“For a joint scientific and geographical piece of organisation, give me Scott; for a Winter Journey, Wilson; for a dash to the Pole and nothing else, Amundsen: and if I am in the devil of a hole and want to get out of it, give me Shackleton every time”
Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World
If ever there was a boyhood hero, then Ernest Shackleton was mine. Such qualities and achievements to aspire to- expedition leader, navigator, single minded, resourceful, determined, famous traveller and adventurer, epic failure- OK, perhaps not the last. But still, a national hero.
Part of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration Shackleton made various journeys to the Antarctic. After accompanying Scott on part of his Discovery Expedition (1901-1903), Shackleton led the Nimrod Expedition (1907-1909) followed by the ‘Endurance‘ Expedition (1914-1917). Leaving aside his final incomplete Quest Expedition, on which he died of a heart attack aged 47, at South Georgia, the sensational Endurance expedition of 1914-1917 was, and is, the stuff of legend.
In 1914 Sir Ernest Shackleton announced to the world his intention to trek 1800 miles from the Atlantic to the Pacific via the South Pole. However the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition became something entirely different, a fight for survival.
His ship Endurance became ice-locked for several months before being crushed by the ice and sinking. Forced to take to the ice, Shackleton and his crew of twenty-eight were adrift on an ice floe so had to take to sea off the tip of the Antarctic peninsula on lifeboats reaching Elephant Island five days later. On an isolated island with no hope of rescue, Shackleton and five others later navigated their way across open sea and landed at South Georgia Island after 720 miles.
“We would take three days’ provision for each man in the shape of sledging rations and biscuit…then we were to take the Primus lamp filled with oil, the small cookers, the carpenter’s adze (for use as an ice axe), and the alpine rope, which made a total length of fifty feet when knotted… the carpenter assisted me in putting several screws in the sole of each boot with the object of providing a grip on the ice”
Ernest Shackleton, preparing for the journey across the mountains of South Georgia
Shackleton and two others then made the first land crossing on foot of the island in order to reach help at the whaling station at Stromness. He was then able to return and rescue the remainder of his men from Elephant Island, later also rescuing another party from the expedition, the Ross Sea Party stranded in McMurdo Sound.
It is a gripping and thrilling story. The book shown at the head of this post is the best illustrated account I have come across. South is a first person account by Shackleton, accompanied by photographs from Frank Hurley, the expedition photographer and paintings by expedition leader George Marston. The whole book is also enlivened by modern colour photographs. It is not just Shackleton’s story, but of survival in the face of death and of all the resourceful and brave men on the expedition.
Book from my shelves:
South. The Illustrated story of Shackleton’s last expedition 1914-1917. Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton. Zenith Press, an imprint of Quarto Publishing Group. 2016. ISBN 978 0 7603 5025 6