When the last blog ended we were high above Shackletons’ pass, a few km west of the Trident mountain range and hunkered down for the night in three small red tents dug down deep into the snow; Since then a lot has happened that I will try and capture with the help of several of the team who made the crossing. I apologise for the delay to the blog and beg your forgiveness but if I’m absolutely honest, following that first night on the Island there was rarely time, inclination or satellite connectivity to get much more than a quick location report back to the boat. With the length of this last entry we have, hopefully made up for our tardiness in getting it out.
In the Blog on the 11th, matt spoke eloquently of the teams’ high regard for the efforts of Shackleton, Crean and Worsley; Over the last few days our respect for these truly remarkable men has grown ten-fold. Indeed from the very start, one of the founding pillars of this expedition has been to celebrate those incredible achievements in the 100th anniversary of their crossing. However, It has also been to celebrate the continued presence of similar grit, resourcefulness and resilience in today’s Sailors and Royal Marines; Adventurous Training in its purest form must offer genuine challenge if the individual is to dig deep within themselves and learn from the experience. I can say with a degree of certainty that the last 3 days have provided that challenge in spades for one and all. Completing the crossing at this time of year in these conditions has undoubtedly been hard, harder perhaps than we had anticipated, but with that came greater anticipated benefits and I’m confident that the lessons we learnt about ourselves, about the rest of the team and about remaining strong and in good spirits in the face of adversity, will stay with us for a long time.
So much occurred during the course of the crossing that it would take more than a few lines in a blog to tell the tale properly. For now I will constrain myself to the barest of outlines and leave others from the team to add their own personal bit of colour.
Resuming where Matt left off, the strong winds he spoke off built during the night to epic proportions as the wind accelerated over the glacier to strike the sides of the tents. To provide some degree of shelter from the ravages of the wind we’d dug the tents in, working hard to provide individual snug snow pits. For the rest of the evening and into the early hours we worked hard to dig them out again. Spindrift filled the pits as fast as we could clear it and snow accumulated pressing down heavily onto the tent sides, bending even the double poles of these fantastic Helleberg tents and dramatically limiting the space available inside. One group even packed everything up in anticipation of a collapsing tent. Needless to say, for most another night without sleep, although Doc and Josh seem to have remained remarkably oblivious to their tent disappearing under a mountain of snow, emerging only as the snow started to cut off the air……
Tired but determined we resumed our yomp up to the Tridents, three dark triangular peaks spanning the centre of the Island, or more specifically the high saddles between the peaks. The only problem was we were immediately faced with next to zero visibility and high winds. Marching on a compass bearing across a white surface, into white clouds under a white sky demands patience and concentration and the lead man on each rope had to frequently be brought back onto bearing after a wild swing to left or right, all the time swearing they were still heading in a straight line. Finally through a brief clearing in the cloud Dan spotted the hard outline of the central peak and guided the two rope teams the last few yards into the northern saddle. A brief pause to congratulate each other on the ascent and then all eyes turned towards the descent………….. the ominously steep descent. I’ll leave Matt B to describe the detail but Matt H certainly earned his ML pay that day with a bold down climb.
As we reached the top of the trident I was relieved, it was downhill from here which was a nice thought, until I saw what we had to descend. Cleverly we had taken the slightly easier angled ascent of the two in order to reach the top of the trident saving energy for the long day ahead.
Tony’s rope team went first lead by Matt H, I lead the second rope team with molly in the rear to help keep the less experienced of our rope team in balance between me and him. It began with traversing a snowy face on the trident but we soon had to turn to the front points of our crampons as terrain steepened in order to gain a ridge down the centre of the trident. It was very exposed and one wrong step here could’ve been tragic. We were able to turn to face forwards and walk down stomping our heels into the snow for a while now until we reached a band of fresh snow, lying on top of a layer of hard ice making the avalanches threat that much greater so we traversed again aiming for a rocky outcrop.
The terrain steepened and turning to the front points of our crampons again was the only option. It’s a simple yet very effective technique where you kick in your front points – left foot – right foot – axe – hand – repeat – moving sideways upwards or downwards the technique works very well. Left foot – right foot – shovel handle – repeat! We carried on and made it to a rocky outcrop without causing an avalanche or having anyone slip. We now came across the other team lowering off one by one over a tricky rock section with another severely steep snow slope below. Our rope chose perhaps an easier descent back on the snow but first we had to take care traversing a lot of loose rock. Again we made it unscathed and began the final down-climb starting on front points then switching to heels as the slope eased. Phew we made it, so far no injuries! Matt B
Safely down on the snow field we refocused on the next task, the Crean Glacier just a KM or two of deep snow breaking away.
The Crean Glacier is an immense mass of ice crashing down from the centre of the island and out into Antarctic bay. Glaciers come in all shapes and sizes but generally they can be classified either Dry or Wet (bare ice or snow covered). Crossing either type comes with its own challenge. Dry glaciers the crevasses are exposed and so you can reduce the risk of dropping into one by threading a convoluted pattern across the ice. Of course this means the route takes significantly longer and inevitably you reach a point where there is no longer a way across without risking a snow bridge crossing between the patches of hard ice. On a wet glacier, snow conceals the crevasses and therefore you can take a much more direct course across the glacier, oblivious to how many snow bridges you are crossing. The mental challenges are unique, On the one hand approaching a visible snow bridge on a dry glacier you have to summon up the nerve to gently probe the snow bridge in front of you before nervously lowing your weight onto it. On a wet glacier the drop into open space just comes as a surprise and every step is something of a lottery. With the above in mind it should be clear why we travelled for almost three entire days constantly roped together in a four and a five man team. The principle being that if one man ‘punches through’ the remainder of the team hold his weight long enough for him to climb out or for a rescue system to be set up.
On the dry Crean Glacier Matt H again stepped up and led the way across numerous snow bridges. After a long laborious crossing we finally reached the other side and a well earned hot wet cooked up in the lee of a small ice ridge. Moving off again Molly soon demonstrated more of the risks associated with glaciers, firstly miss-judging a leap across a crevasse and badly tearing a calf muscle and then being blow off a ice ridge down into another deep crevasse.
With the day well advanced and the wind again climbing towards gale conditions we began another race to find shelter. At the far side of the snowfield in front of us the northern end of the Cornwall mountain ridge eventually buries itself in the ice and it’s final rock spur seemed to offer the perfect shelter. All that remained was to get there……… Trail breaking in deep snow can be extremely energy sapping and this crossing was no exception, Regardless of how long we walked, the ridge simply didn’t seem to get any closer; darkness fell and the spindrift lashed at us all until each man retreated into a private battle with themselves to keep moving forward. At 2230, we finally turned the corner and managed the winds dropped to a manageable level, alarmingly dehydrated and dead on our feet we threw ourselves into the task of digging platforms for three tents and getting the stoves going for hot wets and the first proper meal since breakfast……..Dan did have to be woken up to eat food and fell asleep holding his flask upright.
The next morning brought bright blue skies and soaring morale. It also brought another long yomp across Fortuna Glacier and up to Breakwind Ridge (clearly a cartographer with a sense of humour). A wet glacier, we were able to make much better time across the Fortuna, progress slowed only by the repeated ‘punch through’ into concealed crevasses. Fortunately none were further than a drop through to the waist but it was still unsettling to be hanging with nothing under your feet and the effort involved in scrambling out again took its toll. The reward for all this effort however was some amazing wide vistas across this land of ice, snow and rugged black mountains. An early start had ensured that by mid-morning we had crested the final major ridge line and were set to begin the decent into Fortuna Bay. The descent itself turned out to be a little more ‘challenging than anticipated as Dan describes below.
With climbing experience limited to a few school days out, an RN team building day and the AE16 training package a 1000ft ice down climb was a big ask. I have no fear of heights having quite happily chucked myself out of perfectly serviceable aircraft numerous times, however put me on a rope and place me on an edge and I become a nervous wreck.
So after an early start and trekking through the day until 1300 I was to be greeted with an awe inspiring panoramic view of the North East mountain range that stood over the whaling stations of days gone by. This view is not available anywhere else in the World and has reminded me how pretty insignificant we as humans are, when you consider these giants have been here for millions of years. Initially walking off the summit of Breakwind ridge (at 631, thanks to Donald’s watch that has everything-perks of Doctors pay), down a gentle slope that wouldn’t look out of place on a “blue run” at a European ski resort; This soon vanished and became a never ending descent of snow in to Fortuna Bay, which at the time looked like a distant refuge from the towering gargantuan we had to climb down.
After crossing the face of the mountain using a side stepping method, the angle of the decent rapidly increased to what I would call ‘terrifying’. This caused us to face the snow and ‘Front Point’ down the snow slope, this is done by kicking your feet in to the snow, one hand is punched in to the snow and the other hand plunging the ice axe into the slope face. The enduring pain of a cold wet left hand gripping the snow, an aching right wrist/arm from using the axe and the repetitive kicking in of both feet cannot be underestimated. There was an ever constant fear of losing grip and falling, potentially putting the rest of the team in great danger ensured there was no time to look at the views behind and below me.
As a team we descended really well, each moving together to keep the ropes tight therefore limiting the possibility of someone falling if they lost their footing/grip. Tony managed to find us a rocky outcrop for a quick rest, for me this gave me time to contemplate what I had just done and how there is no other method of getting off this bloody great giant of rock and snow, except by carrying on. We continued our downward journey kicking in and hanging on until we encountered a mass of rock that prevented the now perfected technique. This is where the Mountain Leader branch of the Royal Marines became a necessity. Matt H took constructed a rudimentary anchor point using his own body as a counterbalance to individually lower us over the edge of rock face and down 25-30m. Once lowered on to another outcrop I took the time to get warm kit on, some well needed scran and more importantly pose for a steely photo that will undoubtedly become a Facebook profile picture!
This outcrop for us was also the last part of the decent that was technical. The final 100 or so meters to Fortuna Bay was akin to a skiers “Black Run” which is quite blasé of me to say, but after conquering what was above the outcrop I can safely say we achieved more mountaineering in that day than most will experience in a lifetime. Descending the final snow slope at an easier gradient, Kris took the opportunity to use his boots as skis (one of his crampons having failed during the lowering over the rock edge) dragging the rest of his rope team along at an uncomfortably fast walk – much like being pulled along by a large dog.
This was a personal achievement that I don’t expect to be replicating anytime soon; for someone with next to no knowledge of mountaineering or climbing this experience has been a baptism of fire. This is the point of AT, taking someone out of their comfort zone, placing them in an environment that exposes them to risk whilst challenging the individual mentally and physically
Leading the team down off the hill was a particularly challenging period for me constantly balancing risk and trying to ensure the team remained confident and assured in their own ability despite so many of them being so far outside their comfort zone. The palpable release in tension on safely reaching the valley floor and finally unroping and stepping out of harnesses for the first time in three days was significant; smiles all round and a genuine sense of achievement. Safe and successful the descent had never-the-less taken almost 4 hours and darkness was rapidly approaching. Head torches on and a renewed sense of purpose we strode out across the glacial moraine and down into the flat bottomed Fortuna bay for what turned out to be the most magical wildlife encounter of the entire trip. Kris puts it in his own words.
Kris’s bit –
So as we stood in the shadow of the beast we just conquered, we then looked upon our new challenge. We had to cross a large beach colonised by penguins and seals with darkness soon upon us. We stepped off as 9 adventurers buoyant and excited by the challenge in front of us. The closer we got to the beach the noisier it became and the stench was over powering even more so than 8 smashed up adventure loving men and Emily. As we approached the beach darkness fell completely the beams of our head torches only adding to the tension. Nerves were twitching and bodies were tired but we set off onto the beach. Thousands of Penguins were waking up to see a strange blob of light cast by 9 head torches approaching them, their response varied, some stood transfixed, some simply ignored us and some waddled off in all directions, rather slowly. These were magnificent king penguins in the middle of fattening up for the winter so they certainly won’t be challenging Usain Bolt anytime soon. Seals on the other hand are deceptively quick and can be aggressive. As we moved through hundreds of penguins and seals we assumed a defensive formation checking all of our flanks and Emily checking our rear, most seals weren’t interested by us and tried to get out of our way but the odd one took exception to a blob of light waking them up. They charged us but soon backed off as we shouted at them to scare them off, our American team mate holla’ing them like he was back in the hood. We did our very best to avoid disturbing the wildlife too much but there wwere simply too many penguins and seals to avoid them completely and a fir seal bite is a serious thing that we couldn’t afford to risk. The beach stretched for nearly a mile and in the dark and the rain it took a lot of concentration to avoid any nasty encounters. Just when we thought the end was in sight we come across what can only describe as an absolute monster of an elephant seal. Matt Hoey cried out “ what the f*** is that!!!!!!” it was almost like a the bad guy at the end of a computer game, one last foe to conquer. We moved left, he moved left, we moved right, he moved right, it was a stand-off of epic proportions. We sold him the right shoulder faint and swung round the left. Just as we all seemed to be past the great beast he takes a lunge and myself and Matt Hoey, we backed off like scared little school girls. As we stared down the eyes of the beast with our hearts in our mouths and beads of sweat wetting our brow we pulled ourselves together and made a bolt for it, scraping narrowly through with all our parts intact only to be greeted by an anticipated river crossing. With a massive elephant seal behind us making moves towards us and only one way to go we stepped forth into a thigh deep river of freezing cold glacial run off water. In the dark the water seethed with seals and penguins all dashing in different directions and in the middle of it the nine of us arms linked fording the river. It was a strange sensation to have the dark water curling around our thighs and then glimpse a seal pup nibbling at one leg and feel the sleek body of a penguin strike the other, Straight away we almost had our first issue as Emily took a tumble spinning around to face the wrong way as she tripped, luckily for her she was saved by 2 marines and a mine clearance diver, Every women’s dream. With a bit of persistence we made it across safe and sound, laughing but soaked to the mid-thigh and rapidly getting cold. Kris C
After the adventures on the beach we were all feeling the effects of a very long day on the mountain and the unavoidable dunking in the river and we still had the steep climb up over the next saddle into Shackleton’s valley down to the old whaling station at Stromness. After a quick consultation over satellite phone with Tim back on the boat we made the decision to try and find flat ground and get the tents up again for another wet night out in the field. Warming everyone up again was the first priority and gathered in a circle in the dark punching the air and sprinting on the spot we must have presented a strange sight for the resident wildlife. The second priority was finding a flat spot to camp. The hundreds of fur seals in the valley bottom ruled that out as an option and so compasses set on due east we yomped off into the dark climbing the far side of the valley scanning for the first bit of flat ground capable of taking the three little red tents. Eventually a shout from above indicated the two matts had identified a suitable spot, wet but flat and with a clear water source nearby…… Tents went up in double time and it wasn’t long before the stoves were roaring away and the team settled down for a few hours rest.
The morning sun rose high in the southern sky, revealing the huddled sodden campsite of our gallant Antarctic explorers. A few short hours spent sleeping, admittedly in soaking wet kit for some, had restored our spirits and partially renewed our tired bodies.
Stepping forth from the tents we were greeted to a view of Fortuna Bay and the hordes of wildlife which we had passed through on the previous night. Looking above us, towered the remainder of the Shackleton Trek rising to the east. Over shale hills and rushing mountain streams we trekked, fully enjoying the morning and knowing that soon the journey would be over.
Suddenly, there at the top of the rise, was the vision we’d all been waiting for. To the east in the crisp, cold morning air was Stromness, the tiny little whaling station which was the culmination of Shackleton’s hopes. Little imagination was required by our team to picture the sense of relief felt by Sir Ernest as he stood atop that rocky outcropping and looked down upon Stromness, knowing that his arrival meant salvation for him and his men. There, riding at anchor in the harbour, was our jaunty little cutter; our home away from home. A sense of joy overcame us all as laughter rang out across the vale. Hands were shaken and congratulations exchanged. No event of this magnitude is complete without the obligatory photoshoot, so we clicked away with a half a dozen different cameras; Kris had to have his Shackleton model photo taken and our Royals would not stop pouting until someone took a picture of them each wearing the single green beret which Matt H. had dutifully lugged halfway around the world.
It was all downhill from thence, both figuratively and literally as we made our way down from the craggy heights above to the riverbed leading to the sea. Boggy lands bordered the little stream which meandered down from the glaciers above, tumbling over rocky falls to the valley floor until it finally reached the harbour. Along its bank we trekked the last few kilometres onto the beach. Wildlife was in abundance as we threaded out way through fur seals and young King penguins whilst albatrosses and giant petrels soared overhead.
Finally in the late morning we reached the stony shores of Stromness. The beach was littered with sleeping seals which would awaken only to either snarl or snort at us. Some would run others would sit up and blink at us as we strolled past. Once we got to the water’s edge, the babies would waddle up out of the sea and sniff our bergans. Three particularly inquisitive chaps surrounded Kris’s pack and began to tentatively nibble and taste the strange object. When chased away they sat in the surf looking at us, fully reminiscent of the ‘see no evil, say no evil, hear no evil’ monkeys.
I was the last to leave the beach that morning. Whilst sat there waiting on pickup by our intrepid skipper the magnitude of what we had accomplished settled upon me. This will be a story we tell and retell for the rest of our lives. (-Josh)
For me personally the trek across South Georgia has been a fantastic experience that will live with me for years to come. There were serene moments surrounded by fabulous vistas but also challenging ones, in particular leading the team off the hill down a very steep snow slope and then across a dark rain lashed beach through the most magical wildlife. What really impressed me however and will stay with me the longest is how well the rest of the team rose to meet their own individual challenges in such hugely demanding conditions. I learnt a little more about myself during the last few days but perhaps more importantly I also learnt that those qualities Shackleton and his men displayed so abundantly are very much still present amongst today’s Sailors and Marines, especially amongst this fine team of Sailors and Marines that I am proud to have shared this experience with.
The View from Xplore.
Stephen, Shady and I were responsible for taking the yacht round from King Haakon Bay to Stromness, remaining in touch with the shore team to ensure that we were close to the prearranged drop-off points on their route, should they need to take an early exit for any reason. The passage round was fantastic, taking in sightings of a humpback whale, penguin colonies on Bird Island, quiet bays for overnight anchorages and finally Stromness itself. Although I was getting regular updates on the team’s progress from Tony, it was still a nerve-wracking experience waiting in Stromness Harbour for their arrival, while keeping watch on the weather threatening both our anchorage and the team’s ability to make it down from the mountains. My relief when I spotted the red jackets of the team on our side of the saddle was palpable – they had done it and were on their way in! An extraordinary experience in itself, although much less physically demanding!