherpa. As we like to say, he’s been around the globe a few times.

So when we asked Hahn to pick the Trip of His Lifetime for a feature in our Spring Outfitter Book, we weren’t sure if he could narrow it down to just one. But Hahn is a true professional, and he crafted a spectacular essay that encapsulated the feel of repeating the Shackleton Traverse on South Georgia Island, a mission he’s attempted seven times and one that was awarded the “Trip of the Year” tag from Outside magazine in 2004. His essay summarizing the experience made us want to know more, so we dove into another of our barstool conversations with this well-traveled guide who has more than a few stories to tell. –LYA Editor 

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Images courtesy of Jake Norton, Dave Hahn and The Royal Geographical Society of London

What first drew you to the Shackleton Traverse?

It was actually an odd coincidence.  I was kind of thrown into the Shackleton Traverse trip at the last minute.  I was coming off a fairly long and hard season on the ice in the interior of Antarctica, guiding Mt. Vinson.  And was heard to say things like,  “You’ll never get me back here” or “it would take a hell of a lot to make me go back to Antarctica,” and things like that.  And about a day after flying off, I was offered a chance to go on this Traverse, heading out of Ushuaia on a ship in a couple of days’ time, and I said “yes” without even hesitating.

I didn’t know completely what I was getting into, but I already had read up on Shackleton and was interested in that history.  So that first attempt at the Shackleton Traverse was 1997 and it was, as I would learn over the course of the year, kind of the wrong time to try a trip. And we met up with rough conditions, horrible weather, but it absolutely blew me away.  It was an incredible place. And, as I’ve talked about and written about, yeah, it’s just this great convergence of natural beauty and history and mountains and animals and ocean and what’s not to love?

From an environmental standpoint, what was the most memorable part of that experience?

Well, being on South Georgia at some of the penguin rookeries, when you’ve got a couple

hundred thousand king penguins and elephant seals, bull elephant seals, several thousand pounds each, battling it out on the beach, and then you look up at mountains and glaciers and have this incredible surf pounding next to you where you are getting generally soaked and cold while clambering through these old whaling stations. It’s a really strange place.

I have seen a lot of Shackleton fanatics go to South Georgia just expecting to get close to Shackleton and then being blown away by the wildlife, and that’s not surprising to me.

So from the historical side, what resonated most about following in the footsteps of Shackleton, Worsley, and Crean?

Well, it is one of those stories, the Endurance story, that the more you learn, the more you want to learn.

If you’re interested in it, you can’t help but put yourself in their place and wonder how you’d feel, and wonder whether you’d be prone to giving up.  Wonder whether you’d fight as hard as they did to survive or get back to the world.  Or do it with a smile on your face.

And so, visiting these same places, seeing Shackleton’s grave at Grytviken on South Georgia or getting to some of these spots on the Traverse—I’ve said it a number of times—we can’t expect that when we’re standing in these places that it’s just like when these guys were standing in those places.  But it does give you a little bit more feeling for what was involved.  And principally, you really gain an appreciation for how far from the world they were. When you go to these places, when you go to Antarctica, even nowadays, using every modern convenience, after all these years I still can’t do it without thinking how far it is from the rest of the world and comfort and home and all that. And to think of these guys being there in a wooden ship while World War I was going on at the time and they didn’t know it. That’s how far they were from the world.

So what specific aspects make it feel far from the rest of the world?

It’s so hard to get to logistically.  You can’t fly to South Georgia.  There’s no airstrip.  It takes you generally about five days by ship going 11 knots, 12 knots from the tip of South America. So you start to get some appreciation for how far out there it is, and the ocean that you have to go through is basically the waters of the Drake Passage. It’s got all these barriers to it—icebergs and rogue waves.  But then you get there and it’s definitely got this feeling of a land that time forgot. There are all these ruined whaling stations and maybe overly optimistically we’d like to think that whaling is a thing of the past, and that’s not true, but on the scale that they were doing it back then, it is, taking thousands and thousands and thousands of whales just in the inlets of South Georgia, and not even going into the ocean in the first decades that they were whaling there.

But the wreckage of this industrial age, rusting away there, with penguins and seals going between this old machinery of death, rusting into the sands and the gravel–it’s a really eerie feeling. And these lonely little cemeteries full of whalers, most of whom were Norwegian, and there are just odd touches, like reindeer running around because they were introduced by the Norwegians so that they’d have meat other than whales.

And the reindeer are still there.  But then that’s all apart from the mountains, but the mountains on South Georgia are spectacular.  And it’s a hundred-mile-long spine of jagged mountains and massive glaciers calving into the ocean.  They’re big, steep, jagged, real mountains, guarded by this insane weather, hitting the island broadside.  And so there’s a lot to get excited about.

Author: - Saturday, April 6th, 2013
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