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Hopeless situation? Time to 'get on your knees and pray for Shackelton'

  • Author: Kim Heacox
  • Updated: June 25, 2016
  • Published April 24, 2016

Sir Ernest Shackleton walked the rocky, icy beach with his right-hand man, Frank Wild, and again went over their dire situation, their outrageous plan.

Back home, Europe was consumed by war. Nearly everybody had forgotten about the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Those poor fellows. They'd probably frozen to death like Capt. Robert Falcon Scott only four years before in 1912. "These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale," Scott had written as he and his doomed tent-mates lay dying on the Ross Ice Shelf, starving, freezing, pinned down by ferocious winds. No doubt dispirited as well, having arrived at the South Pole only to find the crafty Norwegian Roald Amundsen, the better skier, dog handler, and let's be honest, the better leader, had beaten them there by five weeks, and claimed one the world's last great geographical prizes.

And now this. Nobody would ever find Shackleton – or even come looking – where he and his bone-weary men huddled together and began to improvise a shelter on Elephant Island, a remote, god-forsaken piece of nowhere deep in the sub-Antarctic.

To move or die

It was time to move, or die. Their expedition ship, the 144-foot-long Endurance, a beautiful barkentine built for the ice in Norway, with a 7-foot-thick oak keel and stem-to-stern greenheart sheathing, had been imprisoned by the Weddell Sea ice-pack for nearly a year, then crushed. After camping on the ice for nearly five months and drifting north, the men had taken to their three The Endurance trapped, crushed and sinking in Antarctic pack ice lifeboats and rowed through a harrowing week of dehydration, blisters, boils, icy salt spray, sleeplessness and seasickness. When they landed here on April 15, 1916, it was their first time on solid ground in 497 days. They'd butchered seals and eaten like starving dogs. One crewman had a mild heart attack. Another had frostbitten feet. His black toes would soon be amputated. Two expedition surgeons would knock him out using chloroform vaporized by stoking a seal blubber stove with penguin skins.

Shackleton had always dreamed of a small boat journey across epic big water. As Cervantes wrote, "In order to obtain the impossible, one must attempt the absurd." The task ahead, full of challenge and danger, was perfect for Shackleton. His men called him "the Boss," and believed he could do anything. Cape Horn, the storm-tossed, uninhabited southern tip of South America, was 490 nautical miles to north-northwest, across the dreaded Drake Passage, the roughest seas on Earth. The Falkland Islands, some 580 nautical miles away, lay almost due north. A run for either would put heavy weather on the beam of a small boat that was only modestly seaworthy. A run to the island of South Georgia, however, 720 nautical miles (830 statute miles) east-northeast, home to several whaling stations, would put the prevailing westerlies off their stern, with mountainous seas rolling through them and pushing them where they needed to go.

The Boss would take the best of the three boats, the James Caird, a little over 20 feet long, 6 feet at the beam. And five men, including the capable skipper, Frank Worsley, with his uncanny sense of navigation, and the tough Irishman, Tom Crean. The other 22 men would remain behind under the command of Wild, a scrappy Antarctic veteran, the only member of the expedition who had more Antarctic experience than Shackleton.

Having made his decision, Shackleton said he "walked through the blizzard with Worsley and Wild to examine the James Caird." The boat "appeared to have shrunk in some mysterious way when I reviewed her in the light of our new undertaking. Standing beside her, we glanced at the fringe of storm-swept, tumultuous seas that formed our path. Clearly our voyage would be a big adventure."

The expedition carpenter, Chippy McNeish, set about improvising the Caird. He removed the mainmast from another boat and fastened it to the keel, then fashioned a small mizzenmast to complement the jib. From old sled runners and box lids he decked the forecastle end and covered it with watertight canvas. For days a storm raged. Winds gusted to 120 knots. By the evening of April 23, the wind began to abate.

Adventure's dawn

The next day the sun appeared for the first time in a week. The seas calmed over a lingering swell. Shackleton directed crewmen to melt ice from a nearby glacier to fill water casks. He and Wild went over every contingency. Finally the Boss wrote a letter to Wild asking him to be ever faithful, to watch over the men he'd brought to Antarctica, men who now deserved to get safely home: "I have every confidence in you and always have had," he began. "…May God prosper your work and your life. You can convey my love to my people and say I tried my best. Yours sincerely, E.H. Shackleton."

On April 24, 1916, 100 years ago, six undernourished men pushed off in the Caird, determined to do the impossible. If they succeeded it would be one of the most outrageous feats in maritime history. If they failed, they would be lost at sea, a footnote. And their friends on Elephant Island would almost certainly perish. A second boat, the Stancomb Wills, ferried out ballast rocks (15,000 pounds total) in sewn burlap bags. "As each boatload came alongside," Worsley observed, "the contents were passed to us, with a running fire of jokes, chaff, and good wishes from dear pals whom we were leaving behind. Many were solicitous that I might not overeat myself, and my behavior on reaching civilization should be above reproach. As for Crean, they said things that ought to have made him blush: but what would make him blush would make a butcher's dog drop his bone."

They shook hands, boat to boat, dropped their painter, hoisted a sail, and were off.

The James Caird Departs Elephant Island

Back on shore, the expedition photographer, Australian Frank Hurley, ever alert, ran up the rocky beach and composed an image of his fellow castaways waving farewell. "We watched them until they were out of sight," wrote one crewman, "which was not long, for such a tiny boat was soon lost to sight on the great heaving ocean; as she dipped into the trough of each wave, she disappeared completely, sail and all."

Another crewman remembered a quote from Shackleton's favorite poet, Robert Browning: "Ah, that a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?"

Cooperation, not competition

The entire Endurance story, consisting of one outrageous ordeal after another, would add up to one of the most sensational survival tales in polar history. Yet nothing about it would be sensationalized. It was built on mutual respect; cooperation, not competition. Steady, unflagging teamwork. Twenty-eight men pulling together, each made authentic by wild, unrelenting country. Each chosen by Shackleton from among 5,000 applicants, with certain traits of upmost importance: optimism, patience, physical endurance, idealism and courage.

The James Caird made good time, moving north early on, to avoid ice. Then east. The routine was three men on watch, one at the tiller; while the other three pretended to sleep below. A rogue wave swamped them. Ferocious winds battered them with salt spray and sea spume that would freeze topside up to 1-foot-thick, and need to be chipped away. A freshwater barrel turned briny; the men's thirst, Shackleton noted, became "a burning pain." They cooked two hot meals per day on a Primus stove, pinning it between their feet so it wouldn't pitch overboard. Only four times in two weeks did the sky clear to where Worsley could take readings with his sextant, and check the expedition's only remaining functional chronometer. Otherwise it was dead reckoning – guesswork, given the rough conditions. If they shot past South Georgia in heavy seas, they'd have slim chance of coming about, their boat being so small and light of canvas.

Through it all Shackleton remained undaunted, undiminished, coiled for the moment, watchful of every condition at sea, in his crew, and in the boat itself, how it handed the weather and waves. It was as if his entire life had been in preparation for this.

On May 8 they spotted the high, rugged peaks of South Georgia. "Land Ho!" Elation swept over the six men. But a gale came up. Worsley wanted to make landfall; the Boss said no. He knew the joy of their great accomplishment might blind them to new dangers. One mistake and they'd be dashed onto the rocks – killed in an instant. Consider that most mountaineers don't die on the way up, they die on the way down. They drop their guard. And so all that night, and the next day and night, Shackleton commanded the skipper to hold off. It wasn't easy, dodging a rugged coast in gusting winds and a cross-grained sea.

They landed safely on May 10.

But now they had to reach the whaling stations on the other side. Sailing around either end of the crescent-shaped island was out of the question, with so many big seas and countess offshore rocks. Too risky. So while three of the six men waited with the Caird in a little cove they called "Peggotty Camp," at the head of King Haakon Bay, Shackleton, Worsley and Crean prepared to walk over the glacier-capped spine of South Georgia, something nobody had ever done. Waiting for good weather – patience, always patience – they left at 3 a.m. on a moonlit, windless night, with no tent or sleeping bags. They took a Primus stove, enough food for four meals, the clothes on their backs, and one 50-foot length of rope. Chippy McNeish fixed screws through the soles of their boots, as crampons. They'd go light and fast; either make it or die trying. Three mariners now became mountaineers, walking on snow and ice day and night, covering 22 miles in 36 hours. Crean plunged through ice, waist deep into a lake, and shrugged it off. Near the end, they encountered a waterfall that was flanked on both sides by impassable sheer ice walls. What to do? They tied off their rope and lowered themselves through the cold, raging water.

When they walked into Stromness Whaling Station on the afternoon of May 20, 1916, people stared. Two old men scurried away. Dogs barked. Nobody had ever before walked into a whaling station from the icy interior of the island. These men, if they were men, must be another species. The gruff Norwegian station manager sized them up and said, "Well?"

"Don't you know me?" the strange man in the middle said. He and his expedition had departed from South Georgia in early December, 1914.

"Your voice is familiar," the manager replied. But dear God, their appearance: dirty, matted hair; red-rimmed eyes; thin, tired faces blackened by months huddled over stoves cooking seal meat and penguin.

"My name is Shackleton," the man said.

The big Norwegian turned away and cried. He couldn't believe it. Nobody could.

'Pray for Shackleton'

All the men of the Endurance came safely home. They endured. It took Shackleton four attempts over 100 days (using four different vessels, eventually succeeding with a Chilean tug) to reach Wild and the others on Elephant Island.

For decades, Shackleton was called a "splendid failure." He never achieved any of his stated goals. He lived in the shadow of Robert Falcon Scott who had died on the ice, proving it's better to fail flamboyantly than it is to succeed quietly, as Scott's adversary Roald Amundsen had done. Amundsen, arguably the greatest polar explorer of all time – "the sailor on skis" he was called in his youth – made it look too easy. He had no patience for the crowd, no shtick. He was a poor writer, while Scott played his dying hand perfectly, his journals edited into art by his friend Sir James Barrie, author of "Peter Pan." And so Amundsen, the stern Norwegian, became the spoiler, while Scott, who left behind a widow and infant son, became the hero – in Britain at least. "Scott of the Antarctic" chanted thousands of young men who rushed off to war, only to be slaughtered.

But time is a wise and ruthless judge. Over the years, as daring biographers deconstructed myths, Scott's star fell, and Shackleton's rose. It began early, with the Antarctic geologist Sir Raymond Priestley, who wrote: "For scientific leadership, give me Scott; for safe 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."

Kim Heacox is the author of several books, most recently the novel "Jimmy Bluefeather," winner of the 2015 National Outdoor Book Award.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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