Few men are more famous as explorers of Antarctica than Ernest Shackleton – perhaps only Amundsen and Scott. Shackleton died exactly 100 years ago ago today, succumbing to a heart attack on the remote Atlantic island of South Georgia at the start of what would have been his third major expedition to Antarctica. He was just 47 years old, a young man, but then many of the explorers died early – Scott at 44, Amundsen at 56.)
Reading on Shackleton, I’m struck by the fact that he is so famous despite, or maybe, indirectly, because, he never actually reached the South Pole. That failure somehow magnifies his stature as a leader of men. On his first expedition, the Discovery expedition led by Robert Falcon Scott in 1901-1904, Shackleton, Scott, and another man went as far south as 82º – a record for the time – but Scott then dismissed Shackleton for ill health.
A few years later, in January 1909, Shackleton’s own Nimrod expedition brought him and three others to 88º S, less than 100 miles from the pole and a new Furthest South. Though Shackleton longed to win the “race to the pole,” instead Amundsen did, in 1911, and Shackleton instead aimed at what would have been an even more impressive feat than merely attaining the pole: crossing Antarctica from the Weddell Sea on the South American side of the continent (the north, ha!) to the Ross Sea on the New Zealand side (the north again!) – and, naturally, crossing the pole on the way.
This was the famous, or infamous, Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-1917 which ended prematurely when Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance (surely one of the most ironic names ever), was trapped in pack ice in January 1915. They had not even gotten close to Antarctica proper, and in fact had been caught in the same region where a German expedition had been trapped in 1912.
Shackleton and his crew lived, barely, for the entire summer, fall, and winter of 1915 on the ship itself, hoping that warmer temperatures in the spring would allow them to free the ship and sail either home (which was in the throes of the Great War), or amazingly, deeper into the sea, toward the continent, to try the crossing after all. A separate group had already laid supplies on the other side of the continent, fueling Shackleton’s hope to lead the third party to the pole – and only the second to return successfully from it.
These plans disintegrated in October 1915 when the spring breakup crushed the Endurance, driving the men onto the ice. They tried to march north, but found the going too slow, so they camped on the ice until Shackleton decided to make another march, which also failed, just a few miles further along. They returned to the shipwreck to salvage supplies and lifeboats in the hope that they could find open water and sail to one of a few relatively nearby outposts of civilization, then camped for months.
All the while, the ice floes were drifting and splitting, drifting and splitting, and the men were starving, losing their wits, fighting and mutinying. They shot all their sled dogs and ate some of them, a complement to endless seal meat. Finally, in April 1916, with another winter approaching, conditions deteriorated enough that Shackleton ordered a desperate effort to sail the open lifeboats – now renamed, almost ludicrously, for the expedition’s main financial backers – to any of several islands they knew were nearby. A brutal five-day voyage brought them, without the loss of anyone, to Elephant Island, just off the tip of the Antarctica Peninsula.
Resting on the barren island, Shackleton determined that he and five other men would sail one of the boats through the rough seas of the Drake Passage to South Georgia, from which they’d departed about sixteen months earlier. This was an unimaginably harrowing trip that depended entirely on the ability of Shackleton’s captain, Frank Worsley, to navigate without proper instruments, maps and charts, or even, you know, a stable deck.
Worsley did it. After two weeks at sea, the tiny boat made it to South Georgia on May 10 – but on the uninhabited side of the island. After a couple days of recuperation, Shackleton, Worsley, and another crewman made a two-day trek through the wilderness to the whaling station at Stromness, the port from which the Endurance had left in December 1914.
I nearly weep to think of the relief they must have felt to see ships, houses, and other people after so long a time, and so much an ordeal – but also to think of the need they felt to rescue the rest of the Endurance’s crew.
After retrieving the three other lifeboaters who’d stayed on the far side of South Georgia, Shackleton made four successive efforts to sail back to Elephant to rescue everyone else – not even knowing if they were still alive, three months after he had left in the lifeboat. The damn sea ice defeated the first three attempts over three months until finally Shackleton reached Elephant Island in August to find the entire party still alive, though they had suffered horribly through another austral winter – starvation, depression, scurvy, frostbite, gangrene, amputation. Again, I can hardly imagine the mixture of feelings they must have felt, sailing back to Chile and then home to Great Britain: elation and relief, certainly, but probably also sadness and frustration. All that effort, all that suffering, all for naught.
Shackleton was recognized as a hero, however, and after service in the British military and a period of lecturing, he organized another Antarctic expedition – partly to pay off debts from the failure of the Endurance trip. (That these insane treks required so much financing and were even seen as possible ways to make money by discovering minerals or other resources or simply by publishing newspaper and books, seems ludicrous.)
This expedition was to have conducted a wide range of scientific research during a circumnavigation of Antarctica. Shackleton fell ill on the journey south but insisted on continuing. Finally, on the morning of January 5, 1922, with the ship docked in, yes, South Georgia, a crewman discovered Shackleton in terrific pain. He cautioned “the Boss” about his hard living. Shackleton replied, “You’re always wanting me to give up things, what is it I ought to give up?” Moments later, Shackleton had a coronary and died. The expedition carried on, as he would have wished, but did little of the work he’d planned. Shackleton was buried in South Georgia.