Recreating Shackleton’s unbelievable voyage

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.

8 replies »

  1. Open boat doesnt begin to describe it. This is the Southern Ocean, where large racing sailboats have been flipped end over end by following waves. There’s no land mass down there to stop the wind and waves so it just spins faster and faster.

    Cool post.

  2. Yeah, I forgot to mention the part about how when Shackleton’s small boat was approaching South Georgia, they encountered hurricane force winds for a couple of days–winds that actually sank a 500 foot freighter. This is why they had to climb the mountain to get to the whaling station–they didn’t want to chance going back into the water again.

  3. I know the British are all up in Scott’s grill with love and praise, but, dammit, Shackleton is sooo much more The Man. All RF Scott did was “keep calm and carry on” about dying after making a series of bonehead errors and then writing, “Well I did my best….”

    I think I only liked Scott as portrayed by Michael Palin in the great Monty Python skit where he wrestles the stuffed lion….It seemed to me to get at the British nonsensical admiration of Scott’s blundering nearly perfectly….

    Anecdote: We were forced as a class to read – and appropriately admire – RF Scott’s journal excerpts in 6th grade. How heroic he was! How noble! Even at 11-12 I was dubious…he just seemed a screw-up who got himself and his comrades killed to me….

    I found Shackleton’s work in the high school library while research a term paper in 12th grade. Blew me away that not only was he heroic, he was practical and did “only what needs must be done,” as they say….He made me realize that heroism doesn’t mean dying – that’s what the system wants you to accept so you’ll willingly be cannon fodder. Heroism, real heroism, is getting yourself out of a tight spot with as little damage to yourself – and your comrades – as possible.

  4. I agree completely, Jim. I’m a little less harsh on Scott now that we know more about the weather he encountered. But, still, the guy was probably a dick. I’ve always been amazed by Schackleton, and it was great fun being here about a decade ago when the British “rediscovered” him.

    For all the British myth-making about Scott, though, I get the sense that it was Schackleton–who was clearly influenced by Nansen, as Amundsen was–who basically set the standard for the Antarctic exploration to follow.

    Have you read Roland Huntford’s The Last Place on Earth? Here it was titled Scott and Amundsen. It was the first systematic debunking of the Scott myth, and caused no end of trouble. A very enjoyable read.

  5. “Endurance” remains one of the greatest adventure stories ever–all the greater because it was true. For folks who’ve not read Alfred Lansing’s telling of Shackleton’s tale, it’s a highly readable book well worth the time. Shackleton’s leadership, courage, and grit really stand out.

    Thanks for sharing, Wuf. Really enjoyed this post.

  6. Wufnik….Excellent summary and superb Weddell Sea Map! I always thought it was 5 (not 4) of Shackleton’s crew that made the Caird journey (Worsley, Crean, McCarthy, Mcnish, and Vincent)….whatever. “The Boss,” as he was nicknamed by his beloved & loyal men, is often given credit for bringing EVERY man back alive from the failed “Endurance” expedition. Personally, one of the most amazing aspects of this unbelievable-yet-plausible experience is Shackleton’s toboggan style slide down an ice & snow covered rocky mountain, in complete darkness, just barely escaping a blizzard that would have put an end to his rescue attempt.

    With all due respect, Frank Wild and Harry McNish probably weighed-in heavily towards Shackleton’s success. After McNish refitted the James Caird for the legendary open-boat journey to So. Georgia Island, it was Wild who oversaw and kept alive the remaining 22 castaways for 4 1/2 months while Shackleton finally secured the rescue ship (Yelcho).

    There is little evidence to suggest that the whaler (Caird) could have made an 850 mile journey across the worst seas in the world without McNish’s efforts, whose stature has increased with the passage of time. Wild, obviously, fulfilled Shackleton’s promise to bring all of the crew back to make this legendary story of hardship & adventure worth telling.

    Sadly, McNish’s last days were not the stuff of legend. On the other hand, It’s no accident that Wild is interred next to “the boss,” appropriately on Shackleton’s right, as Wild was his right-hand man.

    Great Post! By the way, have you sampled Shackleton’s famed whisky (recreated) that was found beneath his Cape Royd’s hut?