The day started comically enough, one of our tent party woke up and, on seeing daylight, got up, dressed and started boiling water to make hot drinks. The winds seemed to have died down a little so we all started to rise….then Pat kindly advised us to get some more sleep as it was only 3:30 AM! I’m not exactly sure of the Anglo Saxon terminology used but the advice was well noted and we quickly got back into our bags, stopping only to drag our frozen boots in from the tent vestibule.
We next woke to the sound of movement around the camp, the winds were back again, not as strong but equally as demoralising. We quickly put on water and made three hot dinners for breakfast. I even managed to make a chocolate drink and put some hot water in my flask. When we emerged from our shelter we were confronted with the full extent of the damage to our tent. And we were not alone. Four of the expedition tents had suffered either rips or broken poles or both. Ours was completely beyond repair!
Packing up the gear was slow. We wore gloves and outer mitts to stave off the cold but they make packing awkward. Every now and again I had to remove my outer mitts to accomplish some fiddly task or other, gripping them between my teeth to ensure they weren’t blown away. Losing my outer mitts at this stage would make my hands very vulnerable to frost bite and in these winds they would be impossible to recover – I couldn’t exactly just get up and run after them on a glacier for fear of falling down a crevasse. Whilst stowing the food packs and gas canisters away I felt a huge thud on my shoulder, in that brief moment of surprise I looked up to see one of the team looking at me with an expression of grave concern….then I went down, collapsing on the snow in agony. A square piece of plywood which we used to support the gas stoves had been picked up by the wind and hurled into my shoulder with some force. A corner hitting me just under the collar bone. I lay on the ground clutching my shoulder whilst Pat came over to check I was ok. Fortunately the pain subsided, leaving me with a hefty bruise.
Once packed we headed up to a knoll from which we would attack the Crean glacier. Here we stopped to change into our snowshoes and were suddenly hit by a freak wind. It hit us with such force that it knocked three people right off their feet, ripping poles and snow shoes from this melee and carrying them 100 yards or so. I was a little way further down and thus sheltered from the full force. I managed to recover three poles. As I approached the third I caught a glimpse of something, like a flash of orange in the corner of my right eye. I looked up and saw one of the sledges tumbling down from the team like a ball of tumble weed. It flipped over and over across the ice, passing in front of me, disappearing down towards a crevasse field far below. Everyone just looked on, aghast, knowing it was too late to try and stop it or even recover it. It was in this moment of chaos that I began to genuinely get concerned. The day had only just started yet we were already beginning to draw upon our spare equipment. If the day continued like this then we could be in real trouble.
Each of the five teams put on their harnesses and roped up and started across the glacier. I was the end man in our team and thus carried the excess rope which we would use to rescue anyone who fell through a snow bridge into a crevasse. If the situation arose we’d belay down to the edge of the crevasse and dig in a snow anchor to take the weight of the victim. I’d then belay down to the edge and lower a rope for the victim to attach to their harness (if they were still conscious). Once secured, we’d haul them back out of the crevasse and attend to any wounds. We all carried expedition medical kits and were fortunate to have three qualified doctors on the expedition team. Fortunately, we had no need to put these essential skills into practice on this traverse.
The winds gave us no respite as we snaked our way across the glacier. These were Katabatic winds, intermittent but very violent. We’d hear them building up at first, giving us a few seconds to stop and brace ourselves to face the onslaught. I was blown right of my feet at least twice during this crossing, I soon developed a knack of contorting my body to keep my profile low, juggling my muscles to maintain balance. After surviving one particular memorable gust I looked up to find at least three, out of every six man team, sprawled on the ice.
It was very slow progress but we eventually made it across and took a ten minute rest for food and water. During this break Pat radioed the expedition support team on board ship and explained the tent situation. We would need at least one replacement tent. However, the only place the tent could be landed by Zodiac would be Fortuna Bay….some 15km away. The scouting party had just radioed back that the winds were just as strong ahead. The thought of us having to endure 15km in such winds was very worrying. There would be no time for lunch today, just the occasional short ten minute break for a little energy food and some water.
We set off again and fortunately, the winds started to abate. The sun even came out which was very uplifting. In front of us was a huge vastness of snow which we had to cross, we’d arrive at what I thought would be the top only to find it was only a deceptive ridge hiding even more vastness beyond. It seemed never ending, step after step after step. It appeared as if we were hardly making ground at all. Hours past and I became convinced we’d not make it before night fall. I tried to crawl into myself to pass the time. I remember once reading that Nigel Mansell would sometimes radio his pit crew during a Motor Racing Grand Prix and ask them to wake him up in twenty laps or so. He obviously wasn’t sleeping in the conventional sense, not whilst hurtling around a circuit at 180 mph, but he would find this place, this zone, in which time past differently than how we normally perceive it. I have read since that this state is known as “flow” and is a subject of some interest in sports psychology. I tend to enter this state whilst writing, and tried to enter it on the ice…with some difficulty. My pack was starting to feel heavier. The weight seemed to be transferring itself from my hips to my shoulders. At first I thought it was because it wasn’t gripping on my wind-stop outer shell so I kept tightening it…but to no avail. I then assumed the extra weight was from the ice that had accumulated and melted, thus water-logging parts of my pack, but this didn’t seem to make sense. I kept going, constantly trying to shift the weight back onto my hips. My shoulders started to ache more and more. At times the pain was very bad, severely affecting my morale. I tried “feeling the pain” and, after a while, concluded that yes, it was bloody painful indeed. Eventually I gave up and accepted that I’d just have to get on with it and tried concentrating my thoughts on my surroundings. I became fascinated with my footsteps, the sounds they made as the snow crushed under the snow shoes. In places, where the wind had swept all the snow away, exposing just ice, I watched the way it cracked under foot, like the way the solid toffee coating cracks on a toffee apple when you bite into it. Occasionally, the snow texture would change, from flaky snow to a fine friendly powder snow, just like an extra thick layer of icing sugar sieved on to a cake. And still we marched on.
At 7pm we approached the final ridge of this great white place. The mood of the teams ahead appeared to change but I couldn’t understand why. Had something happened up ahead? Was the scouting party ok ? It was only on reaching the ridge ourselves did it all make sense. We could see Fortuna Bay down below us and, better still, we could see the support ship anchored there. It blew its horn seven times – “welcome”. It was a very emotional moment for us, we had made it, the hardest part of the traverse was over!
It took us a further two hours to descend to the bay, switching to crampons and using our ice axes to negotiate the steep ice. We had trained how to use the ice axe as an “ice brake” during our glacier training course in Norway in June. If we slipped, we’d fling ourselves onto our stomaches, the ice axe held tightly to our chests, driving the axe point into the ice with our weight and hoping our motion would cause it to cut deeper into the ice and thus brake our fall. It was a slow and cautious descent, the slowness of the pace allowing the wind chill to get at us. But we didn’t care, we knew we’d soon be down on the bay and thus sheltered from the winds. They had thrown themselves at us, hounded us, tore into us but they hadn’t defeated us. Instead it was us who had triumphed. And with this in mind we descended in high spirits, the sound of the ship’s horn echoing around us, celebrating our arrival. At 9:00pm we finally walked off the ice onto the stony beach of Fortuna Bay.
Our camp that night buzzed with excitement. We knew that tomorrow morning we would be joined by the support team for the remaining four hour hike to Stromness, and hence the end of our traverse of South Georgia in the footsteps of Shackleton, Crean and Worsley. We ate and drank our hot drinks whilst the support ship hoisted the Irish Flag and serenaded us with a rendition of Elvis Presley’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight”. And then we slept…as ordinary people doing extraordinary things….and we slept well.