Though Amundsen and Scott are great stories of exploration, it was not the story that amazed me most and gave me a new hero. How I did not know of the Story of Shackleton!? It is beyond me, but thanks to the lectures and conversations with Bob Burton (Polar Historian) and reading a couple of books, His amazing journey is now etched into my memory.
What follows is a précis of his story. Shackleton had lost out on the opportunity to become the first man to the South Pole, so he devised a new plan to complete the first land crossing of the continent that he planned to complete in the summer of 1914/15. Shackleton and his crew of 27 sailed from England in August 1914 on the Endurance (Anyone in NYC if you drink in the bar Arctica, that’s the ship in the picture behind the bar) to South Georgia and then down into the Weddell Sea where they got closer to the continent but had to battle the pack ice, where eventually they became surrounded and stuck in December 1914. As a result they had to over summer and winter on the stuck Endurance and pack ice. After 11 months the Endurance finally succumbed to the grating pack ice and sank, this changed the plan for Shackleton, he now had a mission to get all his men home alive (Photograph below is of pack ice in the Weddell Sea to give you an idea of conditions).
They now faced the task of floating on the ice north and hoping to use the life rafts to make it to land before (ideally Paulet, Snow Hill or Robertson Islands) the pack ice melted in the summer, so they could then hopefully be rescued by whalers or sealers ships that frequented these waters. The group set up camp twice on the ice but each time they left behind more and more supplies so that when time came to use the 3 life rafts (James Caird, Dudley Docker and Stancombe Wills) to sail north and aim for land they would be lighter. In the end they had very little left and after about 15 months on the ice they were not in the best shape. After 6 days of sailing in cramped life rafts in freezing conditions, they finally hit land on Elephant Island.
Now the epic story of survival does not end there, once landed, Shackleton ordered the ships carpenter to work on the James Caird to improve her for a long distance open water sail. He knew that if the men were to be rescued they had to go further north as Paulet was not a stop for any ships. The aim was for South Georgia 800 miles away, in a North Easterly direction taking them with the winds and currents of the Southern Ocean. Once the James Caird was ready 6 men including Shackleton and his Captain Worsley set sail and left the men on Elephant Island. For the next 17 days on this life raft Worsley navigated in unimaginable conditions the James Caird onto the West coast of South Georgia, This journey is in itself probably the greatest ever sea journey in history, it reveres Shackleton and his Captain as heroes and legends in the Sailing world.
But again the story does not end here, landing as they had in South Georgia had them on the wrong side of the island at King Haakan Bay, to get to the east coast where there were Whaling stations where they knew they could find help. So after a brief respite and putting together some makeshift equipment Shackleton and two others aimed to cross the un-chartered mountainous interior of South Georgia. Considering at this point the months living on ice and the ordeal they had come through this was an immense task ahead! But they did it 36 hours later the three men walked into the Whaling station at Stromness. Again in the hiking and mountaineering world this is also considered an amazing feat.
For these three the ordeal was over, but for the other 22 they were still on Elephant Island, but Shackleton vowed to return and get his men home safely. It took him three failed attempts to get back to the Island for the men, after 4 months of trying they finally reached it, Shackleton was on the deck of the ship counting the men on the shore and shouted with great joy ‘they are all there, they are all alive’. This was 20 months after the Endurance first became stuck. This was an epic expedition that turned into an epic story of survival and true strength of the human spirit.
I have by no means done this story justice but I hope you get an idea of the epic nature of the journey to save the lives of his 27 men. And if you are intrigued more you should read his book “South: The Story of Shackleton” where the man himself writes about his tale.
What was great for our expedition on the on the second trip we visited Grytviken on South Georgia, on Christmas day as it happens (See Steph’s blog Christmas Day in South Georgia), where Shackleton is buried (He died there on a later expedition in 1922 ), on visiting his grave as is tradition we toasted him with a shot of Whiskey.
My final words are what a true legend and hero, all of them, but Shackleton for his leadership in the face of such adversity, He is my new Hero.