Having finally broken through pack ice, James Clark Ross’s 1841 expedition continued sailing southwards, only for an enormous barrier to rear up – the first sighting of the ice shelf that now bears his name. Ross recorded, “a perpendicular cliff of ice, between one hundred and fifty feet and two hundred feet above the level of the sea, perfectly flat and level at the top...we might with equal chance of success try to sail through the cliffs of Dover, as to penetrate such a mass".
Antarctica’s largest ice shelf – roughly the size of Franceand in places 750 metres thick – presents a face some 800km across, a white line stretching as far as the eye can see. Approaching the shelf through the iceberg-studded waters is an awesome moment of any polar expedition, coming face-to-face with nature at its most austere and intimidating.
Near to the ice shelf stands Ross Island, largely buried in ice and snow, site of the world’s southernmost active volcano, and home to Scott’s and Shackleton’s expedition huts. To visit these buildings, base for some of history’s great explorers, is a humbling affair. Some 1,300km from the South Pole, to think that the frozen, frigid world around these huts – the glaciers, icebergs and ice tongues – was only the beginning of their journeys, that greater challenges and harsher conditions lay ahead, is almost incomprehensible.