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....


Friday, October 25, 2013

Day 3 of the Shackleton traverse

Magnus Day, skipper yacht Pelagic Australis reports:

We finally upped anchor and left King Haakon this morning at first light
after a restless night. Our snuggish anchorage had turned into a 50 knot
lea shore and all the ice in the bay had blown in with it. The anchor
slid and then held firm as I sat with the motor on and my heart in my
mouth sipping tea made by my partner and first mate Laura Hampton. We
were but yards from the shore for some hours.

Leaving our home of 6 days (is this some kind of record in King Haakon?)
in a mixture of snow, fog and sunshine felt like leaving an old friend
but with miles to make for the next safe anchorage and 30 knots blowing
in our faces we had to keep the hammer down. A very steep, short sea
kept our speed down until we snuck thought the tiny Bird Sound and were
able to bear away on the north side of the South Georgia and pick up
some good speed eventually anchoring in Prince Olav Harbour.

Prince Olav is in the mouth of Possession Bay just an hour or two from
our pickup point and we will be able to come round and help the guys
pick a safe route down the glacier, scanning it from the bay with our
binoculars. We learned last night that all is well and Laura has
prepared a giant 'Armenian' lamb stew to welcome them home.

I'm sure there'll be more first hand accounts of the last few days on
the hill coming this way soon.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Day 2 of the Shackleton traverse

Magnus Day, skipper Yacht Pelagic Australis reports:

Another day in King Haakon Bay for the crew of Pelagic Australis and a
beautiful one of light winds and heavy snow. We made a long hike ashore
to check on the elephant seals and their pups some of whom were born
just this morning. The goings on of a seal colony never cease to amuse
with the beachmaster bulls making a nuisance of themselves and the cows
barking and the pups mewling and the weaners snorting. There are groups
of King Penguins standing by affecting a disinterested air and odd
singles looking baffled or just plain lost. Giant Petrels and Skuas
prowl the beach in search of placentas and sickly pups for a gruesome lunch.

Commodore Novak called at 2000 as arranged to report heavy wet snow for
our friends up on the hill. Though safe and well in their tents he
reported them as 'piss wet through' and requested a pick up from
Possession Bay at our earliest convenience. This is the only escape
option before committing to the rest of the traverse and the guys fear
avalanches of heavy wet snow on top of older icy layers. A good call but
one which must have been hard to make.

We will attempt to make our way round to them tomorrow. The forecast is
fair with winds of 20 to 30 knots in the west and we hope for better viz
as the low overhead moves away to the east but it may still take us two
days to get round to the pickup. Moving in this ill charted area at
night is not advised.

We're looking forward to getting them all warm and dry aboard and
hearing tales of ice and wind and risotto with parmisan and salami.

I'll keep you posted..............


Tuesday, October 22, 2013

First report from Shackleton Traverse

Magnus Day, skipper yacht Pelagic Australis reports:

We finally got our intrepid mountaineers off the boat this morning about
0700 UT after a reasonable ammount of last minute delays and a huge
ammount of breakfast (Cam).

Weather was somewhere just above freezing with light westerly winds and
very poor viz in frequent snow storms.

Cam made a big splash (literally ) when he fell into the water getting
out of the Zode onto the beach. Too much breakfast?

Two Pelagic Australis crew accompanied the guys up to the gear cache at
the snow line about a mile inland to bring down welly boots and other
unwanted gear and reported a smoothish departure hampered only by a 60kt
gust as they were sorting gear.

Back on the mothership we were able to watch the progress of 8 ant like
figures in two rope teams of four as they made their way up and right
across the west facing slope of the Briggs glacier. They called from the
top before losing radio comms to say all was wel and then were gone.

This evening's 2000 satphone sced went smoothly, I was able to relay the
overall picture and the details of coming weather patterns. The news
from the top that they were well, safe in their tents at the Trident
camp by 1830 and had enjoyed supper after a good day's progress in
blustery conditions and mainly poor viz.

The forecast is good so we hope to see them safe and sound in Fortuna
Bay in a few days.

We wait with baited breath...............

Monday, October 21, 2013

We think we've got a weather window

by Larry, Monday Oct 21

We spent the day around the boat, better than snowbound in a tent getting blown off the Trident Ridge. Half the group went up to check on the equipment cache and see if the snow routes had been washed away in the hard rain low down last night. They found the cache and made a GPS waypoint for it before the hail storm set in. It was blowing hard all day and most likely quite difficult to travel up high. I've been reading Shackleton's account of the his crossing in "South". We've been able to identify most of the landmarks here in King Haakon Bay and up the first ridge. We'll be up at 3am (local time) tomorrow morning and get going right away. Just at dinner time we were treated to a half hour white-out snowstorm snd then a beautiful evening light shining on all the new snow in the mountains around us.

We had a really nice and quite day exchanging stories, reading, learning from each other experiences. Julian and Ed hvae been many tiees to Tibet which is fascinating to me. Amy and I tried to go to Tibet in 1983 but only made it to China and Nepal but not through Tibet. I could listen for hours to them talking about things they've seen there. We've also been interested in learning about the exploitation of the wildlife here in South Georgia. Like the whales that were driven completely from South Georgia along with the Fur seals and King penguins. Its amazing to think of the amount of industry in such a remote area of the world in the late 1800s and early 1900s that drove such plentiful species nearly to extinction. Its a testament to the strength of conservation efforts that these species are on the rise again.

Its ten o'clock now and its just getting dark, so we'll go to bed and be ready and rested in the morning. Magnus may relay some news from us as we're crossing the island over the next few days.


The only thing constant is change

By Larry Monday Oct 21.

We woke up this morning to a howling gale. Our weather window was no more. South Georgia is one of the most exposed places on earth in terms of weather. As the winds of the circumpolar low circle Antarctica unimpeded by any land mass they build strength. Then the thousands of miles of Pacific Ocean weather systems get funneled through the 600 miles of the Drake Passage below Cape Horn and North of the Antarctic Peninsula. After getting squeezed and accelerated through the Drake as a series of low pressure storms, they come through the other side and the first thing they hit is South Georgia Island! We're hoping for a slight window Tuesday through Thursday. We'll see tonight.


Traverse departure: imminent

Posted October 20, by Amy

We got up early today to ferry gear ashore for tomorrow's traverse departure. Skies were overcast with light winds for the trek up to the snowfield where we stowed the pulks, skis, stoves etc. Carrying the pulks over the rocky terrain is awkward—we will be glad to be pulling them on our skis from now on. The plan is to get up at first light, have a light breakfast, and hike up to the gear in our mud boots where we'll don our ski boots/skis and begin the trek up the snow face to the ridge that leads to the inner mountains to camp at the foot of the Trident. The forecast is not favorable but we will try and hope that we hit a good window of lesser winds and decent visibility. (Right now it's raining and blowing 25 knots—yuck).

This afternoon we went back ashore to walk the beach and observe the elephant seals, king penguins, and birds. The hanging glaciers that ring the bay are spectacular. One elephant seal had just birthed her pup. Next to him was a pup that has apparently lost his mother—he tried to nurse with various moms who all rejected him. He appears to be undersized and his prospects are not good. I went and hung out with some king penguins; once they get used to you they'll stand around to preen, squawk, and stare. Those that have finished molting are beautiful.

Fingers crossed for tomorrow's trek!


Fingers crossed for tomorrow’s trek!

Notes from Skip Novak, owner of Pelagic Australis

The hell with a 'light breakfast!' It's porridge, fried eggs and bacon for me tomorrow morning. God knows we will need to be fortified. This is my fifth Shackleton Traverse and I rate this one, as all the previous at this stage, as 'an attempt.' The forecast is anything but auspicious; generally the forecast indicates a west to northwest pattern of moderate to strong winds for the next few days. There is a lull tomorrow morning so we are hoping to be away and up high, out of the rain zone and into the snow zone at least, in order to stay dry. If we can make the first camp on the Trident Ridge by tomorrow evening, then come what may. We might be there a day or two before continuing on and at least committed to the route. With five days, stretched to six of food and fuel, we should be able to find an easing in the weather to get through the critical second day across the Crean and Fortuna Glaciers. But nothing is certain—and that is what this is all about.


Standing by to Stand by

By Larry Sunday Oct 20 King Haakon Bay, SG

It blew 35-50 knots all day yesterday. The boat was heeling 20 degrees just from the windage. We had planned to carry most of our gear up to the snow line about 600 ft above sea level. But it blew so hard, it wasn't worth even launching the zodiac. Even though we were anchored behind an small set of rocks, there were plenty of waves and the boat was sailing on the anchoring, back and forth. Sitting in the pilot house, we got a great view of all the peaks around us and the glacier fronts falling to the sea. Friday night before the wind came up, I wish I had a recorder as it was amazing to hear the elephant seals grunting and calling all night long ½ a mile away on the beach. We went to the beach and walked around for an hour. About 160 elephant seals all hanging out on the beach in one spot on the beach. There are at least 4 of these groups on this beach and others along the bay. Probably a few thousand in all. Mostly females with pups and one bull. The pups breast feed for about 22 days and then are on their own.

This morning it was quiet and we got the zodiac in the water early and carried all the sleds, skis, sled bags, food, tents and outer boots to the snow line. It took a couple trips to do so, but now all that's left is to carry our packs up and put on our skis and go. We have the skins on the skis so we're ready to climb up the first snowfield called the Shackleton Gap. We'll climb from 300 ft where are gear is now to 2200 ft during the day and hoping to pitch our camp at the Trident Gap just below Trident Peak (4,200 ft). Our weather forecast shows a break in the wind at 6z (GMT). Sunrise is at 7:30z, so we'll probably get going as early as possible in the dark to take advantage of the small break. This break will likely only last about 3 hours so we'll have pretty strong winds and white-out conditions once we get to the Murray Snowfield at 1500 ft. Let's hope the GPS's are working…