Following Shackleton

The Monthly

On a recent morning in Malvern, Adelaide, Tim Jarvis was packing for a summer trip. From the gear spread on his bed, he picked up a pair of mittens made from beaver pelt and tied with a lamp-wick lanyard.

“Wonderful, aren’t they?” Jarvis said as he donned the mitts. “They look just like beavers. There are lots of jokes, obviously.” The rugged 46-year-old slipped the lanyard over his head. “It’s like a kid when you don’t want him to lose his gloves – but you cannot afford to lose your gloves. You put one down, it gets blown away and you lose your fingers.”

He was preparing for a journey that is now under way: in mid January, Jarvis and a five-man crew set sail from Elephant Island, off the Antarctic coast. They aim to re-enact Ernest Shackleton’s 1916 sea-and-land crossing to a whaling station on the island of South Georgia – and, along the way, to photograph signs of climate change. To keep things interesting, they’ve gone with vintage gear, right down to their replica seven-metre whaler – “really a hopeless boat”.

Jarvis, who has a background in environmental science, is a veteran of four Antarctic treks. The beaver mittens date from a 2007 re-enactment of Sir Douglas Mawson’s expedition of 1912. Ditto the lucky goggles, grey knit balaclava and “period sleeping bag”, of which he has ordered copies for his crew by paying an Inuit hunter to kill the reindeer, prepare the hides and sew them up.

He pointed out that modern gear didn’t stop him getting frostbite on a previous trip. On another, a failed GPS meant Jarvis had to navigate for 17 days by reading sastrugi, or ice furrows, to pick the wind direction.

“There are no guarantees,” Jarvis told me while packing. His laptop flashed with to-do lists and Gantt charts for logistics. He clicked to a photo showing the vessel he meant to sail for 1300 kilometres. Though finely crafted – its oak beams were steamed to bend like reeds, its sails hand-sewn from heavyweight French linen – it capsized readily in trials. “This thing has no keel. It’s just a little rowboat essentially, and very crowded with six men,” said Jarvis.

“I obviously really hope that we won’t capsize.” He said the word “hope” often that morning. The boat, which awaited pick-up at the Polish base Arctowski near Elephant Island, is also vulnerable to icebergs.

What about life vests? “We have them,” he conceded. They will wear them if things “are about to go pear-shaped”. With or without the vests, it will be grim if a man goes overboard, because Jarvis’ craft cannot turn around. “It’s too primitive,” he explained. “Because we don’t have any keel, you can’t go back into the wind. All that happens is … you get pushed sideways.”

Conversation moved to the voyage’s second leg: several days of glacier-trekking. “Two people died last year in that section, so you can’t just take it lightly.” Jarvis and his team – two other men, by this point, with the rest in a rear party – will share a single adze to grip the ice, and wear British-made hobnailed boots. Jarvis’ boots had already been sent to Chile, untried. He said he hoped they’d fit.

The man’s adventurous streak runs deep. Jarvis spent much of his boyhood in Malaysia, where his British father distributed Tiger Balm. His was a world of jungles, stray dogs and rickety mining bridges. Aged eight, he joined his school’s Adventurers’ Club. These days, between logistics meetings, he runs corporate leadership sessions. He likes to say his expeditions are a Trojan horse for his environmental message.

Going into his study, Jarvis flipped open a book to some black-and-white ice-scape photos taken by Shackleton. “When we get to South Georgia, we’re going to take photographs from exactly the same perspectives, to show the extent of climate change.” He has already seen changes – water pooling on the ice, penguin colonies failing, green shrubs starting to grow. “Antarctic temperatures [in some areas] have risen more than four degrees Celsius in the last 50 years. That’s the kind of change you’d expect to see in half a million years, maybe.”

It’s high-stakes awareness raising. Just the day before, in phone calls about the “operations manual”, his team had agreed it would stop if someone died.

Asked if he ever felt like calling it all off, Jarvis gave a candid nod. “That’s a frequent thing. You’ve always got to have an answer for it, so I write down the reasons.” He listed a few such spurs, including his dislike of materialism – “a very bad proxy for achievement”. Quoting a Bobby Kennedy speech that criticised GDP as a measure of social wealth, he railed against the pursuit of endless economic growth.

Back in the gear-strewn bedroom, Jarvis picked up a measure of a different sort, the squat chronometer he would use to track his progress on the Southern Ocean. Donated by the Royal Navy, “it was made by the same manufacturer as Shackleton’s”. Next came some more sail-talk, before an offhand comment that revealed just how feeble the voyagers’ vessel is: “With all sails up, we get two knots.”

Two knots? But that’s walking pace. “I know,” said Jarvis, adding that they’d have the wind behind them. At least, he hopes they will.