Friday, Sep. 12, 2003

Ernest Shackleton

"Men Wanted for Hazardous Journey. Small Wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success." According to one tale, perhaps apocryphal, that was the wording of an ad Ernest Shackleton placed to solicit men for his 1914 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Not a very enticing offer, but 27 men did sign on, and although they were unsuccessful in the technical sense — before they even set foot on land, their ship was crushed in a vise of ice, marooning them for more than a year — they did manage, miraculously and heroically, a safe return.

Shackleton's expedition has become perhaps the most storied epic of survival. There are more than a dozen books that tell the tale — and it's quite a tale.

Born on Irish ground to English blood in 1874, Shackleton from the first seemed of two worlds. A restless student, he left school at 16 and joined the merchant marine, where, in a turnabout, he gained a reputation as bookish. He would spout the verse of Browning from the decks, and his colleagues viewed him as not a little odd. In 1901 he signed on for Robert F. Scott's Discovery expedition to Antarctica. Six years later he returned on his own. Within 100 miles of the South Pole, their feet split with frostbite, all but starved, Shackleton and his men turned back. They had failed to reach the Pole, although their try had bested Scott's by 360 miles.

Much to Shackleton's dismay, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen conquered the South Pole in 1911. But the loss of that great trophy didn't diminish Shackleton's wanderlust. He had a comfortable home (largely financed by his wife Emily's fortune) and three children, but soon he was plotting the first crossing of Antarctica on foot.

According to the plan, two ships would set sail. One, with Shackleton at the helm, would cross the treacherous Weddell Sea and land at Vahsel Bay. A second would travel over the Ross Sea; its crew would land and stash supplies for Shackleton's overland crossing. The challenges were obvious: The Weddell Sea was notorious for relentless and crushing ice; Vahsel Bay offered no proven landing; and the territory between the Weddell Sea and the Pole was uncharted. Shackleton made his plans with these difficulties in mind, but he couldn't have known that the sea's ice was destined to freeze early and thick that season.

In August 1914, while other Englishmen were mobilizing to do battle in the Great War, the crew of the Endurance — a 300-ton Norwegian-built schooner named to reflect Shackleton's family motto (Fortitudine vincimus, "By endurance we conquer") — slipped down the Thames and headed south. On December 7, at latitude 57 degrees south, the first ice appeared, and for six weeks the Endurance smashed through frozen seas. By January 29, the ice had won, and it held the Endurance fast in a gyrating mass of tumbled, jagged slabs — some thrusting 20 feet into the air. The Endurance had sailed 12,000 miles, pushed through pack ice for 1,000 miles more, and now, less than 100 miles from its destination, was trapped. "It was more than tantalising," wrote Dr. Alexander H. Macklin, one of two surgeons on board, "it was maddening."

Shackleton calmly announced that the expedition would winter on the ice until spring, a duration that could extend as long as nine months. He then quickly implemented sanity-saving routines and passe-temps. The men amused themselves with impersonations. They raced their 60 or so Canadian sled dogs, wagering chocolate and cigarettes on the contests. Shackleton, wrote Macklin, displayed "real greatness. He did not rage at all, or show outwardly the slightest sign of disappointment."

Even when the ship began to crack, Shackleton kept the expedition together, ordering his men to set up "Ocean Camp." Using the Endurance's battered timbers, they built a galley and storehouse on the ice and filled it with three tons of salvaged food. They surrounded this principal building with five linen tents and three lifeboats.

On October 27, 1915, the Endurance sank. Shackleton stayed up all night, and the next morning, after serving his crew coffee at five a.m., he announced, "Ship and stores have gone — so now we'll go home."

It would take another half year before they could set off, but home they would eventually go.

On April 9, 1916, the ice finally thinned enough for the men to again take to the sea. Their only hope for survival, Shackleton determined, was to reach Elephant Island, some 100 miles away. After seven days of storm and cold, having to bail their open lifeboats constantly, the men arrived — some of them just barely alive.

Shackleton knew that to stay on the remote outpost, several hundred miles from the southernmost tip of South America, almost certainly meant death. So he and five volunteers took to the sea again in the 22.5-foot James Caird, largest of the lifeboats. Their goal: the whaling camps off South Georgia Island, some 800 miles north.

In what is now widely regarded as the most remarkable boat journey of all time, the men spent 17 days on the planet's stormiest ocean. Shackleton biographer Roland Huntford has described the Caird as "a cockleshell that was like an insect swimming in a tidal wave." Expedition member Frank Worsley, an expert navigator, took only four sextant readings along the way. Had his calculations been wrong by one degree, the Caird would have sailed off course. But the boat plunged straight on, through snow, hurricane-force wind and seas as high as 20 feet. The men pulled screws from the Caird and forced them into the soles of their boots for traction. Emaciated, they reached land, then had to trek 22 miles over the unmapped, glacier-draped mountains of South Georgia to reach the whaling port. As they began their 36-hour hike, Shackleton said, "If anything happens to me while those fellows are waiting for me, I shall feel like a murderer."

It never came to that. Four months later, after three unsuccessful attempts to sail back in rescue, Shackleton returned to his crew. They were scratching limpets from the shore when he arrived; even the penguins had abandoned desolate Elephant Island. Near-starved, the men had endured by huddling under their lifeboats, singing songs to hold on to the last threads of hope and sanity. All 28 men who sailed on the Endurance survived. As for Sir Ernest, he would live only a few years more: He died of a heart attack on South Georgia in 1922 while commanding yet another Antarctic expedition.

Years later, Raymond Priestley, who had served as the geologist on Shackleton's 1907 Antarctic expedition, reflected: "For swift and efficient travel, give me Amundsen; for scientific investigation, give me Scott; but when you are at your wits' end and all else fails, go down on your knees and pray for Shackleton."