A year ago today, myself and the rest of the Houston Nine, along with the other passengers and crew of the National Geographic Explorer stood – cups of rum in our hands – at the grave, of Sir Ernest Shackleton (1874-1922), one of the principal figures of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.
After Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole in 1911, Shackleton set out – as leader of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914-1917) – to become the first to cross Antarctica on foot. The mission was struck by disaster when his ship, the Endurance, became trapped in the pack ice of the Weddell Sea and subsequently crushed, leaving the 28 men marooned with no hope of rescue. One might think this story would become forgotten as a horrible failure, or at least a lesson in the perils of polar exploration. Certainly, you’d think Shackleton would not be considered a hero. But he is.
Because no one died. Despite a 20 month ordeal of little food, injuries, conflict, depression, frostbite, below zero temperatures, and the total darkness of the Antarctic winters, every crew member of the Endurance returned home. Shackleton’s leadership abilities is credited for this miracle. Known as “The Boss,” Shackleton had a forceful personality and was also a keen judge of men. A frequently cited example is Shackleton’s division of the group once they reached the inhospitable Elephant Island -using lifeboats – about 100 miles out from Antarctica. Knowing they would never be rescued, Shackleton chose five other men to sail with him in a 20 foot open boat (which they christened the James Caird – a replica is shown below) 800 miles to South Georgia Island where there was a whaling station at Stroemness. (It was an incredible feat of navigation.) He did not choose his right-hand man, Frank Wild, to accompany him; he left Wild in charge of the refugees on Elephant Island. Instead, he selected two of the crew’s biggest troublemakers to be part of that six man team. His reasoning: they would be under his watchful eye where their rebellious natures would not undermine the cohesiveness and survival of those left behind.
And because he never gave up: not only did the James Caird nearly capsize, they landed on the wrong side of South Georgia; they were forced to cross the treacherous mountains of the island on foot to reach Stroemness; and were repeatedly turned down or turned back by the sea ice conditions when they attempted to retrieve their men on Elephant Island. It wasn’t until the end of August, 2016, that Shackleton, with the help of Chilean sea captain Luis Pardo, that Frank Wild and the others were finally rescued.
We sailed past Elephant Island three days later. As you can see, the weather was not the best. The tall object on the right hand side is a statue dedicated to Captain Pardo.
Shackleton later died before he could begin another journey to Antarctica, on board a ship anchored at South Georgia. Knowing that his heart truly belonged to the frozen southern ocean, his widow declared he be buried there rather than returned to England.
Shackleton’s saga is a tale oft told in books and film. Considered to be the best of the written accounts is Alfred Lansing’s 1959 “Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage” – a highly recommended read!
There is even a business guide which details Shackleton’s advice on how to lead people: “Shackleton’s Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer” by Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell.
Kenneth Branagh was the most recent to portray The Boss on film, in the 2002 A&E mini-series “Shackleton.”
(Side Note: There were reports that Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were going to produce a new movie titled “Race to the South Pole” about Shackleton’s contemporaries: Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott, but I’ve seen no updates on that project since 2012.)
It has become customary for visitors to South Georgia Island, and its capital of Grytviken (now a research station and museum – complete with gift shop!), to visit Shackleton’s grave and to show respect to The Boss, drinking a toast to his memory. As snow flakes drifted down upon us, we raised our cups, drank, and then let the remaining droplets of rum fall upon his grave, and that of Frank Wild – whose ashes are interred just to the right (Shackleton’s right-hand man into eternity).
There is a quote, attributed to different sources and now found on t-shirts sold at the Grytviken gift shop, which neatly sums up Shackleton’s capabilities:
“For scientific discovery, give me Scott; For speed and efficiency of travel, give me Amunsend; but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”
I don’t usually drink rum – it’s not my favorite liquor – but today I had a sip and again toasted The Boss, and to my memories of Antarctica, to my memory of my beloved cat Turtle who nearly died while I was away, and to the hope that I can one day return to the frozen continent.