Monday, 21 November 2011
An island at the end of the world: South Georgia...
Fourth day at sea, homeward bound back to the Falklands...
We were due to dock in Port Stanley sometime tomorrow and then on Saturday we would be back in Santiago de Chile.
I'm a little worried about the culture shock that awaits us. Considering what we have just experienced on the trip over this whole month on the wild coasts of South Georgia and then the hustle and bustle and noise of Santiago it feels as though this might be tough.
For now, back to the boat. It's been a rough night, a short swell and pitch makes the boat dip and roll all over the place. It was the same on the outward journey: it made it difficult to sleep at night and by day it was hard to move about the boat without crashing into something and hurting yourself! In fact, you need three points of balance: hold on to your plate for fear of it suddenly taking off into the air.....along with its owner!
Everyone has their own way of dealing with sea sickness. Whilst some members of the team simply take it in their stride and carry on as normal, others battle through it with different degrees of happiness and stoicism: you have to forget your sense of balance on land and learn marine geometry - vertical planes become diagonals, you have to learn to accept that having your heart in your throat is normal and feel your intestines sink. You also have to learn how to levitate from your bunk bed in your sleep!
In my cabin, the portholes are regularly beneath the waterline, and the stern of the boat sways between the blue grey steely waves. Some of the wave feel as though they smash against the hull even though they aren't huge. It feels as though a bloc of ice has just shattered against the hull.. The ocean is alive and it is beautiful to watch....Oddly enough, I don't feel quite at home here. This isn't my place.
We are in the Roaring 50s, in the roughest and most hostile seas in the world and it is an undeniable fact that if we are to reach our destination at South Georgia, we have to cross a part of this Southern Ocean - in fact 750 miles of it.
South Georgia - an unbelievably wild place where Man is not at home...It is 170 km long by 30km at its widest place and it seems to group all the mountains of the world here! The glaciers are enormous, either flat or hanging glaciers onto the walls of the mountains and glaciers and sharp peaks all jockeying for ground - like a set of pointed teeth looking skyward.
The central part is the 'thickest' and the most varied in terms of relief. The Northern Coast greets us with a crown of relatively low peaks of between 800m and 1200m max, all connected by lovely snowy gullies, some of which are extremely steep. Further away in the background we can make out the impressive Allardyce chain. Its high peaks disappear up over 3000m above the ocean and seem to be 'guarding the temple'. And if the clouds that seem to hang over the peaks ever clear, you are struck by the beauty of this majestic mountain range - the purity of its lines, the fierceness of the seracs, rocks and 'mushroom boulders' that protect them. They are like the himalayas.....a real barrier.
All the way down the coast, giant glaciers break into the water....deep crevasses carve into their bodies and chaotic seracs stick up menacingly.
What has happened to the beautiful bays where the ice has retreated? They now belong to the animals who have come in their tens of thousands to mate here during the season.
This island is whipped by strong winds and the peaks are draped in long clouds that are in perpetual motion..
Once you are on land, sudden gusts of wind come from nowhere and knock you to the ground and then they are gone as suddenly as they appeared..
This is a place requiring total commitment - there is no rescue here, there are no accurate maps, no detailed information and no valid weather forecast. Each day brings its own uncertainty and surprises, and its discoveries. It is exhilarating and exciting.
But don't worry about us thinking we are the next heroes. We are modest and low key - especially having read Shakleton's "Endurance". In his day, it really was a matter of life or death..
We knew that the purpose of our expedition (to discover the island on skis) could deliver on its promise or if we were unlucky, it could become one long arduous wait in the galley of our boat..
Fortune favoured the brave and we were lucky. I think the fact that we weren't simply focused on retracing Shakleton's crossing really helped us. We had planned to do this and had prepared and come equipped to do so but a bad weather forecast at that moment on the expedition prevented us from doing it safely in good conditions and we would have wasted precious days waiting for the right weather window.
We quickly decided to make the most of another option which was to undertake 'day trips'. This enabled us to be more flexible and more adaptable to the ever-changing weather conditions. This tactic proved to be a winner: we were able to make the best of a few good days (and there were a good number of those) to undertake some magnificent crossings and climb a few peaks. Perhaps we were even the first people to scale these nameless mountains? Given our doubt, we will abstain from making any great claims - and for the record... we don't give a ----! Although to put a basque or catalan name on an English map does have a certain appeal to it but we will leave it there. No sense in adding any fuel to the fire!! We've already beaten you at rugby!
We are preparing a beautiful book of photographs and also a film that will be on sale by the end of this winter... The book is the formal edition of Jean-Jacques' Somdecoste's a.k.a. Jakes's diary of the expedition. It captures the human aspects of the trip with great warmth and humour! To be read uncensored......!!
Meanwhile, let me leave you with a few tracks of my own from our expedition!
I hope these few lines are enough to help you picture this unforgettable journey, over 24 days on the coastline of South Georgia..
6th October: Elsehul Bay, our first sortie on the island!
After four days of being shaken, rattled and rolled at sea, our ship, the Hans Hansson finally stopped moving at some point late in the night between the 5th or 6th..
In the morning, we go ashore to Elsehul, without our skis, it is the only ithmus on the island. Twenty minutes on foot is all it takes to cross from the North to the South of the Island, from Elsehul to Undine Harbour. We are like children when we see our first animals! At these latitudes, the light is extremely pure and bright even though it is a cloudy day: There are different shades of grey in the sky, the shore is turquoise and there is a gentle icecap floating nearby. From the start, we feel as though we are on another planet, and there is a deep sense of isolation and solitude.....we are at the end of the line.
9th October: We attempt Warbutton peak (850m)
The previous day had been gloriously sunny but today we began our day by going ashore on Sunset Bay under a light drizzle of rain and a biting fresh breeze! We take our first steps onto the glacier and we are already grateful to our GPS as the whiteout stays with us for the whole day: we are soon forced to give up on our goal. The weather turns nasty on the way down, the wind becomes biting and strong and the steep exit from the glacier suddenly becomes questionable, due to the lack of visibility. We return to the boat frozen, barely managing to get inside before the storm starts to lash the boat. On the way to Prince Olaf Harbour, Dion, our captain stops us a few metres from the enormous Salisbury Plain which is home to the third largest colony of Emperor Penguins in the world! 130,000 pairs! It is both moving and impressive to see this wall of penguins, all bunched up one against the other to face the glacial wind on this never-ending beach.. This sight is beyond the realm of human reality and this absolute difference brings you down to earth making you very aware of the extreme wilderness on this island at the end of the world.
10th October: Crossing from Possession Bay to Antarctic Bay (1st Day of Shakleton's crossing)
A ramp on the glacier of Possession Bay exposed to the falling seracs enables us to set foot on the immense plateau of the glacier. The weather is mixed. Pale winter light, a mysterious ambiance in which worrying black pyramids draw themselves up towards the sky, like guards of some forbidden city.. The group is far ahead of me, like little insects frozen by he frost..
At the pass, the visibility doesn't improve, in fact it becomes even more confusing! These guardians had done their job and put us on our guard. This slope really wasn't welcoming at all.
The slopes are steep and full of crevasses, they lose themselves somewhere 'near the bottom', deep in the whiteout which we all find nervously draining. We rope ourselves together and leave plenty of distance between each of us and our track that initially moves upwards then divides down into these disappearing slopes: two hours to cover 200 vertical metres in horrendous snow above the seracs and cliffs in order to avoid the crevasses that are barely visible.. We eventually find a way out of this minefield and re-join the more gentle and welcoming slopes. We begin to feel those biting gusts again on the last flat: I was at the back of the group and all I could see were huge ellipses being blown in the wind by the ropes! Then we found ourselves having to bend our own backs into the wind, bending over our poles and hanging on during these short bursts of wind. Was this a taste of these famous gales that everyone here is terrified of?
The end of the glacier is a blue wall hanging over the mint-coloured water of Antarctic Bay. We were hanging over the bay without being able to see a way down! Dion, our Captain, helped us with his radio. He knows that there is a small way out of the glacier by way of a long traverse hanging over the water and taking us down to the water's edge. Sublime. What an end to an extremely stressful day in the most extraordinary environment!
11th October: Crossing from Antarctic Bay to Fortuna Bay (second day of Shakleton's crossing)
Jean-Marc got up at 0500 in order to capture the amazing light in the sky and the unusual shapes drawn by the clouds. The weather is cold and good. The Bay is full of 'growlers' (small icebergs) and there is no doubt that we are in a polar region!
We find a weak point in the glacier and climb up, skis on our packs, up a steep wall of snow. Chris and Luis follow our progress from the dinghy in case one of us happened to slip on this natural slide that finishes straight into the water!! This easy climb in the heart of the glacier and the bay is great. On top, as yesterday, the glacier flattens out, and becomes enormous and flat, as far as the eye can see, well for at least 10km. It feels like the Spitzberg! We can see imposing peaks up ahead in the distance, their peaks dressed by ever-changing clouds. It is warm but this doesn't last as every gust of wind brings the temperature crashing back down again! We ate our picnic and then made for the pass that Shakleton himself had crossed in May 1916 on his way to Fortuna Bay. He took the gulley to the right and we really fancied the one to the left! We enjoy our turns in this gentle gulley but it soon changes into a couloir and then the exit becomes increasingly precarious! Jean Marc carefully moves towards the break in the slope and then asks me to come down to him so that I can keep watch on his first turns. Now that we have found a way through the first cliff, we need to find a way out of the couloir that doesn't seem to have an exit! Jean-Marc then bumps right over a spur and finally dives easily into a secondary gulley and comes out on the beach at Fortuna bay. We find ourselves once again in the middle of a colony of emperor Penguins that we take care not to disturb and frighten. They are gentle animals and very placid with their bright colours of grey and bright orange!
Everyone is on form after this amazing day, even more so as Jakes finds out that the French have beaten the Brits in the rugby world cup quarter finals. Steve and Chris are disappointed, Jiji and Jakes are triumphant like two small boys and chatter wildly to determine who is the man of the match: is it the four Basques on the team or the Catalan Coach?
13th October: we visit the Grytviken museum, and discover the reality of a real whaling station
After a magnificent crossing of the Maiviken Bay and up to the summit of Mount Hodges, A narrow chute takes us to the Grytviken quay... 8 people live here all the year round, with re-supplies by boat from the Falklands. The local government has built a small museum to explain the history of the island,, its flora and fauna and the different expeditions that have been here. For me, the most interesting part was the real life experience of these fishermen killers of whales. In those days, whale blubber was the equivalent of our oil today and for many years we used t in a large number of our everyday lives.
We used blubber for lightning, heating, for cooking, to grease precision machines, for cosmetics. The grey amber was used to fix scents and the whale meat was eaten. The bones were used and the leather was used to make belts. The whalebones were used to make either umbrellas or corsets.. Therefore, in those days demand for blubber was high and whaling was a profitable business: It was a sure fire way of making money quickly.
A number of quotes explain clearly why these British and Norwegian sailors signed up for a minimum of two years in this hell hole red with whale blood and with the stench of death. First came the hunger to make money and then came the fascination with the island and the place.. and eventually, the hook of an unique sense of camaraderie.. It was hard to live without it once you had tasted it. Basically, sailors came back for more even if the conditions were tough and avery dangerous.
The thing that shocked me more was the organisation surrounding this large scale killing machine of the world's largest mammal. It was extermination, shocking butchering and symptomatic of our approaches to other parts of the planet. With technical progress (faster boats, the use of exploding harpoons) the balance of strength has switched and in 1917 a small flotilla kills over 4000 whales off the coast of South Georgia.
in 1930 the estimate is that 50,000 blue whales were killed in the oceans around the world.
the 330,000 whales living in Antarctica at the beginning of the 20th Century are no more than several thousand today and during this month of October 2011 with 32 days at sea and more than 4000 miles under our belt, we haven't seen a single whale, not even the tell-tale sign of a blowhole through the binoculars!
in 1960 all the whaling stations closed down suddenly from one day to the next, leaving everything behind. Tons of food, fuel, boats, cooking utensils, and tools of every type: it was cheaper to leave it there than bring it back. These things still haunt a number of Bays on the North coast of the island and people have prepared to make them living museums even if you can't go in for security reasons!
Let me summarise: we assassinate without the slightest conscience for more than a century. When it 'becomes no longer profitable' , everyone leaves and the stuff is left to rust and rot.. and the icing on the cake is that we justify the whole thing by calling this stuff vestiges of sailing history and this, on an island where nature is protected!!?? Man is not bound by a single contradiction but I question the slow development of our consciences and the fast development of technology!
16th October: Day spent in St Andrew's Bay
A short, rough sail took care of half the team. Today the zodiac takes only a small number of us down to St Andrew's Bay. The wind is blowing an icy gale and with no let up for the whole day.
Our plan was to do a large loop over the Heaney and Buxton glaciers in order to approach the high peaks of the Salverse range which are closer to the coast at this point. The distances are misleading and the pass we had set ourselves was impassable. It doesn't matter as we were able to find another passage to enable us to drop into the Buxton Glacier. Maps and GPS aren't enough in this chiselled landscape, There is something very exhausting about only finding your way by reading the land and imagining your itinerary as you take each step!
We hesitate behind the pass. The snow is frozen on the surface and it doesn't look good for skiing. I would never forgive anyone if they fell and at the bottom, crevasses await like crocodiles in the sun, waiting.. mouths open. We therefore decided that the safest way down is using crampons. We put them on, rope up, skis on the backpacks and start down, happy to be moving thorough the terrain, in synch with the elements and in awe of the chaos and the barrier of seracs awaiting us down below.
The return to St Andrew's Bay is astonishing. We ski very slowly through thousands of penguins who have taken over the hills over looking the bay.. Our ears are deafened by the grating calls and the nauseating smell of their bird guam and rotting carcasses of young pups that never made it.
The young penguins, all covered in brown down, are hilarious. They are very curious and are happy to approach us in small groups and then stop about a metre away to observe us.. Then on one them dashes off, zigzagging all over the place, wings flapping and bumping into his little brothers!
here the beautiful and the moving lives side by side with the cruelty and fragility of life..
Further on, we find ourselves cornered between a large waterfall and female walruses who are not pleased to see us and so close to their offspring..
Imagine the south of France in the summer and replace the thousands of tourists roasting in the sun with walruses.... thousands of them. The males are jousting and stand up to protect their harem (1 male for 100 females) and beware the young gun who dares to take a shine to one of them. He will be seen off pronto by the big guy!
But it was just an ordinary day for skiing in South Georgia
19th October: we sail into the Drygalski Fjord - it is austere and menacing but still incredibly beautiful
The crossing from Wirik Bay to Salomon Bay was a glorious sunny journey. At the top of the first pass we spied a rather lovely peak right in the middle of the glacier and decided to make that our goal for the day. It is even so hot that day that we allow ourselves a little snooze at the top!
We enjoyed a wonderful descent, then got stuck on the right hand bank of the glacier but thankfully Dion managed to collect us from a beach on the left bank and announces that we can go into the Drygalsky Fjord. This is exciting news as this is not always possible due to the wind conditions - the wind sometimes picks up over the peaks in the middle of the island and then rushes down the glaciers and howls down the fjord at great speed. Today we were in luck and only had a 60 knot wind to contend with when we got to the bottom of it..
As we went in, the fjord narrowed immediately and tall, rocky, black pyramids made a black avenue of honour like a long hedge in a stately home....it was awe-inspiring. Further on, vertiginous walls rose up with fine streams of water and ice dripping down them and the peaks looked like something out of patagonia. At their feet, glaciers sprawled below, endless roads of nasty-looking seracs, bright blue, razor sharp and precariously balanced on the ice..This was nature at its harshest, and most raw and all this reinforced by a howling wind over the front of the boat!!
In the evening, Dion drops anchor in the much calmer neighbouring fjord to the Dryglasky: Larssen Harbour.. This was the angel after the devil and this little canyon was a haven of peace. We decided to spend 3 days here.
Larsson Harbour is the home to the last of the Wedell seals. They normally live on the icecap and this was still here until twenty years ago. With global warming the ice has retreated out of the fjord and soon these magnificent seals, too few in number to ensure the survival of the colony, will go the same route. Their mating calls could be herd right through the boat and rocked me gently to sleep in this extreme and yet intimate place at the end of the island...
21st October: Mount Senderens and the crossing to Trollhulll: possibly one of the most beautiful days I have ever spent in my life as a ski-mountaineer...
We received the green light from the British Government to attempt this crossing! Very few ski-mountaineers ever attempt it: either because of the inclement weather which is a regular occurrence in this part of the island or because the pickup on the southern coast can be difficult due to the heavy swell.
Early in the morning the 'wall' blocking Larsson Harbour burns off and we emerge into the sunshine onto a sunny glacial plateau. The day is sunny and cold with a healthy level of wind blowing but we are still determined to climb one of the peaks surrounding us! We choose Mount Senderens (1200m), which sits like a throne at the end of the glacier which is once again full of crevasses so we decided that we are safer with the ropes on both on the way up and on the way down. We tackle the final ridge with crampons and piolet - it is raw and grey - unforgettable.
The scene continues to impress - it is sumptuous and grandiose. It feels like high mountain, a world of glaciers populated with sharp peaks with ice caps on top that appear inaccessible due to the impossibly steep flanks.. and below us, ... the sea....as turqoise as you would find it anywhere in the caribbean.
Everyone is feeling the impact of the place, everyone's hearts are full of this wild beauty which is at once so inhospitable and yet also totally addictive!
Arriving at Trollhull almost gives us vertigo...talk about " end of the line"!. The only piece of land further south is Antarctica! We get to the end of this unbelievable day - a visual feast to the eyes and we feel blessed that the gods gave this to us. Thank you!
23rd October: The Beach at Gold Harbour: it's love at first sight for this unique place on earth!
After two days of bad weather, we left our mooring in Larrsen Harbour and sailed up the North Coast to Gold Harbour. Gold Harbour is one of those perfectly formed bays, fully of thousands of animals (agains!!) and sealed in by a hanging glacier above some massive cliffs.
The bay was bathed in gentle evening light as we went ashore for our now frequent immersion in the local fauna. It seemed that they were there in even greater numbers as it was peak mating season. The sea elephants were astonishing. Two big males fought to the death as one of them tried to mate with a reluctant female who simply ignored him and refused. it was quite funny to watch him move up to the female, then watch her move away and then he would have another go, putting his fin on her back as if it would make her more inclined to soften towards him.. does that remind you of anyone?
The baby sea elephants are sweet in their black sheaths - a bit like a babygrow that had been bought a few sizes too big so that they could 'grow into them'. But they need to take care as one sign of weakness and they become a feast for some of the predatory birds watching on standby..
We spent a long time with these young penguins in their nurseries.. They are clumsy and innocent and some of them don't think twice about following us! The thick brown down makes them look like cuddly toys and it takes a lot of effort to remind yourself that you are not in their world and cannot lean down to touch them!
Every now and then a penguin shoots out of the water like a rocket after a quick jerky swim much in the same way as dolphins do. These papous penguins are smaller than the emperors, their beaks are less haughty and the hair on their heads is a little messier, making you believe that they could be really cheeky. The male Otaries are an imposing 500kg and begin to mark out space on the beach. Whilst they await the arrival of the females who are still out at sea, they stand guard at the ready, their beaks pointing up towards the sky as though to make themselves as tall as possible and impress their neighbour..
Everywhere we look, there are birds flying, swimming or parading!
The skua is grey and menacing and is perfectly suited to his role as the tramp of the beach.
The giant petrel is an imposing bird with a reputation for having an insatiable appetite. Once his stomach is full, it becomes a serious barrier to a smooth take-off and it finds itself forced to pedal on water to move away from the land-based attractions!
If his mating dance is funny to say the least, that of the cormorants is perfectly choreographed down to the last hundredth of a second, a series of graceful head movements - a moment of pure grace.
The fight of the Damier du Cap or that of the snow Petrel makes you dream. They give such a feeling of lightness and freedom. We spent hours watching them dance either in the mountains of at sea.
Lastly the Albatross, the symbolic bird of the poles are not things of legends but real even though we didn't see very many of them!
The wanderer is a sight to be seen as his feathers are a every possible shade of grey and it is soft and easy to look at. The wanderer is one of the largest birds in the world and we take our hats off to him when we learn that it is an exposed to the falling seracs flight 8000km to go and retrieve its young....
27th October: we climb the point above Iris Bay at 1672m: a great triumph in the face of adversity!
It took hours of map reading, researching and reading documents on the various expeditions on the island, several days of recces, of failed crossing of the Hertz glacier and even a night spent camping out in a howling gale on the glacier before we were able to transform our objective into a success.
There was nothing heroic or extreme about this trek, only the satisfaction of having been proved right to persevere and to have picked out a wonderful itinerary on skis that was both logical and safe....
Standing on the summit and soaking up this incredible view, I feel a deep sense of achievement, having conceived of this dream four years ago and now having made it come true.
However beautiful and dramatic this expedition was, it was a constant reminder that climate change is well and truly upon us. One cannot ignore the five dry winters that this island has endured, or be surprised at having experienced rain and other mild weather in places where snow storms and biting arctic winds should be the norm, or fail to be worried when you watch the marine charts on the screen of the boat and notice that we are sailing on water that only seven years ago was a glacier..
We can quibble over whether or not we have to take our share of responsibility in global warming: I've seen shocking examples of it in Norway, Iceland, Mongolia, Greenland and now here in South Georgia - all places close to the poles.
How can I acknowledge this reality and adapt my way of life, my work and my travel .. Even if I can see the types of decisions I need to make, I have to admit that I haven't got the courage to take them as I haven't yet formulated an 'acceptable' answer. Returning now from the expedition, I feel more than ever that time is running out - we need to find the answers.