But who was Shackleton, and what exactly happened on the expedition?
There were actually two ships – one called the Ross Sea Party on the ship Aurora that would drop supplies for the other, the Endurance. On this ship were 69 dogs, a tomcat, 27 men, and one ship stowaway, who was later put to work as a steward.
The expedition leader was Shackleton, who saw the voyage as a way to make a name for himself by establishing a base on the Weddell sea coast. Setting out in August, the ship was trapped in thick sheet ice in the Wendell Sea by December that year, and there was nothing the crew could do to free her. Though they could move the vessel for a little while, eventually the ice surrounded them so they could not budge either forward or backward. As the ice creaked and shifted, it took the ship with it, slowly drifting the men off course and crushing the hull bit by bit. They had been within only a day’s reach of their destination, but with every day spent trapped, they drifted further away.
For ten long months, the crew sat on the trapped ship, waiting out the winter. One of the ship’s doctors, Alexander Macklin, later wrote that Shackleton, “did not rage at all, or show outwardly the slightest sign of disappointment; he told us simply and calmly that we must winter in the Pack; explained its dangers and possibilities; never lost his optimism and prepared for winter.”
For months, Shackleton tried to lead his men through the perilous Antarctic ice packs on dwindling provisions and scant morale. But he could not ignore the writing on the wall – they were going nowhere and running out of provisions. As seasoned sailors know, “What the ice gets, the ice keeps.” Waiting patiently was a recipe for certain death.
Shackleton eventually ordered the crew to abandon ship, and in good time too, since it sank shortly afterwards – around 28 days later. The team escaped with their lives on just 3 lifeboats. They made difficult decisions about which of the barest essentials to take, discarding everything else. Most of the smaller dogs and the cat were shot, and the rest of their possessions were left behind to go down with the ship. It was gut-wrenching, but the ordeal was just getting started.
Try to imagine it: these 6 men braved the frozen wilderness in a small boat roughly 7m or 22 feet long and pressed on in this way for 800 miles, heading for the whaling stations they knew they’d find in South Georgia. It’s hard for people to understand the suffering they would have endured: battered by gale force winds and near constant freezing rain, the men huddled in groups, riddled with seasickness, wondering which giant ice cap would capsize the boat in an instant and kill them all... Shackleton even wrote later in his memoirs that they once encountered a tidal wave so enormous that he originally mistook it for the sky. Later, in his book South!, Shackleton recounts, “Huge blocks of ice, weighing many tons, were lifted into the air and tossed aside as other masses rose beneath them. We were helpless intruders in a strange world, our lives dependent upon the play of grim elementary forces that made a mock of our puny efforts.”
It's hard to imagine that these were men who had already gone through one unthinkable trial and had started this second journey cold, miserable, hungry, and ill. The crew had already lived for months trapped on board the Endurance in the ice floes. And now they were pitted against the merciless elements, each of them likely resigned to the fact that they would die. It was later reported that half the men on the boats were already mad, and some were viciously ill with dysentery. Some were chronically sleep-deprived, not having rested for 80 hours or so.
Finally, exhausted and barely holding things together, they reached the uninhabited Elephant Island. When they set foot on that dry land, it had been a staggering 497 days since the Endurance first set sail. Shackleton’s second-in-command, Frank Wild, led the team to create a makeshift shelter out of two upturned lifeboats. The third boat was their last hope. Giving himself ten days to recover and prepare, Shackleton then left to seek help. He took with him five other men and set sail on the third lifeboat named “James Caird.”
This time, they knew what to expect. They’d wake every morning to beat the ice out of the sails and bail freezing water from the boat before pushing on. The punishing winds howled and tossed the fragile boat on the open seas, and the men, with their last splinters of hope barely intact, somehow found it in them to keep rowing until they reached their destination.
After 17 further days of fighting to survive, they landed on the shores of South Georgia. The men rested briefly before the marathon hike of 36 hours across the island, finally finding Stromness Whaling station. It took beating out a path that no human had walked before, over mountain peaks and through icy terrain and frozen cliffs, but they did it – to the astonishment of those at the whaling station.
Can you imagine the sight of these three men turning up in the middle of nowhere? After nearly two years of suffering and desperation, they had long, stringy beards, ruined clothing, and gaunt faces. Thoralf Sørlle, the station manager, was so shocked at the sight of them that he turned and wept when Shackleton explained what had happened.
From there, Shackleton could arrange for a rescue ship to fetch the 22 sailors that still remained on Elephant Island. Again, this was a story of one disaster after another. The first ship that Shackleton launched ran out of fuel and was forced to turn back. A vessel offered by Uruguay made it to within 100 miles of Elephant Island before ice packs forced it to give up and return. It took several more attempts, but eventually the Chilean government agreed to lend him a small tugboat, called Yelcho. Heading back, Shackleton must have secretly feared the worst, wondering about the men he’d left behind. He had taken a full 128 days to return to them with help. As he approached, he noticed a smoke signal emerging from the makeshift shelter, and soon the men emerged, calling to him – all of them had made it.
In the meantime, Frank Wild had been tasked with keeping spirits up on the desolate Island wasteland. Every single morning, he would instruct the crew to prepare their belongings and get ready, since Shackleton might return any day now. Despite how despondent and despairing the crew felt, Wild kept it up. Many of the men had utterly given up and had resigned themselves to their fate, rather than keep clinging to hope. Their daily life was one of misery and privation, and they had little to do but ruminate on their doomed fate and boil up seal bones for nourishment. But that fateful morning on day 128, Shackleton really did return, and the crew was packed and ready, not quite believing that their nightmare was finally coming to an end. The crew all made it back to England, and years later, all were still alive and well.on foot decades later, in the:
Whatever happened to Shackleton? Well, he never did reach the South Pole or cross the Antarctic on foot, but he did attempt another expedition years later, with many of the same crew he had been with on the Endurance. They noted that he was never the same again. In fact, Shackleton died at just 47 years of age of a heart attack.
Granted, the days of high adventure and fantastic explorations to the poles seem like they belong to a bygone era, but the story of the Endurance and her crew still captures hearts and minds today. People continue to be astonished at just how much Shackleton and his men must have endured – how on earth could they have survived all that?
Take a look at any of the photographs of the crew throughout their doomed expedition and you cannot help but feel awe at the black and white faces peering back out at you. The ship was a small, wooden one with canvas sails, and the men aboard it were working with what we’d now consider rudimentary instruments. The men had, in total, spent years battling despair, insanity, starvation, exhaustion, and illness – all in a frighteningly hostile landscape where temperatures averaged roughly -66 F (-54 C).
Shackleton and his crew were forever considered impressive proof of the extent to which the human spirit can endure and prevail. Shackleton wrote a book about his experiences that gives a peek into his mind and allows us to guess at what it must have been like out there in the Antarctic wilderness:
“When I look back at those days I have no doubt that Providence guided us, not only across those snowfields, but across the storm-white sea that separated Elephant Island from our landing-place on South Georgia. I know that during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia it seemed to me often that we were four, not three. I said nothing to my companions on the point, but afterwards Worsley said to me, ‘Boss, I had a curious feeling on the march that there was another person with us.’ Crean confessed to the same idea. One feels ‘the dearth of human words, the roughness of mortal speech’ in trying to describe things intangible, but a record of our journeys would be incomplete without a reference to a subject very near to our hearts.”
Who was the fourth person on the journey with them? Shackleton knows that he can never fully express what he experienced out there, but we can conjecture. Perhaps he felt a divine spirit guiding and protecting him. Perhaps it was his own sense of hope and the fearsome refusal to give up and let go of his life. Perhaps it was simply raw human survival instinct, wordless and unconscious.
Many of the men did give up. Shackleton was a flawed man, who had certainly been criticized for his leadership skills over the course of his career, but one thing that people could agree on was that he took his duty to inspire hope and courage in his crew very seriously. Even though he was doubtless tormented internally, he never permitted himself to despair openly to the others.
Besides his clear faith in something greater than himself (“We had seen God in His splendors, heard the text that Nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of man” – Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage), he also was a practical man. He speaks about the importance of grounding one’s daily life in routine, about humility, and about simply getting on with what must be done, one way or another.
He remarked once, after his team had already endured countless months of sickness and starvation, the power of the little, everyday things:
“I heard one man say, "Cook, I like my tea strong." Another joined in, "Cook, I like mine weak." It was pleasant to know that their minds were untroubled, but I thought the time opportune to mention that the tea would be the same for all hands and that we would be fortunate if two months later we had any tea at all. It occurred to me at the time that the incident had psychological interest. Here were men, their home crushed, the camp pitched on the unstable floes, and their chance of reaching safety apparently remote, calmly attending to the details of existence and giving their attention to such trifles as the strength of a brew of tea.”
Brave hope and the will to survive are very grand endeavors – but they often play out in mundane ways. If we can focus on what is in front of us, no matter how small, we can find a kind of dignity in them. No matter how dire the situation is, we can take solace in ritual, in doing what little we can, and in sticking with routines – even if we don’t quite have faith in them anymore.
Finally, perhaps the most noteworthy of Shackleton’s attitudes was his seeming unwillingness to think about defeat even as a possibility. Like many deeply devoted and ambitious people, Shackleton simply did not allow himself to give up. “Difficulties,” he claimed, “are just things to overcome.” No matter the size of the difficulty, or how frequent they are, they were never a reason to stop, give up, or turn back. They were simply things that needed to be gone around – speed bumps rather than roadblocks that forever close off the path.
If we can replicate make this subtle shift in perspective, we allow ourselves to stay proactive and ask – how can I get around this?
If we assume that we will do everything we humanly can do to get around it, it simply becomes a matter of how. “Just when things looked their worst, they changed for the best. I have marveled often at the thin line that divides success from failure and the sudden turn that leads from apparently certain disaster to comparative safety.” If you genuinely think this way about life, then no situation is so dire or so hopeless that it cannot one day turn completely and become something new. Hope, then, is like keeping your belongings packed and ready so that, when better things come, you are ready and waiting to seize them.
Real life example
Not many of us will ever endure the kind of suffering Shackleton and his men did, but we may well face other challenges, like major illness, poverty, or natural disasters. In more recent history, there are plenty of examples of people rising to extreme challenges, like the brave firefighters who worked tirelessly to retrieve survivors from the rubble of the bombing of the world Trade Center. They did precisely what Shackleton did; they dug deep and allowed the magnitude of their task to sober them and inspire them, then they refused to give up as they did what needed to be done. Shackleton’s men were forced to find out what they were really made of. Senator John Kerry hints at the same phenomenon when he remarked of the 9/11 attacks, “It was the worst day we have ever seen, but it brought out the best in all of us.”
• Find purpose. Seek a deeper meaning and significance in your life, and, if it strengthens you, anchor yourself in religion or spirituality. Shackleton never felt alone during his most arduous challenges, and that’s because he was a man of faith.
• When times are challenging, keep sane and even-keeled by engrossing yourself in the details of day to day life. Keep a routine, look after the basics of life, and if need be, find relieving distractions when things get especially difficult.
• Finally, don’t give up. When you encounter a challenge, reframe the way you look at it: it’s not the end. Difficulties are not a sign that your journey is over, just that the route has changed. Difficulties are just things to overcome. If you have hope, then you’ll be prepared and ready to grasp opportunity when it does finally come your way.