Alone, alone, all all alone
Alone on a wide wide sea.
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"
Through the night we sailed south through the Drake Passage, and in the morning
we awoke in Antarctic Sound. It was colder still, with a steady snow falling. Off
the starboard side of the ship, the Antarctic continent appeared, a chain of black
volcanic peaks beneath a lowering sky. It was the snaked arm of the peninsula, curling
close to a cluster of islands. Tabular icebergs
appear, some as large as two miles long, likely calved from the Larsen, Ronne, or Filchner
Ice Shelves. The water is becalmed, a broad rolling obsidian sheet, a welcome respite
after our hard crossing.
The Shuleykin and the Laurel rest in Erebus and Terror Gulf, between Vega Island,
Eagle Island, and the Peninsula. Here we are filming Iceberg Camp, named for the ships of
James Clark Ross.
After a long helpless drift in the relentless grip of the Weddell Sea pack ice,
the Endurance was finally crushed, and her crew stranded, consigned to the
mercy of those treacherous floes without the shelter of the ship. For five
long months, they lived adrift, exposed
to the elements, sleeping with the ominous sounds of ice stresses and circling
killer whales. Drifting with the pack, it was Captain Frank Worsley's
hope that they would reach open water and sail the three lifeboats,
the James Caird, the Stancomb Wills, and the Dudley Docker, to a
subantarctic island for rescue. Finally, their moment came on
April 9, when Shackleton gave the order to launch the boats.
This tabular berg off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, trailing brash ice, was 2.2 miles long.
After the first day at sea, Shackleton sought out a large, flat floe to
camp for the night. He was restive. "Some intangible feeling of uneasiness
made me leave my tent about 11 p.m. that night and glance around the quiet camp,"
he writes in South. "I started to walk across the floe in order to warn the
watchman to look carefully for cracks, and as I was passing the men's tent the floe
lifted on the crest of a swell and cracked right under my feet." Ernest Holness,
in his sleeping bag, dropped in the crack into the dark waters,
and Shackleton bodily hauled him out.
Shackleton was more careful the next night, choosing a "berg with an
attractively solid appearance, and from our camp we could get a good view
of the surrounding sea and ice." Now, in his quest to replicate Iceberg Camp, director
George Butler scouted the gulf
for a floe suitable for staging a camp scene with Shackleton's men, tents, and the
three boats, art directed by Roger Crandall.
"Eventually I found a floe with an upward tilt, a little like a stage proscenium.
On this we laid out the camp. It was an unlikely but striking scene."
Antarctic Coordinator David Rootes
exercised considerably more caution than Shackleton did. "We chose a six-foot-thick pack ice floe,
which is frozen seawater. An iceberg is freshwater, and has a tendency to
melt unevenly and can flip over. Frozen seawater is denser and more solid, and the floe has
a flat bottom. After George chose the location, we tested it for cracks, and found it
to be very solid. The people on the floe had flotation vests under their costumes, and during
filming we had eight boats, a helicopter, and two ships standing by for support if problems arose."
The James Caird, the Stancomb Wills, and the Dudley Docker arrive at a solid floe for the night of April 10, 1916, dubbed Iceberg Camp.
When the replica of the Stancomb Wills is craned from the Shuleykin
into the waters and the costumed rowers board, we are all startled by the scene.
After thinking about Shackleton's story for so long, we now see it materialized in
this alien place and are acutely conscious of how alone those men were. After all,
so are we. For hours, the three boats circle the wide flat gulf and make for the floe.
At Iceberg Camp, the ragged men pull the boats onto the floe, light a small stove, and
busy themselves with tents. Around them, a camera boat and several zodiac support
boats circle, while a helicopter passes overhead. I am stunned by it; this quiet untouched
place has never seen the likes of it before. And tonight we go, taking all evidence of
this brief occupation with us. On a floe adjacent to Iceberg Camp, a single Adelie
penguin spends hours gazing on the spectacle.
An Adelie penguin gazes on the spectacle unfolding in Erebus and Terror Gulf.
We have lost all sense of time now, and often ask each other: What day is this?
Morning dawns sometime after 3:00 a.m., and at 11:30 p.m., as we drifted in
zodiacs in the sound amongst the brash ice and bergs, the sun was just beginning
to sink behind the peaks, its final rays gleaming platinum on the snowed slopes.
Slowly, the sun set, until the sky finally became dusky at 1:30 a.m.
The filming schedule reminds us of the date, and the location we haven't yet
reached: Pack Ice. In the winter, the pack ice crowds the continent as far
north as Elephant Island. In November 1914, Shackleton was alarmed to find it as
high as 57 degrees 26', just south of South Georgia. We too threaded a rare lane
of icebergs to reach South Georgia, but here at 63 degrees 44', we only find patches
of ice along with the bergs. The Laurel helicopter team, Ron Goodman and
flew south to scout for the ice, but were turned back by high winds.
The Laurel leaves us today to return to Punta Arenas, so we continue
south alone. We have set a course for the Weddell Sea, which claimed the
Endurance 84 years ago.
Answer to November 11 Question of the Day:
A crewman is questioning your decisions. One day, he even refuses to carry out
your orders. He is clearly under stress. How do you handle it?
I speak from experience when I say we often underestimate the psychological
challenge of such adventures. Clearly Shackleton was keenly aware of how
fragile the integrity of his team was in such trying and desperate circumstances.
But he was determined to pull through—with all his men—and he was always on
guard for signs of flagging morale. Shackleton paid attention to people. He took
the time to "touch base" regularly with each individual and acknowledge his role.
He developed a good understanding for each member's strengths, demeanor, needs,
and weaknesses. He leveraged that knowledge to maintain morale and keep people busy.
Shackleton was a dynamic and persuasive personality. Playing to people's emotions
and talents, he was not only able to build commitment and passion around a vision
but, through a genuine concern for his men, was able to forge a trust. When
McNeish challenged that foundation, Shackleton gambled that the rest remained
committed. He acted quickly and decisively to isolate McNeish and to maintain the
integrity and focus of the team. In the era of Edwardian England and the supremacy
of the Royal Navy, it was not good enough to be in command. One had to be seen
to be in command. Would I have made the same decision? I think yes, but with a
tendency to move quickly to task I often forget to build the commitment and trust
in my team. At the end of it all, I may not have come away with the same support
Shackleton had, and my leadership might have been in question.
Finally, I think it is important to remember that McNeish played a pivotal role
in the success of the expedition. His temperament and personality need to be
considered in the context of what he contributed.
—In 1985-86 Gareth Wood and two British companions
became the first people to trek unsupported to the South Pole, a feat Outside
magazine described as "One of the ten greatest feats of the decade." (www.garethwood.com)