Earlier this year I received an AAPG certificate in the mail, congratulating me on 30 years of AAPG membership. “Time flies,” as they say.
Inspecting the certificate, I reflected upon three decades of personal and career accomplishments and recounted many of the amazing geologists I had met along the way. While many fellow AAPG members (of my vintage) are contemplating retirement, I find myself charting a path forward, growing my international oil and gas consulting practice and exploring far flung places around the planet, with a particular focus on earth science research being conducted in polar regions.
During the past three years, Antarctica has represented a dynamic platform – my outdoor laboratory, if you will – to study planetary processes, climate change and ocean change in action. Traveling to the Bottom of the World, I’ve participated in three international science-based expeditions.
This journey has been an inspirational one, both professionally and personally. And, as a geoscientist in Antarctica, I’ve had the profound privilege of following in the esteemed footsteps of Sir Ernest Shackleton, 100 years later.
The Shackleton Slog
On Jan. 4, 2013, the Geological Society of America (GSA)-sponsored expedition retraced the final leg of Shackleton’s epic trek across the island of South Georgia. In the process, our group of intrepid explorers (which included one very determined woman in her 80s) shared, in a very small measure, some of the sights, sounds and emotions that Shackleton and his men experienced a century ago.
Symbolic in nature, the 5.5-kilometer-long hike – known as the “Shackleton Slog” – from Fortuna Bay to Stromness Harbour represented a pivotal chapter in Shackleton’s story of survival against all odds.
On May 19, 1916, Shackleton and two of his men set out under a full moon – without tents or sleeping bags – on a non-stop crossing of the largely unmapped island. Equipped with ice crampons fashioned from screws wrenched from their lifeboat, they arrived in Stromness, a Norwegian whaling settlement on the northeast coast of South Georgia, some 36 hours later.
In an effort to save time and energy during their 51-kilometer-long crossing of South Georgia, Shackleton and his hiking companions formed a three-man toboggan chain, glissading down uncharted mountainsides.
Our GSA-led hike from sea level to the 300-meter mountain pass was slow and measured. But, the toboggan ride down the backstretch was wild and lasted mere seconds.
Jody Bourgeois is a GSA Fellow and professor at the University of Washington’s Earth and Space Sciences Department. Seattle-based Bourgeois specializes in sedimentology, stratigraphy and paleotsunamis.
A history buff, Bourgeois said that she’d always been captivated by Shackleton’s epic survival story. Channeling the spirit of Shackleton, Bourgeois led the sitting glissade charge down a steep snow-covered slope toward Stromness.
AAPG student member Hunter Carr from Tyler, Texas, followed Bourgeois downhill. In fact, Carr had so much fun that he climbed back up the mountainside to glissade yet a second time. A geology student at the University of Georgia, Tyler said: “I wasn’t going to miss out on doing that, again.”
Moment of Truth
And then it was my turn to hurtle myself downhill.
After a hurried session of perfecting my skills at arresting – or, at the very least, impeding – my trajectory down the snow-covered mountainside, I held my breath and plunged, feet first, over the precipice.
Although my backpack acted as a speed retardant, my Gortex™ pants turned into a potent accelerant ...
On fire, I raced down the slope.
In my left hand, my walking pole pointed skywards; in my right hand, I gripped my monopod-mounted video camera, recording the wild ride for posterity.
Transported back to my childhood tobogganing days, I hurtled down a slope that resembled – after a reassessment from below – a double black diamond ski run. My high-pitched screams belied the exhilaration of glissading down the steep slope.
All too soon, the 250-meter-long snow chute came to an abrupt and rocky end. Applying the human brakes before crashing into the rocks, I narrowly missed hitting Scott Davis, one of the expedition’s photographers, who was strategically situated at the end of the snow pack.
I was sorely tempted to climb back up the mountainside like Carr and the other young geologists had done – but a sense of decorum ensued, and I continued the historic hike toward Stromness.
‘By Endurance We Conquer’
The view from the mountain pass was spectacular: Nestled amongst the icebergs in Stromness Harbour was the Akademik Ioffe, our 117-metre-long, ice-strengthened expedition vessel. The rusting remnants of Stromness, complete with industrial whale oil rendering facilities and storage tanks, stood as a stark reminder of a bygone era when whale oil occupied the same energy niche as petroleum does today.
On the opposite side of Stromness Harbour I identified the sensationally folded, “Z-shaped” sedimentary strata of the Lower Cretaceous age Cumberland Bay Formation. During the island crossing, Shackleton had spied – from a distant mountaintop – these dramatically folded beds, which guided him, like a compass, to Stromness. When Shackleton and his men heard the whistle blast, signaling the daily crew change at the whaling station, they knew that safety was finally within their grasp.
In November 1915, Shackleton’s vessel, the HMS Endurance, was crushed by ice and sank, precipitating one of the world’s greatest survival stories. Shackleton’s family crest states “by endurance we conquer,” a motto which rang true during the two-year ordeal.
Decamped for seven months on an ever-shrinking ice floe, Shackleton and his men set off in three life boats, eventually landing on the inhospitable shores of Elephant Island.
Within a week of arriving at Elephant Island, Shackleton and five of his men set sail for South Georgia in the James Caird, a seven-meter-long lifeboat that was jury-rigged with sails and a canvas deck. Navigating by sextant, they sailed 1,300 kilometers in 17 days, battling towering waves and hurricane force winds in the Scotia Sea.
Heavy sea ice blocked Shackleton’s attempts to rescue his 22 men marooned on Elephant Island; three months and four attempts later, all 27 men under his direct command returned home alive.
A Reason to Smile
My toboggan ride was neither monumental nor was it dangerous.
Nonetheless, it represented a piece of unfinished business for me: Three years earlier, while participating in the 2010 Elysium Visual Epic Expedition (also supported by the AAPG Foundation), I bowed out of hiking the Shackleton Slog. Exhibiting decidedly non-Shackleton-like behavior, I chose the warmth and comfort of the ship over the historic hike from Fortuna Bay to Stromness Harbour – it was raining that day, at lower elevations, and snowing at the pass.
The wild toboggan ride through history was an emotional experience for me, and one that was long overdue.