Fit – or not?

Either way it’s too late, since I’m leaving for the airport in 2 hours.

But I know from past excursions that not feeling as though I am going to keel over with exhaustion after every step makes for a rather more enjoyable experience overall. So I’ve been to the gym a few times. Press-ups, sprints, step-ups? Check. Gaining a few pounds for insulation purposes? … er, reluctant check. Dragging car tyres round the park? Not so much.

Otherwise it’s been just some hillwalking. My daughter Flora came with me to do the Yorkshire Dales section of the Pennine Way. It was sublime.

Nearing the summit of Pen-y-Ghent

Thanks to Alex for all the training.
Thanks to Robin and Jam at Projection Advertising.
And thanks to Theo, and Julian and Amanda Platt and John Field in Northumberland, for racing me up the Cheviot.

Next post from Santiago.

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Scott Polar Research Institute

Our final pre-departure rendezvous in August, organised for us by Dick, was a special tour of the Polar Museum in Cambridge. It was fascinating – well worth a visit. Amongst the many polar artefacts and papers housed there we saw Oates’s sleeping bag, pitifully slit down one side so he could stick out his gangrenous leg, and the actual sextant used by Worsley in his amazing feat of navigation. It’s moving to see the pencil-inscribed original letters and papers laid  in banks of drawers, and to make a mental comparison of the orderly sotto voce calm of the museum with the circumstances under which some of them were written.

The James Caird itself can usually be seen at Dulwich College, Shackleton’s old school.

We were joined by Ian Calder who did the South Georgia excursion with Skip and Stephen last year. ‘I’m very glad to have done it’, he said enigmatically.

Dick and his wife Celia generously gave us dinner afterwards at their house. In the morning, we said goodbye and went our separate ways for the rest of the summer.

‘See you at the airport’, we told each other.

Pimm's practice

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So – it’s official

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I love gear!

All the assembling and packing of mandatory kit from a yard-long list supplied by Skip came next. The staff in my nearest Cotswold Outdoors shop grew to love me like a mother, and I also took delivery of a specially-made parka in a modish shade of orange and a colossal pair of polar mittens from phd Designs.

August 2: This is the extent of it all, just before being packed into a cavernous bag and freighted off to await our arrival on the boat.

Kit ready for packing

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Months slid by, and (some) training was duly done. In February we went up to North Wales to the Pen-y-Gwryd hotel, refuge for generations of mountaineers. We sat under the signatures of Mallory, Odell, Hunt and Hillary which decorate the ceiling of one of the bars and I hoped as usual that some atoms of their ability might drift down upon my head.

The mountaineers' refuge

Next day the weather was no more dismal than it generally is up there (I speak as a local), so we tackled the Crib Goch ridge, a short grade III scramble to the summit of Snowdon. We were led by my old friend John Whittle, who as well as writing and making films now works as a guide out of Llanberis. None of us fell off although sadly someone from another party did. We saw the RAF Sea King helicopter rescue as we plodded back down the Miners Track towards the Everest Bar.

Near Snowdon's summit

The cloud lifts for a few moments to reveal the ridge

In May, we were in Chamonix for some snow and ice practice. Again the weather didn’t exactly favour us, but we loaded up with tents and food and ski-mountaineering kit and headed from our base in Servoz through the tunnel to Courmayeur. At the very top of the lift system we stepped out into a white wall of blizzard. Skis on, and my knees were buckling even before the first turn under the combined weight of peer group anxiety and my unwieldy rucksack. No one seemed to fare much better, and after a short descent Stephen called a halt and we dug in a camp in the shelter of a rock wall. We were all soaked by the heavy wet snowfall.

Tom and Dick checking kit at the chalet


Putting a cheerful face on matters

The night’s ‘rest’ at least provided a useful check list of what I didn’t have, and will definitely need to make camp life endurable on South Georgia. A warm, dry, fleecy hat to sleep in. (I noticed that Stephen slumbered comfortably wearing his). A pair of bed socks, cashmere for preference. An inflatable neck pillow. A synthetic sleeping bag, in place of the down one I usually use which will quickly get sodden. An insulated mug. Something more female-friendly than a narrow-necked bottle to pee in. An iPod loaded with New Yorker short story podcasts, to get me through the long nights. Or a serious supply of temazepam. Probably both.

In the morning it was still snowing clods. Yawning and stiff, we packed away the tents and roped up to trudge back up what now seemed an unfeasibly steep slope. Wet gloves had frozen overnight into unyielding blocks. Knots were bungled, skins peeled off skis. It was not an edifying spectacle, and we were all happy to reach the lift station. In the debriefing Stephen mildly remarked that as a group we may have a little ground to make up in terms of ski-mountaineering technique.

The next day was sunny and, down in the valley, hot. We spent a cheery morning in the chalet garden, tying Alpine butterfly knots and practising crevasse self-rescue using newfangled ti-blocs and old-school prusiks, followed by an idyllic afternoon’s climbing down at Servoz crag. There’s even an enticing café right across the road from the rock face.

John, Stephen, Martin and rope work

Jonathan and Stephen, prusiking chalet-side

Spot of lunch...l to r, Christopher, Jonathan, Tom, John, Dick, Martin, Stephen, and Christopher's son William

After all this, team dinner at l’Atmosphere in Cham felt like a slightly-deserved reward.

Janey and Stephen

I had to include this one because it combines rope, crag, climbers, globally renowned mountaineer and the present writer. An approximate analogy might be the third violin in the school orchestra stepping up on to the platform with Yehudi Menuhin.

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Getting acquainted

We first assembled as a group well over a year ago, beneath the maritime oil paintings and club notices of the Royal Ocean Racing Club off St James’s. (Jackets and ties for the gentlemen, lipstick and a little dress and heels for me, ahem.) As we chatted sedately over the cutlets and claret, South Georgia seemed a very long way off – in time as well as distance.

At a second dinner a few months later we were joined by Stephen Venables, the eminent mountaineer and writer who will be our guide, and Skip Novak, the owner of Pelagic Australis, the aluminium-hulled high-latitudes expedition yacht in which we shall sail from Stanley in the Falklands to King Haakon Bay on South Georgia.

Both these old hands warned us (we are not quite in our 20s, any of us, although Tom and Gavin are not so very much beyond that…) to use the intervening months to train and get fit – or risk having a hideous time.

Pelagic Australis

Sailors: check out We’ll be aboard this one, the larger of Skip’s fine boats, the 74-foot Australis.

And see also the South Georgia website,

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Welcome to southbyeight, a blog of the British 2011 Shackleton Traverse

In a few days’ time, on 6 October, our group of eight plus our guide will be heading off to the big seas of the South Atlantic and the island of South Georgia, where we hope to tackle the route up and over the island’s mountain spine that will forever be known as the Shackleton Traverse.

Armchair adventurers like me, and all polar history fans, will know the story of the Endurance expedition inside out, but some readers may not…. So here goes:

In May 1916 three people, more filthy tattered scarecrows than men, stumbled off an unmapped glacier and into the safety of a whaling station. To the astonished commander of the station their leader murmured, ‘My name is Shackleton’.

The journey the trio had just completed remains one of the greatest feats of survival from the heroic age of exploration.

Sir Ernest Shackleton

Under the command of the great explorer the Endurance had left England in August 1914 with twenty-seven souls aboard. Amundsen with Scott pressing hard behind him had already reached the Pole, and Scott’s party had perished on the terrible return journey. Shackleton had therefore persuaded his sponsors that the last remaining great polar challenge was the trans-Antarctic crossing – a 1800-mile march across the ice.

The original advertisement for crew – possibly apocryphal, but an accurate job description

The wreck and the escape

Shackleton was an experienced polar leader and the expedition was adequately planned and resourced, but the Antarctic weather was against the Endurance crew from the very beginning. In the polar summer of 1914-15 there were 53 degrees of frost. Their ship became trapped in the pack ice, drifted helplessly in its grinding jaws through three long polar seasons, and finally broke up and sank. The expedition photographer Frank Hurley took the famous photographs of a ship in its death throes.

Endurance trapped in the ice.

The end of the Endurance.

Taking with them their beloved sledge dogs, the three lifeboats and whatever else they could salvage including the carpenter’s cat, the men camped out on the floes and drifted steadily onwards towards the edge of the pack. By April 1916 the ice was breaking up beneath them and they were in grave danger from cruising killer whales as well as the constant storms. They shot the dogs and Mrs Chippy the cat, and took to the lifeboats with the bare minimum of supplies. From their current position it was then sixty miles to the nearest land – but not to safety.

Escape in the James Caird

Remote Elephant Island – the men soon began to call it Hell-of-an-Island – was unvisited even by whalers. There was no hope of discovery and rescue from such an isolated spot. Once his twenty-seven men were on dry land and established in a sketchy camp, Shackleton took the decision to sail one of the three lifeboats to the nearest inhabited point and fetch help for his stranded crew. He chose five men to accompany him, including the Endurance’s skipper Frank Worsley and Tom Crean, the second officer. On April 24th they set out in the 22-foot  lifeboat James Caird  to sail through mountainous seas to South Georgia, a speck of land almost 800 miles distant.

The perils of this journey are infinite, and the skill of Worsley’s navigation – mainly by dead reckoning –  is almost beyond imagining.  Yet they made it after an agonising voyage of sixteen days, and were finally driven ashore in heavy weather on to the south-west coast of South Georgia. But only the island’s north-east coast was inhabited. Taking to the boat again was unthinkable: Worsley wrote in his journal that at least two of the James Caird party were all but dead. In a last bid to save his men Shackleton had to make one more decision. He would have to lead the climb over unmapped, icebound mountains to reach Stromness harbour on the other side of the island.

The traverse

Leaving their three companions to wait for rescue, Shackleton, Worsley and Crean finally made the traverse of the island in just thirty-six hours.

Following in their footsteps, this is the journey we plan to recreate. From the benign shelter of our Terra Nova tents and padded parkas, with our latest ski-mountaineering kit, our pulks laden with food, our GPS and Gore-tex and avalanche bleeps, and our crevasse self-rescue gear merrily clinking on our harnesses, we shall probably take more like five days to do it.

What the hell. It’s supposed to be a holiday.

But I will be considering every step of the way what it must have taken to make this traverse for real.

Take a virtual trip with us!

For the full story:

South by Ernest Shackleton

Shackleton’s Boat Journey by F.A.Worsley

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