Ernest Shackleton

February 21, 2011

Ernest Shackleton is another of the great names associated with Antarctic exploration. Like Scott before him, he was a Navy man for whom Antarctica proved irresistible. Between the ages of 25 and 47 he was a part of four Antarctic expeditions, three of which he led himself.

His first taste of Antarctica came as a member of the Discovery Expedition, under the leadership of Robert Falcon Scott. Shackleton held a fairly minor post in the expedition’s roster — third lieutenant — but he was one of three chosen to make an attempt on the South Pole during the Antarctic summer of 1902-3. The trip was not a success, making it barely half the distance to the Pole before turning around, but it did establish a new “furthest south” record, reaching latitude 82°17′. Shackleton was in ill health in the latter part of the trek, suffering from scurvy, and upon arriving back in camp he was shipped home to convalesce.

He was shipped home, which might have seemed an inglorious outcome, but, being the first expedition member to arrive back in England, there was a great deal of interest in him, and he achieved a certain degree of celebrity. Turning the situation to his advantage, he began to make plans for another Antarctic expedition, this time with himself as leader.

By 1907 plans were in place, and the Nimrod Expedition set sail. Early in 1908 they established a base at Cape Royds, on Ross Island, and settled in for the winter. As the Antarctic spring came, they prepared for the expedition’s main event: a trek to the South Pole. The trekking party consisted of Shackleton, Frank Wild, Eric Marshall, and Jameson Adams.

The Beardmore Glacier

They walked south across the Ross Ice Shelf and climbed to the Antarctic Plateau by way of the 160 km (100 mile) long Beardmore Glacier. (That same route would be taken by Scott’s Polar party a few years later.) They then set out across the vast Plateau. After over 2-1/2 months of trekking they had reached a point — latitude 88°23′ — about 160 km (100 mile) from the Pole when Shackleton made the difficult decision to turn back. They were dangerously low on food, and would not have survived the return journey. As it was, they had to make some of their return distance on half-rations. Shackleton later summarized the reasons for his decision in this way: “A live donkey is better than a dead lion”.

Nimrod's South Pole trekkers. L to R: Wild, Shackleton, Marshall, Adams.

Just two years after Shackleton’s near miss, both Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott successfully reached the South Pole. Shackleton, however, had not had his fill, and began casting about for another Antarctic feat to perform. He settled on a trans-Antarctic trek: he would march from one side of Antarctica to the Pole, and then continue to the other coast. The expedition’s formal title was the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, but it is popularly known, after the name of its famous ship, as the Endurance Expedition.

I’ll have more to say about the Endurance Expedition in the coming week; it turned into one of the most beloved adventure stories in recent history. For now, I will just note that Shackleton never took a single step of the trans-Antarctic journey. When he returned to England in 1917, he seems to have still had Antarctica in his heart.

And so it was that in 1921 he set sail yet again, at the helm of the Quest, for an expedition with rather unclear objectives. Many of Shackleton’s men from the Endurance signed on again, and the whole enterprise had an air of nostalgia about it, as though it were an attempt to recapture the camaraderie and adventure of glory days. Once again, as with the Endurance, they docked in South Georgia before proceeding to Antarctica, but this time Shackleton went no further: in the early hours of 5 January 1922 he suffered a heart attack and died. He was 47 years old.

At the request of his wife Shackleton was buried on South Georgia, a fitting resting place for a man who had loved Antarctica, who in life had been restless and adventurous, courageous and resolute, and a well-beloved leader of men.

Shackleton's grave in South Georgia.

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