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Shackleton's Voyage of Endurance
Reflections on Endurance
That was all of tangible things; but in memories we were rich. 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.
        —Ernest Shackleton
Between April 12 and April 14, mountaineers Reinhold Messner, Stephen Venables, and Conrad Anker traversed the remote subantarctic island of South Georgia. Eighty-four years ago, Ernest Shackleton, Frank Worsley, and Tom Crean crossed the island, whose mountains and glaciers were deemed impassable, to save their companions stranded on Elephant Island. It was a breathtaking feat, all the more astounding for what had come before: Marooned in the Antarctic for 17 months, Shackleton and his men sailed 800 miles in an open lifeboat to arrive at South Georgia. He was certain of how they had fared so well, later writing: "I do not wish to belittle our success with the pride that apes humility. Under Providence we had overcome great difficulties and dangers...."

Arrival Stephen Venables, Reinhold Messner, and Conrad Anker arrived at the Stromness Manager's Villa after the traverse.
Providence was not always so kind. Shackleton, Worsley, and Crean couldn't know that, during their ordeal, a handful of men struggled with their same lot. As the Caird braved the Drake Passage, a ship called the Argos that was bound for South Georgia never arrived. When whalers returned in the spring to the seasonal whaling station near the mouth of Possession Bay, they found seven improvised beds and, nearby, a body. Later, wreckage from the Argos washed up in King Haakon Bay. No one has ever solved the mystery, but it is thought that the doomed argonauts groped their way toward salvation along Shackleton's route and failed in the attempt.

As they marked time in Peggotty Camp, waiting for the weather to turn to allow passage into the interior, Shackleton mused with Worsley over the appearance of ship's flotsam in King Haakon Bay: "Someday, Skipper, you and I will come and dig here for old treasure, or perhaps sleep quietly with the other old seamen." As time slipped away, anxiety for the men on Elephant Island darkened his mood, and he vowed: "I will never take another expedition, Skipper." But the Sirens of the South proved too strong. Six years later, he returned to South Georgia aboard Quest. While she waited in Cumberland Bay to carry him once more to the Antarctic, his troubled heart failed. Today, Shackleton sleeps quietly, along with the sage whalers of the Southern Ocean, in the cemetery at Grytviken.

Climbers at grave The climbers visit Shackleton's grave in Grytviken.
In tribute, their names are forever graven on the forbidding landscape of South Georgia—Shackleton Gap, the Crean Glacier, Mount Worsley. Thoughts of the men were everpresent in the minds of Messner, Venables, and Anker as they retraced those historic footsteps. As the Akademik Shuleykin sits at anchor off Grytviken the climbers share their reflections on the traverse.

Reinhold Messner:
Ernest Shackleton will go down in history as a climber. Since I followed his route across South Georgia, I know what this man was capable of. We three—Stephen, Conrad, and I—have climbed in Alaska, the Alps, and the Himalayas; we have crossed glaciers and summited big mountains. Together we have many decades of experience, and even then we had to draw upon all of our instincts and endurance to cross the cut-up glaciers between King Haakon Bay and Stromness. On the Crean glacier, the situation was so hopeless that we thought we would be unable to get through this ice labyrinth. Even then we had crampons, ice screws, ice tools, and a super-light climbing rope. Shackleton and his men had none of this equipment. They had only the direction and the obligation to reach Stromness, the next human outpost, their last hope after 17 months on the ice. This relief was five mountain ridges away.

Unlike us, they had no idea of the difficulties and danger that lay ahead of them on this last leg of their odyssey. Shackleton realized only that he had to bring help to the 27 men waiting in miserable conditions at the end of the world. The self-rescue of the Endurance expedition is a timeless story of a born loser who in the worst failure grew out of himself, made the going home of his men a victory of human endurance, innate risk management, and supreme trust. Shackleton in this saga is the born leader with a heart the size of a mine, who would rather die than become a tragic hero.

Because of the uncertainty of what might happen next—disorientation, starvation, freezing in the polar night, hopelessness—the overall sanity of the group was often in a delicate balance between fatalism and duty. Shackleton's personality was so strong that he combined these two emotions in a common hope. The crossing of South Georgia is only the dot on the "i" of a series of risky steps, mastered obstacles on a long journey back to civilization.

Shackleton, who initially set out to best the famous Robert Falcon Scott who was driven by ego, would become a hero in a battle with no chance of success. The only possibility to not go crazy after his total failure was the determination to return home. On this retreat he regained the self-worth that Scott had taken away during the 1902 Discovery expedition.

The story of Shackleton, who led his men from an ice prison in the south to freedom in the north, continually at the human limit of suffering and struggling, is a singular example in the whole of human history. This story would not be possible in our time. I think that experiences like this are not even imaginable, so large was the exposure for such a length of time.

Stephen Venables:
I first read about Shackleton's epic crossing of South Georgia 30 years ago, and ever since then I have wondered what those glaciers are really like. Now at last I have had the chance to find out.

Crean Stephen Venables and Reinhold Messner pause during the crossing of the Crean Glacier.

When we set off from King Haakon Bay on Tuesday afternoon, the initial impression was of a gentle, benign landscape. The sun was shining, the glacier surface was smooth, and it only took an hour or so to reach the broad saddle of the Shackleton Gap and see over to the water of Possession Bay, which, in the moonlight, Shackleton and his companions initially mistook for a great frozen lake. Then, in the morning, reality began to kick in. The climb up to the first big transverse ridge was longer than I expected, the crevasses bigger and more threatening than I had ever imagined. But it was thrilling to see the four notches in the ridge, described so precisely by Frank Worsley all those years ago, and the huge windscoop at the side of the glacier, which he said would easily swallow up two battle cruisers. Unlike Shackleton, we chose the third, not the fourth notch, and set off down the east side. It must have been nearly 1,000 feet down to the Crean Glacier. At one point, zigzagging cautiously between giant crevasses, Reinhold said "We are in a trap" but then he headed over to the right, shouting "Maybe I can smell a way." With uncanny skill, he did manage to find a way out to the bottom. Looking back up at the slope which Shackleton and his companions had glissaded down, we knew that if we had tried to slide the same way, all three of us would have been killed. Even allowing for the fact that glacial recession has made the slope much more fractured, we were still amazed by Shackleton's boldness in 1916, launching himself with Worsley and Crean down that huge slope, without being able to see the bottom.

The Crean Glacier proved to be a labyrinth, a crisscross mesh of deep blue crevasses. Just before nightfall Reinhold broke his foot jumping over one of them. Most people would have stopped to discuss rescue possibilities. He just carried on through the pain, insisting on getting as far as we could before darkness forced us to stop and camp on the ten-foot square top of a giant ice cube.

Crammed into the tent, warmed by the roar of the pressure stove, sharing soup, bread, Tyrolean dried pork and a hip flask of Calvados, I thought of Shackleton travelling without a tent, knowing that if his party were caught out by a blizzard they would probably die. Our journey was no desperate rescue mission, and we had all the benefits of modern equipment. Even so, I like to think that we recaptured something of the spirit of Shackleton's crossing. Despite the tent, we travelled light and moved fast. There was the same camaraderie and implicit trust that sustained Shacketon's team. I had heard all about Conrad's extraordinary climbs. I had known about Reinhold ever since I started climbing 25 years ago. Now here I was, sharing a great adventure with these two people, knowing that Conrad would find the best route out of the labyrinth—which he did the next morning.

On that third day, it was thrilling to cross the highest pass, by the "great domed rock" where Shackleton's team stopped at midnight to gaze down into what they first thought was Stromness Bay and later realized was actually Fortuna Bay. We left that final leg of the journey for the next day, coming down suddenly from a maelstrom of swirling snow to warm sunshine, green moss, and the joyful trumpeting of penguins on the beach. By this stage Shackleton's men had already heard the factory whistle at the whaling station, and I could imagine their mounting excitement as they forced themselves on over the final low ridge separating them from Stromness Bay. After three days of keeping up with Anker and Messner (even with a broken foot he moves fast!) I was feeling quite tired and sore. I felt as though I had covered a huge chunk of difficult ,wild complex country, even though I had had two good nights sleep on the way. In 1916 they had done the whole thing nonstop. They must have been so exhausted on this final stretch, driven just by the euphoria of success. In the whole history of adventure and exploration, there is no more moving incident than the moment when they reached the final pass and looked down into Stromness Bay. When we got there I reminded Conrad that this was where Shackleton's men shook hands for the third time on their traverse. Now there were no steamships in the bay, no workers on the shore, but we could see some of the same buildings of Stromness, bathed in sunlight, 1,500 feet below. That view—that moment of knowing that he had made it, at the end of his 17-month odyssey, defying probability again and again, surviving against all the odds—must have been the greatest moment in Shackleton's life.

Crean Messner, Venables, and Anker descend from Trident Ridge.
Conrad Anker:
Eighty-four years have passed since Shackleton, Worsley and Crean traversed from Peggotty Bluff in King Haakon Bay to the Stromness whaling station. The traverse of the uncharted area led to the eventual rescue of the 22 men stranded on Elephant Island. What has changed since 1916?

Perhaps what hasn't changed is more fitting. The constant force of the weather, lashing in from the South Atlantic, remains the same. South Georgia in the fall is a dismal, wet place. Rain, snow, wind, sleet, fog, and blizzards move through with alarming frequency. Sunshine, the elixir of the spirit, is a rare treat—something that neither Shackleton nor I and my teammates, Stephen Venables and Reinhold Messner, had very much of.

The physical terrain we traversed is vastly drier than what Shackleton experienced. To glissade sitting on a coiled rope from the Trident Col, as Shackleton and his men did, would in today's conditions be disastrous. The warming our planet has undergone has transformed the Crean Glacier into a checkerboard of crevasses. The terrain we crossed would not be possible with the equipment Shackleton, Worsley, and Crean had at their disposal. The crevasses required climbing techniques that were not developed until after the Second World War.

Communication is the most dramatic change from my perspective. In this day and age of satellite mapping, communication, and support, there is little we did not know about the traverse before setting off. The same machines that allow this correspondence remove the element of the unknown from any adventure we embark on. To make it a challenge we eschew the use of radios, GPS devices, and emergency back-up. Shackleton, as much as he would have wished for it, had none of this. For all his compatriots in England knew he was sledging to the Ross Sea. The rescue back-up these men had was their own will and determination. The remoteness Shackleton experienced will never be possible: We have simply mapped and researched every nook and cranny on our planet.

The story of the Endurance is, with out question, one of the most riveting tales of adventure ever. Although Shackleton never attained the goal he set out on, something greater than crossing the Antarctic continent resulted from the tribulations of 28 men. The ability to persevere, to keep trying in the face of insurmountable odds, and the tenacity of the human body and spirit are vital lessons that supersede time. May the will and determination of Shackleton motivate our own actions.

Coffee Conrad Anker and Reinhold Messner continue filming on a South Georgia glacier.
Note: Although this is the final dispatch of the Online Adventure, the expedition will remain at South Georgia several more days to finish up filming before heading back on April 21st to Montevideo, Uruguay.

Kelly Tyler is Online Producer for NOVA.

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) Kelly Tyler; (2,3,6) Alex Taylor; (4) Conrad Anker; (5) Michael Graber.

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