A friend of mine has dedicated years of his life to documenting original equipment climbs in Canada. Greg has made one full film and is now in the process of editing its sequel. It’s astonishing the pain mountaineer re-creationists put themselves through. Here’s the trailer for The Mystery Mountain Project (2019).
The men had no climbing equipment. They had salvaged two-inch screws from the Endurance, and drove them through the soles of their boots as makeshift crampons.
The crossing itself was an extraordinary accomplishment – 36 hours over unnamed mountains and glaciers, some so steep, the men had to hack steps into the ice. Going down was worse: lower a man on a rope, where he hacked out steps, join him, and lower him further, while he hacked out more steps. Worsley called some of the ice faces as steep as church steeples. Shackleton allowed no sleep; if the men drifted off, they would freeze to death, and if they failed, there was not hope for any of the other men. Without a proper map, they mistook landmarks several times, and spent agonizing hours backtracking.
What a wonderful opportunity to recreate an original mountain climb. I thought to suggest this a new film idea for Greg. It turns out that adventurer and ecologist Tim Jarvis did just that 2012 and that it’s documented in a three part film, Shackleton: Death or Glory (2013, Chasing Shackleton in the US). Here’s the 11 minute reader’s digest version:
Happily the three part 130 minute version is also available online. This is part three, the landing in King Haakon Bay and the climb across South Georgia Island to Stromness Station.
As in Greg’s experience, tensions ran high between expedition members and the film crew. His film about Canadian real life climbing cosplay in British Columbia has been acclaimed as “one of the best comedies ever made”. Indeed, film crew spend most of the day hanging around and waiting for something to go wrong and revel in disaster.
Tim Jarvis felt he required the film crew for economic reasons but often expressed loathing towards the visual jackals:
The more miserable we looked in our old gear, the happier they were.
In his book Chasing Shackleton, Jarvis is more complimentary about his cameramen:
many other cameramen’s names were being bandied about but none seemed an obvious choice. I met [Ed Wardle] at a London cafe in June 2012 and he arrived dramatically on a powerful motorbike dressed in leathers. Quite apart from the fact he was Raw TV’s choice, I could see immediately he was a solid guy, and I liked his efficient, can-do attitude and his polite, direct I style. I could also see myself getting along with this Scot in the confines of a small boat and felt I could trust him. And because he had summited Everest twice, spent fifty days on his own in Alaska living off the land, and was a former UK free-diving champion (free divers hold their breath and go as deep as they can) he was an ideal candidate. The fact he had compromised personal hygiene standards and eaten absolutely anything while in Alaska was enough on its own to qualify him for life aboard the Alexandra Shackleton. And while I hoped we wouldn’t have to call upon his free-diving skills, at least if we sank someone might survive to tell the story. As soon as let Ed know he was on the team, he repaid me by getting to work on the camera and power systems for the Alexandra Shackleton, figuring out how best to film at sea and while crossing South Georgia.
There have been other attempts to follow in Shackleton’s footsteps. In 2004, Jake Norton, Dave Hahn, and Dierdre Galbraith made the trek in modern climbing gear. There’s only a photo montage of this trip.
In 2017, the grandsons of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay (the first two to reach the summit of Mount Everest) began to lead commercial recreations of the trek in all modern gear. Here’s Lindstrom’s ad for Peter Hillary and Jamling Tenzing Norgay’s guided expedition, Recreating Shackleton’s South Georgia Trek:
In comparison to Shackleton’s improvised gear, this excursion in all modern gear looks like cheating both history and oneself. One could make a strong argument for ropes for safety but with the modern outdoor gear it’s not so much following in Shackleton’s footsteps but driving past Shackleton’s trek in a Landrover.
Lindstrom’s commercialisation of Shackleton’s quest for survival does not end here. There’s a bathetic discount version for duffers and overweight Americans, where Shackleton’s 36 hour trek across South Georgia is turned into a slow-paced six hour hike around Stromness Station. This one is called Hiking Like Shackleton | South Georgia & the Falklands.
If you’d like to participate, you need only pony up $24,900 and join 137 other guests on the South Georgia and the Falklands cruise (flights not included) offered by Lindblad Expeditions. Not everyone can be a Shackleton, whose main claim to fame is that despite all the obstacles Shackleton managed to bring back his full crew alive from the 500 day expedition.2
Still it’s astonishing to see Shackleton’s tremendous tale of survival turned into the equivalent of an Antarctic Disneyland ride. Seriously though, it’s wonderful that these trips are so expensive. Otherwise, with a decade or two there would be little left of the Antarctic and even less of South Georgia Island. Mount Everest became a garbage dump of bright orange goretex, water bottles and human excrement before Nepal’s government forced climbers to clean it up.
Unfortunately even when “cleaned up” apparently the trash doesn’t go far, just into pits and crevices nearby in Sagarmatha National Park.
Humans it seems are much like rats. Just more difficult to kill.
Besides of course, the men eating the dogs they raised by hand. Seals and penguins had disappeared, there was no food for either dogs or men, and the men decided if anyone was to survive it would be the men. If the dogs were left to their own devices on the Antarctic ice, they’d be unlikely to survive more than a year. While Huskies, Antarctic wildlife is highly seasonal and the dogs would not know where and when to migrate and stash food reserves to make it through the dead season. With no Polar bears, food stashes would work for the dogs. There are no dogs allowed in Antarctica since 1993. Snowmobiles only. ↩
Commercial expeditions proceed with an 80.6% success ratio even if a member dies. A death in a non-commercial expedition reduces the chance of success to 24.3%. What this means in real life is that in a non-commercial expedition, the leaders will take steps to save a member, unlike what happened on May 15, 2006: “a mere 300 metres from the summit of Everest, [David Sharp sat just off the climbing route dying](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Sharp_(mountaineer), starved of oxygen, slowly drowning as his lungs filled with his own fluids while his arms and legs gradually turned to ice. While horrific, this was not an uncommon way to die in the Everest “death zone”. What disturbed the world was that approximately 40 climbers ignored this man’s plight as they made their way to the summit. Strong criticism of the unwillingness of climbers in commercial groups to help other climbers in life-threatening situations first emerged in the 1990s, led by Sir Edmund Hillary.” ↩