The Explorer had turned back
during the long evening of Dec. 21, having reached the latitude of 65 degrees, 14 minutes south latitude, a record for a passenger
ship in the Weddell Sea. Many of us were disappointed at not reaching the Antarctic
Circle, which lay about 75 miles farther south. Yet time and safety were paramount considerations. To continue all the way
to the Circle would have put us 48 hours behind schedule and increased the very real danger of the ship becoming ice bound. We all remembered that Shackleton had
been near this point in January 1916 when the ice closed in and imprisoned his ship, the Endurance, like “an almond
Ever mindful of the historic backdrop for Antarctic voyaging, G.A.P. had included a history specialist on
the expedition staff. The young Canadian historian Chris Gilbert had filled hours of our rocky passage across the Drake with
harrowing tales of the “The Worst Antarctic Trips Ever.” One of these was the incredible story of the Swedish
Nordenskjold party of 1902-1903. The scientific purpose of the expedition had been to put men ashore for the first observation
of Antarctic winter conditions. After running into pack ice in the Weddell Sea,
the expedition commander, geologist Otto Nordenskjold, had returned to a place called Snow Hill Island to spend the winter
of 1902 with four other scientists and Jose Sobral, a young Argentine naval officer who had been detailed by his government
to accompany the explorers. Their ship, the Antarctic, sailed away planning to
return to pick them up the following spring.
We had already encountered
traces of this expedition at Esperanza, where three men had been forced to spend the winter of 1903 after their ship left
them for a short reconnaissance mission, then sailed off and sank. These circumstances forced the original wintering party
on Snow Hill to spend yet another winter. Miraculously, they were rescued in
November 1903 when the Argentine ship Uruguay came in search of Lt. Sobral and his companions. Not only were the six men from
Snow Hill plus the three castaways from Esperanza found safe, although malnourished and weakened by hardship, but the ship
also picked up the crew of the sunken Antarctic, who had passed the winter in camp on Paulet Island. Through courageous leadership,
physical endurance, and good survival skills, the expedition survived with the loss of only one man on Paulet Island.
On December 22 our ship anchored
off Snow Hill Island, where we proposed to be the first to land this season. We were cautioned that we shouldn’t count
on anything. Previous attempts had been hampered by fast ice. But after breakfast Expedition Leader Brad announced that we
would make landing at 9:00. He also cautioned us that once we were on shore we should be alert to signals for a quick departure.
Weather conditions could change almost instantaneously.
We loaded into
zodiacs and crossed the icy bay to Snow Hill. I decided soon after scrambling ashore that Snow Hill was a misnomer, at least
on this day. It could have been called Mud Hill as we sank almost to the tops
of our boots in the sludge caused by melting snow.
We found ourselves on a shore
beneath a dramatic crenellated ridge that provided shelter to Antarctic cormorants and other seabirds. The historic hut was situated on a scenic point up the slope. We
all climbed up to look inside and tried to imagine what it meant to spend an Antarctic winter here one hundred years ago.
The prefabricated hut was snug and in surprisingly good condition, maintained as a historic site by the Argentine government,
which had continued to take a proprietary interest in the area after the rescue of Lt. Sobral. The Swedes had prepared well
for their winter stay – they had considerably more experience with long, dark winters than had their Argentine guest.
After the rough rock shelter we had seen at Esperanza, this two-room hut with tidy bunk beds seemed downright cozy in comparison.