Bowermaster’s Antarctica — In the Footsteps of Shackleton

Fortuna Bay, South Georgia

Ernest Shackleton had an intimate relationship with South Georgia. He stopped here for a month in 1914 before sailing the “Endurance” to its crushing fate in Antarctica; a year and a half later with five others he sailed the gerry-rigged lifeboat “James Caird” 800 miles across the Scotia Sea to King Haarkon Bay, arriving on May 9, 1916; and in 1922 he returned, died and is buried here.

On a warm and sun-filled morning we land at Fortuna Bay, to repeat the last chunk of Shackleton’s legendary and unprecedented climb across South Georgia. A steep and muddy tussock hill leads to fields of broken slate, which climb gradually to 3,000 feet. The higher we get, the more stunning the landscape grows: tall, spiky, far off peaks covered in snow, clear mountain ponds, tufts of soft moss scattered among the shattered scree, waterfalls tumbling off nearby walls.

It was the whalers of South Georgia who first warned Shackleton that his route to the northern edge of the Antarctic continent was likely to be barred by unusually heavy concentrations of ice that had arrived the year he sailed for the Weddell Sea in December. He went anyway; we don’t know what he was thinking when he left South Georgia then nor what exactly when he thought when returned via the “James Caird.” In retrospect would he think it had been a mistake to take the “Endurance” down that season?
Exhausted by the 16 days it took from Elephant Island in the tiny boat, they narrowly negotiated a landing and crawled ashore on the southwestern side of the island, at Cape Rosa. But ultimate safety lay on the north side of the island, at the whaling station called Stromness. Leaving three of his crew under the upturned “James Caird,” Shackleton along with Tom Crean and Frank Worsley set off with minimal equipment (stove, binoculars, compass, an ice ax and ninety feet of rope).

Shackleton wrote of the beginning of the climb: “The snow-surface was disappointing. Two days before we had been able to move rapidly on hard packed snow; now we sank over our ankles at each step. High peaks, impassable cliffs, steep snow-slopes and sharply descending glaciers were prominent features in all directions, with stretches of snow-plain overlaying the ice-sheet of the interior …. The moon, which proved a good friend during this journey, threw a long shadow at one point and told us that the surface was broken in our path. Warned in time, we avoided a huge hole capable of swallowing a small army.”

At one point they had detoured badly and had to drop down to Fortuna Bay, which is where we picked up their trail.

Standing at the crest of the hill, the point at which Shackleton would have seen the sea on the eastern side of the island and possibly evidence of the whaling station at Stromness, it is hard to imagine what must have gone through his mind, after a year and a half being lost. One big difference is their journey in May was through deep snow; we see barely a snow patch on this mid-summer day. What told them they were in the right place after thirty-six hours of climbing, across twenty-two miles of previously unexplored and inhospitable terrain, was the very civilized whistle of the whaling factory’s wake-up call.

“Men lived in houses lit by electric light on the east coast. News of the outside world waited us there, and, above all, the east coast meant for us the means of rescuing the twenty-two men we had left on Elephant Island.”

Clambering downhill, past the tall waterfall Shackleton allegedly rappelled down, we cross a wide, wet plain of saw grass and glacial melt. Rusted remnants of the whaling station still stand, though today it’s tumbling down and off-limits due to being filled with asbestos and flying sheet metal. Thousands of fur seals wait on the beach to greet us; they have taken over the place, aggressively chasing us down the beach as soon as we step onto the sand.