Tom Cunliffe introduces this extract from The Sea and The Snow Philip Temple's remarkable tale of sailing to the farthest wastes of the Southern Ocean

In the world of small-craft seafaring and modern mountaineering, 1964/5 seems very distant. Philip Temple’s remarkable work The Sea and The Snow, recently republished, brings those days straight to our bunk-side bookshelves. In its pages Temple tells us the tale of 10 men who sail from Australia to Heard Island far to the south-east of Kerguelen in the farthest wastes of the Southern Ocean.

Their vessel is the 63ft steel schooner Patanela; their skipper none other than the redoubtable HW Tilman; their goal, to make the first ascent of the 9,000ft volcanic peak, Big Ben. Getting five men ashore, with full expedition gear, on a shingle beach exposed to mighty swells is a chancy business, but using an inflatable military assault craft, the climbers make it ashore and achieve their goal. Re-boarding the schooner proves an even greater challenge, and we join the shore party on the beach, contemplating a grim future.

Extract from The Sea and The Snow

Could we go? Should we go? Could we wait? Arguments, discussions, perusal of the sea filled every spare moment between packing and radio schedules. Little of our situation was conveyed to the crew away on the ship, to whom our activities appeared curiously lethargic and distant. Their view of the surf was unimpressive and it was hard to imagine the great barrier that seemed to separate us from safety.

Grahame, in typical vein, was eager to make an attempt, Colin was doubtful, John non-committal, and myself hardly in the forum with my jaundiced, non-swimmer’s appreciation. During the early stages, Warwick understandably sat on the fence. With him rested the final decision.

Principally, our safety had to be assured and the problem lay in securing that as well as transporting the equipment. Much of it was not ours. Equipment loaned by the New Zealand Alpine Club was of great value and had been used all over the world on expeditions. Our consciences were stricken by the thought of abandoning it on that miserable, god-forsaken beach. And our pride was stung by the thought of a shame-faced retreat, a faint-hearted escape, like an army throwing away its arms.

We worked all day, packing and ferrying the loads down to the terrace above the beach. All food and surplus supplies were dumped unceremoniously and we decided to leave the tents erected until the last minute, in case of a postponement. John cooked up a huge stew at midday and we stuffed this down, aware that this might be our only chance to eat for many long, strenuous hours.

To go or stay

By mid-afternoon all the loads were down, the radio re-established at the terrace and a red flag ready for signalling. We wore our wetsuits, parkas, sailing-suit trousers, vapour barrier boots and partly-inflated life jackets. The surf had gone down a little but the sky was leaden, and optimistic views of the weather were leavened with more doubts.

Stiff, uncomfortable and frankly afraid, I stood by the radio, staring glumly at Patanela. Warwick paced up and down, hands behind his back and head bent as Grahame or Colin opened a new line of attack on the problem. I looked up at a skua floating past. Oh to have wings! By 1630 it was clear that the surf would be just good enough to take off safely with top priority loads lashed into the assault craft.

The 63ft Patanela was a former crayfishing boat

The problem was now clear cut. There remained two definite alternatives: we could probably get ourselves and vital gear off safely and quickly that afternoon or we could wait and place ourselves in the dubious hands of a new day. These cut and dried alternatives were never discussed. They simply emerged through the plethora of anxieties and half-answered questions. Warwick saw them clearly. He turned and summarily said: “We’ll give it a go.” Lives were more important than the salvage of equipment. We would not risk waiting or offshore loading, purely on its account.

At 1700, Ed came up on the radio and Warwick told him that we would attempt to take off within the following half hour. The red flag indicating action was raised and he added: “Keep a sharp look out for us in case anything goes wrong.” But we were on our own.

The radio was left where it was and we manhandled the craft off the shelf and on to the beach. The point we chose was above the wallow of elephant seals and we almost ran into them. They reared up at the sight of the strange apparition rushing down and bounced away, hugely and slowly, with the slight aid of their flippers, jaws gaping with ineffectual threats.

HW Tilman oversees setting of sail

We pulled up short, lumbered further up the beach with the assault craft and set it down beyond the reach of the water. Colin brought down the motor and the rest of us collected the two heavy packs of priority gear. Here was the film, the photographs, the survey data, soil samples, lichen and botanical specimens, rock samples, insects, algae. They were all packed tightly in polythene bags and air mattresses cut in half, along with diaries, records, cameras and smaller items of valuable equipment. A third bulky but light bag contained essential clothing we could not replace on Patanela.

Into the surf

The three loads were lashed into the craft, the rest left in a row on the shelf. There was talk of coming back for them if the weather was fine the next day. Small comfort hoping for that, and I felt a sharp pang as I saw my ice axe tangled with the rest. It had gone a long way with me and was almost a talisman: I had fallen safely down Mount Cook and tramped across New Guinea with it. Many mountains had felt its spike, not least Big Ben, and it was painful to dump it. Again I was reminded of the parallel. I was like a soldier throwing away his rifle.

This was one of many thoughts mixed with fear as I stood beside the craft and waited. The loads were lashed, the paddles stowed, motor checked and mounted. Warwick was port bowman with myself behind at the stern. Grahame was starboard bowman with Colin at the stern and John in between.

Life on board Patanela

Anxious, restless, cold or eager, we shuffled around in the rain, black sand clinging to boots and boat. Final procedure was discussed. Grahame was to give the orders. He decided that we should watch the surf pattern for a while to arrive at correct timing. When he gave the word go, we would run with the raft as far as possible, until we hit the steep shelf dropping beneath our feet, then leap aboard and paddle furiously. As soon as we had sufficient depth for the propeller – which was almost immediately – Colin would start the motor.

Fully loaded expedition assault craft

The minutes dragged horribly as the big surf came and went. We stared out to sea, watching the size of the rollers, and it became clear that a relatively calm period followed a clutch of two or three big breakers. We should take advantage of that, though it was sometimes difficult to pick the third nasty dumper. Warwick ran round the assault craft to keep warm, joking to relieve the tension; Grahame made regular, precise comments on the surf; John was still and Colin flapped his arms as he stared worriedly at the ship. I slouched under the tug of the tight, wetsuit hood, my hand firmly gripping the rear handle of the boat.

There came a short order: “Forward.” We moved up. “Hold it!” A breaker snarled in, thrashed at the sand and ran up towards us, floating the bows. Suddenly the sea flattened and there was Grahame’s “Let’s go!”

Once we were on our way, all fear and agitation was gone. We ran, heads down, hauling hard at the bulky craft. Dimly I saw Warwick jump in ahead and immediately followed suit. Grabbing a paddle, I made to dig it in the water but, before I could, a surprise dumper lifted the bows into the air and for a breathless moment we hung on the point of balance. Then the bows dropped hard down and Warwick and I began to paddle.

Colin’s yells stopped us short. “Warwick! Paddle on the other side!” He was on board beside the motor but Grahame and John were still in the water, out of their depth. Our one-sided paddling had slewed the craft round and we were almost broadside on to the surf. I moved over with Warwick but could not paddle because of John’s body. Incredibly, we bobbed on a surfless sea.

Warwick hauled John by the seat of his pants as they climbed in and we all bent to the task as our charmed life seemed to run out. Grahame called the stroke, the boat straightened out and we moved sluggishly out to sea. Impetuously I yelled: “Let her go Col!” He quickly pulled the start toggle and the Johnson roared into life. With gasps and sighs of relief we shipped the paddles.

Spluttering motor

A moment later we were working again as the motor spluttered and threatened to stall. The swell rushed past and broke a few yards behind the boat. Any drift and we would be dashed back on to the beach. But the motor continued to fire spasmodically, mostly on one cylinder, and we painfully crabbed out from the shore. We edged diagonally across the rising waves and Grahame exhorted Col to keep the boat straight. Feeling like an ant on a leaf crossing a raging river, I crouched over the loads and gauged the distance to the ship. The weather was making one of its rapid changes for the worse. Thick clouds poured round South Barrier and Patanela often disappeared for long seconds in the increasing swell.

Expedition camp on the beach in more benign conditions

In no mood to take photographs, I let Warwick cut the water­proof camera from my neck and he began to photograph our bedraggled escape. Wet, cold but slightly elated, I looked over his shoulder as the yellow hull came nearer. The island was almost covered in cloud but the orange tents and red flag stood out like neon to mark the pivot of our adventure.

The motor laboured on and soon we could make out details of the ship. Five figures lined the rail and, carried by the wind, we heard a ragged cheer which we answered with thumbs up. Sickly, we manoeuvred to the lee side of the ship and, as she rolled, our rubber sponson squashed firmly into the familiar yellow steel. We were back.

Thankfully I swung over the rail to receive handshakes and congratulations. The deck seemed incredibly firm, the rigging strong and orderly, the whole ship gave an unmistakable aura of security. We took the loads from Warwick and Colin who then edged the assault craft round to the davit on the windward side. It bucked and swung and Colin fumed as everyone clustered over the rail to lift the motor.

The team successfully climbed ‘Big Ben’

The craft was pulled to the bows and dragged over the rail. The wind lifted it up, forcing us to hang like dead weights to prevent it being blown away. Finally it was on the deck and with childish delight I loosened the valves and rolled over the boat to deflate it.

I do not remember looking back at Heard Island. The devil was behind us and I had no desire to renew acquaint­ance.

At 1815 the anchor was weighed, foresail and staysail hoisted and we laid course for home with a new storm behind us.

Our fears, anxieties, effort, success and elation were described in the typically laconic log entry: “Shore party came off, minus kit. Got anchor. Course south.”

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