SHACKLETON ACROSS SOUTH GEORGIA

13 Jan

I am giving a number of talks on’ Shackleton’s Life and Times’ this year. He is of particular interest now because; a hundred years ago he was still trapped in the icy grip of the Weddell Sea – no hope of any communication or help in those days.
His third expedition, the ‘Trans Antarctic’ expedition is an heroic story, but when I come to the final section, the crossing of South Georgia, I tend to keep it brief: The audience has, after all by then, gone through his early life, the ‘Discovery’ and ‘Nimrod’ Expeditions, plus five sections of the Job’s Trials that was the ‘Trans Antarctic’ expedition.
But the crossing of South Georgia is an epic story in itself. Having arrived at South Georgia in the adapted whaler The James Caird’ after a voyage that Shackleton feared might end in disaster, the six-men crew landed in King Haakon Bay through a narrow gap in a line of reefs, a gap ‘like blackened teeth’, so narrow that they had to ship their oars to get through. But they landed on the uninhabited side of the island; the whaling station in Stromness was some 26 miles away. The James Caird could not sail around the island safely. so a journey had to be made on foot across an utterly unknown and forbidding series of mountains and glaciers. Shackleton picked two of his five companions: Tom Crean and Frank Worsley to make the journey with him.
Shackleton wrote later: ‘I know that over that long and racking march of 36 hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia, it seemed to me we were four men not three’ – they were being looked after by an unknown being, a concept taken up by T.S.Eliot in The Waste Land.
The three started out early on 19 May 1916 moving by the light of the moon. The only one with mountain experience was Worsley. Each man carried a three- day food supply in his sock. They took a primus stove plus oil, a pot, matches, a compass, a chronometer, a rope, an adze and pieces of wood from the James Caird to use as walking sticks. Soon after starting they were in fog. They roped themselves together; Worsley the navigator came last, shouting directions.
As the morning advanced they found they had crossed the island at its narrowest point, but from their vantage point the mountains dropped precipitously ahead of them and they were forced backwards. Throughout the day impassable ridges stopped their progress. They were fatigued and frostbitten.
The next stage seems to me to be almost the most dispiriting. They arrived at a place where there were five craggy peaks ahead, blunt fingers reaching into the sky. They could not find a descent pathway from the first two gaps and had to go back. Each ascent was steeper than the previous one. The third (particularly exhausting), took them to 5.000 feet. Finally, at the most northern of the four gaps they looked onto a precipice that dropped 300 feet before disappearing into the mist (or eternity).
What to do? Although Shackleton was said to be a careful and cautious leader generally, he felt they had no choice; they had nothing to loose with twenty-five men depending on them. He consulted his companions. ‘Are you willing to take a risk’? They inched down the precipitous cliff, cutting footholds with the adze, until they arrived at a snowy slope with no visible bottom. With fantastic daring the three sat, one behind the other (as if on a toboggan) and took off. They seemed to shoot into space. They shouted with excitement as they slid down 900 feet in minutes. Incredibly the slope ended leveled out and ended in a bank of snow. They had made it!
But still the trial was not ended and the men were exhausted. Shackleton allowed Crean and Worsley to sleep for five minutes (keeping awake himself by an iron will) and woke them saying they had rested for half an hour. The three had to pass over yet another ridge to get down to the coast. They struggled on and by dawn of the second day they reached a gap from which they could both see Stromness and hear the 6.30 am whistle that woke the men in the station. At 7 am they heard it again. This was their first evidence of human habitation since December 1914.
Still the problems were not over. The three then had to descend to the station carefully along the banks of and in, an icy stream, then lower themselves by rope down a thirty foot waterfall. They waded through the water before finally staggering towards the station. They were filthy, tattered, with wild hair and beards (Worsley safety-pinned his clothes together so as not to give offence). They carried the logbook the adze and the cooker, lasting memorials of their ordeal.
At the station they were seen first by two boys who, reasonably, fled. When the manager came he said ‘Well’? ‘Don’t you know me said Shackleton’? I know your voice came the doubtful reply. ‘My name is Shackleton’.
Some of the station men wept.
Some say that Shackleton’s third Antarctic expedition should never have been made. Differing views are held, but for courage, endurance and leadership in adversity it is difficult to imagine anyone more capable of giving hope, inspiring admiration and instilling confidence.

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