Friday, 19 April 2013

South Georgia, over the mountains and far away

We left our heroes standing looking dubiously at the peaks of South Georgia, unsure if they were worthy of tackling the legacy of Shackleton, even on a sunny day in April where the weather report contained nothing more sinister than 'Possible sideways snow blasting.  Light to variable.'.  Stirred by the accuracy of the UK weather forecasting system, nominally one of the reasons that such out of the way rocks as South Georgia were occupied in the first place, we squared our shoulders, kicked free of the seals gripping our shins, and pushed on up the steep slope leading from Grytviken into the foothills of the island.  

Grytviken Bay:  Pretty if you like that kind of thing. 

I have found that the word 'hill' is an extremely culturally dependent word.  In Tasmania, where Jan and I hail from, is considered perfectly acceptable to own a car with a faulty starter motor, as it is almost impossible to park it somewhere where roll starting down a substantial slope is out of the question.  In contrast, when I moved to Cambridge in the UK, I would often see panicked looks come across local's faces when I suggested sitting upstairs in the pub.  However, after being at sea for over a month where the most substantial climb you do daily is from the floor back up onto the barstool, the precipitous slopes of South Georgia looked formidable.  Puffing and rapidly shedding layers of wildly inappropriate Antarctic gear, our rapidly shrinking party arrived at our first stop, the dammed and picturesque Gull Lake sitting directly above Grytviken and Shackleton's dubiously oriented grave.  Wiping the sweat aside and peeling yet another ill applied layer of thermal underwear off, we peered squintingly into the sun at our destination, the peak of Mount Hodges.  Climbing up to the lake from Grytviken had seemingly brought the peak no closer at all, but had mysteriously magnified its height several times.  Several of the party began rummaging through their day packs and, feigning surprise at finding an absence of crampons and oxygen bottles, decided that Penguin River sounded like a much more appealing destination.  They paused briefly to innocuously gather the names of our next of kins and then shuffled off around the lake. 

Being made of sterner, and decidedly more dense stuff, Paul, Pierre, Jan and myself decided to press on, confident in our photocopied map that looked like it had been transcribed by a Parkinson's sufferer with a crayon and the third engineer's confident parting assertion that 'you can't miss the way up'.  In retrospect taking mountaineering advice from a man named Mango may have been unwise, but the day was sunny, we were young(ish) and what could possibly go wrong?  Fairly immediately something went wrong.  Our first goal after Gull Lake had been to find the glacier that ran down the south side of Mt Hodges and 'just stick to the right hand side of it'.  Glaciers are typically fairly intrusive bits of terrain, and not easily overlooked, but after searching through the bare, rocky valley we concluded that several million tonnes of ice were not to be found and that either we were a bit lost or Mango was substantially older than he looked.  Deciding on the latter we pushed up the valley looking for what remained of the glacial tongue after 150 years of global warming. 

Have you checked behind the couch? No glacier to be found.

As we trudged onwards we were increasingly aware that we were not gaining much height, but getting closer and closer to the peak.  Consequently the slopes leading from our valley floor up to the mountain on our right were getting steeper and steeper.  Jan's keen mathematical brain seized on this bit of geometry and suggested that it would make our life easier if we started climbing the ridge now, rather than wait for it to get even steeper further along the valley.  Nodding sagely and quietly wondering how we could get coauthor status on this geophysical insight, we all agreed and headed more or less directly up the steep rock strewn slope towards our goal. 

Moderately steep, and perfectly safe for trained professionals

Now, a quick physics lesson.  Objects, for example head sized rocks, gain energy the higher up they are raised.  This energy is called potential energy. Objects such as boulders perched on mountains have a lot of it. In general, objects, even stones of approximately skull size sitting at rest, want to get rid of this potential energy.  They usually do this by swapping their potential energy for kinetic, which is the energy of moving objects.  No one really knows why rocks feel compelled to do this, but on this slope they liked to do it as fast as possible, often with only the slightest of prodding to inspire them to take off to the distant valley floor.  Perhaps they read in the Geological Times that kinetic energy is the in thing this epoch? Or maybe it is just to, literally, keep up with that nice dolerite couple next door?  In any event noggin sized boulders were soon being liberally dislodged and leaping excitedly down to the valley below, bounding past the much less happy climbers at the rear.  By the time our man from the Alps, Pierre, decreed that 'Zis is not good.  Zees is quieet dangerous', we had gone too far and to go back down was probably more dangerous that continuing up.  Leaving a bit more room between us for the newly liberated rocks to enjoy their freedom, and wondering why BAS decreed hard hats essential for sampling water bottles but not mountaineering, we pressed onwards and upwards. 

Spectacular:  The view from Mt Hodges

As we stumbled past one last false crest, quietly cursing the venerable Mango's directions, we suddenly discovered that there wasn't any more up to climb.  We had reached the peak, and all around us we could see the magnificent panorama of South Georgia basking in the unexpected sunshine.  Deciding that simply standing on top of an exposed mountain on a Subantarctic island in Autumn wasn't a good enough reason to continue to ignore the blissfully warm sun, we tore the last of our beanies off.   Instead we donned shades and fumbled for the suncream needed at these latitudes thanks to the ongoing good work of chlorofluorocarbons in the ozone layer.  Giddy with the unexpected coincidence of both our survival and arrival at the correct destination we opened up our stashes of goodies and shared them out, even with Pierre who had decided that nine hours of mountain hiking didn't really warrant any supplies.  We noted that even here we could still hear the blood-thirsty cries of the seals in Grytviken, several km away and 600 m straight down. Their calls will no doubt haunt our waking dreams until our final days.      

Bloody tourists:  Andrew, Pierre, Jan and Paul.  Note the highly appropriate technical clothing.

After recording every angle of the vista in several gigapixels we engaged on the traditional argument of explorers who have achieved their destination; what the hell to do now?  Going against the obvious option of setting up an isolated township to spear whales, reducing their fat to an oil and selling this to make soap, we elected to avoid the horrible scree slope we came up.  Instead we would push on down the other face of the mountain and make our way back to the town from the opposite side we had left.  It couldn't be worse.  Right?

'I'm king of the world!'  Pierre was pushed to his well deserved doom immediately after.

In the end, and in defiance of all good storytelling convention, it actually wasn't worse.  We came down off the mountain in quick time, and soon were traipsing across the easy going lunar landscape on the valley leading down the far side of the mountain.  In these mountains not a single plant grows, and there is nothing really but rocks and small tarn lakes, formed from the snows of last winter and glaciers remembered only by misleadingly youthful ship's engineers.  Delirious with his first encounter with sunshine since moving to the United Kingdom, or possibly his choice of mountaingoing sweatpants, Jan decreed that it was time for a swim.  Paul and I declared him firmly insane and quickly moved to claim his chocolate rations, but Pierre was already down to his boxers and dancing towards the pond across the rocks.  Incidentally, as well as being loose and heavy, the rocks were also razor sharp.  Deciding that the epitaph of 'Men pour beer on national hero's grave, molest seals, freeze to death in alpine lake; Good riddance' was as good as any, Paul and I started carefully removing clothing too.  Soon all four of us stood on the waters edge, spongy and white after four weeks of living indoors on two desserts a day.  Then, like lemmings, we plunged into the water.  The photos below are probably a good enough description of how it felt.  



Invigorating is probably the most charitable way to put it.  Jan immediately christened the pool 'Spanner Lake' for its tightening effects.  Despite the water being, oddly enough, chest tighteningly, hand crushingly, cold, once we clambered out it was warm enough to simply drip dry.  We passed a fairly magical fifteen or so minutes regressing to our youths while we stood with the sun on our backs and skipped stones across the pond.  For a few moments the rest of the world felt very far away.  At some point, however, we realised that we were a bunch of thirty year old physicists standing on a mountain in our underwear. So we struggled into our clothes and set off down the hill again, all in great spirits and on adrenalin highs from our dunkings.  After a few wrong turns, notably where we forgivably mistook a vertical ravine for the path back to town, we made it down into the valley leading to Grytviken.  This was helpfully labelled in crayola on our geriatric maps as 'single scientist limit'.  This presumably means that lone scientists are allowed to wander that far from the base and people wouldn't have to look too far to find their bodies. 

Miaviken Bay.  The mud immediately ahead is the track.

Not yet suitably exhausted, Pierre and I struck off to Miaviken, a fjord to the north, while Paul and Jan decided that a trip to the post office in town was in order and headed back south.  They hadn't previously struck me as philatelists, but it's a perfectly valid lifestyle choice and one shouldn't judge.  Pierre and I enjoyed the change from mountains to grassy meadows and discovering that the seals of that cove were at least as unfriendly as those around Grytviken, but substantially larger as well as being masters of camouflage in the long grass.  

Things you don't want to step on in the long grass.  An Elephant seal no less.

As dusk began to fall we said goodbye to this beautiful, wild and amazing place and headed back to King Edward Point.  Here we were welcomed by the base locals with a roaring fire and barbecue.  On the menu were the poor introduced reindeer, who having somehow survived the seals for almost a century were now being removed from the island in the tastiest possible way.  The whole ship's compliment stood with our backs to the fire, listening to the growls of the seals from the darkness and reflecting on a day of opportunity well and truly seized. 

The RSS James Clark Ross tied up at the King Edward Point barbecue hut






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