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Shackleton's Voyage of Endurance
The End of the Quest
November 24, 1999
By Kelly Tyler

Location: Ushuaia, Argentina, Tierra del Fuego Wind: 10 knots, NNE
Latitude: 54°48'S Air Temp: 68°F
Longitude: 68°18'W Water Temp: 53°F
I hold that a man should strive to the uttermost for his life's set prize.
        —Robert Browning
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.

Puerto Williams 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.

One man rescue 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 McIlroy, Green, Hussey, McLeod, and 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.

Penguin closeup 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.

So now we'll go home.

Kelly Tyler is Online Producer for NOVA.

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.

    Previous Questions

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.

Sound of the Day
A shipstrike clock rings eight bells, the end of a sailor's watch:
    RealAudio: Eight bells | Get RealPlayer software

View Expedition Maps


Survival Training (October 19, 1999)
The James Caird Embarks (October 21, 1999)
The Roaring Forties (October 23, 1999)
Crossing the Convergence (October 24, 1999)
Arriving in South Georgia (October 27, 1999)
Grytviken (October 28, 1999)
Antarctic Kit: Dressing for Survival (October 31, 1999)
Stromness (November 1, 1999)
Kingdom of Blizzards (November 3, 1999)
King Haakon Bay (November 5, 1999)
The James Caird Sets Sail (November 8, 1999)
Glacier Traverse (November 10, 1999)
Elephant Island (November 11, 1999)
Erebus and Terror Gulf (November 12, 1999)
The Weddell Sea (November 15, 1999)
Visions of Endurance (November 18, 1999)
Return to Elephant Island (November 20, 1999)
Lost at Sea (November 21, 1999)
The End of the Quest (November 24, 1999)
Bound for South Georgia (April 7, 2000)
Return to King Haakon (April 10, 2000)
Farewell to Peggotty Camp (April 12, 2000)
Climbing South Georgia (April 13, 2000)
Stromness Revisited (April 15, 2000)
Reflections on Endurance (April 18, 2000)

Photos: (1,3) Kelly Tyler; (2) Rob Meyer.

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