MODERN ACCOUNTS OF LANDING ON CAPE HORN ISLAND






The next person to land on Cape Horn Island was 260 years later when Captain (later Admiral) Robert FitzRoy of the Beagle was employed by the British Admiralty to chart the treacherous waters around Tierra del Fuego.

As these accounts show, both landing and making progress on the island are extremely difficult and challenging.


Narrative of the Surveying Voyages of the ‘Adventure’ and ‘Beagle’ 1826 – 1836 describing their examination of the southern shores of South America. Philip Parker-King and Robert FitzRoy, 1839


FitzRoy – 19th April 1830:


I afterwards went in a boat to Horn Island, to ascertain the nature of the landing, and whether it was practicable to carry any instruments to the summit of the Cape.   Many places were found where a boat might land; and more than one spot where she could be hauled ashore so that taking instruments to the summit did not seem likely to be a very difficult task. As the weather continued favourable I returned on board that night, and the next morning (19th) arranged for a visit to Cape Horn;  a memorial having been previously prepared, and securely enclosed in a stone jar.

After taking observations at noon for latitude, we set out, carrying five day’s provisions, a good chronometer, and other instruments. We landed before dark, hauled our boat up in safety on the north-east side, and established ourselves for the night on Horn Island.

At daybreak we commended our walk across the island, each carrying his load; and by the time the sun was high enough for observing, were near the summit, and exactly in its meridian; so we stopped while I took two sets of sights and a round of angles.   Soon afterwards we reached the highest point of the Cape, and immediately began our work; I and my coxwain, with the instruments; Lieut. Kempe with the boat’s crew raising a pile of stones over the memorial.

At first Diego Ramirez Islands were seen, but before I could get the theodolite fixed and adjusted, the horizon became hazy.  At noon satisfactory sets of circum-meridional altitudes were obtained with two good sextants.  A round of angles, compass bearings for the variation, and good afternoon sights for time completed our success.  The pile made over our memorial was eight feet high, and in it were stones which required the united exertions of all seven men to raise to the top.  We drank the health of His Majesty King George the Fourth, and gave three hearty cheers, standing round the Union Jack. Directly all was finished we travelled towards our boat as fast as possible: but darkness surrounded us before we were more than half way. Those who had loads which would not be hurt by tumbling about among bushes, travelled on: but, having the chronometer and a sextant to take care of, I waited till one of the men returned with a lantern.  All reached the boat before nine o’clock, without losing or injuring any thing; but the cargo of stones, for specimens, which each brought back, delayed our returning progress materially.


At daylight on the 21st we launched and stowed our boat, and set out on  our return. We reached the Beagle that afternoon, well laden with fragments of Cape Horn.


THE BRITISH KAYAK EXPEDITION TO CAPE HORN 1977


Barry J N Smith; Nigel Matthews; Frank R Goodman and Jim Hargreaves


Abstracted from the Expedition Report and the Geographical Magazine 1978, both by Frank Goodman.


Although the South American Pilot spoke of  instantly changing weather conditions, we did not  believe this until we had experienced it! Twice we  witnessed calm conditions change to full gale in less than ten minutes. Several times the wind backed through 90 degrees instantly, with no change of cloud  pattern and often visibility would reduce from over  thirty miles to half a mile in a matter of seconds. Thus  the weather completely dominated our thinking  throughout the journey and all decisions were made only after a very careful appraisal of likely meteorological events.


Sandy beaches were few and far between , and steep boulder storm beaches are the best landing places one can expect. Kilometres of cliffs and broken, rocky shores often mean that landing is out of the question. The rainfall  is such that almost every bay or beach had a rivulet of  drinking water available to us; fresh water and firewood are always to hand. Although there were many areas where the  coastlines are cliff-bound, we never experienced much  difficulty in finding suitable landing places. This was a combination of careful scrutiny of the coast line ahead  of us and a level of fitness that enabled us to paddle a few extra miles without fatigue if necessary.


Cape Horn Island presented a dramatic and awe inspiring  spectacle from our stance on the cliffs of  Herschel Island. Four miles of angry storm-tossed sea  separated us from our goal, the jagged pinnacles  of rock leading up to the summit looked all too  ominous. We smoked a last cigarette and  decided to reconsider the situation upon arrival at the north-west point. It was a fifteen mile, five hour paddle with  at least three hours of total commitment on the western  side of the island. We paddled south and then west and crossed to north shore of Cape Horn Island in very long low swell. Once at the north-west point, events happened very quickly. The north-west corner of the island is magnificent with huge stacks and  an arch, detached from the main cliff; it was the most awe-inspiring sight of  my life. No doubt it was partly so because it was viewed  from a kayak that had a three hour journey to safety  ahead of it.


Apart  from the rapid moving high cloud the sky was clear with the wind blowing about force two. But the swell was  enormous, and the rebound effect from the cliffs made  for a turbulent sea which pitched our Nordkapp kayaks in all directions and called for very careful paddling. It  soon became apparent that to retreat with the sea on our  stern quarter would be very difficult and, by a process  of non-verbal communication, we opted for the bold  stroke and pushed along the six mile west coast of the  Horn. A huge swell of  15 metres height became difficult as the clapotis from  the base of the cliffs was superimposed. It was awesome, with  spray drifting 10 metres high along the shore and the  breaking waves sounding like howitzers. There was two hours of  this to get to Cape Horn itself. Stacks ran out into the sea like enormous fangs,  foam-covered and unfriendly. Where the swell met the  twelve-hundred foot cliff there was chaos and an eerie  booming noise which kept us facing firmly out to sea.  And all the time there was the realisation that, with  cirrus cloud coming in, the weather could change swiftly  and dramatically. We were in a dilemma, wanting to savour that for which we had worked so hard and at the  same time clear this terrible lee shore as quickly as  possible. Psychologically we wanted to keep close in,  but this meant sharing the most turbulent water.


At one  stage we sought the apparent shelter between a stack  and the cliff and were tossed about like matchsticks.  With the water temperature at eight degrees centigrade and the waves dumping on the shore in a very terminal  manner we knew that a capsize would be very serious  indeed. Never had I appreciated the true majesty of the  ocean as on this day. As we progressed towards the southern side so we  gained a little shelter With the swell running  along the face of the cliffs and some respite from the sea. We  felt secure enough to take slides and movie, but even as we  glimpsed the diminutive beacon which stands on the  Horn itself, we knew there could be no relaxing of effort  until our feet were back on terra firma.


We rounded the Cape, and another hour and we were in the shelter of the east  coast and a sheltered cove  on the eastern shore was selected as the landing place and we landed and lay in the sun, but there was bad camping; we put up a fly-sheet only and bivied on  the boulder beach. We shook hands but said little. The fourteen miles of paddling on one of the most exposed shores in the world  left us mentally exhausted, and it was only after about half an hour that we started to discuss our feelings of  fear and elation. It was interesting to compare notes and  appreciate how similar our lines of thought had been. By mid-day there was a full gale blowing  again. The sky remained clear and there was no indication that the wind would increase.

THE TOTORORE VOYAGE 1987


Gerry S Clark and Anthea J Goodwin of Kerikeri, New Zealand and Julia von Meyer of Puerto Muntt, Chile

Abstracted from ‘The Totorore Voyage an Arctic Adventure’ by Gerry Clark 1988

In 1999 Totorore disappeared off the south coast of Antipodes Island, Antarctica, along with Gerry Clark and his crew man Roger Sale.


We were inside the outer rocks, which were quite close to the Cape, and we could see this huge mass sticking up, a high conical shape, cliffs with green on the top, a wonderful setting. Then we could see the tussock up there, and a certain amount of vegetation on the side. There were enormous breakers at the bottom of the dark grey rocky cliffs, and it looked absolutely magnificent! A white lighthouse stood near the bottom of the mountain slope and just to the east of it. As it came abeam with Anthea at the helm, Julia blew three blasts on our foghorn and I reverently dipped our ensign three times in salute to this mighty monument.

About two miles north-east of Cape Horn, on the same island, is another cape, long and comparatively low, on which we could see some crude huts, a radio aerial, and a Chilean flag flying from a mast; and we knew that it must be the Armada coastwatchers’ base. We then carried on up the lee side of Isla Hornos and anchored in a small corner south of a cape half way up the east coast of the island. We decided to visit the Armada station by walking overland to it, instead of sailing there, so in the morning we rowed ashore and made a wet landing on the boulder beach. Anthea stayed to look after Totorore, and Julia and I made our way through the thick scrub and over the hills towards the south-east point. On the heights it was very cold, with driving hail or light snow, and we had some dramatic views of the Cape Horn mountain from a different angle.

The approaches to the station were a maze of barbed-wire fences and entanglements, with many trip-wires about fifteen centimetres above the ground. No doubt they would have been an obstacle at night, but it is no trouble to us to negotiate them by day. There was no sign of life in the log-cabin-like buildings with iron roofs, and only a metallic clanking noise, as a large radar scanner revolved, indicated that there was anybody in residence. A dog barked once, but we did not see it. We squelched across a peaty bog, past a board sign which said ‘Bienvenido a Cabo de Homos’, and onto the wooden duckboards around the accommodation hut. I banged loudly three times on the door but there was no reply, so I tried again. Nothing. I peered through a window and right next to the door I could see a pair of green-clad legs and black boots, and concluded that the guard inside was fast asleep. This was about 14:45 hours, obviously still siesta time. ‘Muy Chileno!’ said Julia. ‘Very Chilean!’ We wandered past the radar shed and had a look at the minute chapel. Inside, the illusion was rather spoiled by opened ammunition cases and long belts of shells, with bits and pieces of guns in front of the altar, which was decorated with plastic flowers. A figure of the Madonna surveyed the scene.

Outside, we walked past an emplacement with a small gun like an Oerlikon, all covered up, and then spotted a very surprised man by the door of the cabin. Without a word he bolted inside, no doubt to waken the others; soon two more appeared and greeted us. They asked us to come inside and we stepped into a pleasant little mess room which we found unbearably hot, with a large gas heater turned full on. A large photograph of President Pinochet hung on one wall and a map of Isla Hornos made of wood on another. Various doors opened and more men appeared, rubbing their eyes. The petty officer in charge, in Armada black, was very friendly but obviously put out that we had literally caught them napping. He said we should have radioed that we were coming, as it was very dangerous to cross the barbed-wire entanglements and we might have been shot! We could not help smiling. Julia and I took off our wet boots and socks, and one of the men took them away to dry while others brought us their jandals to wear in the meantime. While we were drinking coffee and enjoying fresh bread, the ‘Jefe’ (chief) asked us many questions and filled in a form with our names and nationalities. Then he produced an enormous visitors’ book. It seems that Cabo de Hornos is almost a tourist attraction! When the 'Lindblad Explorer' or 'The World Discoverer' happen past, they land all their passengers here for a visit.

The next day we sailed into the tiny sheltered cove right next to the station and climbed the steps they had made to the top of the cliff. Anthea came with me to make a more thorough search of the area and we followed the oozy, smelly penguin trails though the tussocks right down to the bottom. It was a large hilly area, full of burrows and very slippery, so it was a relief to walk across a narrow causeway of boulders to a near-island. However the grass on top was burnt, and the men told us that it had caught fire during shooting practice!

On 28 March we motored around the south-east point against a 25-knot breeze and into a wide bay between the point and Cape Horn, finding a good lee from all northerly and westerly winds. It was becoming apparent that neither the barometer nor the hygrometer gave any indication of the weather we could expect, and the best days were usually on a low barometer, the worst when it was high. Somebody must always stay on board if we were going to be away for any length of time.

We wanted to find Sooty shearwater burrows in the stunted coigüe scrub on the sheltered side of the mountain. When we landed in the dinghy, Julia and I found that the boulders on the beach were larger than they had looked from a distance and were very slippery, with deep spaces between. Julia had both her boots full of water before we managed to drag the dinghy clear of the breakers and we realised then that we must always take dry clothes with us in watertight bags. There were Magellanic penguin burrows in the scrub from the shore to about 80 metres up the hill.

On this first day we carried on up the mountainside and had a real struggle in the more dense scrub higher up. From the start it was tough going, what looked like grass swaying in the breeze was actually the tops of rushes which poked through the canopy of dense scrub, which was somewhere between 1.5 and 2.5 metres off the ground itself. Some of the bushes were tangled prickly things, some were tight and cushiony – they were the best to walk on, with the rushes providing handholds. Practice makes perfect, but we never attained that degree of skill and kept tripping and falling. When one disappeared below the canopy it was a painful, time consuming business trying to get back on top, as the branches tangled around arms and legs, sometimes preventing all movement. It seemed an impossible and exhausting task, and progress was extremely slow (one big advantage of snow, we found, was that it levelled out the unevenness of the ground and filled up holes, making it much easier to walk). Far down below we could see Totorore rolling in the swell, and above us, often shrouded in rain, was the jagged peak of Cape Horn. There were no further burrows.

Back on the beach we saw that the sea had got up and the breakers were worse than this morning. It was low tide, and there were more slippery boulders exposed by the receding waves. The dinghy flipped right over with me underneath it and although I managed to grab one oar the other floated out of reach. Holding the boat, both of us fell again on the slippery rocks when the next wave struck. I watched the floating oar, expecting each wave to bring it back in, but it worked its way along the shore, getting further away. How foolish I was not to have had it lashed in the boat! While Julia held the dinghy, I went scrambling over the rocks, trying to keep the oar in view, but it was beginning to get dark and when I last saw it the oar was quite a way out. I dared not paddle downwind after it because it was still in the big waves.

(On another visit to the south-east cape of Isla Hornos we had the incredible good fortune to find the oar, lying on the low causeway across to the island off the cape. It was being washed by waves from both sides and could so easily have been carried away to the deep ocean).

For a moment I considered remaining on shore but I knew it would be dangerous, as we were both soaked to the skin and night temperatures had been only 1-2 °C. Apart from that, Anthea would have been terribly worried, and we might have to wait for days. Julia kept her head and was very practical. Fortunately the water was not too cold at about 9 °C, but the wind was decidedly chilling and we had both lost our woolly hats. We carried the boat farther along the shore to a more upwind position; as we were already wet, it did not matter too much having to stand up to our waists in the sea. It certainly made it very much easier to hold the boat until the right moment to get aboard and start paddling, me on my knees with the one oar.

The waves partly filled the boat but we managed to get clear of the breakers before a rafaga came. While it was still I could make progress, but could not hold against the wind; I had a welcome rest from the exertion of paddling while Julia held grimly on to some kelp to anchor us. In this manner we progressed towards Totorore. I shouted out to Anthea to put the kettle on, but this proved a bit premature. All was well until we had to leave the kelp to cover the last 50 metres. We almost made it when a great rafaga tore us away toward the open sea. ‘Dear God help us now, give me strength,’ I prayed as I paddled desperately. A very worried Anthea was wondering how to buoy and slip the anchor! I shouted to her to throw us a floating line and she struggled to get one out of the locker, but the wind allowed us to paddle almost within reach again before it whirled us away once more. I could not have continued paddling much longer when Anthea grabbed the end of the oar which I thrust out towards her. A cheap lesson to treat Cape Horn with more respect.

We took it in turns to ‘keep ship’, so that one of us always stayed on board; when weather permitted, the other two continued exploring Isla Hornos. Landings were never easy, but the relaunchings to come back to Totorore were worse. The state of the surf was unpredictable; apart from the obvious lesson about lashing the oars, we learned to take off nearly all our clothes and pack them into watertight containers and bags, wearing just our wet-weather gear and wetsuit boots. The worst part was changing on the shelter-less beach in the cold wind, especially when we had come down from the mountain already cold and wet and the sight of great curling breakers on the shore had struck terror into our hearts.

On one occasion when I was coming back with Anthea the dinghy flipped over three times. The plastic bags with all our gear were badly holed on the rocks and the contents soaked, so that we had a very large pile of wet gear to deal with when we finally reached Totorore. This became a great problem as we were running out of dry clothes to wear. I lit the cabin heater for the first time since we had left New Zealand, but it did little to dry out the salt-wet clothing draped about.

When we had done all else that we could, there remained only the actual peak of Cape Horn itself. It is only 405 metres high, and the ridge along the eastern cliffs was reasonably easy to follow, after which a steep walk in low but tangled vegetation from the landward side gave access to the peak. It was Anthea’s and Julia’s turn for an expedition, and after a bad landing they took the tent with them and set it up as a base right on the highest point. The weather was kind to them, and from the top they enjoyed glorious views in all directions.

In the evening when they returned they had a very rough time of it on the beach and came back somewhat battered and bruised, as well as soaked. ‘Ah well,’ I thought. ‘That’s that. Now we can leave this place of horrible wet landings.’ I was mistaken. My crew told me that right up on the peak, in tussock grass, they had discovered petrel burrows, and even heard the cooing noise of some sort of petrel in one of them. The news left me excited, determined — and rather afraid. The others were less than enthusiastic, which was understandable under the circumstances, but this is what we had come for and we had to see it through.

It took us all morning, and more, to organise our gear and pack it all up as best we could for a wet landing. Then we had to unpack everything on the beach and stow it into our packs for climbing. It was already 15:30 hours before we finally started upwards. we had to press on hard with our heavy packs, which I found quite exhausting. By the time we reached the saddle above the lake, the cloud had come down around us; we were lucky that we knew the way, and were able to follow yesterday’s tracks. With poor visibility we could find no sheltered place for the tent anywhere close enough to be able to get back from the peak safely in the dark, so we went all the way up.

The wind on top was strong and it was cold, and the swirling cloud around us soaked everything quickly. It was almost dark when we started to erect the tent and completely dark by the time we had finished. Everything we put down had to have a rock on it. With the torch held down by a stone, we struggled with the tent. The pegs were useless as the ground was either soft moss or hard rock, so each corner tab had to have a rock on it, and when we tried to put the rods through, to give it its shape, it billowed out and nearly flew away with us hanging on to it, dangerously close to the edge which dropped away sheer on three sides of us. We almost gave up and considered crawling into the tent flat on the ground. It was becoming serious. We thought of the makers’ claim that the tent had been used on Everest in 100-mile-an-hour winds, but erecting it was the problem when it was windy.

Julia crawled inside and tried to get our temporary home a little organised, while I continued piling rocks around the base. Eventually I felt I could do no more and crawled inside too. With one side collapsed from a broken rod, the tent was small inside and flapping wildly, but it soon felt cosy with the hurricane lamp alight and was absolute paradise compared with outside. It was too dangerous to try to light the primus, so we enjoyed a meal of fruit leather, still in perfect condition after a year and a half. We also ate trail bread with sweetened condensed milk, and felt renewed strength. After we had togged up with all the clothes we could get on, we called Anthea on the radio to tell her that we were going outside to look for birds, and then crawled out with the big torch, the hand net and the hurricane lamp, which we dared not leave alight in the tent. Standing still in the wind was difficult as the gusts nearly knocked us over, but once we were wedged into the tussock it was easier. The first two birds I saw briefly in the light were dark, possibly Sooty shearwaters, but after that they were small, white underneath and blue on top, obviously prions or Blue petrels. This was what we had come for.

We searched the little passages between the tussocks and the entrances to the burrows, hoping to find a bird sitting quietly waiting to be picked up. But the main entrances were over the edge and it was dangerous in the very strong wind. Several times Julia cried out, ‘Cuidado! Look behind you, there is nothing there!’ Shining the torch down into the nothingness, we clung tighter to the friendly tussocks. We stayed out for two hours and it was 22:30 hours when we crawled back into our haven in the wildly flapping tent. Everything was damp but inside our sleeping bags with our clothes on we soon felt warm again. The ground below was very cold and Julia insisted that I should use the polyurethane roll, as we only had one. Julia managed to sleep quite well — I heard gentle snores from the depths of her bag - but I had a rotten night. Sometimes the tent flapped with loud reports like rifle shots and the ground shook beneath us. In the morning we could not light the primus because of the wind and had to go without a hot drink. Later, I dug down into some of the burrows in the tussock and saw one bird which scuttled away before l could grab it with my frozen hands, but I was pretty sure that it was a Blue petrel. For positive confirmation we would have to actually catch one, which meant another night on the mountain, hopefully in better weather. In the meantime I carefully repaired the burrows I had damaged. On our way down, we tucked the camping gear into a niche in the rocks in what looked like a better spot.

For two days we were stormbound in cove Cabo de Hornos, and could not go ashore. While waiting, we speculated on the birds up on the peak. The weather was still discouraging when Anthea and I climbed back up Cape Horn mountain to set up camp again. The air temperature was only just above freezing and there were some nasty rain squalls, but we felt that we could not wait forever. The new camp site was much better and more sheltered than on the peak itself, and we trod down some scrub to make an insulating layer under the tent. Loosening rocks to anchor the tent and fly was troublesome, but eventually we felt it was secure enough to leave it while we went up on the peak. Having donned extra Damart underwear, sweaters, scarves, and gloves, we set off once more to face the top of Cape Horn, carrying a piece of bamboo and a boat hook to use as poles for our mist net, in which we hoped to catch a petrel, and finding them very useful as staves for support against the sleet-filled wind which threatened to blow us over the edge. A very different world from our sheltered campsite! We also carried the pressure lamp, searchlight, and a garden bird net to drape over the tussocks. On arrival at the top we found this task more easily said than done in the strong wind, and it was frighteningly dangerous working over the edge where the main burrow entrances seemed to be.

It was midnight when we crawled into our sleeping bags, complete with our goros (woolly hats), and lay down to sleep listening to the Blue petrels calling with their delightfully soft voices as they flew around the mountain. ‘Dear little things,’ murmured Anthea as she dozed off.

It took two trips to get all our gear back down to the beach, and on the way we investigated several other clumps of tussock and found many more burrows with Blue-petrel feathers. The weather deteriorated before we had everything stacked up on the beach, and we were both worried by the breakers. After yet another traumatic launching of our dinghy, with the heaviest load we had ever carried, Anthea and I made it safely back. Julia said that the waves looked so bad she was afraid even to watch us! Certainly by this time we had all had enough, but were well satisfied with the results of our efforts. It makes one think how much can be behind the simple statements in bird books: ‘Blue petrels nest on Cape Horn‘. What a hard-won fact!

Anthea Goodwin one third way up the eastern side of Cape Horn southern cliff.

Anthea Goodwin one third way up the eastern side of Cape Horn southern cliff. The original lighthouse can be seen in the far distance

A combination of experience, advice from the  Chilean Navy and, as in all such ventures, luck had  helped us round. We buttoned up our anoraks and set  out to explore Cape Horn.  


Next day was a rest day and we climbed to the top of the 400 metre high Horn.  It was very hard going in either dense vegetation or bog. The wind  indicator jammed at maximum - 70 m.p.h.- on the top. There were a lot of penguins, most with a pair of chicks, also eagles,  condors, cormorants and albatross.


The Horn itself was impressive, but I didn't feel  any particular elation when we finally realized we had  achieved our objective. The climb to the top left a lasting impression for two reasons: firstly because the terrain was such difficult  going that I was completely shattered. Barry, who was a  Himalayan mountaineer remarked during the climb that  it was the hardest low-angle ascent he had ever done.  This bit of information cheered me greatly, as I was so  tired that I thought it was just that I wasn't up to it personally. The fatigue of  climbing Cape Horn itself evaporated after a cup of tea!

Barry Smith at the bivouac on the boulder beach to the east of the southern cliff of Cape Horn

Frank Goodman at the bivouac on the boulder beach to the east of the southern cliff of Cape Horn

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AN ASCENT OF CAPE HORN 1928


Francis K Pease


Abstracted from ‘To The Ends of the Earth’ 1935



ONE of our trips, away to the westward of South Georgia, ended with our having to put in to Cape Horn for shelter. Shelter at Cape Horn — that most notorious of stormy capes! It certainly sounded like seeking hospitality in the very home of the inhospitable! But there was nothing else for it. The weather was terrible — Cape Horn weather at its worst. In the midst of the great rolling welter of the sea our little William Scoresby was as nothing. We were swept again and again. It was weather that a vessel ten times our size would have had no business to be in. Oh, but a fine brave craft was our little William Scoresby!

With consummate skill the Captain kept her up to the seas. A small craft in a big seaway — that is when it is revealed whether a commander is a real seaman. Hour after hour they kept the vessel heading up to the tremendous seas, but at last it was evident there was nothing for it but to make for shelter. We were losing ground, drifting back in spite of the engines being kept full speed ahead. The order was given and we wore round and headed in for where the charts said a shallow anchorage existed just round the corner of the Cape, on the Atlantic side.

The wind and seas were from the Pacific side, which meant that the Atlantic side was sheltered; but great caution was necessary all the same. We had to feel our way into the harbour. It was imperfectly charted; the depths marked on the chart were few and far between. We had to sound continually. Here the water was smooth enough, but all about us were jagged rocks. Sometimes there was only just enough water for us to clear them. Sometimes we were compelled to stop, while an officer and some of the men went ahead in a boat and took a line of soundings only a few feet apart.

And all the while from the Pacific side of the Cape, from just round the corner, came the thunder of the tremendous seas. It was as if, enraged at our escaping them, the mighty rollers were trying to batter down the protecting barrier of land between us. At last, however, we came into the little harbour proper, and anchored; and there for some days we lay, waiting for the storm to abate, which, as is the manner of Cape Horn storms, it was in no hurry to do.

One day a party of us made an expedition ashore. Our object was to try and ascend the steep slopes of the Atlantic side of the coast and come down on the Pacific side—-in other words, to cross Cape Horn. This was a journey, which, though not of a very great distance, had not, I think, ever been attempted before. With the exception of the polar regions, I doubt is there is a more little-known spot than this desolate, uninhabited corner of the extreme end of South America known as Cape Horn.

We landed on a part of the beach near where stood a tall finger-post. It was an odd thing, that finger-post in that so little visited region; it was hard to dissociate finger-posts from cross-roads and streams of traffic. But it had a high purposefulness; it had been placed there to indicate to castaways the vicinity of a “wreck-house” - a building wherein were supplies of provisions and other necessities. Looking at that finger-post it was easy to imagine the hope that must have leapt in the hearts of many a boat load of survivors of a wreck as their boat grounded and they saw it. One had a feeling of gratefulness for the organisation that so attempted to provide for the needs of those whom the sea had tried its best to destroy. It might be our own turn next; one never knew.

We followed the direction of the finger-post and came to the wreck-house — a small place stoutly built of wood. The door was not locked, of course, and we went in. There were three cupboards filled with canned and other preserved provisions; rockets and other signalling gear; lanterns, supplies of paraffin, and matches; cigarettes, pipes, and tobacco; mattresses and blankets, and fuel for a fire; medicines and bandages; books and packs of cards; and an assortment of clothing - oil skins, sea-boots, warm woolens. To worn out and starving ship wrecked mariners it must have been the most wonderful place imaginable — an absolute paradise of comfort.

On the wooden walls were numerous initials — obviously cut with the points of sheath knives — and penciled inscriptions. The inscriptions were in a great variety of languages, including even Chinese and Japanese. Many were so faded as to be unreadable, but with others we managed to make out the words. One of the English ones was: “Thank God for this place” - five simple words, but somehow they got right home. “... I’m the only one what got ashore ...” was a portion of another inscription, the remainder of which we could not decipher. A log-book was provided in the wreck-house, but the last entry was about two years old, and it was in some language — Danish perhaps, or Swedish — which we could not read. Another entry, dating back about five years, was that of a Finnish sailing ship captain, enough of which we were able to translate to learn that a large number of his ship’s company had been drowned. The writing was spidery and uncertain, like that of a very sick man. Perhaps he died there in that wreck-house, and his companions buried him somewhere near. No doubt during the years other men had died there — poor devils who, though they had managed to escape the wrath of the sea, had yet been tried too far. We searched the vicinity of the house for signs of graves, but without finding any; rubble and storm drift and undergrowth had covered them long since.

From the wreck-house we struck immediately inland — or rather, I should say, up-land. We went almost straight up the side of the Cape, an arduous climb indeed. The whole of the way it was tremendously thickly wooded. On the Pacific side of Cape Horn — because it faces the prevailing wind — it is all one wide barrenness of rock; but on this, the Atlantic side, sheltered from the wind, vegetation was as prolific as in a tropical jungle. Indeed, since my Antarctic experiences in the William Scoresby I have done a good deal of jungle travelling in Africa, but nowhere did I see such packed and close-growing jungle as here on the sheltered side of Cape Horn.

Nor was this all. Much of this vegetation grew horizontally out from the rock face — shrubs; great trees; bushes all tangled with vines. We stood on the horizontal trunks of trees, and above us and all about us, sticking straight out, were the trunks of other horizontal trees. It was a topsy-turvy jungle. Here and there we came to tunnels in the undergrowth, some sloping acutely away from us, others heading straight down. They were dim and mysterious, the runways of strange creatures - including, no doubt, the wild men of Patagonia, who are said to be one of the most primitive peoples in the world. The light was very bad, and all the time there was a drip-drip of moisture, so that within a few minutes after starting we were wet right through. For most of the time there was an eerie silence, as if the jungle was hushed and listening to us. We felt also as if it were watching us; there was an odd feeling of eyes being all about us, peering at us from vantage positions in the thickness of the leaves.

Up and up we made our laborious way, resting frequently in order to get our breaths. During one of these halts a scientist member of the party discovered copper-oxide oozing from a broken portion of the cliff face. The vegetation immediately below was discoloured by the metallic drippings. Some day perhaps a great copper mine will be opened up away there on the slopes of Cape Horn, and much of that queer horizontal jungle will be cut away to make room for quarries and aerial ropeways and what not.

As we went on, the tunnels through the undergrowth became more frequent; indeed, most times our only way of ascent was up through them. Once we encountered opposition — a bird, large almost as an albatross, that came flapping down the tunnel. So big was he that he nearly filled it. He screeched as he saw us, no doubt as surprised to see us as we were to see him; and we threw ourselves down flat so as to dodge the swooping of his wings. When finally he had scraped past and it was found that none of us had been injured we were thankful indeed.

Other fauna that we encountered were monstrous wild cats. When I say “monstrous” I mean it. They were six times bigger than ordinary cats, and terribly vicious. They looked like small leopards. There was a rifle or two among us — small, .22 calibre weapons — and whenever one of these cats was seen he was fired at. Because of the thickness of the foliage, aiming was difficult, but some of the shots went home none the less. The results in each case were startling. Wounded, the cats became fair devils, and returned the attack. There was one that came leaping towards us with a swaying, swerving motion like that of an African leopard. It spat hate, and screamed it, filling the eerie jungle with sound. You’d have thought there were a score of the animals, not merely one. There was a sigh of relief when at last with a lucky shot somebody killed it. Another of these wounded cats came dropping down from directly above us. The first part of its drop was down through a lot of very thick leaves, and we lost sight of it for a moment. Then it appeared on a bough only a few feet up. There for an instant it stood crouching, then, screaming, it dropped and landed on the shoulder of one of our party.

Its objective was the man’s throat, and, digging its claws into the man’s shoulder, he strove to get at it. It was a fine old commotion; the man fought back, tore at it with his bare hands; the cat squealed, dug its claws still further, and snapped. Its movement were almost unbelievably quick, and the affair might have ended very badly for the man if another member of the party - the Third Engineer - had not decided upon a bold course. Raising his .22 calibre rifle, he took aim at the cat. He was a first-class shot; but in view of all the wriggling movement there was a terrible danger that it might be the man and not the cat that received the bullet. There was for us watchers a terrible moment of suspense; then the rifle cracked, and the cat gave a convulsive leap and, snapping at a wound in its side, fell to the ground, and a minute or two later was dead. The whole affair had taken only a second or two, but it seemed to us to have lasted much longer indeed. I am glad to say that, except for some scratches about the shoulder, the man was little the worse for his unpleasant experience.

We now began to come across traces of human beings — the strange Patagonian primitives. In the face of the rock we found caves, usually with tunnels through the undergrowth leading to them. In the caves were ashes of cooking fires, and food debris — the skins of birds whose bodies had been eaten. In some places we found footprints of these people. In one cave the ashes were scarcely cold - an indication that the people had not long gone away. In another we found some human bones. They were bleached white, and were porous — obviously very old. We put them together on the floor of the cave, tried to reconstruct the skeleton. The head was missing, and what had happened to it we could not guess. So far as we could make out from our reconstruction of the bones, the skeleton was that of a small adult.

In spite of our endeavours, we did not succeed in getting over to the Pacific side of the Cape after all. By the time we reached the top the day was so far advanced that night would have been upon us long before we could reach the bottom of the Pacific side; and after that there would be the long tramp back round the shore to our anchorage. A break in the vegetation gave us a view right out over the sea — the sea on either side of Cape Horn, the mountainous rollers of the Pacific side, the comparative calmness of the immediate Atlantic side, while before us were the rolling wastes of the south. Directly below us was the harbour, with the William Scoresby looking like a toy, and a not very efficient toy at that. And, just rounding the Horn was a big top-sail schooner.

We decided to go back the way we had come, the way we knew; and this we did, dropping down through those queer tunnels and from one horizontal tree to another, almost like so many monkeys, and reached the ship, glad indeed to be back in an environment where objects were right way up.

Stunted Southern Beech entanglement Cape Horn Island

The rock of Cape Horn itself is a grey diorite,  which resembles granite except that it has smaller  crystals; called by Darwin 'Greenstone'. It contains felspar, hornblende and mica. Our most interesting discovery was that the cliff of  Cape Horn is in fact one face of an arrete, and nestling  within yards of the Southern Ocean is a small corrie lake tucked into the eastern shoulder of the peak, yet  completely invisible from the sea and although it was not an  original discovery, it was so unexpected, that in many  ways it was the most satisfying discovery of the journey.


The climate had hammered the vegetation into submission. Much of the land surface was covered in bog - bog and yet more bog. Bog with lichens; bog with mosses; hard bog; soft bog; bog with pools; bog with big black spiders living twenty five centimetres down with domed web shelters over the entrance to their tunnels; but always bog. The peat appeared to be at least ten feet thick in places. Most  of the bog mosses and lichens were unknown to us, but  we had no specialist knowledge anyway. Lichens grew to a length of five centimetres on the topmost rocks fully exposed to the wind, and in the bogs many lichens grew in abundance among the mosses and bog plants. A dearth of biting insects was also a relief, we encountered no midges and very few flies. In the drier, better-drained areas in the slightest shelter from the westerlies, tussock grass grew luxuriantly, often to a height of eight or nine feet.  This gives the vegetation a lushness that is quite  surprising. On reflection we felt that it may well be that  areas well-known to us, like the western islands of  Scotland, are kept unnaturally barren by the grazing  effect of sheep. The undergrowth was not thorny, and I  only saw one thorny plant that looked like a berberis I  had in my own garden.


The most common plant is the evergreen southern  beech tree, Nothofagus Betuloides. Sheltered from the wind, this tree grows to a height of sixty feet or more,  but exposure can reduce it to a shrub just a few inches  high. Much of the bog confined to sheltered spots was  interspersed with areas of beech trees reduced to scrub, growing to a height of approximately three feet. They were too dense to push trough and just not dense enough to walk on top of - progress overland was very tough  going indeed, walking with ankles seemingly raised to ear level before a step can be taken is very tiring. We found that rolling over the scrub was the swiftest method of progress.


A bright orange fungus Cyttaria Darwinii grows on  the beech trees.  The brightly coloured sphere, the size of a small orange are instantly recognisable from the description given in Darwin's 'The Voyage of the  Beagle'; these are edible, and I found them pleasant to  chew, but tasteless. The only other edible plant we  found was wild celery.  Although we fished on occasion we never caught  anything! We did find plenty of mussels to eat, and also  a delicious limpet, called Lapas by the Chileans. It is approximately three inches across the base and has a 3mm diameter hole at its apex and is easily prised off the rocks at low water.


On some of the drier, exposed bogs of the Island fingers of beech scrub penetrated the bogs along  the line of the prevailing wind. We discovered these were effective  booby traps,  as the beech only rose above  the bog surface by a few inches, but actually grew in a  trough several feet deep. We fell in! Although the general mechanism of this association  was clear to us, we couldn't decide whether the beech  fingers had encroached into the bog or whether the  reverse was true. None of us had ever seen this sort of  trenching anywhere else. It reminded me of some deserts  where the ridges lie parallel to the prevailing wind. Since  our return I have asked various experts on bogs about  this interesting association, but no one has ever seen  anything comparable elsewhere. It may be unique to  Cape Horn Island.

Copyright the British Kayak Expedition to Cape Horn

Nigel Matthews, Jim Hargreaves and Barry Smith in the shelter of the bay to the east of the great southern cliff, having rounded the Horn. The route to the summit can be seen behind them.

Copyright the British Kayak Expedition to Cape Horn

Chilean Armada post - the meat drying on the flag pole/radio mast was shot as required. Looking south to the isthmus east of the southern cliff

Copyright the British Kayak Expedition to Cape Horn

Frank Goodman on the ascent

Copyright the British Kayak Expedition to Cape Horn

Tussock Grass in sheltered spots can grow to 2 mt and provide a substantial obstacle

Copyright the British Kayak Expedition to Cape Horn

Barry Smith on the summit of the great southern cliff. Looking east

Copyright the British Kayak Expedition to Cape Horn

Barry Smith and Frank Goodman placing a message in a bottle in the remains of the summit cairn

Copyright the British Kayak Expedition to Cape Horn

The message in the bottle in the remains of the summit cairn, they have received no replies

Copyright the British Kayak Expedition to Cape Horn

Frank Goodman taking a 360 degree 8mm cine film on the summit. Looking west - Islas Herschel and Hermite in distance

Copyright the British Kayak Expedition to Cape Horn