Zig zagging up the Wiggins Glacier
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Not quite like in the America’s Cup, but the Swiss have again left their lakes and are out on the ‘briny.’ In February Pelagic Expeditions hosted a six man team of Swiss Italian mountaineers for a 30 day ‘sailing to climb’ expedition on the Antarctic Peninsula. This was by and large the same group we had on Pelagic Australis during October 2007 for the Shackleton Traverse on South Georgia, so they knew what they were in for on the crossing of the Drake Passage.

With stowage complete, we departed from Ushuaia on February 1st with a favorable forecast, foregoing the pisco sours in Puerto Williams and instead went straight offshore leaving all the Chilean islands to starboard. Gianni Caverzasio, at 73, is a Shackleton aficionado, so our first mission was a landing on Elephant Island. He and Romolo Nottaris, our mountain leader, date back to 1993 on the old Pelagic when we supported their ascent of Mt San Valentin via Laguna San Rafael on the Northern Patagonian Icecap of Chile and subsequent recovery from the ice cap’s southern end.

 The Team - they insist on supplying the wine, the parmesan and prosciutto . . . and they always bring their own cheese grater . . . .







It is an accolade to have such loyal clients, now friends, coming back again and again for these Pelagic adventures. But they don’t trust me in one regard – they insist on supplying the wine, the parmesan and prosciutto . . . and they always bring their own cheese grater . . . .

Skipper Stewart Richardson and mate Jess loading the rest of the stores in Ushuaia

Crew Swiss Chris loves apples

Engineer Chris Harris on onion skin duty

Gianni 'The Old Boy' steering out of the Beagle Channel

The Elephant Island gambit took us far out to the east, but made for an easy crossing with the wind on our starboard quarter. Never-the-less, sea sickness is always an issue, often with self proclaimed ‘yachtsmen’ going down, more so with mountain people. On these trips it is a fact to endure, an exquisite torture and my theory is that it heightens the euphoria of the arrival on the Peninsula. When back in sheltered water, the victim at once feels like life is worth living again. Needless to say, when I expound upon this observation, while still in mid Drake, it is usually not well appreciated.

Three days later, spent reaching and running in benign conditions, we found ourselves just to the northwest of Elephant Island – and as the Grib files portended, a strong easterly filled in making the passage via the north side of the island untenable. The objective was to land on Point Wild on the north coast, where Shackleton’s men camped while he and five others made their famous open boat journey in the James Caird to South Georgia.

Approaching the Peninsula

We ducked around the western end of the island, hoping for a lee on the southern side, but it was equally as savage. After fighting wind and breaking waves for some hours, we decided to abort the attempt. In any case, a landing on the open beach in these conditions, which was forecasted to persist for several days, would be a non starter. Making best use of what limited time we have is key to a successful cruise, so the decision was easily made to run downwind through the Bransfield Strait and into the Gerlache area for better weather in the central part of the Peninsula.

Swiss and Stew in the Gerlache

The mountain objectives we had in mind were Mt Scott and Mt Shackleton, two desirable peaks in stature and in name. After several years of marketing this Scott/Shackleton combination as a focus for climbers during our ‘Ice with Everything’ cruise, we would finally be putting the concept to the test.

We landed first at the default anchorage in Port Lockroy, home to the UK Heritage Trust’s renovated British Antarctic Survey Base of the same name. This is the de facto tourist information center on the Peninsula, complete with gift shop containing books, post cards, maps, penguin paraphernalia (both hard and fluffy) and His Majesty’s Post Office (a success story within the failing private enterprise in the UK). It competes with the semi active volcanic Deception Island as the most visited point of interest on the Peninsula, and they dispense many tonnes of product annually, but more importantly in the political sense, they maintain the UK’s sovereign foothold on Antarctic Territory which is neither guaranteed nor denied as a member of the Antarctic Treaty.

First footsteps ashore, stretching legs and lungs above Port Lockroy

After sorting out the mountain gear, we took a half day ski tour on the majestic Weincke Island to acclimatize to the Antarctic conditions, in addition to stretching our legs and getting the blood flowing again after the sea voyage. On land, in the mountains, on a glacier, clicked in to skis, the Swiss perked up and were as expected euphoric (my theory held true).

Mount Scott approach

On February 7th, taking advantage of the settled weather, skipper Stewart Richardson encouraged us to make an early start the next morning, sail south for 25 miles and go for Mt Scott, the ‘soft touch’ of our two objectives. Lying at the southern end of the well known Lemaire Channel (aka Kodak Valley) along the Penola Straits, Mt Scott is really a hairpin shaped massif with its open end facing southwest, with several summits of interest along its spine. The harder, technical climbs are on the southwest end of the northern loop, but the true summit of 860 meters is at the head of the glacier to the northeast, and this is the popular ski mountaineering route that we would take.

Landing for Mount Scott

Romolo leads the way

We landed on the shoreline rocks below a steep glacier at 0900. The ascent with crampons and skis on our backs took an hour, crossing a bridged crevasse to gain the main glacier. We then we enjoyed a beautiful, crevasse free ski to the summit favouring the right side of the glacier, giving a wide berth to a battery of spectacular hanging seracs along the summit ridge to our left. Four hours later we were on the summit. A flat, ethereal, light changed the landscape of snow capped islands and lesser and greater summits along the Peninsula into a white and mauve bi-chrome canvass, bereft of depth of field.

Gianni 73 years young

It began to snow, so we quickly repacked the snacks, peeled off skins from skis and passed the Armagnac flask around for the last time before high tailing it down below the cloud we now found ourselves in. Luckily, the visibility held for a superb ski - making turns along our uphill track in perfect snow conditions down to the snow bridge.
Base Camp Pelagic Australis was close inshore to meet us. We were greeted by an aperitif on the table and the smells of a dinner bubbling away in the pressure cookers. Life was good.

Summit Mount Scott

The Grib files again showed stable weather in the offing so our optimism was soaring. We anchored not far away at the Vernadsky Station, an active Ukrainian research base that was purchased from the British (then Base Faraday) in 1996. This is where the ozone hole was first discovered over forty years ago and the Ukrainians still maintain and take manual readings every few hours from the original Dobson Spectrometer that is a contraption right out of Dr. Who. Mounted on the ceiling, it shoots its signal through a sliding hatch in the roof of the attic. The operator, which might be a young Sergie, Alexey or Dimitri sleeps in the garret next to his machine.

Vernadsky is a popular spot for yachts because the Ukainians have maintained a certain esprit de corps with Antarctica travelers, whoever they might be. This attitude was a given with other stations in the early days, but now by and large these installations are either closed to visitors or the visits are managed by prior arrangement – base personal are now too busy to socialize ad hoc and yachts, through their sheer numbers are considered a distraction. Vernadsky also boasts the best all weather anchorage for small vessels within the islets and channels of the Argentine Islands archipelago.

While we recovered from Mt Scott (and the subsequent dinner) and began to plan the attempt on Mt Shackleton, we launched our inflatable kayak and toured the islands, sometimes getting close and cosy with leopard seals asleep on ice floes. They took no notice of us in the kayak, which is not the case via Zodiac, and is surely the way to stalk this top Antarctic predator. But I always hold my breath when one of these formidable beasts raises its head and yawns through rows of sharp teeth.

Gianni gets up close and cozy with a leopard seal

Mt Shackleton would require some days of camping, so food, fuel, tentage and climbing equipment all had to be considered carefully in order to minimize the weight we would be pulling in our pulks. There are two approaches to Mt Shackleton which lies roughly 10 kilometers from the coast, and we had to get this right. Romolo opted for a day’s recce to climb Mt Mills, hard by the coast, which from it’s high ground would give us a view up the Wiggins Glacier to the south of Shackleton. From the map, this was the most logical approach.

Mount Mills recce for Mt Scott approach

During a mornings stroll on skis we managed to get near, but not on the summit of Mt Mills, due avalanche risk in soft snow and an impassable snow bridge at the bergshrund. But a clear view up the Wiggins Glacier confirmed this was the way to go. That afternoon, we man hauled the fully loaded pulks up the steep start at the landing place and cached them on easy ground so we could make a fast start the next day.

We were back at the shore by 0500 on February 10th, and away on skis by 0600 from the cache. It was a gloriously clear and windless day. Traversing high around the shoulder of Mt Mills, we descended a hundred meters to the level of the Wiggins, well above the crevasses and seracs near the icefall on the sea’s edge. It was an easy pull hauling the pulks on a shallow grade over the morning’s freeze of neve. Many crevasses had to be crossed, but we could take them direct, with the slots just wide enough to span on skis. Only when you were directly over the slot did it become unnerving as the bridges had only recently opened revealing a bell shaped black void and the true width of the slot below ones feet – you made damn sure you were on a tight rope!

Zig zagging up the Wiggins Glacier

With mixed feelings we came across and followed for a time a descent track left behind from a French team that had climbed Shackleton only a few weeks before. That track disappeared to the right and we stayed left and went straight for the base of the east ridge. Throughout the day, we had the southeast face of Shackleton towering above our left shoulder. Nine hours after leaving the shore, we arrived below the icefall at the corner of the ridge, and made camp.

Camp on the Wiggins Glacier

The icefall was the usual ‘sting in the tail’ of what otherwise looked to be a straight forward ridge climb to the summit. The option was to make a wide circuit to the right (what the French had done on descent) in order to double back to the ridge. After a short respite Romolo, Carlo, Sergio and I went on a ‘recce’ leaving the others at the camp. After several cul de sacs ending in heart stopping void spaces, we managed to find a route with the crux being a very precarious bridge that partially collapsed with every passage. Now on safe ground, we pushed on up the ridge, negotiating several crevasses that spanned the entire face, luckily bridged in places. One overhanging crevasse was tackled by Romolo by cutting an ice window hatch through the roof! To make a long story short, the recce turned into a summit bid and by 1900 we were on the top.

We arrived back at the camp with a less than cordial reception, understandably so, as we had meant to be gone only an hour or two – instead we were gone five, not to mention Gianni, Fabrizio and Enzo were facing the uncertainty, if the weather changed, of not making the summit.

The next day was an early start for six of us, leaving Sergio at the camp. We made the second ascent and stood on the summit at midday. The GPS elevation was 1500 meters and we confirmed that Mt Shackleton is incorrectly located on the British Antarctic Survey map in location and elevation.

Second summit day

On the way down, the last person on the rope crossed the collapsing bridge for the last time, and we were back at the camp by mid afternoon, everyone’s summit desires assuaged at last.

Skip crosses the abyss for the fourth time

Next day we made a quick, but careful ski descent reigning in the pulks with back ropes all the way down to the shore. Pelagic Australis was standing by at anchor and Swiss Chris was there to meet us in the Zodiac. After a champagne toast to our selves on the beach (we carry plastic champagne glasses for such occasions) followed by the Zodiac ride to the vessel, we had a quick pow wow and decided to strike south into Crystal Sound and possibly further south to Marguerite Bay, via ‘The Gullet.’ The weather was still holding and this was an opportunity to make the run, while the mountain team took a break.

Back on shore for a Champagne refresher

We steamed through the night, the next day, and by the following evening with no ice of consequence on the horizon we entered The Gullet – a narrow and spectacular passage between the Arrowsmith Peninsula of the mainland and Adelaide Island - the gateway that leads to Marguerite Bay.

The Gullet ice free for a change

On average, The Gullet is rarely open as both north and south entrances to the strait are wine bottle shaped which with help from wind and tide gather and concentrate vestiges of last years sea ice and brash forming plugs. Un bouchon is a more descriptive word in French that could be applied to a bottle, a traffic jam on the peripherique around Paris or – an ‘ice jam’ in The Gullet.

Compared to the compact nature of the terrain in the central Gerlache area, the landscape of Marguerite Bay is expansive, more Arctic geographically and the ambience is certainly austere and somewhat intimidating. There are few good places to shelter so we spent two nights lying to dodgy anchors, luckily in light winds while by day touring the immediate area around Pourquoi Pas Island.

This was a nostalgic visit for me as we rarely get this far south. In 1991 I spent a month in Marguerite Bay climbing, skiing and generally nosing around. At that time a feature called the Jones Ice Shelf which connected Blaiklock Island to the south side of the Arrowsmith Peninsula was used by bush pilots to land fuel for future forays south. I skied across it from the east to the west side and it was more or less flat as a pancake.

The previous year it was the scene of tragedy when the Antarctic’s foremost bush pilot legend and co-founder of the well known air logistics company Adventure Network International capsized an experimental gyrocopter above the Jones during a National Geographic film project. Giles Kershaw’s home made coffin was man hauled across the Jones and then hoisted up to a rock promontory on the side of a mountain that now bears his name. Either by design or fortune, above his perch is an outsized sill and dyke structure of black basalt that forms a natural cross in the rock face. Here he was buried under a rock cairn and left in unrivalled peace.

Skip and Romolo by Giles Kershaw's grave Jones Sound

In 1991 I must have skied underneath Giles – we were in a snow storm and of course never saw the grave site. Then in 2001 I was asked to take Nancy Kershaw, Giles 79 year old Mom, to the grave on board the Pelagic. She had been trying to make this pilgrimage for over 10 years but could never land by air on the Jones for one reason or another. With Pelagic w e got her within a mile of the grave, but by then the Jones had down wasted and ablated into a labyrinth of ridges and melt pools and was too unsafe to cross by foot or ski. In 06/03/2005 Jerome Poncet’s Golden Fleece was the first vessel to transit what was now called Jones Sound. Global warming, by whatever mechanism you attribute it to, had completed its work.

Giles Kershaw Guardian of The Solitude

This year it was ice free. It took some time to find the grave as there are similar sill and dyke structures on every buttress of the massif and we had no exact GPS position. We finally found it – the cross, with the vertical post still standing after 20 years just visible with the binos. Romolo, Chris, Swiss Chris and I made the scramble over steep and loose rock to the cairn, what must have been 80 meters above the water. A stainless steel plaque is affixed to the rock above the grave with the inscription Giles Kershaw - 1948 – 1990 - “Guardian of the Solitude.” And so he is, rarely visited. After sitting in silence for some time with a view ‘to die for’ Romolo and I left a carabiner and a climbing sling on the cross and with the others made a careful descent.

This story ends when while still south I contacted Giles wife Anne Kershaw who by chance would be in Ushuaia on our arrival, working with Robert Swan’s 2041 Project. If you read Robert’s recent book, Antarctic 2041 (recommended) you can appreciate this was a poignant get together in Giles memory. Nancy is still going strong at 87 in the UK and was glad to receive the pictures.

Rob Swan, Anne Kershaw and Skip in Ushuaia

Our trip back north along the Peninsula evolved into a wildlife tour, as the good weather we were lucky to have had, slowly deteriorated, signaling the end to our mountaineering adventures. We arrived back in Ushuaia on February 28th, the Swiss having survived yet another Drake Crossing. We were now looking to the big winter trip coming up – watch this space . . . Site Homepagee © Pelagic  2003. All rights reserved..