Shackleton: terror and courage on the ice

Shackleton – a biography, by Ranulph Fiennes (Michael Joseph)

A few years ago I had the enormous privilege of travelling to the Antarctic Peninsula from Ushuaia in Argentina. I had always wanted to go to the ice, and rather fancied the idea of over-wintering.

Well, my three weeks on a small cruise ship among islands and icebergs cured me of that notion. It was beautiful, wonderful to visit, to see king penguins and elephant seals, the glowing blue light of old icebergs, great craggy mountains streaked with ice, and even to have a glass of wine with a block of Antarctic ice in it.

But it was cold, the wind howled, and the idea of being in that place for three months of perpetual darkness appalled me.

Obviously people like Sir Ernest Shackleton, Sir Ranulph Fiennes and the scores of people who do overwinter there every year are made of much sterner stuff. In fact Fiennes chopped off the fingertips of his own left hand after they had become frostbitten during a failed expedition to the Arctic.

As he says in his introduction to this biography: “To write about Hell it certainly helps if you have been there…”

And he has. Starting in 1979 he led a team of three on the Trans Globe Expedition which entailed circumnavigating the earth, pole to pole, without flying one metre of the way. And the southern part of the trek involved travelling across Antarctica on foot. This was before GPS, satnav or satphones so, like Shackleton, they had to navigate with sextants, theodolites and compasses.

Shackleton was part of three expeditions to Antarctica: the first with Robert Falcon Scott on the Discovery in 1901, and then two bids on the South Pole that he led himself, the 1909 Nimrod  and 1914 Endurance expeditions. He died of a heart attack aboard the Quest near South Georgia in 1922.

It is the spectacular failure of the Endurance expedition, when the ship was crushed by ice and against terrible odds he led his party to safety, which has made Shackleton a household name. His book South, an account of that journey, remains in print today.

After the Endurance was crushed, Shackleton and his crew camped on the ice until their floe broke up. By then they had drifted within sight of the small, inhospitable Elephant Island, and with much difficulty and danger landed safely there.

On our trip we sailed close to where the men landed. It was grey, windy and cold, with little icy pellets, somewhere between hail and snow, pelting down on us as we stood on the deck. We were there for probably 20 minutes before retreating to the warmth and comfort of the ship’s lounge, but Shackleton’s men had to endure Elephant Island for 128 days with their only shelter two upturned lifeboats.

Shackleton took four men in the third lifeboat to sail across 1 300km of the Southern Ocean to South Georgia, where he knew there was a whaling station. Because the weather was so terrible, they were forced to land on the uninhabited side of the island, and then Shackleton and two men became the first people ever to cross the uncharted mountain range between the landing place and the village of Stromness.

After baths, food and fresh clothes to replace the rags they had been wearing for 18 months,  they borrowed a boat and sailed around the island to rescue the two men left at the landing place.

And then came the struggle for Shackleton to find a ship in Chile whose owners would allow him to sail back to Elephant Island to rescue the rest of the party.

At the end, against every odd nature and back luck could throw at them, Shackleton’s entire party survived. The record of some of their achievements on the ice were broken only by Fiennes more than 50 years later.

The book offers insights into Shackleton’s character as a man of extraordinary courage, daring and leadership, but also a man who was no businessman, was not much of a husband or father, and who was prepared to cut critical corners in the planning stages of his expeditions, often because of a lack of sponsorship money.

It seems Shackleton truly became alive only when in the south on an expedition, and he is there still, buried at Grytviken on South Georgia. It is a humbling experience to visit his grave.

Fiennes says he wanted to write this biography because he has not always agreed with the way Shackleton has been portrayed in books and films. His aim was to offer his own perspective, grounded in personal experience, “to hopefully enlighten and enrich the legend”.

And he quotes a polar contemporary of Shackleton’s, Sir Raymond Priestley, summing the man up: “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.”

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’s great reads for November (but it works equally well for December!)

 

 

 

 

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