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Ernest Shackleton

"…[the Antarctic], which we had entered a year and a half before with well-found ship, full equipment, and high hopes. We had suffered, starved and triumphed, groveled down yet grasped at glory, grown bigger in the bigness of the whole. We had seen God in His splendors, heard the text that Nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of man".

There may be a greater, truer tale of adventure, courage, perseverance, and heroism than Ernest Shackleton’s 1914-17 Trans-Antarctic Expedition. If so, I haven’t found it. This singular historical event has plowed some preponderately deep roots in me since I first read about it as a child. It’s an unsurpassable example of how the greatest portion of the human spirit can find its source in the depths of deprivation and seeming hopelessness. The story of Shackleton will forever be linked with epic heroic failures – and the priceless things that can come from them.

It is not within my capacity or skill to tell the tale better than it has already been told. See this site for a good summary. Or, if you are not one of the fortunate souls who’ve seen Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure on PBS, I mightily recommend it. You will feel better about the world and its inhabitants for having seen it.

Shackleton’s earlier Antarctic expedition of 1907-09 had established new exploratory records. One party in his group had reached the Southern magnetic pole, and Shackleton’s own party simultaneously ran to within 97 miles of the true geodesic pole before being forced to turn back. Soon thereafter, Scott and Amundsen both conquered the South pole – the latter being the only party to return alive. This milestone reached, Shackleton laid plans for the only remaining Antarctic challenge left: a trans-continental journey, from one side of the Antarctic, across the pole, to the other.

After a few years of fund-raising and logistical preparations, he set sail from South Georgia Island in December 1914, making for the Weddell Sea and a hopeful continental landing there. Things were not to go as planned. The pack ice had been particularly bad that year, and in January their ship Endurance became frozen into the ice. After 281 days of helpless drifting with the floes, the ship gave up the ghost. Salvaging two longboats and all the provisions they could offload from the ship, the expeditionary party watched the Endurance crack up and sink beneath the ice pack in November 1915. Camping on the treacherous, drifting floes, they were finally forced to take to their longboats in April the following year when the ice broke up. They somehow made their way to Elephant Island, an uninhabited rocky crag in the South Atlantic.

No help was to be forthcoming; the fate of the expedition’s members was in their hands alone – frostbitten as they were. Shackleton knew that their only hope was for a sub-party to sail to the nearest inhabited island and mount a rescue mission. In an incredible feat of dead reckoning, he and five of his crew reached South Georgia fourteen days later, a voyage of 800 miles across the most treacherous seas of the earth. Unfortunately, they landed on the opposite side of the island from the whaling station and ultimate sanctuary – 17 miles of high mountains and glaciers. Shackleton and two others set out on this arduous overland trek, using some hidden, miraculous reserve of strength and resolve. After reaching the summit and sliding perilously down the farside glaciers, they finally sighted the station below. I will quote Shackleton himself to recount the last steps of this amazing journey:

Shivering with cold, they set off for the whaling station, now just a mile and a half away. They tried to straighten themselves up a little bit before entering the station, but they truly were a sight to behold. Their beards were long, their hair was matted, their clothes, tattered and stained as they were, hadn't been washed in nearly a year. Down they hurried and as they approached the station, two small boys met them. Shackleton asked them where the manager's house was and they didn't answer. Instead they turned and ran from them as fast as their legs would carry them. They came to the wharf where the man in charge was asked if Mr. Sorlle (the manager) was in the house.

"Yes," he said as he stared at us.

"We would like to see him," said I.

"Who are you?" he asked.

"We have lost our ship and come over the island," I replied.

"You have come over the island?" he said in a tone of entire disbelief.

The man went towards the manager's house and we followed him. I learned afterwards that he said to Mr. Sorlle: "There are three funny-looking men outside, who say they have come over the island and they know you. I have left them outside." A very necessary precaution from his point of view.

Mr. Sorlle came out to the door and said, "Well?"

"Don't you know me?" I said.

"I know your voice," he replied doubtfully. "You're the mate of the Daisy."

"My name is Shackleton," I said.

Immediately he put out his hand and said, "Come in. Come in."

In the end, all were saved. Shackleton never lost a man. To his undying credit, he felt that a man’s life was worth far more than any amount of posthumous glory. But the glory – ah, the glory! – it must be reached for, nonetheless.

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