A Second Chance at the Falklands: Climbing Mount Tumbledown

How many times do you get a second chance at a dream that seemed to have evaporated? Our unexpected return to East Falkland gave me a second chance to explore the history of the Falklands War of 1982 and climb Mt. Tumbledown. I had to remember that I owe this opportunity to a fellow passenger, whose untimely accident and subsequent death was the reason for our return to these islands. Whenever you get ONE more shot at something that you will never have to opportunity to do again, you make the most of it.

Plancius anchored in the harbor within sight of the Stanley town pier and we waited for the authorities to take the body of our fellow passenger into town to be prepared for his return to family. Later, we boarded zodiacs to make our landing at the pier. Most of the other passengers either stayed in town or went on a guided excursion to the south of town to another penguin colony. I let the guides know of my plans to hike alone out of town to climb Mt. Tumbledown, so in case something happened to me, the expedition crew would know where to look to find me.

After visiting the lonely outposts on West Falkland and practically deserted South Georgia, Stanley (population 2,800) seemed like a cosmopolitan big city in comparison. I picked up a hiking map at the visitor center adjacent to the pier. Then, I started my journey toward Mt. Tumbledown by following the Ross Road out of town towards Moody Brook, which ran along the harbor.

One of the first sights in town on my walk was of the Anglican church and the Whalebone arch adjacent to it. Much of the cultural landscape spoke of British influence, although historically the Falklands had been controlled briefly by other powers, including France, Spain, and Argentina. However, the present day architecture, types of businesses, garden types, and English signage in the streetscape, signal to the visitor that this is a very British place.

World’s southernmost Anglican Church, and Whalebone Arch. Photo:Aurora Expeditions

The hike through town included some other quintessential British sights, like the twin telephone booths outside of the Post Office. If you were to remove the sign above the door and ask anyone where this picture was taken, most people would guess one of the countries of the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland).

Without the Falkland Islands sign on the post office, this could be anywhere in Great Britain

Further down the street brings you to the home of the local newspaper, the Penguin News. Originally opened in 1979, the paper is the only Newspaper based in the Falkland Islands, and they publish once a week, on Fridays. Originally they only published once per month, but after the Falklands War in 1982, they moved to publishing once per week in a news rich environment.

I stopped for a second and transported myself back to April of 1982. I would no longer be walking in the Falkland Islands, but found myself in “Las Islas Malvinas” (The Malvinas Islands). I had just finished reading the book, Efemerides #Malvinas when I was back in Ushuaia a short time ago. I am re-reading it again as I write this post. Written in Spanish, it is an account of the day by day events of the 74 day war between Argentina and the U.K.

I imagine that it is now April 2, 1982. Residents have been uneasy for the past several weeks as the Argentine dictator, Leopoldo Galtieri, known for human rights abuses in Argentina’s Dirty War in the late 1970s, had come under intense political pressure for the military junta’s inability to calm domestic inflation. In January of that year, he formed a commission to plan to invade and retake the Falklands in June of 1982. But mobs of angry demonstrators outside of the Casa Rosada in Buenos Aires convinced him to invade early. I can imagine the terror felt by Stanley residents on April 2 as they looked out of their windows to see hordes of Argentine troops marching through town. The army renamed Stanley as “Puerto Argentino.” One can imagine similar sentiments felt by Ukrainians last February, during the days leading up to, and the day of, the Russian invasion.

Argentine Soldiers in Puerto Argentino (Stanley) in April of 1982. Photo:Wikipedia

For the few weeks after the April 2 invasion, local residents were powerless to resist. World leaders scrambled for a diplomatic solution to the problem. Argentine soldiers, many of whom were young conscripts, had little to do besides bask in the glory of retaking the islands for their country. They were not prepared for the response that would await them in a few weeks.

Argentine soldiers in Stanley in 1982: Photo-Reuters

****************************************************************************

It is now December 2022 again. Further down the road towards the outskirts of Stanley town, I saw students from the local school playing soccer. They seemed to be having a good time. I wondered if local students played soccer during the time Stanley became Puerto Argentino. Or, were they afraid to come outside?

I noticed that in 2022, many of the students came from African countries which had ties to British colonialism, such as Zambia and Zimbabwe. That probably was not the case 40 years prior.

Students at recess at a local school

The edge of town ended abruptly as the road continued into the countryside following the shoreline. Only a couple of cars passed by on the 3 mile hike out of town to the end of the inlet. The paved road became a gravel one. The sight of the slopes of Mt. Tumbledown ahead beckoned me to keep walking.

looking back toward Stanley from Moody Brook Road: Plancius moored in the harbor

At the end of the inlet at Moody Brook, a gravel road forks off to the left towards the base of the mountain. The trail to the summit starts at the end of this road. Along the side of this road, the uplifted sedimentary rocks suggest some of the tortured geologic history of these islands. Further uphill, the tussock grass grows higher, which obscures any hint at what was once a trail. But the hiking is not too difficult. The summit of Mt. Tumbledown is only 551 feet above sea level. Not exactly a lung-busting Kilimanjaro climb.

The name of the mountain comes from an event a few centuries ago. Residents had cattle grazing on the slopes of the mountain. When they went to round them up, a stampede started and many cattle were lost as they fell off a cliff at the edge of the mountain. The animals “Tumbled down” the mountain to their deaths.

Uplifted sedimentary rocks on near the base of Mt. Tumbledown

I have two objectives in mind as I climb Mt. Tumbledown. One is to visit the site of the last battle of the Falklands war to better understand the conflict. The other is to search for the marker for the planet Pluto on the Solar Systems trail. As I draw nearer to the base of the mountain, I can faintly see a cross on top of the hill, which is a memorial to British soldiers who gave their lives in defense of the Falklands. Somewhere below the summit, I heard that there are the remains of the Argentine Army encampment, where some of those soldiers died in their attempt to reclaim the Malvinas for their country.

Mt. Tumbledown. Cross barely visible on top of the hill

There are several possible routes to the summit, but the one I took led me to a place where someone had constructed a ladder to climb the last few feet to the top.

The route I took to the top of the mountain

A couple of minutes after climbing the ladder, I am at the summit. Below the summit cross lies artifacts, memorabilia and tributes to fallen British soldiers. The battle of Mt. Tumbledown was where the war ended after intense fighting on June 13-14, 1982 for this strategic hill overlooking the town of Stanley.

Memorial on top of Mt. Tumbledown: Stanley and Plancius in the background

Before descending and exploring the old Argentine encampment below the summit, I set out on the ridge line to try to find the marker designating the planet Pluto, which is part of the Solar System Sculpture Walk. Designed and constructed by local sculptor and artist Rob Yssel, this 1:1 billion scale model is made from recycled local materials and is the only one of its kind. Starting from Stanley, it takes an all day hike to visit all of the planets. Since my main objective was climbing Mt. Tumbledown, I only had time to visit Pluto and possibly Neptune. Gotta make the most of this one-time opportunity!

I walked for over an hour crisscrossing back and forth around the ridge, but never did find the marker for the planet Pluto. I hope the diameter of the marker was not exactly to scale with the other planets. Otherwise, I might be looking for a marker the size of a dime in the middle of the tussock grass.

Frustrated about not locating the Pluto marker (it’s a dwarf planet after all), I descended a short distance to find the remains of the Argentine encampment situated directly below the summit. This location represents the last stand of the Argentine army in the Malvinas. The remains of field kitchens known as Ranchos lie at the eastern end of the base of Mt. Tumbledown.

On the 40th anniversary of this battle (June 14, 2022) a group of archaeologists and veterans surveyed many of the Argentine defensive positions of the 1982 war. They mapped rock-built fortifications, artillery craters and firing positions to better understand what exactly happened at that site 40 years ago to have a better understanding of the events. They found a few pairs of Argentinian civilian shoes wedged in a rock crevice, along with some other personal items. These shoes were not only inappropriate for the terrain, but were totally unsuitable for winter weather in the Falklands. June 14 may be near the summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, but it marks the onset of winter in the Southern Hemisphere. I can hardly imagine the suffering that these young, ill-equipped, and poorly trained conscripts endured on those frigid, final days of autumn long ago.

Field Kitchen Remains of Argentine Camp from June 1982

Next to the rusted camp stoves is an overhang in the side of the cliff that is enough room for a campsite for just a couple of people. I would imagine that Argentine soldiers took turns getting shelter here during cold, windy nights with precipitation. From this viewpoint, they could see Puerto Argentino (Stanley) in the background. In December of 2022 when I was here, I could see my ship (Plancius) moored in the harbor in the background of the picture below.

Remains of the Argentine army camp, viewed from inside of a sheltered overhanging rock

I looked off to the south and saw another mountain poking up above the plateau. The day was still young enough for additional hiking, so I set off to climb Mt. William, in the picture below. I started to follow the faint outline where a vehicle had once made an old track through the tussock grass, but that route soon faded away. I heard that all of the land mines that were placed here in 1982 had been safely removed by now. However, in the unlikely case that one was not found and might still be active, I watched each step carefully. I did see some remnants of barbed wire fencing strewn about and an occasional rusted tin can would show itself in the tussock grass. Without any trees to block my view, I steadily made my way towards the mountain, and then climbed to the top.

Mount William

Although I didn’t encounter any war relics on Mt. William, the view from the top was even more spectacular than the view from the summit of Tumbledown. The picture below is looking to the east, with a better view of Stanley, and of Plancius in her harbor. To the south I looked out over the southern ocean and knew that nothing but sea was between the coast and the Peninsula of Antarctica. I took a moment to reflect on the events that brought me to this place in time. In silence, I remembered the man who gave his life so that I could climb this mountain. His name was Frank.

I doubt that a dead man could hear my words, but I spoke them aloud anyway. Nobody else was around to hear them either. I not only thanked Frank for giving me another opportunity to visit the Malvinas, but I told him not to feel bad about being the reason for us not experiencing Antarctica. It’s bad enough to be dead. One shouldn’t also feel guilty about it.

View looking east from the Summit of Mt. William

It was time to head back into town. I contemplated taking a different route and following a different road into town, but I ended up retracing my steps back toward Moody Brook, and taking the same Ross Road back into town. There were things I passed by without photographing the first time, that I still wanted to document.

I walked for a couple of hours without seeing anyone. As I walked on the road into town only one car passed by. Then, I thought I heard footsteps behind me and closing in on me fast. It was two British hikers who had climbed the Two Sisters, two mountains farther from town than where I had hiked. They were tired and worn out from hiking all day and exclaimed, “We’re shattered!” in their Cockney accents. I think I will take that colloquialism back to the States with me.

Coming into town again on Ross Road brings you to the Falklands War Memorial on the south side of the street, commemorating the British soldiers who lost their lives during the 1982 War with Argentina. This memorial is for the over 300 British soldiers and Falkland Islanders who perished in the conflict. All over Stanley you will find tributes to veterans of the war.

Falklands War Memorial on Ross Road: Photo-Wikipedia

Over 1000 soldiers died during the brief war, over 600 of them being from Argentina. Their memorials can be found in Ushuaia, in Tierra del Fuego province. The picture below is but one of the memorials located in Ushuaia, which considers itself to be the true capital of the Malvinas. I won’t go into great historical detail as to whose country’s claims are deemed to be more righteous. I would suggest that when you study the history of these islands, you focus on the events and the world situation starting in the late 1700s and leading up to the date of 1833. Both sides feel wounded. Forty years after the Falklands War, there is still no trade or commercial transportation route between Argentina and the Falklands.

Argentine War Memorial in Ushuaia, Promising that they will return!

Back on Ross Road in Stanley, on the south side of the street, you will see a bronze bust of Margaret Thatcher, who was prime minister of the U.K. during the Falklands War. She was not all that popular in Great Britain, but they do think a lot of her here in the Falklands.

Statue of Margaret Thatcher in Stanley

Once back in town and thirsty after a long hike, I visited the local tavern to sample a local brew. I did not have any British currency in my wallet. I only had Argentine Pesos and that surely wouldn’t work here. But I did have a credit card. However, the Globe Tavern does not take credit cards. Luckily, I ran into some fellow shipmates who had Pound Sterling or Euros and they fronted me a beer. I opted for a Peat Cutter Ale and we all enjoyed our brews sitting in the sun outside of the tavern. We bonded. A day later at sea, I would buy them a round at the ship’s bar.

Meeting fellow travelers for a celebratory beer in Stanley

After taking the zodiac back to the ship, I stood on deck and looked to the southwest and took in the view of the two mountains (hills really) that I climbed today. It was a memorable day that I’ll never forget. The mountains looked so much closer to town when you used a zoom lens to photograph them!

Mt. William on the left and Mt. Tumbledown on the right

After dinner in the dining room, we walked out on deck to take in one last view of Stanley. The beautiful sunset made us feel that the Universe was smiling at us.

Stanley Harbor at sunset from the ship

As we sailed north around East Falkland that evening, we saw the spouts of several whale species (Fin, Sei, and Humpback). One pair of humpbacks swam with us right at the bow of the ship for a few moments. We would have a few more landings the next few days at a few sites on West Falkland. I went to sleep, content with the satisfaction of knowing that I got what I came here for and more.

We never know what each day in life will bring us, or if we will even survive the day. As I awoke bright and early the next day, I looked out the porthole window and was greeted by a beautiful sunrise over West Falkland. I thought of Frank. I don’t know how many more beautiful sunrises are in my future, but I vow never to take another one for granted again.

Sunrise over West Falkland

For those of you who did not read the first post of West Falkland, here is the link to that post A Falkland Islands Frolic: Las Islas Malvinas

Many books have been published about the Falklands War. But reading on the entire history of the islands will give allow you to get the Big Picture of the various perspectives held by both sides. For further reading, I might recommend Graham Pascoe’s book, Falkland Facts and Fallacies: The Falkland Islands in History and International Law, published just last year during the 40th anniversary of the War. ISBN-13 9781803810881

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7 thoughts on “A Second Chance at the Falklands: Climbing Mount Tumbledown

  1. Love, love, love reading about this adventure and yes, we never know what detours lie ahead in our life adventures. I remember following the War for the Falkland’s but never realized how close the islands were to Antarctica. Safe travels!

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    1. Thanks so much for your comment Amy. Yes, life is indeed full of detours, but even though we may not be the one who chose to have a detour, we can choose to enjoy where it takes us. The Malvinas (of Falklands) was a blessing. I’m home safe now.

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  2. Thank you for yet again another amazing journey. This one had it all! Geography of course, but history, archaeology, even astronomy… to name a few. 🙂

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    1. Thank you again for taking the time to read it! While I always enjoy the writing in and of itself, it is very gratifying when someone takes the time to relate that it was important for them to read it. Much appreciated!

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