I spent the afternoon walking on a piece of fast ice the size of a small town – floating on the surface, about six feet thick, still attached to the continent – in a fjord known as Beaujoix. Many of the landmarks in the area bear French names, like the big island of Pourquoi Pas, for example, thanks to the early exploits this far south by Frenchman Jean Charcot.
Surrounded on three sides by breathtaking tall mountains and glaciers and on the other by the black Southern Ocean, this is as far south as I’ve ever been. Further south than all but a few ever get along the Peninsula. The reward was a long walk on new snow-covered ice. A dozen leopard seals play along the ice edge and small squadrons of Adelie penguins walk and scoot on their bellies alongside.
We tried to get here last year by sea kayak, but our attempt to sneak through the Gullet just north – a narrow sliver of sometimes-open water – was for naught, and we only got as far as the bottom of Crystal Sound. Our goal last year was to get exactly to this point, to Blailock Island where, on the northeast corner, an old friend, Giles Kershaw, is buried. I think we may have spotted the sight today, marked by a stone cairn, as we trekked.
I met Giles in the mid-1980s, when he already had a reputation as the very best Arctic and Antarctic pilot in the business. He had flown for the British Antarctic Survey from 1974 to 1979 and had around the world, over both poles, and provided air support for many major expeditions. In 1983 alone he landed at the North Pole twenty-three times. In 1980 he was awarded a medal from the Queen of England, after he flew across a thousand miles of trackless Antarctic white to rescue three South African scientists who had been marooned on an iceberg for eight days. Even among his adventuring peers, Giles was considered the most adventuresome, the most curious, and the most visionary.
In 1985, after successfully helping a pair of wealthy American climbers scale the tallest peak on the continent, Mt. Vinson, he and two Canadian partners (Martyn Williams and Pat Morrow) started what is still the only private business operating in Antarctica. Then called Adventure Network International, they set up a seasonal base camp at Patriot Hills, near the Thiel Mountains in Antarctica’s interior, and flew in climbers, expeditioners and South Pole-bound tourists. Along the way they helped out a fair amount of international scientists, which is why the Antarctic Treaty and its membership – which bans private enterprise here – looked the other way and allowed them to operate.
In 1988 Giles helped lay supply caches between the tip of the Peninsula and the South Pole for my friend Will Steger’s Transantarctica Expedition and, on March 5, 1990, he was killed just near where I walked today. His Antarctica season had just ended and he was on a boat anchored just offshore from here, making experimental flights with a homemade gyrocopter. It crashed into a glacier at the edge of the Jones Ice Shelf. Several years later the mountain that anchors the northeast corner of the island across from where I stand is named for him.
That personal history notwithstanding, this spot on the map is one of the most remarkable places I’ve ever put my feet. Remote, stark, and unrelentingly beautiful. Even turning a full 360, twisting my boots in the soft snow, I can’t take it all in, too enormous to describe or articulate. You’ll have to come see it for yourself one day!
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