As spring slowly gives way to summer in the Southern Hemisphere, three British men plan to step ashore on a small, remote island this week for at least five days of hiking, climbing and videotaping. But the trip will be no walk in the woods — there are no woods on the glaciated South Atlantic island of South Georgia. Weather permitting, the affable trio of adventurers intend to cross the sub-Antarctic island in the 1916 footsteps of the legendary Anglo-Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton, re-enacting a chapter in one the greatest survival epics ever documented.
Clad in replicas of the wind- and waterproof garb worn by Shackleton and other early polar explorers, the three Britons — Jock Wishart, Jonathan Chastney and Duncan Nicoll — will be toting 10 days' worth of dehydrated food and other supplies, as well as video gear they'll use to make the first television documentary of their hero's crossing. "What we're trying to do," says Wishart, the 48-year-old Scot who leads the team, "is pay homage to a great man and try to make a film that can show the public just a little bit of what he achieved."
Their adventure — which can be followed daily on the Internet because, in Wishart's words, "these days, people like to see you suffer" — comes at a time of increased interest in extreme sports and ever-more-exotic travel experiences. And a century after the "Heroic Age" — stretching roughly from the 1890s through the early 1920s — there is a renewed fascination with the icy, pristine places at the ends of the earth and the men who were among the first to explore them: Robert Peary, Roald Amundsen, Robert Falcon Scott and Shackleton. Two pertinent exhibitions are drawing crowds in London — "South: The Race to the Pole" at the National Maritime Museum and "Shackleton: The Antarctic and Endurance" at Dulwich College.
Shackleton's crossing of South Georgia, with crewmen Frank Worsley and Thomas Crean, was indeed "just a little bit" of what he achieved. It represented only 36 hours of an unmeasurable two-year odyssey in a frozen hell, part of a tale of survival that almost defies imagination. His courage and leadership — and the survival of his entire 27-man crew — have made "The Boss" a legend among legends.
"He was a very lucky man," says Wishart, who believes his own team will be equally fortunate. In October, Wishart, Nicoll and Chastney — the only one of the trio with previous Antarctic mountaineering experience — spent a week of intensive training in the French Alps, working on technique and safety measures on the vast Mer de Glace glacier above Chamonix. While Wishart and Nicoll consider crevasses and the unpredictable weather in the island's mountainous interior as the biggest potential hazards, Chastney's worries lie closer to the coast. "Fur seals are not cute and cuddly. Fur seals have two big fangs, can probably run faster than Linford Christie, and if you're caught they'll murder you," says the 35-year-old, who spent seven years in the British Army.
After final preparations, the three left London on Nov. 20 — with logistics and communications coordinator Gary Walker — for Ushuaia, Argentina, to board the chartered Russian vessel Grigoriy Mikheev, designed for polar travel. A three-day sail to South Georgia's King Haakon Bay marks the start of their trek to Stromness Bay, approximating as closely as possible the uncharted route taken by Shackleton. The explorers say they have full confidence in the clothing they'll be wearing in temperatures as low as -10°C: an outer suit of Burberry gabardine like Shackleton had, covering fleece and woolen underlayers. Laughing off jibes that his team will be "picking flowers" by taking up to 10 days to make a crossing that Shackleton did in a day and a half, Wishart notes: "As soon as you start to make a film, time goes out the window. And also, down there, the weather can be horrendous — so we're confidently expecting to spend five days stuck in a tent somewhere."
A "professional adventurer" living in a London suburb, Wishart was, in 1992, a member of the first team to walk unsupported to the geomagnetic North Pole, the northern end of the earth's geomagnetic field. Four years later, he organized the first televised trek to the magnetic North Pole, to which all magnetic compasses point. "I'm no mountaineer," he acknowledges, "but neither was Shackleton." A record-holding sailor, international oarsman and dragon boat (Asian longboat) racer, he rowed across the Atlantic in 1997 — in a 7-m boat about the size of Shackleton's lifeboat James Caird — with 34-year-old Nicoll, who honed his own taste for adventure during a six-year stint with the Royal Marines. "We're probably going to be going backward and forward at some stages, trying to get the right shots," notes Nicoll, who recorded video diaries during his 63-day Atlantic crossing with Wishart and a subsequent London-to-Paris rowing race. Nicoll — a sales manager at BTC-Lumina, the British telecommunications company that is the $60,000 expedition's main sponsor — says he balances his "very stressful" job with climbing, skiing and mountain biking. "My parents brought me up to work hard," he says. "I brought myself up to play hard." Holder of several British rowing titles and a competitor in the 1994 Commonwealth Games, Nicoll — who lives in central England — says he decided long ago not to be someone "whose greatest achievement was playing football at school."
"I know that on a mountainside I'm at my best," asserts Chastney, director of a property development company also in central England. Dubbed the trio's own Pierce Brosnan, he joined the Smith Island Antarctic expedition in 1995 and was on the summit team that made the first ascent of Mt. Katherine-Jane on that frigid island, the most isolated of the Southern Ocean's South Shetland group. "Unzipping your tent at 8 o'clock in the morning to see beautiful sunshine, to look out over the ocean and watch icebergs with penguins playing on them floating past as a whale spouts — that is heaven," he says. "However, the next night you could be up at 3 or 4 in the morning, digging your tent out of 8 ft of snow because you're about to suffocate."
For Wishart, "the defining moment for me was competing in the America's Cup race in 1980. You do things like that and suddenly normal 9-to-5 life is never the same." Still, eight years working in public relations did him good, he acknowledges, because he learned about organizing and selling events — and himself. "At the end of my days," he says, "I want to be able to look at my toes and say, 'What have you done, toes? Done a lot, toes?'" For Wishart, as for Nicoll and Chastney as they set off in Shackleton's footsteps, the answer is already yes.