The Shackleton Mountain Challenge: Guest writer Maksymilian Rębisz
This post will tell the story of Maksymilian’s expedition, the Shackleton Mountain Challenge. A young man living in Poland, he is deeply interested and inspired by the polar expeditions of the early twentieth century, as well as exploration, adventuring and mountaineering expeditions across the world. As a member of the Sir Ernest Shackleton Appreciation Society Facebook page and a follower and frequent contributor of our own Shackleton Exhibition page, Maksymilian has engaged and shared his interests and reading extensively through the social media groups. The range of his reading and online research is very impressive and it has been a pleasure to have his support and contributions to the discussions on both pages.
When Maksymilian initially announced his intentions of an expedition, there may have been a moment of uncertainty. However, that was soon dispelled as his plans took shape and he engaged with the wonderful variety of people connected via the aforementioned Facebook pages. It was a delight to see the encouragement and support offered to the project from seasoned explorers, craftspeople of all sorts, friends and enthusiasts alike. All were willing to give advice, make suggestions or just supply good will. I was more than happy to share the news of the Shackleton Mountain Challenge and of Maksymilian’s preparations. It was clear that he was thoroughly enjoying the research, preparation and exercise he was doing prior to his planned expedition (particularly the sledging biscuit recipes!).
Looking back on the last few months, it’s been a great journey not just for Maksymilian but for all of us, particularly those who have contributed directly, who have been watching the preparations move forward and awaiting the day of departure. Then, as the days passed, we awaited news of the adventure. News came in of initial disappointment but overall successes. Wonderful stories, stunning photographs and the passion and determination of a Shackleton enthusiast abound!
At the heart of the Shackleton Mountain Challenge is an appreciation for the adventures of Shackleton and the inspiration drawn from them. Maksymilian’s plan was to honour Shackleton and the crew of the Endurance by tracing a route in the Tatra Mountains that would correspond in length to the crossing of South Georgia Island by Shackleton, Worsley and Crean in 1916. It has proved an innovative and attractive idea that has brought people together to support the expedition and to see a young man’s plans come to fruition.
In the rest of this post, we shall see Maksymilian’s thought on the expedition’s plans and his transcribed notes from his three days in the mountains. It is a pleasure to have his story told here.
—Liam of Shakleton Exhibition.
The Idea of the Project
My adventure begins in my hometown. I can barely recall the warm June morning, when my father walked up to me holding an old and dusty book which he had bought in an antiquarian bookshop the day before. The title of the book, intriguing and alluring, was They were not led by the Polar Star.
Two years later I found myself standing among bookshelves in a library, having read all the volumes with hidden knowledge about the most stirring and fascinating topic that I have ever known—the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.
Very quickly, I realized that the history of early polar discoveries is almost unknown in my country. Nineteenth-century Polish explorers seemed to focus on Australia, Siberia, South America and Africa, but only few of them reached the eternally white coast of the Southern Continent. These were, for instance, Henryk Arctowski and Antoni Dobrowolski, participants of the Belgian Antarctic Expedition in 1897, with the ship called Belgica under the command of captain Adrien de Gerlache. They were the first men to unintentionally over-winter in the Antarctica.
As with most of us polar enthusiasts, I was always impressed by the monumental achievements of Robert Falcon Scott, Ernest Henry Shackleton and Roald Amundsen. I was writing short stories, which, in the language of people familiar with writing, are called ‘one shot stories’, describing their adventures, victories and moments of weakness. I was happy to learn that one of the stories won a little award in a competition. It was a game, organised by an online writing portal, to write a short story with the word ‘expedition’ included.
When I learned about the inspiring endeavours achieved by the crew of Alexandra Shackleton – the first full reconstruction of the James Caird voyage using historical equipment and century-old technology – I decided to contribute to this historic commemoration and write a small chapter of the book which we all share here, in the Sir Ernest Shackleton Appreciation Society, in homes and aboard ships sailing for adventures. This little idea, which came to my mind during a trip in the Tatra Mountains, Poland, has been evolving for almost half of a year, turning out to be one of the great experiences in my life.
The main goal was to recreate Shackleton’s traverse and to increase people’s interest in polar history here, in Poland, and all around the world, spreading stories, ideas and photographs via Internet.
Plans and Preparations
When the main plan was set and the route mapped, I could concentrate on the equipment, training and research.
The main point was to create a way with similar number of kilometres as Shackleton’s traverse of South Georgie island. Eventually, we covered about 40 kilometres crossing mountains, valleys, gaps and even a frozen lake. Shackleton did a seventeen-miles trek and I think the horizontal distance was similar, but of course he experienced conditions far worse than what I was struggling with on the expedition. My journey was rather a symbol. I decided to start the expedition in the Western Tatras and finish in the very heart of it, in the beautiful Valley of the Five Lakes. A mountain shelter, which is located right there, was going to be my ‘whaling station’, and so would be able to see this point of destination from the last ridge, as Shackleton, Crean and Worsley did 100 years ago.
My father came with me on the expedition to play the part of Worsley. A photographer that we luckily met on the trail joined us for a while to be Tom Crean as well as a modern Frank Hurley.
Now I would like to thank to all of you who helped me a lot during this laborious process. I know it is impossible to mention everyone individually , as there was so many people engaged, but let me say a few words of my acknowledgement to those of you in the Sir Ernest Shackleton Appreciation Society, who, I am sure, will be reading this and deserve a great applause.
Hayley Vincent Cropp and her amazing tailoring skills – Hayley, thank you especially for being the best clothing supplier in the world, for your kindness, professional advice, smile and your belief in the expedition succeeding.
Medbh Gillard – as she hates cold, Medbh supported the expedition with extremely warm woollen garments.
Aleksandra Wierzbowska – Alex is an experienced explorer herself and never hesitated to help – thank you for everything!
Bartek Górski – who skis using wooden skis, so he understands my passion for vintage equipment and lent my some – many thanks.
Liam Maloney and Jennifer Lyon – for never-ending enthusiasm! Liam, thank you for being an involved reporter during the days of the preparations!
Pete Thompson and Kevin Duffy – for keeping your fingers crossed from the very beginning even from far Canada.
Stephen Fawcett-Scott – for silent following my preparations and thinking ‘what on earth is this child doing?’
Monika Witkowska – for broadening horizons, great inspiration and never-ending support!
Marek Tomalik, Mikołaj Golachowski – for your knowledge and ideas.
My dear family – and my dear friends – thank you!
Let’s go! The Diaries
Day 0: Laying in a mountain hut after two-hour trekking to the ‘Peggotty Camp’. The night before the departure. It is very warm inside and I can hear the wind and see the baleful clouds above the mountains. I was reading many best wishes from my dear polar friends on my way from home. It was very kind of them. I am trying to focus and concentrate my strength. I am thinking of Hillary and Tenzing, the pioneers of Everest climbing. I am worried about the weather. If we get to the Valley of Five Lakes, we are great. The whaling station is there. It is the most beautiful valley in the Tatras.
Later: I am so excited.
I woke up in the night, thinking it was time to go. It was still before midnight.
Day 1: Tuesday: about 20 kilometres: Waking up: 5 AM, setting of: 6AM. We need to get there. We are a team now. The weather is good in the camp. Windy, but I can see ridges above trees.
The plan was to traverse the range of the Western Tatras on this day. When we reached the first gap, the wind actually appeared to be so strong that we had to come down a little and set a camp for breakfast, waiting for any change of the weather.
At the camp: someone is approaching us…
‘Someone’ was actually another climber. We struck up a conversation with him and, as it happened, he was also a photographer with a camera. He was named Peter and decided to join us for a while. He liked the design of the clothing very much, so he took photographs and later asked me if he can record a mini-documentary on Shackleton and the expedition. ‘With pleasure!’ – said I and we welcomed a modern Frank Hurley to the crew.
We went on. As we were reaching the altitude about 2,000 metres, the wind suddenly started to blow madly – up to 100 kilometres/hr, and after reaching a small ridge, we had to come back. It was something extraordinary in walking in the wind wearing one-hundred-year-old clothes. I was warm, but the snow helmet, blouse and trousers were constantly being windswept. At some point I was petrified that my mittens could be blow away forever! Fortunately, Hayley, the lamp wick and the stitching were strong enough. Poor Mawson and the crew at Cape Denison!
It was clear that the wind was not going to calm dawn and we were wasting time sitting on the col and waiting for a miracle.
About 10 PM: The only true failure… not to explore at all… it is 10 AM now. At this time we were supposed to be much further. Even if it stops winding we don’t have time to keep going… we need to go down and look for another way.
I didn’t like it at all, but we were simply running out of time, hot tea and warm.
Having decided to go down and quelling the bitter disappointment we took the last look at the rugged ridge and again sank into the white. Two hours later, we went back to square one. The original plan failed. We were tired and thankfully prepared new warm tea.
In my mind, I imagined myself standing at the helm of the Endurance, deciding to abandon ship and changing the initial plan of crossing the continent completely. During my many trips the mountains not always allowed us to get where I wanted, but spontaneous decisions on which route to follow often turned out to be the best. On this day it was not an easy decision.
2PM: We are back in the ‘Peggotty Camp’. Another long 5-hour trek ahead of us.
Let me now say a few words describing people’s reactions when they actually noticed a funny-dressed man on the trail. Especially in the very beginning, when we were crossing popular valleys, I felt as if I came straight from Mars or any other beautiful place in the galaxy, but when it came to the real climbing – hikers were really keen on and curious, asking many questions, taking photos and wishing me all the best.
Later, in the evening: about 5PM: eventually, we arrived to the second camp – yes, but – I would like to say – under very different circumstances than those expected. And I thought deeply of Captain Scott. This day was a very hard one – physically, yes, but what was more, psychologically. I felt like a failure in some way. But then I thought of all these long preparations, imagined all of you keeping your fingers crossed, took a rest and put myself together. Later this evening, we did a good job recording the documentary.
A lot of mixed feelings and expectancy…
Day 2: Wednesday: Waking up: 6.30AM, setting off: 7.30AM
In the morning, we said farewell to our photographer and set off into the unknown. Unknown, because the route was going to be a new one for me and because we still were not sure about the weather.
Later: the weather is beautiful. But the snow covering the ridge is so soft and we literally need to pave the way. Very soon we realize it makes the further march impossible. Another decision, another return.
The second return during the expedition.
May the third day be a better one…
Day 3: Thursday: Waking up: 7AM, setting off: 8AM
When, at the beginning of winter 2017, I was sitting at home planning the expeditionary route, I already knew that the 3-day trekking following in footsteps of Sir Ernest would not be a heroic or monumental sport achievement at all. On the last day, however, we did an excellent climb, which, being achieved in an old style, became the biggest mountain adventure in my life and, with a clear conscience, I can call it the best winter route I have ever done.
We set off and after crossing a frozen lake – which was a try of a polar plateau-walking – we arrived at the foot of the Zawrat Col (2,159m), the highest point of our route – not very hard to climb in summer, but during winter, when the mountainside is steep and the snow covering the flank can actually become ice – it makes the climb a bit risky. The clouds were alarmingly moving above the ridge and I was anxious about that – what If we actually stuck on the col with no way back?
Then something very hilarious happened – a group of climbers doing recon around the frozen lake suddenly spotted me and, screaming ‘we found Tenzing’ – meaning Tenzing Norgay, the pioneer of Everest climbing, ran up to me and took a few pictures.
This day was all about Hillary and Tenzing, as we did more climbing than actual polar trekking.
We decided to go on. The mountainside was surrounded by high-pitched ridges, so we couldn’t realize what was going on up there, until we actually reach the col and see. Ditto, we didn’t feel the wind even if there was a hurricane above us. The opposite site of the col was indeed exposed to the wind, so we could stuck there very easily.
After breakfast, we started our climb. We carried on steadily as the first slope was not as tilted as the rest, and up till ½ of the big slope we really enjoyed the climb, admiring gorgeous views beneath us. The snow was soft there and I was following in the lead, working hard to find firm passage. Otherwise, the snow was up to our knees.
It all has changed when we were in ¾ of the mountainside. The following experience was great, but thrilling. The slope was steep-up now, and the snow was slowly becoming frozen, as this part of the col was in shadow. I could see the col about 50 metres above my head, but this relatively small distance had to be covered very slowly as we could fall off very easily and it certainly would be a fatal fall. So we went on, step by step. I was in charge of cutting steps, so with my ice-axe in hand and spiky crampons on feet, I needed to spend about one minute to move three metres up. I was in fear – if the wooden axe suddenly brakes or my crampons detach, something very fatal happen. I tried to concentrate on the steps and thinking of Hillary, I was constantly repeating his words describing summiting: ‘We cut step along the top, round bump after bump, keeping looking for the top… And finally we actually reached the summit itself’.
Finally, one of my crampons detached. It was a moment of full concentration and cautiousness. To put on the crampons I need 30 seconds at home, but it took me almost two minutes on the top.
It was a feeling of hopeless when the summit was still 10 metres away. We did the final push and actually reached it at 11:30PM.
Beneath us, all-around, we could finally recognise the magnificent view of the Stromness Bay, and, somewhere in the very middle, the buildings of the whaling station, our goal and the final point of the destination, salvation for us and for our comrades waiting on the Elephant Island.
The first views were magnificent and I felt great relief. At some point I looked down at the way we had just done and I thought that I would think twice before going up this route in the old equipment again.
I was standing on the ridge and looking ahead. This very moment was fulfilled with pure happiness. I liked the thought that the year was 1916 and the view we were just looking at was indeed the view of the Stromness Bay on South Georgia.
We took photographs. I brought out my old Kodak camera and prepared it. Although it actually didn’t work out I can recall the very moment of clicking the 100 year-old button in order to capture some of the outstanding landscape.
The weather was excellent literally for five minutes and when we just set out the way down, a complete fog surrounded us. The snow was soft again and we started traversing the slope blindly. We pushed on and after another hour of drowning in the snow up to our knees we actually reached the very foot of the mountain.
The Shackleton Challenge was done. The goal has been accomplished. It was amazing feeling. I was really happy to be alive, thrilled about the great adventure we had just carried out, glad to see all these long months of preparations put through and, furthermore, quietly moved by Shackleton’s achievement and my own commemorating of it. It was a gentle and very constructive feeling.
I would like to quote Amundsen and his words describing his feelings when he saw a ship on the horizon and realized that his dream of covering an unknown route in the Arctic had been accomplished:
‘The North-West Passage was done. My boyhood dream – at that moment it was accomplished. A strange feeling welled up in my throat; I was somewhat over-strained and worn – and I suppose it was weakness on my part – but I felt tears in my eyes. Vessel in sight! Vessel in sight!’
Copyright by Maksymilian Rębisz 2018
Dive in to the story of the Shackleton Mountain Challenge by watching this short video made by Maksymilian and Bearand Productions. It’s great to hear the obvious passion of our protagonist and also to get a sense of the terrain he faced. Click the CC button under the video for subtitles in English.