Kuli South Georgia Expedition

Oct 20

Drilling in Shackleton's Footsteps

Published at 20:05
Dispatch created from email
If our newest ice core could talk, it could give a guest lecture on Polar history when it arrives at the University of Maine.

The edge of the Fortuna Glacier, where we were drilling on Friday, was traversed by no less than Ernest Shackleton and his men in 1916. We were gathering scientific specimens. They were making their way through South Georgia's
unsurveyed wilderness in a bid to save the lives of their shipwrecked crewmates.

Their journey is a classic of Polar lore. After Shackleton's ship, the Endurance, sank off the coast of Antarctica in December 1915, the crew was forced to decamp to nearby Elephant Island to await rescue. By April 1916, with no rescue in sight and the Antarctic winter approaching, Shackleton and five men set off in an open lifeboat, the James Caird, and sailed 800 miles to seek help from whalers in South Georgia.

Crossing the Southern Ocean in a lifeboat is an achievement whose scale is hard to overstate. There were no dry places in the boat, and at last we simply covered our heads with our Burberrys and endured the all-pervading water, Shackleton wrote in his memoir, South. None of us had any real rest. The perpetual motion of the boat made repose impossible; we were cold, sore and anxious.

They reached South Georgia's southern coast after 16 days tossing about. Shackleton and two of his men then marched across the ice-covered mountains with no clear idea where they were going. Their walk across the Fortuna Glacier, perhaps on the very ice that is now on its way to UMaine, was an unintended detour as they tried to reach the whaling station in neighboring Stromness Bay. They found their way after hearing the Stromness factory whistle blow on May 20, 1916. They had been hiking for 36 hours.

A replica of the James Caird lifeboat now sits next to the museum in Grytviken. I cannot imagine spending an afternoon in that boat parked on dry land with a picnic lunch, let alone 16 days on the coldest, stormiest waters in the world. Shackleton saved his men back on Elephant Island. He now lies buried in the whaler's cemetery about 200 meters from where I am writing these lines.

Today, the Fortuna Glacier looks very different from when Shackleton trod the ice. Back then, the glacier reached almost to the waterfront. Today, visitors will find huge mounds of dirt at the beach, followed by three football fields'
worth of empty, flat land before the ice begins. This empty space is the area over which the glacier has receded over the past century due to warmer temperatures. Shackleton probably would have traded vital organs in exchange for some warmer weather. For us, it's a threat.

We never realize what the human spirit is capable of until adversity forces itself upon us. Still, I cannot help but wonder whether we, who complain when the Pelagic Australis' bathrooms are to cold, when we can't get email on our Iridium phone, and when our iPods aren't charged up, couldn't learn a thing or two from Ernest Shackleton.

Our next coring expedition is set for October 21 in Possession Bay. If current plans prevail, we will set sail on October 22 to make the week-long crossing back to the Falklands.
  • Name: Fortuna glacier
  • Elevation: 0 m
  • Latitude: 54° 760South
  • Longitude: 36° 4760West


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