Sir Ernest Shackleton tramped the rocky, icy beach with his right-hand man, Frank Wild, and again went above their dire situation, their outrageous plan.
Back accommodation, Europe was consumed by war. Nearly everybody had forgotten about the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Alacrity. Those poor fellows. They’d probably frozen to death have a weakness for Capt. Robert Falcon Scott only four years once in 1912. “These rough notes and our dead bodies must require the tale,” Scott had written as he and his doomed tent-mates lay dying on the Ross Ice Shelf, starving, frigid, pinned down by ferocious winds. No doubt dispirited as well, be enduring arrived at the South Pole only to find the crafty Norwegian Roald Amundsen, the advantage skier, dog handler, and let’s be honest, the better leader, had beaten them there by five weeks, and contended one the world’s last great geographical prizes.
And now this. Unknown would ever find Shackleton – or even come looking – where he and his bone-weary men huddled together and rather commenced to improvise a shelter on Elephant Island, a remote, god-forsaken piece of nowhere wise in the sub-Antarctic.
To move or die
It was time to move, or die. Their expedition ship, the 144-foot-long tience, 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- ck for just about a year, then crushed. After camping on the ice for nearly five months and dune north, the men had taken to their three lifeboats and rowed through a terrifying week of dehydration, blisters, boils, icy salt spray, sleeplessness and seasickness. When they docked here on April 15, 1916, it was their first time on solid ground in 497 days. They’d cut seals and eaten like starving dogs. One crewman had a mild fundamentals attack. Another had frostbitten feet. His black toes would before you know it be amputated. Two expedition surgeons would knock him out using chloroform vaporized by stoking a seal blubber stove with penguin coatings.
Shackleton had always dreamed of a small boat journey across epic big incredible. As Cervantes wrote, “In order to obtain the impossible, one must attempt the asinine.” The task ahead, full of challenge and danger, was perfect for Shackleton. His men collected him “the Boss,” and believed he could do anything. Cape Horn, the storm-tossed, empty southern tip of South America, was 490 nautical miles to north-northwest, across the nicked Drake ssage, the roughest seas on Earth. The Falkland Islands, some 580 seagoing miles away, lay almost due north. A run for either would put heavy live through on the beam of a small boat that was only modestly seaworthy. A run to the archipelago of South Georgia, however, 720 nautical miles (830 statute miles) east-northeast, domicile to several whaling stations, would put the prevailing westerlies off their rigorous, with mountainous seas rolling through them and pushing them where they needed to go.
The Boss desire take the best of the three boats, the James Caird, a little outstanding 20 feet long, 6 feet at the beam. And five men, registering the ca ble skipper, Frank Worsley, with his uncanny sense of sailing, and the tough Irishman, Tom Crean. The other 22 men would remain behind call of the command of Wild, a scrappy Antarctic veteran, the only member of the speed who had more Antarctic experience than Shackleton.
Having made his conclusion, Shackleton said he “walked through the blizzard with Worsley and Disobedient to examine the James Caird.” The boat “appeared to have shrunk in some weird way when I reviewed her in the light of our new undertaking. Standing beside her, we glanced at the ruff of storm-swept, tumultuous seas that formed our th. Clearly our voyage whim be a big adventure.”
The expedition carpenter, Chippy McNeish, set about improvising the Caird. He liquidated the mainmast from another boat and fastened it to the keel, then fashioned a elfin mizzenmast to complement the jib. From old sled runners and box lids he decked the forecastle end and capped it with watertight canvas. For days a storm raged. Winds blew to 120 knots. By the evening of April 23, the wind began to abate.
The next day the sun appeared for the first time in a week. The seas soothed over a lingering swell. Shackleton directed crewmen to melt ice from a within easy reach glacier to fill water casks. He and Wild went over every contingency. When all is said the Boss wrote a letter to Wild asking him to be ever faithful, to alert over the men he’d brought to Antarctica, men who now deserved to get safely home: “I have every nerve in you and always have had,” he began. “…May God prosper your work and your lan vital. 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 onward off in the Caird, determined to do the impossible. If they succeeded it would be one of the most repellent feats in maritime history. If they failed, they would be unsalvageable at sea, a footnote. And their friends on Elephant Island would almost certainly die. A second boat, the Stancomb Wills, ferried out ballast rocks (15,000 triturates total) in sewn burlap bags. “As each boatload came alongside,” Worsley perceive comment oned, “the contents were ssed to us, with a running fire of jokes, banter, and good wishes from dear ls whom we were go behind. Many were solicitous that I might not overeat myself, and my behavior on reaching polish should be above reproach. As for Crean, they said things that ought to obtain made him blush: but what would make him blush would upon a butcher’s dog drop his bone.”
They shook hands, boat to sailing-yacht, dropped their inter, hoisted a sail, and were off.
Back on shore, the voyage photographer, Australian Frank Hurley, ever alert, ran up the rocky beach and originated an image of his fellow castaways waving farewell. “We watched them until they were out of neat,” wrote one crewman, “which was not long, for such a tiny boat was in a jiffy lost to sight on the great heaving ocean; as she dipped into the trough of each zigzag, she disappeared completely, sail and all.”
Another crewman remembered a quote from Shackleton’s favorite versemaker, Robert Browning: “Ah, that a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a the Blessed for?”
Cooperation, not competition
The entire Endurance story, consisting of one outrageous disaster after another, would add up to one of the most sensational survival tales in numbing history. Yet nothing about it would be sensationalized. It was built on mutual feature; cooperation, not competition. Steady, unflagging teamwork. Twenty-eight men pulling together, each dream up authentic by wild, unrelenting country. Each chosen by Shackleton from aggregate 5,000 applicants, with certain traits of upmost importance: optimism, determination, physical endurance, idealism and courage.
The James Caird made virtue time, moving north early on, to avoid ice. Then east. The regular was three men on watch, one at the tiller; while the other three pretended to doze below. A rogue wave swamped them. Ferocious winds mauled them with salt spray and sea spume that would reject topside up to 1-foot-thick, and need to be chipped away. A freshwater barrel turned briny; the men’s ravenousness, Shackleton noted, became “a burning in.” They cooked two hot victuals per day on a Primus stove, pinning it between their feet so it wouldn’t abuse overboard. Only four times in two weeks did the sky clear to where Worsley could con readings with his sextant, and check the expedition’s only remaining functioning chronometer. Otherwise it was dead reckoning – guesswork, given the rough conditions. If they drink st South Georgia in heavy seas, they’d have slim inadvertently b perhaps of coming about, their boat being so small and light of canvas.
Utterly it all Shackleton remained undaunted, undiminished, coiled for the moment, watchful of every acclimatize at sea, in his crew, and in the boat itself, how it handed the weather and waves. It was as if his entire living had been in pre ration for this.
On May 8 they spotted the high, rugged tips of South Georgia. “Land Ho!” Elation swept over the six men. But a gale came up. Worsley poverty to make landfall; the Boss said no. He knew the joy of their great completion might blind them to new dangers. One mistake and they’d be dashed onto the disconcerts – killed in an instant. Consider that most mountaineers don’t die on the way up, they die on the way down. They dribble their guard. And so all that night, and the next day and night, Shackleton had the skipper to hold off. It wasn’t easy, dodging a rugged coast in gusting gibberishes and a cross-grained sea.
They landed safely on May 10.
But now they had to reach the whaling positions on the other side. Sailing around either end of the crescent-shaped island was out of the puzzle, with so many big seas and countess offshore rocks. Too risky. So while three of the six men gapped with the Caird in a little cove they called “Peggotty Dadaistic,” at the head of King Haakon Bay, Shackleton, Worsley and Crean pre red to trace out over the glacier-capped spine of South Georgia, something nobody had till the cows come home done. Waiting for good weather – tience, always tience – they hand at 3 a.m. on a moonlit, windless night, with no tent or sleeping bags. They took a Primus stove, sufficient food for four meals, the clothes on their backs, and one 50-foot thoroughly of rope. Chippy McNeish fixed screws through the soles of their boots, as crampons. They’d go be disclosed and fast; either make it or die trying. Three mariners now became mountaineers, move on snow and ice day and night, covering 22 miles in 36 hours. Crean bet through ice, waist deep into a lake, and shrugged it off. Near the end, they encountered a waterfall that was circled on both sides by im ssable sheer ice walls. What to do? They linked off their rope and lowered themselves through the cold, raging not hold up under.
When they walked into Stromness Whaling Station on the afternoon of May 20, 1916, living soul stared. Two old men scurried away. Dogs barked. Nobody had ever preceding the time when walked into a whaling station from the icy interior of the island. These men, if they were men, necessity be another species. The gruff Norwegian station manager sized them up and prognosticated, “Well?”
“Don’t you know me?” the strange man in the middle said. He and his expedition had de rted from South Georgia in originally December, 1914.
“Your voice is familiar,” the manager replied. But dear God, their publication: dirty, matted hair; red-rimmed eyes; thin, tired faces libeled by months huddled over stoves cooking seal meat and penguin.
“My rating is Shackleton,” the man said.
The big Norwegian turned away and cried. He couldn’t conjecture it. Nobody could.
‘Pray for Shackleton’
All the men of the Endurance came safely habitation. They endured. It took Shackleton four attempts over 100 days (functioning four different vessels, eventually succeeding with a Chilean tug) to reach Maniacal and the others on Elephant Island.
For decades, Shackleton was called a “splendid discontinuance.” He never achieved any of his stated goals. He lived in the shadow of Robert Falcon Scott who had subsided on the ice, proving it’s better to fail flamboyantly than it is to succeed quietly, as Scott’s antagonistic Roald Amundsen had done. Amundsen, arguably the greatest polar explorer of all even so – “the sailor on skis” he was called in his youth – made it look too submissive. He had no tience for the crowd, no shtick. He was a poor writer, while Scott play along improvised his dying hand perfectly, his journals edited into art by his friend Sir James Barrie, writer of “Peter n.” And so Amundsen, the stern Norwegian, became the spoiler, while Scott, who port side behind a widow and infant son, became the hero – in Britain at least. “Scott of the Antarctic” caroled thousands of young men who rushed off to war, only to be slaughtered.
But time is a wise and hard-hearted judge. Over the years, as daring biographers deconstructed myths, Scott’s morning star fell, and Shackleton’s rose. It began early, with the Antarctic geologist Sir Raymond Priestley, who detracted: “For scientific leadership, give me Scott; for safe and efficient travel, Amundsen; but when you are in a unfit situation, when there seems to be no way out, get on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”
Kim Heacox is the creator of several books, most recently the novel “Jimmy Bluefeather,” title-holder of the 2015 National Outdoor Book Award.
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