Island of storms

14 January, 2014

Writer and journalist, Ed Douglas, recently returned from an attempt to follow Shackleton's crossing of South Georgia's glaciers and mountains. The traverse was the final stage of the famous polar explorer's epic journey to reach civilisation and save his crew, stranded just off the coast of Antarctica. Ed sent us his impressions of the trip and the island below:

Skiing across the Murray Snowfield, South Georgia.

Here it comes again. From some way up the glacier a rumble becomes a roar and then a shriek as the katabatic gust powers downhill towards the sea. Then it hits the tent. One of my companions, as wide-awake in the darkness as I am, is an experienced sailor with a reputation for understanding the dark arts of meteorology. “Fifty, maybe fifty-five knots,” he says drily, as the wind eases, and we can hear each other speak once more.

Teetering between Force 10 and 11 on the Beaufort scale, South Georgia is living up to its reputation. At the next blast, I pull my sleeping bag over my head and give silent thanks that our tent has double poles.

Our group was on the island to repeat the 36-hour traverse Ernest Shackleton made with his two companions in 1916, now a standard adventure travel itinerary done leisurely over several days. We had sailed from Stanley in Skip Novak’s legendary expedition boat, the s/v Pelagic Australis, a flat-out downwind sprint across a thousand kilometres of the Southern Ocean, arriving in three and a half days at King Haakon Bay, Shackleton’s landfall after his epic voyage from Elephant Island.

Mount Worsley (1104m) above King Haakon Bay.

H. W. Tilman, as in so many things, offered wise words for prospective travellers to this remote corner of the world: “A southern voyage has one or two drawbacks. The weather for one, which is likely to be ruder and colder, with a marked absence of the prolonged sunshine that is a heartening feature of the Greenland scene.”

Ruder and colder: lying within the Antarctic convergence, South Georgia is certainly colder. Tilman could sail 500 miles northeast from Deception Island on the Antarctic Peninsula, to latitudes equivalent in the northern hemisphere to that of Kendal, and find the southern tip of South Georgia no less icy than the South Shetlands he had just left. As for rudeness, South Georgia’s geography – a dragon’s back thrust into the Screaming Fifties – can certainly leave you feeling abused.

Blasted by wind but protected by Gore-Tex, I wondered how Shackleton’s party would have fared without the calm conditions and largely clear skies that lasted the duration of their crossing. The ground isn’t often technical but it’s sometimes crevassed and a rope is useful. Shackleton himself knew he’d been lucky. As he lay in bed at the whaling station in Stromness, too comfortable to sleep, a storm raged outside, burying the glaciers and mountains he had just crossed in deep snow.

Given their worn and primitive equipment, the months of privation they’d suffered, and the agonies of their long and stormy passage from Elephant Island in the tiny James Caird, it seems unlikely they would have survived. It is not often remembered that another ship’s crew, from the wrecked auxiliary ship Argos, attempted to cross the island in similar fashion at around the same time – and failed to make it.

Even with our modern gear and copious supplies, we didn’t actually complete the traverse. After two days holed up in heavy snow and wild conditions, wind slab forced us off route, down into Possession Bay, from where the boat ferried us around so we could approach the final section from another angle. When his small band heard the siren at the whaling station at Stromness, it must have been the most blessed intrusion into their long isolation.

Grytviken and Cumberland East Bay

Stromness is now, for reasons of health and safety, off limits. Its rusting, weather-beaten collection of buildings is falling to bits, spreading asbestos into the air. In strong winds, airborne corrugated iron might decapitate a tourist. Shackleton’s warm, comfortable bed is long gone. A sign prohibits you from approaching the ruined whaling station, which was used most effectively as a ship repair yard. On the ground nearby is a collection of ships’ propellers, pitted with cavitation, which were removed from ships being refitted and then abandoned. The ships’ crews and station workers are mostly dead and their extraordinary, windswept world mostly forgotten.

Shackleton’s name endures, and will no doubt be burnished further as the centenary of the Endurance expedition rolls past. Immediately after his death, his name faded quickly, certainly in comparison to Robert Falcon Scott’s – a glorious sacrifice was more in keeping with the times. But the trope of someone escaping from danger, fighting to the end and saving his crew has gained currency in recent decades. Scott is now the bumbler, Shackleton the canny survivor who knew where to draw the line.

Neither of these polar legends resonated much with me visiting South Georgia. “We had pierced the veneer of outside things,” Shackleton wrote in South, of the moment they realised they were safe – an obscure, metaphysical conclusion to their long struggle. But how deeply did Shackleton really “pierce the veneer”? He seems to me a restless, uncertain man, who shone as a leader in the worst conditions imaginable but lacked Roald Amundsen’s intellectual curiosity to understand fully the challenges of such an environment.

Adventure may be an escape for some and a challenge for others, but it’s also revealing about the world we leave behind and our place in it. Shackleton was among the last of the imperial explorers, explaining his motives in terms of King and country, of patriotism and service. Nature was simply a divine creation. In his mastery of its wildest reaches, Shackleton hoped to leave a mark, not in Antarctica but in the estimation of society.

That world died in Flanders as Shackleton sailed south. By the time he re-emerged it couldn’t care less about such grandiose schemes. “Millions are being killed,” the manager at Stromness told him. “Europe is mad. The world is mad.”

Whale vertebrae at Stromness.

The world is still mad. Exploring the whaling station at Grytviken, made safe for cruise ship passengers to visit – one of the few places they are allowed ashore – I felt myself to be in some kind of death camp, a cetacean Auschwitz, surrounded by ovens used to process creatures whose intelligence and self-awareness is still barely understood.

Here’s a little of what we’ve discovered since almost wiping out most whale species: the brains of some whale species have spindle neurons, limited to only a very few of the most intelligent animals, including us. Whales have culture, in the sense that they teach learned behaviours to their children. They most likely have names for each other, and may, like dolphins, be self-aware. The females of some whale species experience menopause, something we once thought only humans did. The implications of this last discovery are staggering.

The waters around South Georgia were once teeming with whales, but in half a century almost all were killed and processed in installations like Grytviken. The same human ingenuity explorers apply to overcoming hostile conditions or high mountains perfected this system even as the supply of whales was finally exhausted. By the end we knew exactly what we were doing but did it anyway. Then, with the development of factory whaling ships, this mechanised slaughter cut its links with the land to flush out the last survivors in the remotest corners of the globe.

One of the most haunting sights in Grytviken is the exploding harpoon mounted on the prow of the abandoned whaling ship Petrel. Rather than a sharp tip, its nose is blunt, so that the weapon smashes through the whale’s body rather than pierces it, so the charge is buried deep within the animal when it explodes. Even then the whale could take a long time to die. Inside Grytviken’s excellent museum, there is a small phial of formaldehyde holding the diminutive foetus of a humpback, perhaps six inches long and a fortnight old when its mother was killed in this way. The men who processed the bodies of pregnant females knew the risks of an unborn whale expelled at speed by the gases building up in the corpse they were working on.

This makes for grim reading, I know. To balance it I should say that penguin and fur seal populations on South Georgia have recovered from a similar, earlier slaughter. To have seen, at a glance, two hundred thousand king penguins was an extraordinary, noisome and uplifting experience. Yet not as uplifting as the idea that when we choose to show restraint, the natural world can recover a good measure of its former complexity and wonder.

Some of the 200,000 king penguins at St Andrews Bay.

The drama of South Georgia, its epic harshness and adamantine beauty, the stories of courage and sordid exploitation, dwarf any notions – pace Shackleton – of adventure and exploration. Except that here the modern examples of what we do are surprisingly more inspiring than those of earlier generations because they show respect and a lighter touch. For example, Mount Paget, the island’s highest mountain, was conquered by a vast military expedition using helicopters to transfer supplies to a higher camp. That really is shooting the fox – or a penguin.

I was more inspired by stories from the first circumnavigation of South Georgia in a sea kayak, or the first journey on skis along the length of the island – or even the mapping expeditions of Duncan Carse, which showed more of a feeling for place, and less for actors, excuse the pun, starring in their own dramas. In this day and age, we have to learn to do more with less, and think more carefully of where we put our feet, never mind our flags. Mindfulness in adventure – now there’s an idea.

Text & photos © Ed Douglas 2014