If you’ve ever been to Antarctica, you’ll know that it’s not the distance. It’s not the cold. It’s not even the loneliness. It’s the overwhelming feeling of insignificance. And that’s in our digital age when you can talk to your people in real time over satellite video links from the White Continent. Back in Ernest Shackleton’s day, more than a century ago, a letter from anyone on his ship Endurance, if it ever reached you at all, could take two years to arrive.
When the skipper of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914–1917 fetched up on South Georgia in his quest to relieve his men stranded on Elephant Island, he’d barely even heard rumblings of the Great War that was to change the 20th Century. Close to the end of the most daring rescue mission ever mounted, Shackleton was met at the threshold of the whaling station at Grytviken to learn that the world had gone mad, and millions were dead.
Edmund Hillary of Everest renown thought that it was the best story ever told, how Shackleton had ventured to claim the South Pole for king and country and, after facing all the hardships any expedition could throw at the explorer, returned without the loss of a single man. This story is told by Shackleton in his memoir South, published shortly after the war ended, and is dedicated to ‘my comrades who fell in the White Warfare of the South and on the red fields of France and Flanders’.
While the author’s purpose in writing South was to repay the debts he’d amassed financing the expedition, in the process the merchant seaman known to his crew as “the Boss” had accidentally penned a literary classic. He must have had doubts presenting his account of what was after all a failed expedition: Shackleton never got to the pole in four attempts. But, as he says right at the start, ‘there are chapters in this book of high adventure, strenuous days, lonely nights, unique experiences, and above all, records of unflinching determination, supreme loyalty and generous self-sacrifice on the part of my men’.
The plot summary reads like a Hollywood movie treatment, especially from the point when Endurance gets stuck in the pack ice and slowly crushed, leaving the shipless crew stranded with only the slimmest hope of relief. That hope lay in reaching a radio station at a whaling station hundreds of miles away. With only three lifeboats and their collective Edwardian stiff upper lip, in a long and complex sequence of horrific hardship, the men showed how aptly named their ship was, and survived. Abandoned by the British government (who still expected the returning men to fight in the trenches in France on their return), it was left to the Chilean Navy to lend Shackleton a small steamer Yelcho to pick up his crew.
Forget the fact that the Endurance expedition was unsuccessful in all its aims: this is a story of crisis leadership that shows what men of iron can do with their backs to the wall. Fellow Antarctic explorer Sir Raymond Priestley wrote: ‘For scientific discovery, give me Scott; for speed and efficiency of travel, give me Amundsen; but when you are in a hopeless situation, when you are seeing no way out, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.’
Nick Smith is UK Bureau Chief of the Explorers Journal, the magazine of the Explorers Club in New York. Formerly editor of Geographical, the magazine of the Royal Geographical Society, he is also a contributing editor on Black + White Photography and Outdoor Photography magazines. His new book Travelling Light will be published in Autumn 2023