At sea again

We left our Rosita anchorage at noon, and passed along the northern coast of South Georgia in a layered fog. The world is entirely grey – air, water, sky a full 8 eighths, as the log says. Between two horizontal bands of fog we glimpsed our last slice of land, like a vision of black rocks and sharp white peaks, until we drew parallel with Willis Island and that in turn fell behind us. Now we are out at sea once more. The wind is only a light 6-7 knots so we are pushing along under engine power with three reefs in the mainsail. The sea is oily, swelling uncomfortably to the point that there was not too much interest in a hearty lunch, but so far the bucket has not reappeared. There is ample time. According to the forecast, the wind will pick up briskly this evening, from the south-west for the next 24 hours. The passage is predicted to take five days.

We have quickly fallen back into the imperative pattern of watches. Without Skip to lead his, Miles and Laura are alternating four hours on and four off, while we rotate three-hour three-man watches under them. Today Dick, Gavin and I have 9pm-midnight, so we will get a six-hour night – yay.

While we are still close to shore, the seas are full of life. Homing penguins flip in convoys out of the water, and seals pop up their black heads. We also saw a pair of whales spouting off the starboard quarter. Blue eyed shags, heralds of land for the James Caird, gamely scud round the forestay.

A life on the ocean wave. Good old Pelagic Australis.

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The one about birds

I have a couple of knowledgeable bird-y friends  (Hello Seb! Jane M!*) who will attest that I do not know a crow from a chaffinch. But I think even they would be pleased with today’s tick.

We left Grytviken and KEP for the last time early this morning. Through the streaming mist we could see Zodiacs full of tourists from the second cruise ship of the season, already zipping across to pay their respects at the Boss’s grave. (Conjugate: I am a traveller, you are a tourist, he is a tripper).

We sailed about 20 miles to Prion Island, a bird sanctuary zealously kept rat-free to safeguard birds’ eggs and maintained by the SGSSI government. And here, after plodding through icy rain along a Galapagos-style boardwalk, we came right up against a wandering albatross chick perched on his nest. This 9-month old colossal infant, the size of a large swan, was on the point of fledging.  His throat and chest were downy with grey fluff like old man’s beard but his back and wings were in mature plumage. His long bill probed irritably into the itchy-looking down, coming up with a satisfying clump of the undesirable baby feathers. From time to time he paddled his feet in the nest and stretched his wings, lined with lacy white feathers like a pair of broken ceremonial parasols, into a crooked span of about six feet. He was clearly longing to get into the air. Once he does so he will not return to land for four years, to breed in his turn. Amazing.

The Albatross

The picture’s not going to win me Wildlife Photographer of the Year but it is my own.

In the course of our tour we have seen huge numbers of birds. I haven’t got my I-Spy Book of the Southern Ocean with me, but they include: penguins – gentoo, king and macaroni; blue-eyed and emperor shags; fairy prion; South Georgia pipit and pintail, which only exist here; light-mantled sooty, grey-headed and black-browed albatrosses, as well as the wanderer. Of the petrels, northern and southern giant, Wilson’s storm, snow, white chinned and cape; and then there are skua, sheathbill, kelp gull, Antarctic tern. This is only an ignoramus’s list, but it’s a satisfying one.

I think that all things considered, I’d better get into birdwatching rather than offshore sailing.

We pushed off in the dinghy from Prion Island beach, leaving behind the now-familiar audience of gentoos, skuas, fur seals and warring elephant seal bulls. It was our last landfall for a few days. We’re now moored in calm but cold and soaking weather at a place called Rosita Harbour. We’re stowing our mountaineering sharps in safe containers, securing our gear and preparing for tomorrow, when we shall head westwards again across the ocean to Stanley.

Follow our progress via the tracker function. There will be posts from various points.

* It was Jane to whom I ran, somewhere in northern Pakistan, to describe the wildly exotic bird I had just spotted. ‘Oh yes, she said kindly. ‘It’s always nice to see a hoopoe’.

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Penguin post

We have seen a lot of them. But first, here is Tom Carrell’s report of climbing a real South Georgia peak.

Stephen, Gavin and I set off early after Martin had risen even earlier, concerned that we shouldn’t set off without the full nutritional benefit that only his cooked breakfast could provide. Miles dropped us off in Ocean Bay by Zodiac to the bemused looks of assembled fur seals, penguins and a small herd of reindeer. Not unreasonable, I suppose, as the sight of three men on the beach in full ski kit is an odd one the world over.

The temperature is warming (ie above freezing) and the snow at sea level is steadily melting, so we had a good slog uphill for a couple of hundred metres before reaching good snow cover and beginning the ski approach to our objective – Black Peak. Higher up, massive avalanches had swept the slopes and so we picked a long, sinuous route up a ridge system to be safe. The pace was steady and relentless, slowing down up high as the gradient steepened above exposed hardpacked slopes that had been stripped by the spring avalanches. We swapped ski for crampons and ice axes to reach the spectacular ridge that ran between the two summits. Unusually clear weather gave us fine views all around, from Pelagic Australis moored next to the wreck of the Bayard around to the Szielasko icecap now below us – an area of permanent accumulation of snow and ice on top of this small range of mountains. We were unsure which summit was highest so climbed both, paying attention to avoid a large cornice undercutting one.

Skis on for the descent, we had an exhilarating ride down – big sweeping turns until the lower, softer snow and complex systems of rock ledges required a more cautious approach, picking a route down as far as we could ski.

All that remained was a three kilometre walkout in skiboots to meet the boat now moored in East Cumberland Bay – with that satisfied feeling of tired limbs and new memorable experiences. The elephant seal watching us embark gave us a more nonchalant look, as if he’d seen it all before.

OK….. that sets team B’s stroll over the headland in context….

At anchor in the cove

This afternoon we are still at anchor in Cobbler’s Cove. This morning most of us did an exhilarating walk/scramble up steep slopes of snow and scree from the cove shore to visit the macaroni penguin colony at Rookery point. A small advance guard of about a dozen had arrived, ready to breed after long months at sea. Soon they will be coming ashore in hundreds. The pioneers were standing about between the tussocks, looking suitably debonair with their macaroni feathers blowing in the wind.

I attach a picture, with the promise that it will be the only penguin photograph to appear in this blog. If anyone requires insomnia treatment, come round to mine once I am home and I will show you the other 5,212.

Macaroni penguins at Rookery Point, Cobbler’s Cove

We are about to sail round to KEP to fill Pelagic’s water tanks ready for the passage back to Stanley.

Tomorrow – Prion Island and the albatrosses.

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Skip bows out

We were at anchor overnight in Ocean Harbour, a few hundred yards from the melancholy wreck of the Bayard, heeled over as she has been since she was wrecked a hundred years ago.  The shore here is seamed red with rusting remains of the fur sealers, including a steam locomotive tipped on one side by some long-ago gale and left to subside into the tussock bogs.

We were ashore soon after breakfast, very much the B-team because Stephen Venables had taken Tom and Gavin to ski-climb a nearby peak. The rest of us climbed a headland up and out of the bay and gazed up at the climbers, tiny black dots zigzagging up what appeared to anxious spectators to be one massive slab waiting to avalanche. We watched and waited until they reached the horizon ridge, seeing them ‘climbing strongly towards the summit’, and then continued our way on down to come out once again at Cumberland Bay, looking across to KEP.

Pelagic, Cumberland Bay and the Neumayer Glacier

There is a tiny refuge hut used by BAS on the beach. It looked a romantic refuge, furnished with a wooden bunk, a primus stove and some tins of baked beans, and a Tilley lamp swaying overhead. The backdrop of the Neumayer glacier marching down to the sea looked spectacular enough to command the attention for a few stranded days….

Now we are at anchor in tiny, sheltered Cobbler’s Cove. Plancius came up behind us and sent over a dinghy for Skip, who has to move on to his next work commitment. We sent him off with three cheers.

Now we are drinking wine in the saloon and thinking about tomorrow. Macaroni penguins are on offer.

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Feather-footed through the plashy fen?

We sailed round yesterday afternoon to Royal Bay and went ashore in the dinghy for a walk. Elephant seal cows wallowed in the gritty sand, either about to or having just given birth to this season’s pups. These scraggy black bags of loose mammalian flesh appeared to be just clinging to life, and indeed several of them had already lost the battle. Skuas picked indifferently over the remains, rising in a sudden crowd to converge on the afterbirth of the latest arrival.

The huge scarred bulls snorted and bared their teeth at us, probosces wobbling as they flung back their heads, but despite their size they are too ungainly on land to be a threat. One eye out for the younger bulls hovering at the edge of the herd, they rest and wait for their harem to finish weaning the current young so they can get started on production of the next lot.

Spring comes to South Georgia.

This afternoon we are at anchor in nearby St Andrew’s Bay where there is a vast colony of king penguins. I wandered through the hordes, speculating on the evidently complex patterns of penguin social behaviour and wondering if the hierarchies might be just as subtly nuanced as those governing interrelationships of the New York Yacht Club and Royal Yacht Squadron members.

The penguins are moulting and they stand with their shoulders hunched, itchy-looking and vulnerable as the wind scours away the old feathers and whirls them into the air like fish-scented snowflakes. On the beach we found a similar scene to yesterday’s: hundreds of elephant seals, skua-pecked calves, bloody scars and a general sense of red in tooth and claw. Nature down here isn’t soft or pretty or cute in any way at all. Dick and I agreed as we stood shivering in a scouring wind off the glacier that we felt rather depressed to contemplate it. We came back to the boat for tea and scones.

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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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The traverse: day job

Technically the route isn’t difficult, apart from lowering ten pulks off the Trident and Breakwind Ridges. (Any more of that and you’ll go straight to the Headmaster, Matt Graff).

Only a couple of short ascents couldn’t be tackled on skis with harscheisen*, and even of those none was intimidatingly steep. Easy enough with crampons and ice axes. Most of the downhill skiing was on gentle glacier slopes, the only problem being control of the recalcitrant pulks that snapped at our heels like disobedient dogs on leashes. The uphill skinning to the cols – i.e. most of the route – was long and steady rather than gruelling.

Yet when I asked round the dinner table last night for everyone’s worst moments, there were plenty of offerings. Even Skip and Tom the Supermen came up with some temporary navigational glitch that had occurred in minimal visibility on the featureless expanse of the Crean Glacier. Most of us had had a low moment on that second afternoon – exhausted from hours of hauling on ropes and pulks, and thinking we had five hours of skinning into deepening darkness ahead.

My personal worst though was on the first afternoon, crossing the Murray Snowfield.

I’d been pretty chipper all morning. Swinging along in the middle position on our rope of three, Skip setting a manageable pace and Christopher moving easily at the rear, I thought, GREAT. I’m fit enough to romp up the Shackleton Gap without even feeling breathless. My pulk feels heavyish but once under momentum it swishes over the snow obediently enough. This is a wild and wonderful place with rock and snow and sunny skies and no human presence bar our own.

Janey skinning

Janey skinning

It’s all going to be easy-peasy. Marvellous.

Ha ha. We stopped for lunch in rising wind. Thin grey cloud had already shawled the sky and without sunlight the scenery became bleak and hostile. I made the hideous mistake of lowering my harness and trousers to pee without bothering to unfasten the pulk traces, or my rucksack straps, or the prusik knot securing the pulk to the rope. Embarrassed as usual by the process, I pulled my stuff together too hastily afterwards and stepped the wrong way. The other ropes were already moving off into the white murk. My harness was twisted, the rope was round my leg, everything was in a nightmare tangle. Skip was nose into the wind like a gun dog. I lurched in his wake. The pulk fishtailed exhaustingly on knotted traces.

I struggled on, against a desperate crosswind. The snow was scoured to pearly ice, nasty and featureless. My skins kept slipping sideways instead of gliding forwards, but Skip pulled inexorably ahead so I was tugged in two directions. By now the wind was blasting in huge snowy gusts. My face stung with it. Suddenly a massive gust came (‘Fifty plus’, the men said later) and lifted me right off my feet. I was dumped on my side in a cats’ cradle of ropes. It’s hard to get upright with crossed skis and a cumbersome rucksack, let alone from under a red plastic sledge on an incline of sheet ice. People yelled inaudible instructions into the teeth of the gale.

The second time it happened I very nearly laid my head on the ice to weep. But luckily – and no doubt accurately – I judged that this wasn’t the moment for waterworks.

We trudged on, and at long last reached our first camp under the Trident Ridge.

I thought, how many more days like this can I actually survive?

But that was really the worst of it, and it wasn’t so bad after all.

There were far more compensatory vistas and small achievements and shared moments with my companions than I can list. The team spirit was almost the best thing about our six days out there – a word of muttered encouragement or commiseration from one, a helping hand from another, the almost constant jokes and the unfailing good humour. At one point Gavin saw I was struggling on foot down a gully, silently took my skis from me and tied them to his pulk alongside his own. He was already hauling twice my load. It was a very Polar Hero act. We might almost have gone so far as to shake hands, wordlessly of course.

Stephen at the head of the gully.

Stephen at the head of the gully

When Skip and Christopher and I finally crawled into the refuge of our tent ahead of the storm down at Fortuna Bay, Skip patted me on the shoulder. ‘You’re a good trooper’, he said.

I felt as proud and happy as when I passed my cycling proficiency test aged 9.

And then there was the sheer beauty of it all. Pictures will show it better than words – Skip and John have some magnificent ones. I hope to be posting a few of these, with their permission, but a full selection may have to wait until I‘m back in UK…. I’m already quite a lot of dollars in hock to satellite upload time….

The single best moment?

On top of Breakwind Ridge, seeing the mouth of Stromness Bay in the far distance, and a cliff above with the same Z-shaped band of pale rock that Shackleton recognised at 7 am on that May morning in 1916 and knew they were almost at the end.

I was in his exact footprints. Not so very many people have stepped in that place.

Yesterday I had a great birthday. There were presents wrapped beside my place at breakfast, and Laura made a wonderful chocolate cake – with candles and Happy Birthday – for tea. Special thanks to her and Miles for everything, and also to Jonathan to making a superb curry (my favourite) for dinner. Afterwards we went out for drinks to the BAS bar at the King Edward Point Station, and talked to biologists and museum curators and the rat eradication expert.

The rest of the team has gone out ski touring today. Later – a barbecue with the New York Yacht Club on their cruise ship, shortly to arrive in the Bay. It’s a social whirl down here. Wish you could all be with us.

Tomorrow – extreme camping.

* Ski crampons for uphill skiing on ice. ‘Skins’ are for uphill skiing on snow.

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