Grytviken

After reaching Stromness Bay we sailed straight round here to Grytviken Harbour, where we have been moored for the last three days. The rusting remains of the whaling industry line the shore, there is a Scandinavian church and a rather good museum, a tiny cemetery enclosed within a white picket fence, and the grave of Sir Ernest Shackleton. The buildings of the British Antarctic Survey station are about a quarter of a mile away.

Today, Monday, we shall be moving on – sailing southeastwards down the island’s northern coast to Royal Bay. Last night there were lenticular clouds over the local peaks, and there are high winds out at sea.

Last night everyone in Grytviken was invited to drinks and a barbecue aboard Plancius (named ‘of course’ as Christopher points out ‘after the well-known Dutch cartographer’). This is a small cruise ship jointly chartered by the New York Yacht Club and the Royal Yacht Squadron to bring members for a South Georgia visit. There were some quite grand people aboard but as we have the Commodore of the Ocean Cruising Club (‘proper sailors’) in our little group, we were able to hold our heads up. It was a genial evening but those cruise ships are so noisy and overheated and soulless. It was pure joy to climb back into the Zodiac and whizz back across the black water to beautiful, spare and sweet-sailing Pelagic Australis. (Am I getting hooked?  Do I need to develop a taste for offshore sailing?)

We had a nightcap around the saloon table and laughed a lot.

Yesterday all the team except Jonathan and me went to climb Mount Petrel, behind the base here. Summiter Gavin Brazg reports:

Rising directly from behind our current berth at Grytviken, 2000ft of glory waited patiently for an early morning molestation.

Rain so light it could only be called “drizzle” was enough to prompt earnest discussions of whether this project was worthwhile at all. Procrastination (not al fresco achievement) seemed to be the order of the day. In truth, we had become soft and delicate after our Bacchanalian adventures down the BAS bar the night before.

To me, one hill is very much the same as the next (sshh, don’t tell anyone I said that, ’tis heretic talk in current company). It’s true though – 99% of the time is spent looking at your feet and the sandwich you packed in your rucksack always gets squashed and a little moist.

Still, Mount Petrel turned out to have a few surprises in store for us. Lulled into a false sense of security by the initial (and rather gentle) undulating stroll over the tussock we hit snow. Skis and skins on, what followed next was a 3-hour battle against gravity and friction that left only 4 of original 8 summiting the old girl.

It would be remiss of me to name names as to who did and did not make it to the top but “yes” that’s me standing triumphant upon the peak. Boastful? Perhaps. However, as everyone knows, history is always written by the victor.

Summit of Mt Petrel: Stephen, Gavin, Tom and Dick. Well done chaps!

And from me again here is the last chunk of the report from the Traverse itself.

Camping. The night job.

It was a job, I can tell you. I know it’s not the Pole, or the south col on Everest, but it was quite out there enough for me. My previous adventures with glacier camping have all involved a Sherpa camp team, a snug mess tent and ‘Hot tea, madam?’ every half an hour. Or more sensibly an Alpine refuge with bunk beds, snoring Italian alpinists and comically extreme lavatory arrangements. (like the one at the Vignettes hut, on the Haute Route, once visited never forgotten).

Not here. On our traverse there were no lavatory arrangements. Unless you count a hole and a spade, in full view of 9 guys. And we were the Sherpas.

On the first evening, after a stiff final ascent to the selected snow scoop, there was no chance to sag or even catch our breath. It was still blowing a massive hooley. We were straight into digging out and flattening three tent platforms. Following bellowed but barely audible instructions from our leaders we fought to put up three tents with double poles for security in the maddeningly flimsy net sleeves. The domes bucked and leapt to escape from our numbed fists and the flysheets twisted like dragons’ wings.

‘****s sake hold on to the ****ing flysheet’ bawled Venables. And then ‘**** the ****** for a ****ing ****’ , as the tab to secure the poles at one corner of a tent ripped clean away. He fixed it somehow from inside, with a slit in the groundsheet and a sling and carabiner. ‘Arr. Forty years afore the mast’, he mugged rather admirably.

We dug out blocks of snow to weight the valances. We secured guy ropes with ice axes or snow stakes or skis dug into the snow. We dug deep foot-pits in the porch areas front and back. We dragged off our ski boots, crawled out of the wind at last and contemplated the dry bags we had each hauled in off the pulks, containing our sleeping gear, dry socks, a mug and spoon. A foam mat apiece, a thin thermarest mattress on top of that, and a sleeping bag. Christopher and I collapsed on our sketchy beds as if felled by a blow. The process of putting up our camp had taken two hours, and it was getting dark.

The third camp, on the Fortuna glacier before Breakwind Ridge

Wonderful Skip sat with his feet in the kitchen pit and fired up a gas burner balanced on a sheet of plywood board. Hot tea came, followed by tomato and onion pasta and a nightcap of hot chocolate with a nip of Christopher’s whisky. Seconds later I was asleep.

Following our dismal practice night above Chamonix I had a warm dry hat and a fleecy pillow. With all my outer clothes piled on top of my bag, three layers of tops and leggings underneath, socks, hat and gloves, and the proximity of two other bodies (kindly, the men let me have the middle place) I was just warm enough. In Stephen’s tent there were four people, which must have given huddling together for animal warmth an even more noticeable effect.

I don’t think I have ever slept so soundly. In the morning it took another two hours to strike the tents and pack everything away again ready to travel.

Each night and morning was similar, but we got a little faster with practice. Each evening Skip cooked for Christopher and me. I did offer, but was refused. We alternated evenings between pasta and risotto, and packed in the heavy food bag for each rope were generous supplies of everything else from coffee powder to muesli, nuts, cheese, chocolate and salami. Each morning we took a little bag for a lunchtime picnic and stowed it in our sacks. We were well fed, and surprisingly well rested in the circs.

Yes, inside the tents at night we all used our pee bottles rather than trying to pull on ski boots and totter out into the howling night. It was discreetly done. I added the refinement of knotting a jacket around my waist to form a curtain before exposing my backside. And that’s all on that topic.

We were confined to the tents on the beach at Fortuna Bay for a solid 36 hours. In our tent Skip told us stories of skippering the maxi yacht Drum, Simon le Bon’s boat in the Whitbread and we talked and slept and listened to iPods, drank soup, ate pasta and bars of Green & Blacks, and slept again. It was lovely, companionable and secure with the constant batter of wind and rain outside and the spare comforts within. Life seemed very simple and good. Although Christopher remarked at one point that our tent looked much like Tracy Emin’s bed.

Just with a thicker layer of penguin guano.

I’m not a camping convert, it’s a bit late in the day for that, but hauling everything in our pulks enabled us to spend five nights and six days out in places we’d never have been able to reach otherwise, and to feel real isolation from the world. We’ve done the same route as the James Caird party – and I know just how long and hard it would have been for those brave men.

Frank Worsley, captain of the Endurance, Able Seamen Timothy McCarthy and John Vincent, carpenter Harry McNeish, the magnificent Tom Crean and Shackleton himself: we salute you.

I’m sorry this is so l-o-n-g. There seemed a lot to tell.

Shorter reports from now on, but I’ll keep writing. Ten a.m., and off to Royal Bay.

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One Response to Grytviken

  1. dorothy wolfe says:

    Having almost spring weather in London – very pleasant temperature in which to read your reports. I salute you all and thank God I’m not there! All love Dotti x

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