I hold that a man should strive to the uttermost for his life's set prize.
Last night, the waters were becalmed, a westerly blowing a desultory
breeze. After an uneasy crossing of the Drake Passage, the Akademik Shuleykin
entered the Beagle Channel, wending its way through the dense cluster of islets
to the port of Ushuaia. First low hills, then mountains and glaciers rose up from
the water's edge. The air was richly green, scented with peat bogs and southern
beeches, the first trees we had smelled in 33 days. Off the bow, we sighted our
first town in as long, Puerto Williams. A relic of
Shackleton's past is secreted here,
in this remote outpost of Patagonia. As we drew near, the wind freshened, and in minutes,
lashing gusts howled through the ship's rigging at 48 knots. A low mist descended over
the town, while the setting sun silvered the mountains of the opposite bank. Here lies
the bow of the Yelcho, the ship that Shackleton sailed to save his men on Elephant
Island, touched in homage by this breath of an Antarctic tempest conjured so far north.
Our view of Puerto Williams as we cruised through the Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego.
When the James Caird, the Stancomb Wills, and the Dudley Docker beat in to
Elephant Island, Shackleton knew there would be no refuge or rescue there. So he set
out with five men aboard the James Caird, to sail 800 miles to South Georgia Island,
into the rage of the Drake Passage. Shackleton, Tom Crean, and Frank
Worsley crossed the mountains and
glaciers of the seemingly impassable interior in less than two days, arriving at
Stromness on May 20, 1916. Three days later, Shackleton was sailing south aboard the
Southern Sky. But the unyielding pack ice of Elephant Island refused this more
formidable ship entry where the James Caird passed freely, and he was turned back.
A second foray in the Instituto de Pesca No. 1 was blocked 20 miles from the shore,
and a third aboard the Emma fared worse. Finally, on August 30, 1916 after
22 months, Shackleton pushed through aboard the Chilean ship Yelcho, as he remembered in South:
At 11:40 a.m., Worsley's keen eyes detected the camp, almost invisible
under its covering of snow. The men ashore saw us at the same time, and we saw tiny black
figures hurry to the beach and wave signals to us—I turned the Yelcho in, and within
half an hour reached the beach with Crean and some of the Chilean sailors.
The film crew films a recreation of Shackleton's arrival at Elephant Island in a Chilean rescue boat.
Just days ago, a small wooden boat approached the mist-shrouded shore of Cape Wild,
bearing a figure silhouetted on the blue-chopped sea. Careworn shoulders bent, the
figure slowly raised his hat and saluted a band of ragged men on the shore. It was Bob
Wallace as Shackleton,
in the final shot we filmed. The crew arrayed around the scene was once again stunned
by a tableau from the past, in the same place where Shackleton's men stood 83 years ago.
It was a transcendent moment.
That moment would live with Shackleton for the rest of his days. When he gave the
order to abandon the Endurance as she writhed in her death throes, he said
to his men, "So now we'll go home." And, true to his word, he brought them all home.
In January 1917, he journeyed to the far side of the continent to recover the men of the
Ross Sea Party and was sorrowed
to find three souls missing. He returned to civilization like a man out of time.
"We were like men arisen from the dead to a world gone mad." They scrambled to make
sense of a world riven by war. Shackleton and 30 of them went to the front.
But his guilt for having missed the heat of the battle seems not to have healed,
and the next years were unsettled ones, as Shackleton sought in vain for the sure
purpose that had driven him in the Antarctic. His head was full of grand schemes
and pirate treasure. In 1921, he turned south once again. His closest comrades from the
Endurance, Worsley, Wild, and
Macklin, all came, as did
Kerr. Their ship was called Quest, an emblem of Shackleton's fretful searching.
In Grytviken, the men revisited the vivid scenes of their past, illuminated in memory by Frank
Hurley's photographs. He resisted his faithful friend Macklin's efforts to minister to
him after a recent heart attack. "You are always wanting me to give up something,"
Shackleton chided. "What do you want me to give up now?" With these last words, he
died on January 5, 1922. His body was on its way back to England, but when the bier
reached Montevideo, his widow Emily sent him back to South Georgia. He was buried in
Grytviken, in the whaler's cemetery.
A king penguin stands in sight of Shackleton's grave in the Grytviken whaler's cemetery, South Georgia.
Shackleton's avowed goal of Endurance, the transcontinental crossing of Antarctica,
eluded him, not to be achieved until 1957, when the great explorers Sir Vivian Fuchs and
Sir Edmund Hillary finally completed it. But in his restless questing, Shackleton perhaps
lost sight of the more precious thing he had possessed:
"We had pierced the veneer of outside things. We had 'suffered, starved
and triumphed, grovelled down yet grasped at glory, grown bigger in the bigness of the
whole.' We had seen God in his splendours, heard the text that Nature renders. We had
reached the naked soul of man."
It is a rare thing, perhaps beyond the comprehension of most of us. It calls to my mind
Apsley Cherry-Garrard: "They were men apart. They failed, but in the end they exceeded
the grasp of the petty enemies that plague the lives of ordinary men: hunger, cold,
privation, solitude. I was not fit company [equal to] such men."
In these past weeks in the Antarctic, we have seen fleeting glimpses of the Endurance
in places unchanged since Shackleton strove and struggled here. We too have struggled
with the elements, defied them, and been chastened. Now, on the eve of our departure,
Bob Wallace speaks of the three wooden boats. As soon as he leaves here, he will journey
to see Shackleton's James Caird and take her measure, the first step to
rebuilding a namesake. We will return to the Antarctic, but for the moment, our work is done.
Question of the Day
After 18 months, you reach civilization and organize a rescue. It's time to go
home to your family and enjoy a nice long vacation—or is it?
Shackleton did not return home to England until May 1917—18 months after the
Endurance had been crushed and nearly three years since his expedition
had set forth from England. Surely he would now return home, rest, spend time
with his family and reflect on all he had accomplished against such odds. But
he did not do this. Instead, he began agitating for a commission of some kind
in the war effort. Eventually he landed a post in Archangel, Russia, a place
that must have been as bleak in its way as the Antarctic, and without its beauty.
Shackleton returned to a world at war—and not just any war, but the war
that changed Europe forever. He was keenly conscious that he had missed out
on military action; in fact, all his men who were able enlisted, and several
lost their lives in action, including Alf Cheetham and Tim McCarthy, who had so
valiantly served the James Caird. It is perhaps difficult in the cynical
1990's to conjure up the feelings of shame, honor, patriotism, and duty that
impelled Shackleton and his men into the war after all they had gone through.
There is also the question of Shackleton's temperament. He was not particularly
suited to civilian life and was restless and unhappy at home with his family,
whom he nonetheless undoubtedly loved. As he himself once said, he was far
happier being off in the wilds with his men. After the Endurance, this
must have been especially true; no one in domestic, civilian life could
comprehend the battles Shackleton and his men fought and won.
—Caroline Alexander is the author of The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition (Knopf, 1998), upon which the NOVA/White Mountain Films films are based.
Answer to November 21 Question of the Day:
After your 800-mile open boat journey, you land on South Georgia. But you've
landed on the south side, and the populated harbors are on the north side—on the other side of glaciers and mountains which have never been crossed before.
Should you try and hike it or sail around the island?
Shackleton and Worsley were quite happy to land anywhere on South Georgia.
They had been there before and knew the basic layout of the island. Their
initial relief in getting ashore in one piece and finding the sheltered Cave
Camp gave them time to locate themselves and consider their options, of which
going back out to sea with two sick men figured quite low.
In Tom Crean, Shackleton had a courageous and most experienced glacial
traveller, a veteran of the Discovery and Terra Nova expeditions,
and in Frank Worsley, he had an exceptional navigator to lead the way. Using their
sea chart, they had only to find Possession Bay and then pick off Antarctic Bay,
Fortuna Bay, and then Stromness Bay, where they were confident at least one of the
whaling stations would be in production. In Shackleton's position, I too would have hiked!
—Frank Nugent was joint leader of the South Aris -
Irish Antarctic Adventure, which tried in January 1997 to repeat Shackleton's crossing
from Elephant Island to South Georgia. They were forced to abandon their boat,
a replica of the James Caird that they christened the Tom Crean, when
they ran into a sustained Force 10 storm, which capsized them three times in 30 hours.
Nugent went on to complete a repeat of Shackleton's glacial traverse from King
Haakon Bay to Stromness in February 1997.