Recreating one of history’s greatest adventure stories
A 10-member expedition recreated Ernest Shackleton’s legendary trek across South Georgia Island. The adventure was organized by Polar Explorers, which is based in Wilmette. | Submitted photo
Updated: February 11, 2013 7:12AM
At a pass through the Trident Ridge in South Georgia Island, a 10-member expedition faced its biggest challenge yet — the threat of an avalanche.
Fresh snow had fallen in previous nights. The temperature, steady below freezing until early morning, crept above 32 degrees. The snow, temperature and a steep slope created prime avalanche conditions for the expedition recreating one of the greatest adventure stories ever.
If the avalanche triggered while the 10 descended the Trident Ridge, a glacier with some peaks rising more than 4,000 feet, death would be almost certain.
Polar Explorers, based in Wilmette, is the oldest and one of the largest polar expedition outfitters in the world. Local native Rick Sweitzer, a gregarious 58-year-old with ruffled, graying hair, started the company 20 years ago when he co-guided the first-ever commercial amateur expedition to the North Pole. For the South Georgia trek, the 2012 Shackleton Crossing, a soon-to-be annual expedition, he took along two world-renowned guides and seven paid adventure enthusiasts.
The 10 ranged in age, country of origin and experience but were united by a collective passion for the legendary tale of Ernest Shackleton.
In 1914, Shackleton set sail with 27 other men toward Antarctica to become the first to trek across the continent on foot. In what some consider an impossible voyage for the times, one mishap only begat another.
Just a month in, packs of ice converged, ultimately swallowing Shackleton’s ship, The Endurance.
What followed were months on Arctic ice braving the weather; a depletion of supplies causing the crew to shoot and eat its sled dogs; a voyage in small rescue boats across the Drake Passage — one of the world’s roughest seas with regular 100-foot waves and hurricane conditions; a six-man Hail-Mary voyage to a remote whaling station; and finally, a heroic 36-hour trek across South Georgia Island after 17 months living with death around the corner.
None of the 28 men died.
“The story has inspired so, so many people,” Sweitzer said. The account gained recognition in part through Alfred Lansing’s journalistic account, Endurance. “You can’t believe what they endured. It’s the most spectacular adventure story. Having the chance to recreate it and take a group of people across the island was very special.”
The plan for the Polar Explorers’ first-ever trip to South Georgia Island was to cross in five days using GPS, maps, skis, crampons, sleds of food and supplies. Shackleton famously had none of these resources. But replicating the death-defying 1916 voyage wasn’t the point.
“Heading out and being in the wild, in the wilderness, brings to face some kind of wonderful, existential reality,” Sweitzer said.
“That reality has us feeling good when we’re done, when we confront it and get to the other side”
THE SNOW WHEEL AT TRIDENT RIDGE
Fog clung to the peaks. Below the 10, a steep drop down the side of the ridge led to the South Atlantic Ocean, which stretched for miles into the horizon.
Vern Tejas, a professional mountain guide, told the group to build a snow wheel. Tejas, 59, holds the record for the fastest time to climb the tallest peak in every continent, a challenge known as the seven summits. He did it in 134 days.
Decades ago, Tejas “took a course on how not to get killed by avalanches.”
He learned about creating an avalanche dummy. The basic idea is to send something down with more weight than a human. If the slope can withhold the dummy’s pressure and motion, it should be able to carry the weight of a person.
The second time Tejas ever used this method, at Mount Everest, it saved his life. An avalanche triggered. Snow cascaded down the mountain bending aluminum anchors — used for ropes and ladders — like pretzels, Tejas said.
It was a winter night when Shackleton arrived at the Trident Ridge, a pivotal passage at South Georgia Island. Had he stayed, Shackleton and his team would’ve most likely died from hyperthermia. With no supplies or time, they had no other choice but to create a human sled — each man holding on to another — and slide some 2,000 feet down. Each came out unscathed.
Just to get to this crux of the Trident Ridge is a feat. An inhospitable chunk 105 miles long and 25 miles at it’s widest point, the island can only be reached by boat.
Departing from Montevideo, Uruguay, on Oct. 16 aboard the Plancius, the 2012 Shackleton Crossing group spent five days at sea before arriving at the island.
That’s unusual for Polar Explorer’s other commercial expeditions, to locales like the North and South Pole and Greenland. With prices ranging from $50-80,000, participants are usually dropped in with little acclimation time.
Not so with the 2012 Shackleton Crossing, as the 10 slugged across some of the roughest seas in the world, including the notorious Drake Passage. Time allowed for the group to bond and prep: they shared meals, Tejas led tent pitching and crevasse rescuing tutorials, Sweitzer met with other guides to plan the best route, and there were on-board nature lectures from the three guides and Plancius employees.
For on-land adventure-seeking junkies, time aboard was pleasant, but anxiousness set in.
“South Georgia Island has been a subject of imagination for so many of us for so long,” Paul Schurke said. Schurke, 57, is a guide who emphasizes in dog-sled expeditions. He trains dogs in Ely, Minn., and his good-natured northern accent is unmistakable. “It’s such a profound pilgrimage point for people who are fascinated with exploration.”
The island hosts one of largest sea bird populations in the world. It’s home to thousands of albatrosses, penguins and a few unique species to the island, like the South Georgia Pipit. The birds, in combination with surrounding marine wildlife, have earned the island the nickname, “Galapagos of the South.” Only, South Georgia has more species.
After five days at sea, the island appeared — the glaciers and mountains rose above the clouds in the distance. Penguins swam alongside the boat. The bellow of several-ton sea elephants grew louder.
“It was incredibly surreal,” Schurke said.
In triumph upon landing on shore, a few of the members, including Sweitzer and Schurke, kissed the ground. Without apprehension, curious penguins and baby seals waddled next to them.
To create a safety net in case someone fell into a crevasse, individuals roped together in two teams of five and set off. That first day they skied for nine or 10 hours, reaching camp within an hour’s trek to the Trident Ridge in the morning.
THE WHEEL AND THE GREAT BEYOND
After Schurke and Tejas returned from scouting the best route in the early dawn hours, the expedition began creating the snow wheel. They dug a knee-deep circular trench roughly four feet long. Using a cable wire, they sliced through the bottom and hoisted the several-hundred pound wheel upright.
They guided the wheel to the ledge and let it fall. It rolled hundreds of feet. As it fell, the 10 cheered and hollered, using body English like Carlton Fisk to sway the wheel’s trajectory.
No avalanche was triggered. Celebration rang out.
The 2012 Shackleton Crossing group walked down the ridge, following the track created by the snow wheel.
WHEN THE WEATHER LIFTED
In the days that followed, the group passed a downed helicopter from the Falklands War, battled two days of whiteout conditions with snow accumulating several inches over night, then backtracked a few miles in search of a safer route to sea.
The group traveled blindly, relying on GPS. Possibility of crevasse was high as they worked down a glacier that led to the sea at Fortuna Bay, signaling the end of their difficult journey.
Tejas’s roped-group, with the experienced mountain guide in the lead, began the final descent on Day 5 in the whiteout conditions. Light was deceptive. Snow was jarred loose behind Tejas, sending an unintentional snowball rolling downhill. The snowball rolled past Tejas then disappeared. He was feet away from a precipice.
Had he stepped over, he and others roped to him might’ve fallen to their death if it weren’t for the accidental snowball. They backtracked once more and descended a new path.
As they went down and distanced themselves from the peaks, conditions shifted. Fog slipped away like a veil.
“This magical vision appeared in front of us,” the Minnesotan Schurke said. “We looked down and the entire glacial ramp descended toward the sea. The sea was blazing blue in the bright sunlight. You could see miles away.”
The 10 celebrated once more with hugs and high-fives at Fortuna Bay. The greatest challenge was over, but more of the expedition remained: they scaled down an ice waterfall, visited Shackleton’s grave on the island, and indulged in Sweitzer’s mixology invention, the Aurora Shackletonia — Grey Goose, Veuve Clicquot and South Georgia Island ice.
Before the end of the trip came a moment that can only be replicated on adventures like this. Exhausted by days at sea, skiing and hiking; beaten down by arctic weather; danger looming, Schurke describes the feeling when the weather finally lifted.
“You could hear the roar of the surf hitting the shore and the bellowing calls of the elephant seals. Their muffled roars reverberated up the mountainside to where we were standing miles above them. It was as beautiful scene as I ever experienced on this planet.”