6. Crossing Paths of Explorers

Our ship continued southeast through Antarctic Sound, the official name of Iceberg Alley. Our destination, Paulet Island, had an interesting history and one of the largest Adélie Penguin colonies in the world. The breakers were so strong when we approached the shore of Paulet Island, the crew had to tie the stern of our Zodiac to a rock so the bow faced the rough waves that could swamp it. The brisk wind whipped our sturdy jackets, and a weak sun fooled us into thinking it might be warmer than the 38° F.

Walking down the beach away from the others, I took a deep breath and twitched to feel my body. Yes, I am here. This is real—so much history on this island.

At first, I followed the others down the shingle beach of small-to-medium-sized pebbles. It made walking a challenge as we made our way along the shore toward the closest Adélie colony.

Paulet Island Adele rookery and remains of a whaler’s rescue hut.

Most tourists who visit Paulet Island come to see the more than 100,000 pairs of penguins that populate the circular island, which is less than a mile across. The colony covered most of the island, so it wasn’t hard to find. I watched with the others for a while, but “Paulet Island” rang in my head as an important link to the Shackleton saga. I wanted to see the hut Shackleton had tried to reach in order to save his men. It turns out that the hut in Hope Bay was also part of the ship Antarctic’s story, and how the hut on Paulet got built.

Before Shackleton 

Otto Nordenskjold led the Swedish Antarctic Expedition to the Antarctic Peninsula from 1901 to 1904. During the exploratory journey, he named Antarctic Sound for his ship named Antarctic, the first vessel to navigate the full length of this body of water. At the beginning of the Antarctic winter of 1902, the northern hemisphere’s summer, the ship sailed west to east through the Antarctic Sound, passed Paulet Island, and turned south. It dropped off five men, including Nordenskjold, on Snowhill Island, located south of Paulet Island in the Weddell Sea, to overwinter and continue collecting data. By then, all the men were familiar with the Antarctic Sound region.

The ship sailed back through Antarctic Sound and turned north for the Falklands. Several months later, the Antarctic returned to pick up the five men on Snow Hill Island. However, the weather stayed cold that Antarctic summer, much the same as the year Shackleton arrived. Captain Carl Larsen realized they might not be able to pick up Nordenskjold’s party before winter set in again.  Nordenskjold and Larsen, familiar with the vagaries of the Antarctic, had planned for this possibility and the ship dropped three men at Hope Bay to construct a depot with supplies in case Nordenskjold’s party had to spend another winter. They could be more mobile on land than the ship at sea and would know where the extra supplies would be dropped. The ship continued to try and reach them, but ironically, during that effort, Antarctic sank in the Antarctic Sound about 25 miles off the coast of Paulet Island, short of Snowhill Island.The crewmembers of Antarctic found refuge on Paulet Island. Here, the twenty crewmen built the small, thick-walled stone hut, 34 feet by 22 feet, to protect them against the extreme cold. They also killed as many penguins as they could for food and fuel during the winter. Amazingly, when spring finally arrived, Antarctic’s crew from Paulet Island and Nordenskjold’s party of five from Snow Hill all joined the three men who wintered at Hope Bay. To give a sense of distances, Snow Hill Island is about 75 miles from both Hope Bay and Paulet Island, and those two islands are 40 miles apart.

Crew of the Endurance

Within days of their reunion at Hope Bay, and nine months after Antarctic sank, an Argentine ship, Uruguay, rescued them all as arranged in a fall-back plan should the Antarctic not return. Uruguay left new supplies in the stone hut on Paulet Island for future stranded sailors. As fate would have it, Ernest Shackleton, while living in London, England at the time, purchased the supplies in 1903 on behalf of the Argentine government and delivered by the Uruguay. In 1915, Shackleton himself tried to reach this stone hut after pressure ice crushed his own ship, Endurance.

With a strong sense of this island’s history with explorers, it felt surreal to be walking on Paulet Island—the very island where that stone hut had stood. I admit to some disappointment when I actually found the hut on a stony ridge above the Adélie colony. Recalling how Julio had described the Antarctic crew’s chilling account of the rugged determination to survive I gasped when I first saw the heaps of rock that outlined where the hut’s walls had been. It all became very real as I studied the remnants. These are the walls built by men almost one hundred years ago, just as Shackleton’s men had done on Elephant Island.

I found the mellow gurgle of the waves on the rocks relaxing as I mused about those men, crewmembers of Antarctic, who lived in that small stone hut for so long, hoping to be rescued. I imagined what the hut must have looked like when it was in use. I had read that the stone hut’s roof was made of sealskin, supported, I imagine, with wood from the small boat that brought them to the island. The men lived with the stench of uncured skins, since it would have been impossible to properly cure them. The crew knew they could only heat the hut to freezing, or else risk melting the snow and ice chips they used to fill in between the rocks. Eventually, the skins became coated with rancid, greasy smoke from the blubber stove the men used. It must’ve been incredibly arduous surviving under those conditions, but it was their only choice. As sailors in those waters, they knew the risks and carried tools to survive.

There was nothing quite like standing in front of an ancient structure, regardless of its condition, used by men I felt I knew. Next to that crumbled stone hut, I felt the vibrations of the men from Antarctic flow through me, as if my very presence evoked their ghosts. In my mind’s eye, I almost expected a stooped figure to emerge from the door of the hut with long hair and beard, ragged clothing, smelling like rancid grease, rotting seal skins, and smoke.

Shackleton’s Travails & Leadership

Shackleton’s crew lived under the same conditions as the crew from Antarctic, surviving for many months despite brutal polar conditions. All of this made me wonder, Why do men go exploring in these remote places when this can happen?

What I had garnered from other books on explorers is that they were lured by the excitement of the adventure and the thrilling edge of taking enormous risks. Polar explorers returned to Antarctica again and again. I have always been intrigued with these kinds of expeditions. Perhaps it’s because I have a bit of that trait in myself. My trip to Antarctica was not exactly on the beaten path of tourism, and I have always sought out the unusual and challenging trips.

Back aboard Clipper Adventurer, I leaned on the aft rail and mused about what motivates explorers. The captain reversed course, leaving Paulet Island behind us. Gazing past the little island, I studied the sea beyond, thick with icebergs and chunks of ice that rolled down past the horizon. So much of the Shackleton saga had occurred there on the waters and ice of the Weddell Sea. Lost in my thoughts, I reviewed some of the key events of Shackleton’s travails. How did he get into that awful situation in the first place?

In 1915, Ernest Shackleton sailed Endurance from the South Georgia Islands southeast of the Falklands into the Weddell Sea, east of the Antarctic Peninsula. He intended to launch the Imperial Trans Arctic Expedition to cross the south polar continent. Powered by a 350-horsepower, coal-fired steam engine, Endurancechugged along in the narrow band of summer water between the remaining ice and the shore. However, fewer than 200 miles from their destination, unseasonable freezing winds locked the ship in ice on January 18, 1915, just one day’s travel from their destination. When release from the ice seemed unlikely, the 28 men and 69 sled dogs settled in to wait out the long, coldest months on a ship loaded with food, fuel, and equipment.

On May 1, the sun disappeared for four months. The sun had almost returned on September 2 when pressure ice squeezed the hull of Endurance and, according to one crewman, it “jumped into the air to settle on its beam (side).” Pressure ice forms when thick, floating sheets of ice rub together, moving against each other, forcing small chunks into ridges and emitting eerie, haunting groans and squeals. Caught in this pressure ice, Endurance was doomed.

The men hauled supplies onto the ice and on October 27, Shackleton gave the order to abandon ship. The men camped nearby until the ship sank on November 21, ten months since becoming icebound. Frank Worsley, the captain and navigator of Endurance, kept track of their location as the polar winds and vicious weather pushed the men camped on the ice floes around the perimeter of the Weddell Sea. When the ship sank, the ice pack was moving in the direction of safety. Worsley and Shackleton knew they must reach either Paulet Island, where supplies awaited them, or Elephant Island, where rescue might be possible from ships carrying whalers or explorers.

And so they camped, hauling as they could, using up their food, eating some of the dogs, and hoping to reach open water. As the weather moderated and the ice became weaker, the squeals of the moving ice never let the men forget that at any moment, a fissure on the ice floe could split the camp in two. The floes became smaller as the weather warmed and the danger increased.

Two of Shackelton’s crew camped on the ice. (photo by Hurley)

Worsley calculated that the men were about 346 miles from Paulet Island, where Shackleton had sent supplies several years before. However, still far from open water, Worsley determined that Paulet Island would be too difficult to reach given the direction of the moving ice pack. The men were only able to average one and a half miles a day, hauling their three small loaded boats, pulled by the dogs, and pushed by the men, so they had to take advantage of the motion of the ice as much as possible.

Shackleton had to change his destination further north to ice-covered and mountainous Elephant Island, a more realistic destination given the movement of the ice. It was April when the ice opened enough for the men to launch their boats. They shoved them into the open water, still full of loose pack ice, to row and sail in rough seas and high winds for nine horrendous days. Finally, they made it to Elephant Island on April 16, 1916, fifteen months after Endurance had first been frozen in place.

The three small boats landed at Valentine Point, the land we had seen after we rounded Elephant Island. Exhausted and relieved to be on solid ground, the men had to pack up again to find a more suitable camping spot. They rowed around the north side of Elephant Island to Cape Wild. It wasn’t a great camp, but better than the first for a long- term camp.

Shackleton and Worsley made the difficult decision to take their best boat, the James Caird, to sail and row east, hoping to find South Georgia Island, 800 miles across the wild ocean. Shackleton thought this was their best chance to find help to rescue the remainder of the crew. Four of the fittest crewmen joined them to share the work of rowing. They reached their destination because of the crewmen’s sheer grit and stamina, along with Worsley’s ability to navigate such a small boat on a raging sea.

When I read about his navigational skills, I felt overwhelmed because I had a sense of how difficult it could be to navigate on the open sea. When I sailed from San Diego south to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico with my husband in 1969 in our 25-foot sailboat, we used a sextant for navigation, the same type of instrument that Worsley used. Though anachronistic even in our time, that sextant was a beautiful tool, but a challenge to use. We only needed navigation to help us know whether we were north or south of a protected bay to anchor for the night on the long stretch of the Baja California coast. Our lives were never in serious danger, unlike Shackleton’s crew.

Worsley found South Georgia Island using a sextant—a target about ninety miles long, after the 800-mile journey in rough seas, at times with hurricane-force winds. In addition, Worsley guided their deteriorating little boat to the deepest bay on Elephant Island, giving the three men who walked the thirty-two miles for help the best chance of success. They hiked for thirty-six hours without a break, across the rocky, peak-covered island, a feat unmatched today. Had Worsley been less competent, all twenty-eight men would have perished.

Imagining the Explorers’ Journeys

In addition to seeing the penguins and other birds rare to me, my Antarctic trip gave life to my intense interest in the Shackleton expedition, as well as other notable expeditions to this rugged continent. I projected myself into the explorers’ adventures and dangerous situations. I imagined the cold wind that tried to freeze them all, and how hard they must have worked, day in and day out, often without adequate food.

The men in charge carefully vetted those interested in these expeditions, so their crew knew what they were in for. They loved the challenges and the camaraderie, and expected a good adventure. I understand that part, but still, I wondered about the psychological challenges they faced; living in cramped quarters, always aware they might not see their loved ones again, and facing the possibility of dying in such a bleak environment.

Trying to put myself in their situation, I imagined the mental stress would have been my greatest challenge, not so much the physical challenges. But then, I don’t think I would’ve been chosen for such a trip either.

On this trip, I witnessed firsthand a gentler form of those rugged conditions, and it was no piece of cake. I must admit that when I returned to the ship after visiting Paulet Island, I was grateful to sit down with other passengers for a lovely lunch. Thank heavens.

Later, we would face far worse conditions, similar to those the explorers endured.