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15 February 2011

Remembering Ernest Shackleton
(15 February 1874 - 5 January 1922)

Alex Kurtagic

Anglo-Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton would have been 137 years of age today. In 2011 he seems better remembered than his former expedition leader and rival, Robert Falcon Scott, whose Antarctic expeditions were more successful, and who enjoyed fame as a tragic hero for many years after his death in 1912.

Those who are aware of my interest in Antarctica will have noticed that I have so far not paid attention to Shackleton, except where I reviewed Lennard Bickell’s book telling the less-known story of the Aurora party in Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-1917. This is probably because my awareness of Antarctic explorers began with the 1948 film, Scott of the Antarctic, which is based largely on the book by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, one of the younger members of Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition of 1910-1913.

Born in 1874, Shackleton was an avid reader but restless at school. At the age of 16 he enlisted in the Royal navy. After eleven years of travels around the world, he received his appointment as third officer in the British National Antarctic Expedition, also known as the Discovery Expedition, led by Robert Scott.

Scott’s ambition had been to reach the South Pole during that expedition, and in November 1902 Shackleton was in Scott’s Polar party, which set out towards 90ºS across the Ross Ice Shelf from base at McMurdo Sound. The journey was ultimately a mixture of success and failure, having only achieved a record “farthest South” of 82º17’ after snow-blindness, sick dogs, and scurvy took heavy toll on the men. Shackleton broke down in the attempt and was invalided home when the Polar team returned to their expedition headquarters.

Shackleton regarded this as a personal failure and set out to organise his own expedition—the Nimrod Expedition of 1907-1909. He established a new base at Cape Royds in Ross Island, having agreed to Scott’s request not to use Scott’s old base at Hut Point in the Sound. Shackleton made some important breakthroughs: firstly he discovered the Beardmore Glacier, a route to the Polar plateau, access to which is impeded from the Ross Ice Shelf by the Trans-Antarctic Mountains; secondly, once on the plateau, which he and his party were the first ever to see and travel on, at an elevation of 10,000 feet, he achieved a new Farthest South of 88º23’—112 miles from the Pole. He was forced to turn around after he realised that even on starvation rations there would not be enough food to sustain his party on the return journey; indeed, they had already laboured on half rations much of the way. (The comparatively primitive state of Edwardian science meant that nutritional requirements in Antarctic conditions, which we know today demand daily intakes of 8,000-11,000 calories on man-hauling sledging journeys, were not well understood and repeatedly under-estimated.) Shackleton’s party barely made it back to base in time to catch the return ship.

The conquest of the South Pole was achieved in December 1911 by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who beat Scott by a month. Scott and his party perished on the return journey two months later, afflicted by starvation, frostbite, evaporating fuel, and unusually fierce cold on the Ross Ice Shelf for that time of the year. (See my review of Cherry-Garrard’s account.)

With nothing left to achieve in the Antarctic, except to cross on foot, Shackleton organised the abovementioned Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. His programme was to establish two bases, one on the Rohne Ice Shelf, from where he would set out, and another in Ross Island, from where a support team would lay depots along the Ross Ice Shelf with provisions for the second leg of Shackleton’s journey. Unfortunately, Shackleton encountered difficult conditions in the Weddell Sea, where his ship, the Endurance, became imprisoned by the pack ice. There it remained for ten months, during which it operated, at Shackleton’s instruction, as a Winter base. The pack ice drifted North and eventually crushed the ship, at which point Shackleton led the attempt to reach land by marching on the ice and camping on floes. However, when the floe on which they had camped broke Shackleton ordered his men to the boats, where they sailed across the frigid sea for five days until reaching Elephant Island. From there Shackleton launched a specially-prepared boat, the James Caird, and set sail with a handful of men to South Georgia, where there was Norwegian whaling station. The unoccupied Southern side of the island was reached after a two-week journey across icy, stormy seas; taking three out of the five men, Shackleton then decided to cross South Georgia rather than risk another sea journey. For the next 36 hours, and equipped only with a length of rope and a carpenter’s adze, Shackleton, Crean, and Wolsey, essentially scarecrows, climbed snowbound mountains and made it to the remote Norwegian outpost.

Shackleton’s side of his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition is dramatised in the film bearing his name, where he is played by Kenneth Branagh. His own account can be read in his book, South, published in 1919.

(To read about the horrific ordeal of the Ross Sea party, the ‘forgotten men’ of the expedition, who meanwhile laid the depots for Shackleton, cut-off and ignorant of what had befallen Shackleton on the other side of the continent, click here.)

Shackleton returned to the Empire a hero. And he would still volunteer to fight in World War I in 1917, even though he was too old to be enlisted. Instead he was sent to Argentina instead on a propaganda mission.

One final expedition was organised in 1920, the Shackleton-Rowett Expedition, among whose aims were the circumnavigation of Antarctica and the investigation of ‘lost’ sub-Antarctic islands. However, Shackleton made it only to South Georgia, where he died of a heart attack, aged 47.

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