The heroic age of Antarctic exploration ended with Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance expedition of 1914–1916. And this, no doubt because of the relatively recent film starring Kenneth Branagh, is nowadays probably the best known of the many incredible adventures experienced by the early Antarctic explorers.
Ernest Shackleton took part in Robert Falcon Scott’s Discovery expedition of 1901–1904, during which the two men, plus Dr. Edward Wilson, attempted unsuccessfully to reach the South Pole. Shackleton’s physical collapse caused Scott to send him back, invalided on a supply ship, in 1903. The former, however, was far from giving up exploring and returned to Antarctica as leader of the Nimrod expedition in 1907, establishing his base, like Scott before him, on Ross Island. His own bid for the pole would take Scott’s route across the Ross Ice Shelf and would vastly improve on Scott’s southernmost latitude of 82º 17S; it would also lead to the discovery of the 100-mile-long Beardmore Glacier, via which the explorers would be able to reach the Antarctic plateau, access to which in 1902 the Scott team had found blocked by what is now known as the trans-Antarctic mountains. After crossing the ice shelf, however, ascending the 10,000 feet up to the plateau, and sledging hundreds of miles at high-altitude and in conditions of extreme cold and fearsome blizzards, Shackleton, was forced to turn around at 88º 23S, 97 nautical miles short of the South Pole, having ascertained that there was not enough food left to sustain the party on the return journey, even if on starvation rations.
Next to return to the Antarctic was Robert Falcon Scott, who led the Terra Nova expedition of 1910–1913. As I already related in my review of Scott’s fellow expeditioner Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s account, The Worst Journey in the World, Scott succeeded in his bid for the South Pole, only to find that he had been beaten by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen (who had reached it a month earlier) and to eventually die, along with the rest of his party, on the Ross Ice Shelf during return journey.
With the South Pole already conquered, there was no great feat left for Shackleton to do but to attempt a crossing of the Southern continent. To this effect he organized the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914–1917. This new venture was to consist of two parties: one, led by Shackleton himself, was to sail aboard the Endurance and approach the continent via the Weddell Sea; the other, led by Captain Aeneas Mackintosh, was to sail aboard the Aurora, and land on Ross Island. Shackleton was to lead his party up onto the plateau, through to the South Pole, down the Beardmore Glacier, across the Ross Ice Shelf, and right through to Mackintosh’s base on Ross Island. Mackintosh, on the other hand, was to lead a team across the Ross Ice Shelf, laying supply depots to support the latter stages of Shackleton’s march, at regular intervals, all the way to the foot of the Beardmore Glacier.
This was to be accomplished in an era when there were no radio or satellite communications and where there was no possibility of an air rescue or re-supply. Each party was to accomplish its mission in the expectation that the other party would do their part, but without any way of knowing whether they were still alive and without any means of contacting civilization.
Lennard Bickell’s book tells the harrowing and mostly unknown story of the Ross Sea Party.
The Aurora reached Ross Island early in 1915, during the Austral Summer (Northerners should remember that seasons are reversed in the Southern hemisphere). Mackintosh decided to set up in Cave Evans. Cape Evans is some 13 miles North of Hut Point, where Scott’s Discovery hut is situated, and where there the snow slopes provide easiest access to the Ross Ice Shelf (or Barrier, as it was known back then, since it ends in a sheer, sea-facing cliff some 150 feet high). Shackleton, however, had forbidden mooring the boat any further South than the Glacier Point, aware that when the Discovery did so some 14 years earlier the sea froze the ship in, and rendered it immovable, for two years. Scott’s Terra Nova hut was to be used, and, accordingly, the dogs, some coal, and minimal supplies were brought ashore; but the Aurora was intended to remain the main base of operations.
Mackintosh, unaware that Shackleton was not planning to attempt the crossing until the following year (the cable that was to inform Mackintosh was never sent), and thinking it conceivable that Shackleton might attempt the Antarctic crossing that same season, ordered the laying of depots to begin immediately. At the very least, two depots were to be laid: one at the Minna Bluff (at 79º S) and another at 80º S. Mackintosh was impetuous and lacked experience on the ice, so the depot laying began without allowing the dogs to acclimatize and at a grueling pace; the operation was beset with problems and imperfect organization. As a result, the 80º S depot ended up incomplete and, after two months, the party returned to Hut Point frostbitten, exhausted, and demoralized, having worked to death all the dogs that they had taken with them.
The route back to Cape Evans involved crossing the sea ice, but, due to the seasonal thinness of the latter, the party was forced to remain at Hut Point, living in Spartan conditions and with inadequate supplies, until deep into the Winter (June). When they finally were able to return to Cape Evans, they found that the Aurora had been blown away in a blizzard, and was presumably lost with all hands. Along with it went their scientific equipment, clothing, soap, sledging gear, and food supplies. The remains of the Ross Sea Party thus found themselves marooned in the Antarctic, and facing a minimum of two years on the ice, without food, fuel, or adequate supplies, before any possible rescue.
Knowing that Shackleton’s party depended on them, Mackintosh ordered the depot laying mission to go ahead regardless. To this effect, the men plundered all the huts, looking for whatever supplies had been left behind from the previous three expeditions. This amounted to very little: 15-year-old dog biscuits, a few tins here and there, and a few items of old, used, battered, discarded gear. To survive, it was concluded, they would have to rely of seals for both food and fuel; and they would have to use available materials to improvise extra clothing.
What follows in the book is a horrific account of the 1,200-mile depot-laying journey across the world’s largest ice shelf — and the world’s most inhospitable terrain. For most people a 12-mile walk is considered very long, even in good weather, when well fed, sufficiently hydrated, and adequately attired. Imagine, then, doing that a hundred times over, while pulling 200-pound sledges across rugged and sticky surfaces, sinking up to your waist in snow, at temperatures of 60 or more degrees of frost, beset by freezing winds and blizzards, on starvation rations (consisting of months-old meat and biscuits every day, for every meal), wearing threadbare and ragged clothing, with painfully frostbitten hands and face, sleeping in bags that have frozen solid, unable to bathe, shaking violently with cold every night, having to defecate into a hole in the ice inside a freezing tent, and, eventually, with a severe case of scurvy, without access to medicine, analgesics, or fresh food. Consider that at –4º F (-20º C) , boiling water freezes instantly if thrown up in the air; –4º F was considered a warm day for the old Antarctic explorers. If you think this is bad, this is just the beginning.
Page after page, the situation for the depot-laying party gets worse and worse, ever grimmer and more desperate; wasting away, excruciatingly cold, in agonizing pain, clinically depressed, drained of vitality, sick, and with no option but to carry on pulling for hundreds of miles, one cannot help but shake one’s head in wonder every five or so pages, as the men are hit by new and ever-more-horrible setbacks and are forced to brave the most unimaginable conditions. This is truly grim and brutal reading.
And things do not end there, because, although all minus one of the men eventually manage to crawl back to Hut Point, they, by then little more than wide-eyed wraiths, skin and bones, with beards down to their chests and hair down to their shoulders and gums swollen out of their mouths and blistered skin as black as coal, then are forced to winter in what was little more than a bare cupboard, or drafty shed, battered by blizzards and eking a troglodytic existence by eating seals and heating themselves with a grimy, fuliginous, pungent blubber stove that was barely able to keep their living space above freezing within a one-foot radius. This, without any idea of whether they would ever be rescued – or whether Shackleton had survived the trans-Antarctic crossing; without any idea, in fact, of what was happening at all, except that there was a war going on in Europe and that rescue operations to remote Antarctica would probably not be a priority.
To find out how it all ends, you will have to read the book.
But one thing that is clear when reading these chronicles of the early Antarctic explorers is that, whatever their faults, it is clear from their behavior and their speech that the citizens of the British Empire had a clearer sense themselves and their place in the world than their modern counterparts do today. Moreover, they seem much harder, on average, than our coevals: despite the numerous reverses, and despite having, at times, fierce disagreements on how to proceed given their circumstances, it is evident from the narrative that civility, mutual respect, and a sense of responsibility were always maintained. The narrative does not suggest at any point that there was ever any panic, hysterics, back-stabbing, or selfish dog-eat-dog behavior, like that which we see so often and so convincingly depicted in modern films. There was a mission here, and, despite the extreme adversity and zero external support, it was accomplished. The depots were laid.
Compare and contrast what you read here against what you see in the 2006 BBC reality series Blizzard: Race to the Pole with Bruce Parry (of Tribe and Amazon fame), where a team of modern explorers attempt to replicate (in Greenland) Robert Falcon’s Scott march to the South Pole – and fail, despite shortcuts, modern gear, and comparatively benign conditions. In the end, it did not matter that the extreme suffering of Mackintosh’s men (and the deaths of three of them) was in vain (Shackleton never made it): as one of the survivors remarked years afterwards, it showed what white men can accomplish, even with everything going against them.
I must point out that Lennard Bickel’s prose has some shortcomings: I would personally punctuate more than he does, and his rhythm can be, at times, awkward. However, he is sufficiently adept at conjuring the bleak atmosphere and evoking the desperateness of the plight of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expeditions’ Ross Sea party to overcome said shortcomings: the reader is sucked into the white-knuckle tale almost instantly, and the book is difficult to put down. Even if you never thought of reading about early 20th century Antarctic exploration, you may well find yourself craving for more after this tome.
Certainly, there is much we can learn from the great British exploits in the white continent at a time when the Empire was at its zenith. And one can easily see, when reading accounts such as Bickell’s and Cherry’s, why a certain German chancellor whom I will not name held the British Empire and the British in as high regard as he did.
Read Alex Kurtagic’s review of The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, another true story of Antarctic exploration, here.