Saturday, October 26, 2013

Larry's account of our Shackleton Traverse Attempt

Posted by Larry

Shackleton Traverse – Day 1 - Tuesday Oct 22

We got to the beach at 4am local time and then hiked up to our cache. It was windy but not too cold. We got to the sleds, repacked, put our skins on our skis, roped up and started our climb up the snow. Our skis have alpine touring bindings which hinge at the toe which makes it easier to climb up and when we go downhill we can lock the heels down like a normal downhill binding. We are our own dogs, pulling the pulks (or sleds) and we put most of our weight in the pulks rather than our rucksack. We climbed up the first slope with Skip in the lead on the first rope with Gretchen, Cam and Georgio. On the second rope was Julian in the lead, Larry, Amy and then Ed. As the slope got steeper we put on our ski crampons to dig into the wind blown crust and allow us to go up sure-footed. Then Skip slipped on an even steeper traverse and we stopped to take off our skis and put crampons on our boots to scale the last slope to the top of the col and the beginning of the Murray Snowfield. The weather cleared and we were able to look back at the boat and the length of King Haakon Bay out to the open Southern Ocean through the mountains lining the Bay. To our right was beautiful glaciers coming down from a ridge and onto the edge of the snowfield. In front of us, a few miles ahead was the Trident ridge rising to its peak at 4,400 feet (1,337 meters).

Our goal was just this side of the ridge at the lowest gap on the left. Shackleton went first to the right, we think because that was closer to the direction of the whaling station at Stromness, but then realized it was too steep on the other side and checked the middle gap and finally crossed the left gap. We stopped for a quick lunch break and then got going again. We had a long way to go and a couple hours of digging in at our camp before dark. It got windy and cloudy after about an hour of skiing up the relatively flat snowfield. Luckily the wind was at our back. The visibility got worse and the slope got steeper. We climbed up to the base of the middle gap – a really steep bit in heavy snow where the pulks were really beginning to feel the end of the day, extra heaviness. At the top of the slope there was an enormous wind scoop 200 feet deep down to the base of the rock. We then traversed left over to the base of the left gap and set camp 10 feet from the edge of the next wind scoop that was only about 150 feet deep. The reason to be that close was that it was flat at the edge and not far up to the left gap in the morning. We dug in our three tents, put all our wet gear in the tent and got in for some well deserved tea. Ed, Amy and I tented in together and Ed did a great job of making a noodle and tuna mixture followed by a tin of peaches and chocolate and more tea to rehydrate. It blew 50 knots on the boat in King Haakon Bay that night. It blew mighty hard up high as well, but we were protected by the windscoop and rock face above us. It snowed heavily all night long and we could hear a few big serac (ice block) falls echoing around the peaks.

I then re-read Shackleton's account of his traverse in his book "South". While they are incomparable efforts and consequences, I felt blessed to be able to experience some of the same topography in such a remote part of the world known for its wild weather which we would get to experience more in the coming days. We were asleep by dark and all slept soundly given how hard we had worked to get there.

Day 2 – Wednesday – back off the Trident ridge and onto the Murray Snowfield

When we awoke before dawn there had been about 18" of new snow covering everything. We had our porridge and tea, got our kit ready, stowed our tents and then started to look up at our route and the condition of the snow. An assessment of the snow left us feeling that the leeward side of the Trident ridge was going to have extreme avalanche danger due to wind slabbing at the top. Meanwhile, even the windward side was sliding as a big ice fall reported from someplace nearby and higher up. We decided that we could either stay here at this camp for a few days and wait to see if conditions improved or cross the island to Possession Bay directly to our North. Since the weather has been such a series of low pressure systems coming through without a break and the forecast showed no breaks in the next week, we decided to move towards Possession Bay. It was disappointing to not continue to follow Shackleton's route, but it was clearly the right decision. It also brought home how absolutely lucky (if you can call any part of Shackleton's ordeal lucky) he was to have the clear weather he did to get across the ridge and the moonlight to guide him across the Crean Glacier on the other side. If he had the weather we did, he would most likely would not have been able to cross.

We skied down about a mile, roped up in very low visibility. We decided, since we'd be up here for a couple days to camp on a flat spot in the middle of the snowfield leading down to Possession Bay. We pitched camp again. It cleared for about an hour and we could see the bay about 1300 feet below us and about a 1.5 miles distant. The big question would be where to come down to the bay. Some of the bays are completely surrounded by cliffs and from above, what looks like a gentle slope often ends in a 600 foot ice fall or rock face. Such a face itself would not be hard to rappel down with our ropes, but the danger of ice falling would be too great to take a route like that and the crevasses on the way to the edge would be extremely dangerous as well. So we chose to wait until the boat came around to the bay to have a look from the bottom. It's a good thing they did!

The wind picked up, the visibility crashed our aspiration to do a bit of skiing or scouting out of the route down and we spent the rest of the day in the tents, reading, talking and sleeping. That night the southwesterly kicked in hard and the katabatic winds from the peaks came flooding down too as the air cooled and flowed down the snowfields to the sea. At about 1am, with the tent a bit deformed and making a huge racket from things flapping and around and my side pushed in hard from the wind. The gusts felt like 50 knots. There would be a short lull and another blast. This went on for hours. In the morning the tent vestibule was full of a few feet of snow covering the stove and food and Ed's boots. All that snow got in through a few small holes – showing once again that nature strives for entropy.

Day 3 – Thursday – Snow day on the Murray Snowfield

We dug out, fixed the tents to make them snow proof and wind proof. We built a wall on the windward side of our tent, but then Cam and Gretchen built a wall twice as high with snow blocks that looked like an igloo wall cut with the ice saw in Cam's shovel. It's hard to keep up with the neighbors! The visibility was bad and the snow continued to accumulate and the wind was giving us no break. So another day of reading, sleeping talking, and a tea. Cam had some spare battery in his ipad, so we got to watch the latest Bond movie, Skyfall – a bit of a break from our reality. The boat came around the north tip of the island and planned to overnight in Prince Olaf bay, just down from Possession Bay. We learned that Possession Bay was the first landing place of Captain Cook in 1775 where he took possession of the island for the King.

Our snow walls and better burying of the tent flaps made the wind much less effective at blowing down the tent the second night on the snowfield.

Day 4 – Friday – Down from the Murray Snowfield into Possession Bay

The next morning the wind was up and visibility was poor and it was snowing. Skip radioed the boat and had Magnus take a look from below where the visibility was better. Magnus could see the right side of the bay was completely cliffs and glacier fronts. No place to ski down. It's was really good that he could see this as the slope seemed gentler to the right from above. We had about 1300 feet to descend. He suggested way off to the left so we began. Its always hard to describe a route precisely from another viewpoint but we angled our way left and found a ramp down. The problem was the huge cornice above it. We decided that this was at least the most reasonable way down even though there was significant danger but things had stabilized a bit. So we went down the ramp left and then it intersected a ramp down right and back left over an avalanche debris pile. We finally got off our skis as the pulks were pulling us off course and running over our skis. We walked through the debris field down another 500 vertical feet with everyone a bit tense to hurry out of the dangerfield. We got down to the bay and Magnus and Laura were waiting with the dinghy and a bottle of champagne. Skip knocked the neck off with his ice axe, sprinkled some for the snow and sea gods and passed it around. We got back to the boat and had a relaxing time drying off, having a shower and thinking about how to continue the route.

Saturday – Fortuna Bay - Oct 26

After a very windy night in Prince Olaf Bay, we motored around in the morning to Fortuna Bay. It's a long beautiful bay with mountain ridges on both sides. We got off the boat and walked the length of the bay enjoying the seals and a large King Penguin colony. Skip kept looking for the baby penguins all covered in brown fur but we didn't see them for the longest time and kept walking along. Finally we were rewarded by seeing a large group of them squawking, walking around and flapping their flippers. The Kings are some of the most colorful penguins with bring orange and yellow markings on their heads and necks. Many of them were molting and trying to shed old feathers so they could go in the water and fish for more food. Skip pointed out that the ones that were early molting were still generally fat and the ones that were nearly done molting were much skinnier. When their finished molting they go fishing and bring back food which they regurgitate for their chicks.

Thomas made a fantastic meal on board this evening and we got ready for stage 2 of the traverse which we will do tomorrow (Sunday) morning. Up from Fortuna Bay on skins and skis with a final push up a steeper part with ice axe and crampons to get to the top of the Fortuna Glacier where it meets the Crean Glacier. Our plan is to then ski down a couloir from the Breakwind Ridge and then to walk to the hill at the head of Fortuna Bay and finish the last part of the traverse into Stromness. Hopefully the weather will be good and we can complete it in one long day. All packed now for an early start....


1 comment:

  1. Are you guys OK? Slogging back on bumpy reaches I suspect...
    Thinking of you all!