The twenty seven men huddled together on the ice and waited.
No one spoke. Really, there was nothing to say. Everyone knew the expedition was in desperate trouble.
They waited patiently for Shackleton to speak. He was their only hope. If they were going to get out of this mess alive then it would be because of him and no one else.
This was Shackleton’s worse nightmare.
It was his own ambition, his own desire for fame and fortune that had led him here. For years he had been trying to establish himself as one of the immortal heroes of Antarctic exploration.
He had gambled all his hopes for fame and fortune on this single expedition. Now all the money, all the chance for fame had slid beneath the ice. If they could just survive and get home it would be a miracle.
Shackleton’s first venture to Antarctica had been with the famous explorer, Robert Scott. He was the third member of Scott’s first attempt on the South Pole. They failed to reach the Pole. They were turned back by poor planning, atrocious weather and malnutrition.
Shackleton developed scurvy, vomited blood and suffered from a mysterious fever. He was shipped home early, mortified and humiliated. His family motto was “Fortitudine Vincimus” – “by endurance we conquer”. Now he found himself coming home before the rest of the expedition because he couldn’t physically endure the Antarctic.
To his amazement though, he found himself feted as hero in England. The expedition had travelled closer to the Pole than any other group. Since he was the only member of the expedition back home he got all the glory, all the attention. He thought he had failed but the public thought otherwise.
It was a valuable lesson for Shackleton. It would form a critical part of his philosophy. He learnt that failure is transitory. Failure is never permanent unless you hang on to it. Failure is never permanent unless you decide to carry it with you.
It took some years but Ernest raised the funds for his own attack on the Pole. Again the ice won.
Treacherous conditions forced him back. He returned home defeated once again but still determined to be the first man to the Pole. But determination was not enough. Amundsen managed to get to the Pole before Shackleton could return to the South.
Ernest was shattered. All he aspired to was gone. All hopes of fame and fortune vanished.
But Shackleton was now well versed in turning defeat into opportunity. He developed the idea of something even grander than the conquest of the Pole. He would walk across the entire Antarctic continent. He personally raised the millions to outfit the expedition. He chose the men, detailed the plans and set sail.
He had spent years planning the expedition and raising the funds, only to run into the worse pack ice in living memory. The expedition never even got to land. Their ship, the Endurance, got stuck in the freezing Weddell Sea.
Stuck fast, the expedition was forced to winter aboard the ship, waiting for the spring warmth to break up the ice floes.
Spring never freed the ship. Instead, as the ice floes started to break up, they crushed the ship. Like a balsa wood model caught in a vice the huge decks and the three foot thick hull of the Endurance were splintered, shattered by the ice.
The men had lived on board the ship successfully for one hundred and forty days. Now they had to abandon ship and camp on the ice.
In a bizarre twist they were marooned out in the ocean, hundreds of miles from land, yet they couldn’t sail or row to safety. The ice they camped on was a few feet thick. That was all that separated them from the icy depth of the Weddell Sea. Camped on the thawing ice they knew that at any time, day or night, the ice could split and dump them into the freezing water.
As the Endurance, crushed to a pulp, slid and sunk beneath the ice, Shackleton knew his expedition went with it.
He was financially ruined. He had raised millions of dollars to outfit the expedition. Now he must return, tell his sponsors they would get nothing for their money. All his own money too went down with the ship.
His chances of fame and a place in history went with the Endurance too. He seemed feted to never achieve fame. It was a bitter, bitter pill for a man who lived for glory. This expedition was to put him in the history books and now it was turning out to be an inglorious failure.
In addition Shackleton now had twenty seven people to consider. He would write in his journals that if he lost a single member of this expedition he would feel he had personally murdered him.
Ernest Shackleton, the Antarctic explorer, needed every ounce of his courage now. He needed to keep himself, and his men, focused on survival. There could be no dalliance with self-pity.
Ernest had one ace. He was a tough-minded, hard-edged optimist. Like all explorers he had a fair degree of natural optimism. Over the years he had forged it into a practical, survival technique. Optimism was as important to him as his compass, his ice axe, his provisions.
Importantly, his optimism had to be realistic. He explored the wildest places on the planet. He could not allow his judgment to be swayed by sentiment. He had seen men who hopes were based on fantasy perish. They pretended things were better than they really were.
Nature was unforgiving on the ice. Make a mistake and you paid the ultimate price. He had learnt his optimism in the bitter school of disappointment, in the college of ice and white blizzards. Failure and disappointment had chiselled him. He was flint. There was no soft underbelly in his thinking.
Shackleton stood ready to speak to his men. The expedition was in serious trouble. He knew it. His men knew it. He made no exhortations. He gave no pep talk. There was no pretending. He laid out a simple three point plan before his men. It was Shackleton at his best. It was everything he had learnt about optimism.
Everyone listened intently.
“The ship is gone” he said calmly, without emotion, “and we are going home.”
He then reached into his pocket and took out a few coins. He tossed them onto the ice. He reached for his Bible. He had received it personally from Queen Victoria. Carefully, deliberately he tore two pages from it.
One page was the page the Queen had written on. He folded the torn pages and put them into his pocket. He bent down and carefully put the Bible on the ice. He told the men his plan.
They would walk to Paulet Island where there was a cache of food left especially for a situation like this. It would be a difficult walk. Everyone would be required to travel light, each carrying only 1 kg of personal belongings. Like him they should empty their pockets and their tents out on the ice and prepare to go home.
It was quintessential Shackleton. It was his three point plan for dealing with disaster. This was the three point plan that underpinned all his optimism.
Here was his hard edged plan.
- Accept the situation – “the ship is gone”
- Travel light – “leave all the baggage on the ice”
- Look forward. “we are going home”
Of course it wasn’t that straightforward. What lay ahead would go down in the annuals of exploration as the greatest survival trek of all time.
The attempt to walk to Paulet Island was quickly abandoned.
The men walked for 10 days and managed to cover a paltry 18km. The ice was pushed up by the same pressure that destroyed the Endurance. It created massive hurdles that the explorers had to try and scramble over. It was almost impossible to get their supplies and life boats over the ice.
The decision was made to camp on the ice waiting for the frozen Weddell Sea to melt. The rifts finally opened up. When the man cord could finally put out to the open sea they were constantly frustrated by following rifts that went nowhere.
Eventually they made their way to the open sea where the freezing winds whipped up spray that instantly froze, spitting needles of ice into their hands and faces.
Even with temperatures at -30 °C they rowed on, happy to be making progress. Or so it seemed. A check of their location after a few days of rowing showed that they were going backwards.
Hard as they might row the unpredictable currents of the Weddell Sea were pulling them back. Soaked, frostbitten and demoralized the explorers changed direction. They headed for Elephant Island. After seven more days of rowing they reached land.
The only problem with Elephant Island was that it was a desolate lump in the ocean that other ships avoided. The explorers might be on land but there was virtually no hope of rescue from there. Shackleton had to pull another rabbit out of the hat.
The only choice was for a small group to row one of the boats back to the South Georgia whaling station. This trip would be across the most hostile seas on the planet.
Those taking the trip would have limited supplies, very little equipment to navigate by and would be seeking to find a speck in the ocean. But this was the only choice. Shackleton never hesitated.
In a 7 meter open whaling boat, the six men sailed into seas that are called various names by sailors: “roaring forties”, “furious fifties,” and “screaming sixties”.
The nautical folklore is that “below 40 degrees latitude, there is no law. Below 50 degrees, there is no God”.
Shackleton was setting out at 61°S, and heading for 54°S. It seemed an impossibility.
Yet, after six days and 1300 km, they sighted South Georgia.
Ernest Shackleton must have thought he had sinned badly in a previous life. Yes they were in sight of South Georgia, but they were confronted by the worse hurricane Shackleton had ever experienced in all his years of sailing. For nearly ten hours the men battled the ferocious winds before making a desperate thrust towards land.
Exhausted and quickly running out of time they managed to land safely. Yes they were on land but they were on the wrong side of the island. Their rudder was damaged and couldn’t be easily repaired.
They were desperately close but if someone didn’t get around to the other side of the island quickly they would all perish. They were close, just not close enough.
Again Shackleton grasped the nettle.
The fittest three would climb the mountain separating them from the whaling community at South Georgia. This mountain was uncharted, had never been explored. No one had ever crossed it before. It was all ice and glaciers. Climbing it would be like climbing glass but it had to be done.
The three explorers set out. They fixed nails from the boat into their boots to give them some traction on the ice. They climbed for thirty six hours straight. There could be no sleep. On the frozen mountain sleep was the mortal enemy. To sleep was to slip silently into death.
When they walked into the harbor at South Georgia, Shackleton and his two companions were so starved, weather-beaten they were totally unrecognizable, even by men who knew them well. All the other explorers were subsequently rescued, although not without drama.
Shackleton lost no one from the expedition. His expedition was a total failure, a total farce in many ways, but Shackleton’s ability to survive became legendary.
Raymond Priestley was not on this expedition but he had been to Antarctica with Shackleton on the 1907-09 expedition.
Raymond had also explored the South with Robert Scott. On that expedition, Raymond’s group had been ice-bound for the winter and survived in “a story of human endurance which has rarely been equalled”.
So Raymond Priestley knew first hand the explorers of the Southern Continent, the perils that exploration there entailed.
Here is what he wrote about Ernest Shackleton:
“For scientific leadership, give me Scott; for swift and efficient travel, Amundsen; but when you are in a hopeless situation, when there seems to be no way out, get on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”
Shackleton was an optimist. He believed that optimism was a type of courage. He chose optimism as a way to confront reality. He kept his plans simple. He always looked forward. He always kept himself chipper.
When their ship was crushed and sunk Alexander Macklin, the ship’s doctor, recorded: “It was at this moment Shackleton showed his sparks of real greatness”.
He did not show the slightest sign of disappointment. He told us simply and calmly that we would have to spend the winter on the pack ice.
Develop flint like optimism. Maintain your optimism. Stay chipper. Never lower the banner.
Shackleton’s personal motto: “The Journey is everything”.
© “Release the Giant” 2008 well imagine that