Beyond Endurance Expedition 2008 – The South Georgia Traverse

Beyond Endurance Expedition 2008.

The South Georgia Traverse.

It is almost two years since I was first in contact with Jerry O’Sullivan, from Ballinhassig, in Co. Cork. At the time Jerry had left a comment on a post I had written about Tom Crean’s epic solo march, in February 1912. It referred to Crean’s rationing of the few pieces of chocolate he had carried, on that trek, and how it had inspired Jerry in 2011, as he lay alone on top of Alaska’s Mount Denali, with a broken leg.

Naturally I was eager to learn more from that intriguing snippet of information, so I contacted Jerry and asked if he would be interested in sharing his story, and he kindly agreed. His interest in Tom Crean and Ernest Shackleton, was largely responsible for him becoming a member of the Beyond Endurance Expedition of 2008. And like minded friendships forged in South Georgia during that time, coupled with a keen sense of adventure, led to him taking up mountaineering. He started climbing in Ireland, before scaling peaks in Europe and South America, prior to tackling Denali. What transpired on North America’s highest peak, was the stuff of nightmares, for any mountaineer, and truly is a ‘must read’.

But for now, this is the prologue to that story, which will follow shortly.

My thanks to Jerry O’Sullivan.

The South Georgia Traverse.

An account by expedition member Jerry O’Sullivan.

When I was in school the only person I associated with the South Pole was Captain Robert Scott. I’d never heard of Roald Amundsen. I was certainly not aware of Ernest Shackleton or Tom Crean. Many years later, through an interest in photography, I purchased a book of Frank Hurleys photographic account of Shackleton’s ill-fated, Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. I was completely blown away by the epic story of the Endurance and her crew. In fact I was very surprised by the great Irish involvement with Shackleton, Crean and Keohane playing such important roles. Later Michael Smiths wonderful book Tom Crean Unsung Hero brought to life the full account of the Kerry man’s influence in this Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.

I never thought it would be possible to go to the places visited by Crean & co, until the adventurer Pat Falvey, sought out ‘ordinary men and women for an extraordinary adventure’. So in 2008 I signed up for the Beyond Endurance Expedition, following in the footsteps of Crean and Shackleton across the island of South Georgia, in the South Atlantic.

In the early morning of 14th of November 2008 our ship pulled into King Haakon bay South Georgia. The day before had been stormy, and the remains of that weather front abated just long enough to allow us to land the RIBs on the shore at Peggotty Bluff. This is the same location from where Shackleton, Crean and Worsley began their traverse of the island on 19th of May, 1916.

Jerry O’Sullivan, during the traverse of South Georgia, on the Beyond Endurance Expedition.

With enough food and gear for five days we struck off past the on-looking Fur seals. After about two hours over rough ground we reached the snow line which made pulling the sleds much easier. However the weather had worsened. The strong winds created near blizzard conditions. As we made our way over the Murray snowfield it was difficult at times to tell where the ground ended and the sky began. After about 8 hours we stopped to camp for the night below the Trident towers, which would be the highest point on our journey. We had much work to do before settling down for the night. Pitching the tents in the windy conditions was no easy task but we had prepared well and soon they were set up, snow holes were dug out and snow was melting for much needed hot food and drinks.  

The following morning the weather was better, but still very cold. We started out for the Trident ridge reasonable rested looking forward to getting the most strenuous part of the crossing out of the way. Soon however it was all hands on deck as those pulling the sleds struggled on the accent. As the slope became steeper the climb became more difficult. The deep soft snow made it difficult to get a decent foot hold. The climb became a process of dragging the sleds a few yards, then resting to get our breath back, then pulling again and so on, repeated and repeated. Tough work, but we all knew we had to drive on and get over the top of the Trident. Eventually we had to hike to the top to drop our rucksacks, and set up a rope pulley system to haul up the sleds. It felt great to have finally conquered the Trident, however there were still several hours to go before reaching a safe camp site. That night we camped near the Crean Glacier named after the famous man from Annascaul. Reasonable weather allowed some of us to build a snow block wall, to keep the wind from lashing our tent. And after the strenuous work earlier in the day it was very easy to sleep that night!

Camp on the Beyond Endurance, traverse of South Georgia.

Camp on the Beyond Endurance, traverse of South Georgia.

Day 3 brought good weather and we looked all set to easily make it to our landmark of Fortuna Bay, where we would meet up with the ship. We set off across the Crean Glacier hoping to steer clear of hidden crevasses. However, less an hour into the journey, one of our group disappeared beneath the snow. Charlie had managed to find one of those crevasses and was now in grave danger if we couldn’t rescue him quickly. A rope pulley system was set up using ice axes as anchors. Once Charlie was clipped in, we slowly fished him out. Thankfully apart from a few bangs and bruises and being rather wet from the ice he was OK. We were soon on our way again, but were now very aware of the potential dangers that lurked beneath us. Maybe Tom Crean was sending us a reminder!

Thankfully the weather was perfect and we were able to take in the beautiful scenery that the island offers. At approx 5pm we saw Fortuna bay below us. It was here that Shackleton, Crean and Worsley waited to hear the sound of the whaling station work whistle, where they sought help for the rescue of their crew on Elephant Island. It was a welcome sight and I got a great sense of how they must have felt on finally reaching this point. An hour later we had descended the glacier to the beach, where we set up camp for our final night on the island, surrounded by countless King and Gentoo Penguins, Fur Seals and Elephant Seals.

Making tracks, during the traverse of South Georgia.

The next morning we headed off for Stromness harbour and the remains of the old whaling station. We passed by Crean lake and on our decent of the mountainous trek we could see the rusty station below us in the distance.
For Shackleton, this sight meant that all the stranded Endurance party on Elephant would surely be saved. It was an important moment for us all. What had taken us four days had been completed by Shackleton, Crean and Worsley, in 36 hours straight without proper food or equipment, and over uncharted territory. A truly astonishing achievement by these great men.

The day after completing our traverse we visited an old whaling town of Grytviken where Ernest Shackleton is buried in a small graveyard.
We also visited the monument erected by his ship mates, to commemorate him after he died on the island, during his final expedition.

After 2 more days at sea in rough conditions we arrived at Elephant Island, which was shrouded in mist. Suitably, the conditions painted a ghostly, foreboding image of this place. Unfortunately we couldn’t land on the island, as the fur seals had taken over the only accessible patch of shore. This was where Shackletons men were stranded for many months, living under two upturned life boats, waiting to be rescued. To us it was certainly not an inviting pretty place! To the 22 men of the Endurance it must have seemed like a piece of heaven.


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