One night in late 1998, I got into bed with my just-arrived copy of National Geographic. My habit was to start at the beginning and read through the whole magazine, but for some reason, that night I started with an article in the middle of the magazine, “Shackleton”. Enthralled, I read the story, and when I finished the rest of the magazine, went back to read the story about Shackleton again.
I have no problem admitting that was the start of an obsession. The article was by Caroline Alexander, who had just published The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition. Over the next couple of months, I acquired and read both it and South, Shackleton’s own account of the expedition. Watching documentaries, attending an exhibit of Frank Hurley’s expedition photographs, and reading other books about Antarctic exploration followed.
Others have told the story better than I*, but as briefly as I can tell it, in August 1914, Ernest Shackleton set out from England on an expedition to walk across the Antarctic continent. On a previous expedition, he had come within 100 miles of becoming the first person to reach the South Pole, but turned back because he knew there were not enough supplies to get him and his men back to their ship. The honor of reaching the South Pole first eventually went to Norwegian Roald Amundsen and his men in 1911.
After a stop at South Georgia, they headed for Vahsel Bay. In January 1915, a hundred miles from their destination, their ship, Endurance, became trapped in pack ice. Shackleton (called ‘the Boss’ by his men) and the members of the expedition—scientists and sailors—lived on the ship until it was crushed by the ice in October of that year. They abandoned ship and set up camp on the ice. A month later, the ship sank, leaving the expedition with what equipment and stores they had been able to salvage and three lifeboats. For six months, until April 1916, they lived on the ice floes, waiting for the movement of the ice to take them to open water. When they at last were able to launch the lifeboats, they made for a tiny bit of land, Elephant Island, in the South Atlantic.
Elephant Island was desolate (I saw Point Wild, where the men camped, and ‘desolate’ is an understatement) and there was no chance that other ships would come upon them for rescue. Shackleton therefore decided that their only hope was to sail to one of the whaling stations on South Georgia, 800 miles across the South Atlantic. He chose five men to accompany him and in the largest (relatively speaking—it was 22 ½ feet long) lifeboat, the James Caird, set off across some of the most treacherous waters in the world. It being winter, they would encounter gale-force winds, freezing temperatures, and waves of up to 50 feet high.
In the seventeen days it took them to reach South Georgia, Frank Worsley, the navigator, was able to take sightings with the sextant only five times and navigated mostly by dead reckoning. They aimed for the southwest coast, rather than the inhabited northeast coast, because if they missed the southwest coast, they still had a chance of being driven to land by the prevailing winds. They did eventually make landfall where they intended, an incredible feat of navigation.
Having landed, they now had to reach a whaling station on the other side of South Georgia. Shackleton set off with Worsley and Tom Crean to cross the mountainous uncharted interior of the island, wearing clothes that were virtually in rags, with ship’s screws in their boot soles for traction. Thirty-six hours later, they heard the whistle of the whaling station at Stromness Bay, calling the men to work. When they walked into the station, they were unrecognizable, but quickly made welcome by the whalers, who sent a ship to collect the other three men from the landing place. It was May 1916.
It took Shackleton four attempts to reach Elephant Island to rescue the remainder of the crew. On the fourth attempt, the Chilean government provided Yelcho, a tug boat, and her crew. On August 30, 1916, the Yelcho reached Elephant Island and within an hour, the entire company was on board. Every man had survived.
When Sir Ernest Shackleton died in 1922, while visiting South Georgia on his way back to the Antarctic, he was buried in the cemetery at Grytviken. Perhaps this story has given you an inkling of how important it was to me to visit the grave, which I did with whiskey bottle in hand so I could raise a glass and toast ‘the Boss’.
Perhaps you’ll also understand why this is one of my favorite quotes:
For scientific discovery give me Scott; for speed and efficiency of travel give me Amundsen; but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.
Sir Raymond Priestly, Antarctic Explorer and Geologist
* If you want to read a great book, read Endurance by Alfred Lansing. I read it only recently and cannot believe I hadn’t read this incredible book before. I knew how the story came out and it was still a page-turner!