We made anchor in Prince Hakkon bay early on Monday morning, a treacherous bay by South Georgia standards…one ship ran aground here a few years back. The captain negotiated her in excellently, whilst the bridge filled with the sound of classical music, punctuated by gasps of wonder. The view was outstanding. I could see three or four glacial legs running into an ice blue sea. It must have been a splendid sight Shackleton, Crean, Worsley and crew after their heroic and exhausting feat of navigation from Elephant Island, some 800 miles away.
No sooner had he cut engines, the shore party was landed, along with our packs and boots. We geared up, put on our life jackets, washed our landing wellies and descended into the Zodiac’s. Everyone on board came to see us off, and we waved back with high spirits and apprehension. Some years back, Mesner, one of the most experienced mountaineers and explorers had a very tough time during an identical traverse, concluding it was one of the hardest things he’d ever done. A few years later, an expedition team of SAS soldiers had to be airlifted off after encountering severe weather conditions. What would be awaiting us ?
We landed amongst a flurry of fur seals, elephant seals and the occasional curious king penguin. Some only a few feet away. We quickly exchanged the life jackets and wellies for our boots, made some final gear checks, donned our packs and harnessed up our sledges. We had little time to take pictures as we needed to take advantage of the good weather. Within no time we were off, making our way towards the Murray Glacier. Five teams of six people, one sledge per team, each led by an experienced guide and a scouting party of two. Our team was led by Clare O’Leary, with Pat Falvey close behind hauling the sledge – no doubt using the occasion to get some personal training in for his intended expedition to the South Pole next year. After nearly five days at sea, it was great to be on firm ground. Taking the first steps into an adventure we had spent nearly a year training for. Our plan was to complete the traverse in three days, though we carried enough food for six days in case encountered some of South Georgia’s notoriously severe weather.
The day passed quickly and I hardly noticed the distance we made until we had to climb up to a ridge adjacent to three sharp peaks, known as the Trident Towers. It was from here that Shackleton, Crean and Worsley had sat on a rope and slid down – the excitement of the ride lifting their spirits briefly during their original traverse in 1916. We lined up the teams and made our way up towards the ridge, each of us cutting steps into the snow with our snow shoes for the next person. As we approached the top we were hit by a very strong wind which knocked a few of us to the ground. It was hard to maintain balance, especially with 24kg packs on our backs. My pack protruded nearly a foot above my head, causing it to act like a sail. I had to fight each gust with all my strength to prevent myself being blown over. But we all made it, helping each other over the top and to the other side where the wind was less severe. Here we briefly rested, snacking on some trail food – an energy bar or some nuts, and a few gulps of water. I carried an integrated platypus in my pack with a litre of water, diluted with a high carb energy drink…today was berry flavour. I like to take small sips of water whilst trekking in order to stave of the risk of cramp and replace the water lost to sweat. I also carried a litre flask of water which I drank from only when we stopped for short rests, thus conserving the platypus for when on the move. I find this works quite well for me. To supplement this I had a small 33cl flask of hot water just in case I needed to get some warmth in me.
As we made our way down the cloud cover lifted briefly and I was presented with what I can only describe as the most beautiful view I have ever seen. To the right, The Trident Towers, sloping down into a crevasse field, Shackleton was lucky their impromptu slide stopped just short of this field. In front of me I could make out a vast plateau of ice and snow stretching into the distance – the Crean Glacier, shaped by years of chaotic winds. To the left, another larger crevasse field, edging its way down into the sea. In between, amongst a cluster of rocks, I could see our scouting party starting to set up their tent. I could not believe we were making camp already, at the same time I was overjoyed at the thought of spending a night in this amazing place. Little did I know then it would turn out to be one of the worst nights I have ever spent outdoors.
Our scouting party consisted of Rolf and Segur, two very experienced Norwegian mountaineers and polar explorers. They were equipped with Telemark ski’s which are very different from the ski’s one uses whilst skiing in the alps. The heal of the boot is not fixed to a Telemark ski, allowing one to walk with the ski’s on – each step being roughly equivalent to six of our boot steps. One can cover large distances very quickly with these type of skis and are similar to the ones used by Amundsen on his famous South Pole conquest of 1911. Our scouting party could thus check out large areas of glacial and snow fields, negotiating the best route for the main expedition party. Furthermore, they could setup camp ahead of us and start boiling water whilst the rest of the team arrived and setup their tents.
When we arrived at camp, we set about flattening the the snow and ice with our snow shoes – to provide a more compact and comfortable base for our tents. Then the winds came. Strong violent winds whisking up loose ice grains from the surface, driving them into us like showers of glass, stinging every exposed area of flesh. We could only hunker down and cover our faces until they subsided for half a minute or so. During these respites we tried to pitch our tents, it was hell. We had never experienced such elements and tensions began to run high. We so wanted to shelter from these icy winds and we were desperate to get the tents up as quickly as we could. Luckily Pat, who himself had weathered such winds for ten days in Antarctica before summiting Mt. Venison, lent his experience to our own camp craft knowledge acquired in Norway. During the passage from Ushuaia had practiced setting up these tents in 20 knot winds on the top deck of the ship but that was a walk in the park by comparison to the 40 knot winds we suffered now.
Eventually we got them up, albeit with our energy levels zapped. After rolling out our Thermarests and sleeping bags, we filled our flasks with the freshly melted water from Rolf and Segur and then sought shelter, three persons per tent. A Thermarest is a self inflatable mattress made from a springy material known as “memory membrane” . These are not for comfort, although they are very comfortable, but to provide a layer of insulation between the ice beneath the tent and our sleeping bags. The bags themselves were special cold weather bags, “comfort” rated down to -20 degrees Celsius.
Setting up stoves just inside the tent Vestibule, we heated the water for our “dried food” bags. Mine was labeled “beef stew” but to be honest, the contents were irrelevant as long as it was warm and wholesome. We burn an average of 7000 calories per day on expeditions such as these and generally take in about 2500 calories. We ate directly out of the food bags, paying little heed to the instructions of leaving them to stand for five minutes. We wolfed the food down and crawled straight into our bags. Ideally we would have made a couple of hot drinks as well but darkness had long fallen. We were also very tired and just wanted to seek warmth in our bags. Whilst camping on a glacier in Norway I had found these bags stifling hot and slept in underwear and a T-shirt. This night I slept in all my gear excluding my outer ‘wet’ shell (three layers in all)!
No sooner had we bedded down for the night Ger McDonnal caught sight of a small tear in our tent’s flysheet. There was nothing that could be done but to make temporary repairs and hope they would last the night. If left unattended, the strong wind could gain a hold of this tear and eventually rip the tent apart. Here the old adage of a “stitch in time” runs very true. Whilst fixing the tear he noticed one of the tent poles had also broken and set about making repairs to that too. By now the winds were stretching the tents to their limits, these were storm tents designed for these type of conditions but that seemed to make little difference. We had no choice but to just make do and Ger’s departing words of “if the worse comes to the worse, make for the Norwegians tent” rang ominous. I can’t readily explain what sleeping was like that night, the tent bowed in every direction the winds chose to blow it. The inner shell rested on our bags, exposing us to the cold and wetness of the weather outside. The sound was horrendous and incessant, if you put your hands on your ears and slap yourself vigorously then you’d get an idea. We suffered this all night, my earplugs giving me little respite from this “crash ensemble”. And so passed our first night on South Georgia.