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Dave Hahn Recounts the Shackleton Traverse — Part Two
Posted on April 8, 2013

Sweeping Vista

We know Dave Hahn likes penguins, but we know that wasn’t the only element that drew him to guide the Shackleton Traverse on South Georgia Island.  With Antarctic weather, true remoteness and a history of survival that still resonates to this day, the traverse to safety first pioneered by Ernest Shackleton is an epic, even more than a century later. As it turns out, this trip that Hahn has successfully completed five times is the one he singled out as his Trip of a Lifetime for a feature in our Spring Outfitter Book.  In part two of our barstool conversation with Hahn on the Live Your Adventure blog, the world-class guide explains the logistics required to undertake a mission to South Georgia that was honored as the “Trip of the Year” by Outside Magazine in 2004.” -LYA Editor

Hahn leading through Breakwind Gap

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

So what makes that combination of history and adventure on trips such as the Shackleton Traverse such a powerful draw for you personally?

Well, it’s a tangible history.  There are lots of fascinating histories in the world, obviously. And I get as amped up as anybody over thousands-of-years-old mummies or whatever, but this is pretty quantifiable and it doesn’t go back all that far.  And so you can get a taste for those times.  You can get a feeling for being in these places. I like history, but history that you can put yourself into interests me even more.

What was the first year you did the Traverse?

First time I tried was 1997. We turned around in a massive storm.  And we sat there for five or six days, just getting absolutely pelted by the storm.  Somebody sent me a picture afterward, a satellite picture, which was this cyclone formation passing over us. And it was like:  Oh yeah, that’s why it felt like that!

So we were camped on the shore, holding on for five or six days, and then we made kind of a desperate crossing, short crossing of the island, just across Shackleton Gap to get picked up on the other side. We were badly in need of pickup because we were soaked to the skin, and just getting picked up with the ocean in an uproar and Zodiacs getting tossed around by the waves and everything…man, we felt like we’d climbed Mount Everest when we climbed back onto the ship that first time.

I went back in 2000 – went back twice in 2000 trying to do it–and the first time we did accomplish it.

But that was the first time we got across what I’d consider something pretty close to the Shackleton Traverse.  The next time I tried it, we got just another massive storm that we had to finish in.  The next time was just a few weeks later, and we turned around for avalanche conditions. And then I went again in 2002, 2004, went by yacht in 2006, and then again by ship in 2009.  But by now, I feel like I’ve come pretty close to what I feel is the exact route, through the correct passes, through the gaps that they went through in the mountains.  The only thing I haven’t tried to repeat or bothered to repeat is they wandered around a little bit, by accident, and I’ve tried not to replicate that.

Tried not to get lost on South Georgia Island?

Yeah, part of the reason I feel like I don’t have to replicate their wanderings is if you get into any kind of storm there, you’re going to do your own laundry.

So tell me about the logistics of getting down to South Georgia. What is the step-by-step to actually reach the beginning of the Traverse? 

I’ve done it out of a few different ports but it’s most commonly done out of Ushuaia in southern Argentina.  I’ve also done it out of Trelew, up the coast a little bit.  I’ve done it out of Stanley in the Falklands and done it out of Punta Arenas, but most commonly you’d fly to Buenos Aires, way down to Tierra del Fuego, you’d go to Ushuaia on the Beagle Channel, get on a ship.  And, as I say, on a normal ship for these type of waters, “normal” being a little bit subjective, but headin’ out about 11 or 12 knots. It’ll take you about two days to get to the Falklands and you may or may not stop, but then another three days beyond that to South Georgia.

And so, yes, you’ve got the balance of the crossing, then you’ve got to get the permission of the British government, which might mean that you have to go around the island first and meet with the authorities in Grytviken.  And get set for landing, and they’re going to make sure that you have self-rescue capability and communications ability because there’s no rescue down there.

And then the side of the island that you have to get put off on is the windward side of the island, the side that the ocean is hitting with full force, and so ships don’t like hanging around on that side of the island.  But if they can, they put you into King Haakon Bay where the amazing boat journey of the James Caird ended and Shackleton, Worsley and Crean started their Traverse.

So if you can, you get put in there and the best conditions that I’ve found for doing it are in November or thereabouts.  You kind of like to have snow right down close to the water because you’re going to have to be in snow and ice gear—skis or sleds or snowshoes—so you’d just as soon start that kind of travel right out of the water, rather than having to go over a mile or two of rocks and then get on the ice.

But then it’s about a three-day crossing, two nights, and then you’ve got the other end of things, when you come down following these couple of days on glaciers and going through a couple of mountain passes, then you’ve got to deal with getting across a river.  And I haven’t been too proud to take a lift across via Zodiac.

But the last bit from Fortuna Bay to Stromness, the particular whaling factory that they walked into—that’s a non-technical section and lots of folks have done that in rubber boots and it’s just a several-hour or three-hour stroll.  But again, pretty hard to stroll it without thinking of those guys, basically their clothing falling off them, on their last legs and realizing that they are finally going to make it back to the world and get help for all those left behind.

So, I mean you have got to get dropped off by a ship, but then you have to hope that nothing happens to that ship.

Yeah, true.  Uncontrollable variable there?

Yeah, yeah. You’re kind of taking it for granted that you’re going to get picked up at the other end, and the logistics of such a crossing don’t allow you to bring three weeks of food and fuel.  And so you’re very dependent on getting back on that ship.  And if something happens to that ship – well, obviously, if something happens to that ship, there are big problems for everybody involved.  But particularly for you, who will be standing on the shore starting to look at penguins and seals for food.

Starting to look up old penguin recipes?

Right, uncooked.

Author: - Monday, April 8th, 2013
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