Editor’s Note: Wind Fire & Ice was published by Lyons Press on Oct. 1, 2021. The following is an excerpt published with approval from the author and publisher.
Shackleton’s expedition was privately funded, its goal, to be the first to traverse the Antarctic continent. Although called the “Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition,” neither the British government nor the Crown officially supported it. The expedition was “Imperial” in name only, the impressive label helpful when it came time to market it to private investors. There was no rescue ship coming after them if they got into trouble. Even if there had been a rescue ship, they would not have known where to look for them. They were in a frozen wilderness —beyond vast. And they did not have a functioning radio. If they were going to survive, they would have to rely upon their bravery, wits, and skills.
Although our situation aboard the Glacier was grave, it was not as horrific as the one Shackleton had faced. Unlike him, we had good radios. Although there were some fluctuations due to atmospheric conditions, we were in touch with the world most of the time. However, the world knowing of our plight was one thing; actually providing help was another. Our chances of an eventual rescue or even escaping under our own power were certainly better than Shackleton’s, but there was the risk of any rescue or escape attempt being too little, too late.
We faced a number of real and immediate problems. The Antarctica summer season was almost over. The current was taking us closer and closer to the continent. The ice was freezing an inch thicker each day. Temperatures were dropping. The farther south we drifted, the colder it would get. The extent of the ice pack surrounding the continent would soon double—increasing by 40,000 square miles each day. By the end of winter, the ice pack in the Weddell Sea — a million square miles — would more than quadruple. Further storms could increase the pressure ridges to 20 to 30 feet thick — too thick for the Glacier to break, even with backing and ramming. Then there were those massive icebergs — floating glacial ice with a tensile strength greater than steel.
During the preceding couple of days we had burned over 100,000 gallons of fuel trying to escape. Despite our valiant efforts, we had traveled about as far as a good tee shot by Tiger Woods. At this rate, it was clear we would exhaust our fuel reserves long before reaching navigable waters. It was senseless to try to fight the forces of nature any longer, and we couldn’t count on having another icebreaker come to our rescue.
The other two Coast Guard icebreakers in Antarctica at the time were Wind-class icebreakers. They were slightly smaller and had only about half the horsepower. The Glacier was known as “The Mighty G” or “The Big G.” To some, we were known as “The Big Elephant.” Our motto was “Follow Me.” We were the ship meant to rescue others, but right now we were the 800-pound gorilla in an 8,000-ton dilemma.
If our two Wind-class icebreakers had been able to reach us, they might have been able to help; they had done it before. But they were too far away. By the time they could get anywhere near, we would be fully in the grip of the dreaded Antarctic winter, when icebreaking, particularly deep in the Weddell Sea, becomes impossible.
We had to accept the bitter reality of our situation. Our voyage, which was part of what was called Operation Deep Freeze, had come to a standstill. Our deployment was supposed to last through the Antarctic summer season and end up in sunny California, where the trip had begun. That wasn’t going to happen. We were trapped. Beset.
Given the rapidly deteriorating conditions, our only reasonable hope for escape seemed to rest with an early spring thaw. It was apparent to everyone that we would be spending the winter in Antarctica. Were we prepared for such a situation? Good question. Maybe we wouldn’t be crushed by the ice pack. Maybe the ice wouldn’t catch in the jagged hull and tear us apart.
Largely because of his magnificent leadership and his vast polar experience, Shackleton was able to keep his crew alive, despite extreme hardships, until they were finally rescued two years later. Our captain was an experienced and competent sailor, with good and bad points. But he was no Shackleton.
Our exact location was latitude 77.28° S, longitude 38.09° W. We were just north of the Filchner Ice Shelf and Vahsel Bay. In Shackleton’s case, the Endurance’s position was latitude 76.27° S, longitude 28.46° W when he became trapped. In other words, out of the million square miles encompassing the Weddell Sea, our positions differed by about 70 miles. One had to think, as Winston Churchill once said, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
Robert Bunes is a writer, filmmaker, retired physician, adventurer and avid traveler. He has traveled to all seven continents and has sailed to within 400 miles of the North Pole and to the southern edge of the Weddell Sea in Antarctica. Visit him at robertbunesmd.com or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.