In the annals of polar exploration, there are any number of extraordinary journeys that have reached mythic status. Scott’s failed return from the pole, with its simultaneous overtones of tragedy and inspiration; the journey of Apsley Cherry-Garrard, Birdie Bowers, Edward Wilson and Henry Robertson on that same expedition to harvest some Penguin eggs in the middle of winter, later recounted in Cherry-Garrard’s aptly named The Worst Journey in the World; Nansen’s improbable crossing of Greenland on skis in 1888, and his equally improbable attempt to reach the North Pole by getting frozen in the ice several years later; Amundsen, taking the idea from Nansen, locking himself in the ice and letting himself float his way (over three years) to be the first European to complete the Northwest Passage. And then there’s Ernest Shackleton, whose 1916 exploits following the sinking of his ship, the Endurance, in Antarctic waters still has an element of unreality to it.
The facts are straightforward. Shackleton was the leader of an expedition to chart Antarctic waters, and to attempt to cross the continent, if possible, since the South Pole had already been reached by this time. It was Shackleton’s third trip to Antarctica, and second as a commander of a naval vessel (in his first command, Shackleton and his men got pretty close to the South Pole, but were forced to turn back). The first two went fine, or about as fine as these things could go—no one died under Shackleton’s command. This one, though, was a different matter: the Endurance became trapped by a sudden freeze in 1915, and remained trapped for ten months before being crushed by the ice and sinking. And while Shackleton and his men were able to remove necessary supplies before the sinking, there they were on the ice, with a bunch of stuff the absolutely needed to survive, with no obvious hope of rescue. So they lived on the ice for a couple of months, and then, as what passed for the Antarctic summer was ending and their ice was breaking up, in April 1916 set sail, in three open lifeboats, for Elephant Island—over 340 miles north of where they were when the Endurance sank. After sailing for five days in heavy weather, they made Elephant Island, and then had to deal with—now what? There was still no hope of rescue unless someone could alert potential rescuers.
So Shackleton and four of his crew did what anyone would do—they set sail (again in an open boat) for the whaling station on South Georgia island, 800 nautical miles away. Well, they did that, but it took 16 days. But then they discovered they had landed on the wrong side of the island. So they had to climb the 2,950 foot mountain that separated the two shores of the island to reach the whaling station. Which they eventually did, got the rescuers, and returned to Elephant Island after four and a half months to rescue the rest of his crew. In all of this, not a man was lost—another extraordinary aspect of this widely celebrated voyage. There have been movies made about it, including one with Kenneth Branagh.
So a couple of sports decided to recreate Shackleton’s voyage, and they actually survived to tell the tale. But it was close, apparently—the weather appears to have been just as uncooperative for them as it was for Shackleton’s group. Still, it’s nice to know that the age of iron men and wooden ships has not completely passed. Good for them. This isn’t the first time someone has attempted to duplicate a Shackelton expedition—a couple of years ago, descendents of Shackleton’s 1909 failed attempt to reach the pole attempted it again, and made it.
Words are often insufficient to capture experience—we all know this. But they fail particularly badly when trying to capture being in an open boat in fifteen foot waves for days on end, or the effects of sustained cold on the human body—our metaphors just aren’t expansive enough. Not that people haven’t tried. But anyone who has actually been in that open boat knows the difference between words and experience. Sadly, there are fewer and fewer of them all the time.
The stamp set above was issued in 2009 by South Georgia, where Shackleton was buried after his death on his fourth voyage to Antarctica in 1922. He rests there still.