The Heroic Age
The captain of the ship, Frank Worsley, would remember the day vividly ever afterward. It was July, midwinter in Antarctica, and the darkness of the long polar night had been upon them for many weeks. The temperature was -30 [degrees] Fahrenheit, and around the ship, extending to the horizon in all directions, was a sea of ice, white and mysterious under the clear, hard stars. From time to time, the shriek of the wind outside broke all conversation. Away in the distance, the ice would groan, and Worsley and his two companions would listen to its ominous voice as it travelled to them across the frozen miles. Sometimes, the little ship would quiver and groan in response, her wooden timbers straining as the pressure from millions of tons of ice, set in motion by some faraway disturbance, at last reached her resting place and nipped at her resilient sides. One of the three men spoke.
"She's pretty near her end.... The ship can't live in this, Skipper. You had better make up your mind that it is only a matter of time. It may be a few months, and it may be only a question of weeks, or even days ... but what the ice gets, the ice keeps."
The year was 1915. The speaker was Sir Ernest Shackleton, one of the most renowned polar explorers of his day, and the third man was Frank Wild, his second-in-command. Their ship, Endurance, was trapped at latitude 74 [degrees] south, deep in the frozen waters of Antarctica's Weddell Sea. Shackleton had been intent on an ambitious mission: He and his men had travelled to the south to claim one of the last remaining prizes in exploration, the crossing on foot of the Antarctic continent.
Since December 1914, the Endurance had battled unusually heavy ice conditions, travelling more than 1,000 miles from the remote whaling stations on the island of South Georgia, at the gateway to the Antarctic Circle. One hundred miles short of her intended harbor, new ice conditions brought the Endurance to a halt. A northeast gale blowing on and off for six straight days compressed the pack against the Antarctic ice shelf, trapping the ship fast within it. Days later, the temperature plummeted to 9 [degrees], as good as cementing the loose pack for the winter. Meanwhile, the leisurely, unrelenting northerly drift of the Weddell Sea carried the Endurance within the pack farther and farther from the land it had come so close to reaching.
When Shackleton embarked upon his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, he was already a national hero with two polar expeditions behind him, including one that had taken him to within 100 miles of the South Pole, the farthest south anyone had travelled at that time. Yet for all the heroism of these earlier efforts, neither had accomplished what it had set out to do. By the time Shackleton headed south again in 1914, the prize of the South Pole, which he had twice sought, had been claimed by others. Undaunted, he had turned his sights upon a last great venture--the crossing of the Antarctic continent from the Weddell to the Ross Sea. The preparations for the Endurance expedition had been all-consuming; not the least of Shackleton's tasks had been raising the funds to make it possible. He was forty years of age, and he had summoned all his experience as explorer and organizer to bear on this ambitious undertaking. Shackleton could not yet know it, but the trans-Antarctic expedition would amount to another unsuccessful venture. Yet ultimately it would be for this, the failed Endurance expedition, that he would be most remembered.
Antarctic exploration of the early twentieth century was unlike exploration of anywhere else on earth. No dangerous beasts or savage natives barred the pioneering explorer's way. Here, with wind speeds up to nearly 200 miles an hour and temperatures as extreme as -100 [degrees] Fahrenheit, the essential competitions were pure and uncomplicated, being between man and the unfettered force of raw Nature, and man and the limits of his own endurance. Antarctica was also unique in being a place that was genuinely discovered by its explorers. No indigenous peoples had been living there all along, and the men who set foot on the continent during this age could authentically claim to have been where no member of humankind had ever cast a shadow.
Beginning in 1914 and ending in 1917, straddling the First World War, the Endurance expedition is often said to have been the last in the Heroic Age of polar exploration. The significance and ambition of Shackleton's proposed trans-Antarctic crossing is best appreciated within a context of the ordeals of heroism--and egotism--that had played out before. Indeed, Shackleton's greatness as a leader on the Endurance owes much to the sometimes insane suffering of his earlier Antarctic experiences.
The Heroic Age began when the ship Discovery, under the command of Captain Robert Falcon Scott, set out for Antarctica's McMurdo Sound in August 1901. Despite public talk of scientific advancement, the real objective of this first inland expedition, as of subsequent ones, was to reach the as yet unclaimed South Pole and win it for Britain. Scott chose two men to accompany him on this first bid for the pole--Dr. Edward Wilson, a physician, zoologist, and close friend; and Lieutenant Ernest Shackleton, a twenty-eight-year-old merchant service officer, whose commissions had taken him to Africa and the East. On November 2, the three men set out with nineteen sledging dogs and five loaded sledges. They faced an unspeakably daunting challenge, a round-trip journey of more than 1,600 miles, hard sledging all the way, through an entirely unknown and uncharted environment.
By day, the three man-hauled their loads with or without the aid of the dogs, ferrying their supplies in time-consuming relays. By night they meticulously divided their meager food into three equal portions and read Darwin to one another before retiring to their frozen sleeping bags. They starved, they suffered from scurvy. The dogs sickened and dropped, and were butchered to feed the survivors. Scott pushed his band on to 82 [degrees] 17' south, 745 miles north of the pole, before acknowledging their desperate situation and reluctantly giving the order to turn back. By this time, Shackleton was spitting blood, undone by scurvy, and sometimes had to be carried on the sledge. On February 3, 1903, three months after setting out, they arrived back at their ship. The last leg of this terrible journey had been a race for their very lives.
This first Antarctic trek established the pattern of heroic suffering that would characterize subsequent British expeditions. Yet even a casual perusal of the explorers' diaries suggests this suffering was unnecessary. Less than three weeks into their journey Wilson notes: "Dogs getting very tired and very slow (19 November).... The dogs made terribly heavy weather of it today, and the dog driving has become the most exasperating work (21 November).... Dogs very weary indeed and terribly slack and the driving of them has become a perfectly beastly business (24 November)." Day after day, one follows the downward spiral of these wretched, exhausted animals. It is unpleasant reading.
Scott's own diary sounds more alarms: "On the whole our ski so far have been of little value.... [T]he dogs, which have now become only a hindrance, were hitched on behind the sledges," Scott wrote on January 6, 1903. The following day he notes that they "dropped all the dogs out of the traces and pulled steadily ourselves for seven hours, covering ten good miles by sledge-meter.... [T]he animals walked pretty steadily alongside the sledges." It is a stunningly improbable image: Three men walking across Antarctica at about a mile an hour with their skis securely strapped to the sledges, accompanied by a pack of dogs. Scott and his companions had not taken the time to become proficient on skis, nor did they have any knowledge of driving dogs. Their prodigious difficulties, therefore, were the result of almost inconceivable incompetence, not necessity. And the men were starving--not because unforeseen disaster had taken their supplies, but because they had not rationed sufficient food. Shackleton, the biggest of the men, suffered the most because he required more fuel than did the others.
And they had quarrelled. Scott and Shackleton could not have been temperamentally more dissimilar and had virtually no rapport. As a product of the navy, Scott established a rigid order predicated upon rank and rules; on the Discovery, in the middle of the Antarctic, he put a man in irons for disobedience. Shackleton, an Anglo-Irishman from the ranks of the merchant marine, was charismatic, mixing easily with both crew and officers. He had been chosen to accompany Scott on account of his physical strength. The long days of white silence, the unrelenting tedium and hardship, the unrelieved close quarters--all these factors must have shredded the men's nerves. Wilson appears to have been forced to act as peacemaker on more than one occasion. Years later, Scott's second-in-command told the story that after breakfast one day Scott had called to the other men, "Come here, you bloody fools." Wilson asked if he was speaking to him, and Scott replied no. "Then it must have been me," said Shackleton. "Right, you're the worst bloody fool of the lot, and every time you dare to speak to me like that, you'll get it back." It is a surreal encounter, a piece of absurd theater--three men alone at the ends of the earth in a virtual whiteout, hissing at one another.
On their return to the Discovery, Scott invalided Shackleton home. Though mortified by his early return to England, Shackleton arrived home as a hero who had gone farther south than anyone before. And as the lone available authority on the expedition, he received more attention than would otherwise have been the case. This recognition, he must have known, would prove valuable should he one day wish to stage his own expedition. In any case, he would never again submit to the leadership of another man.
The son of a physician, Shackleton was comfortably middle-class. Born in County Kildare, Ireland, he had lived briefly in Dublin as a child, before his parents moved their family permanently to England. He was the eldest of two sons and had eight doting sisters. Shackleton had been educated at Dulwich College, a middle-class public school of high reputation, before joining the British Merchant Navy at age sixteen. Prior to volunteering for the National Antarctic Expedition, under Captain Scott, he had been a third officer with a prestigious merchant service line. Charming and handsome, with dark, brooding looks, Shackleton was a man of romantic ambitions, and in later life would fall under the spell of many a fruitless fortune-making scheme. Polar exploration appealed to both his poetical nature and his urgent aspiration to secure a position in the class-riven world of his time. The Discovery expedition had opened the door onto a more glamorous and congenial life; it was a way out of the middle class.
In 1904, Shackleton married his patient sweetheart, Emily Dorman, who, as the daughter of a well-to-do lawyer, was of modestly independent means. Now more than ever, he wanted to establish a name for himself. When ventures into journalism, business, and even politics failed, Shackleton moved towards his ultimate destiny. In early 1907, he obtained seed money for a new expedition to the South Pole. In August of the same year, after less than seven months of frantic organization, his ship Nimrod set sail for the south.
Shackleton had learned much on the Discovery expedition, but he had not learned all he should; the Nimrod departed with ten Manchurian ponies and only nine dogs--even though expeditions to the Arctic had by this time proved that dog teams were the only practical mode of polar transportation. Shackleton had also made little progress in learning how to ski, and much of his mountaineering equipment would prove inadequate.
These shortcomings notwithstanding, on October 29, 1908, Shackleton departed from his base at Cape Royds over the Great Ice Barrier on his second journey south with three companions and a team of four ponies. Once again, the pattern of man-hauling and suffering began. The ponies slipped and floundered, at times sinking up to their bellies in the snow. Eventually, most would be shot and eaten. By early December, Shackleton and his three companions--Frank Wild, Dr. Eric Marshall, and Lieutenant Jameson Adams--had reached the tongue of a massive, hitherto unknown glacier that flowed from the range of mountains abutting the Great Ice Barrier. Christened by Shackleton the Beardmore Glacier after one of the expedition's patrons, it was to be his party's gateway from the ice shelf on which they had been travelling to the continental plateau behind the mountains. It provided a fearful, glittering passage. Without crampons the men, accompanied by Socks, the lone remaining and unshod pony, fought their way up the dangerous tongue of ice. On the third day, the pony fell down a crevasse to his death. Suffering from snow-blindness, hunger, and frostbite, the men struggled beyond the Beardmore on to 88 [degrees] 23' south--approximately 100 miles short of the pole. Here, Shackleton took realistic stock of their meager provisions and failing strength, and made the bitter decision to turn back while survival was still possible. Near journey's end, with Adams critically ailing, Shackleton and Frank Wild dumped all the gear they could spare so as to make a desperate dash for the relief of their companion. They travelled thirty-six hours with little rest, only to find that the base camp they had so long dreamed of was deserted. They were discovered shortly afterward when the Nimrod returned with a search party preparing to winter over and look for their bodies.
Shackleton's effort surpassed Scott's southern record by some 360 miles. Although he and his companions had suffered greatly, they survived and, thanks in great part to the fresh pony meat, had kept scurvy at bay. Back in England, Shackleton became a national hero and was knighted. Although he publicly made tentative plans for another southern expedition, this one to explore the land west of Cape Adare in the Ross Sea, his time was consumed by efforts to pay off the Nimrod's debts. For the next couple of years, Shackleton hit the lecture trail, dictated a best-selling book called The Heart of the Antarctic, and even turned the Nimrod into a museum, to which he charged admission. Meanwhile Scott, with the prayers and good wishes of the nation, headed back for another assault on the South Pole. Shackleton, mired in financial obligations, could only read the headlines and wait.
Scott's last journey is, of course, an epic of its own. In October 1910, the news broke that the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had secretly turned back from a projected trip to the Arctic and was headed south, intent on beating the British to the pole. The race was on. Both expeditions set out in October 1911, Scott from Cape Evans, near his old base, Amundsen from the Bay of Whales, some distance to the east. Scott's party, bogged down by a bewildering array of modes of transportation--ponies, such as Shackleton had already proved to be useless, motor sledges that didn't work, and dogs that no one knew how to drive--slogged their way south, adhering closely to Shackleton's route and playing out the now traditional drama of starvation and hardship. Amundsen and his four companions, travelling by ski with a team of fifty-two superbly conditioned and trained dogs, averaged a comfortable fifteen to twenty miles a day in comparison with Scott's ragged ten- to thirteen-mile daily pace. On their homeward run, the Norwegians covered up to thirty miles a day.
"Cannot understand what the English mean when they say that dogs cannot be used here," Amundsen puzzled in his diary. On January 16, 1912, Scott and his debilitated team staggered to 89 [degrees] south to find the snow crisscrossed with the tracks of Amundsen's party.
"The worst has happened," Scott allowed in his diary "All the day dreams must go." The following day, the dispirited party continued to the pole, planted their flag, took their notes and photographs, and prepared to turn back.
"Great God! this is an awful place," wrote Scott. "Now for the run home and a desperate struggle. I wonder if we can do it."
They could not. Each of the five men in Scott's company died on the ice. The end came in a raging blizzard that trapped the party, down to three survivors, in their single tent, a mere eleven miles south of a vital supply depot. Now Scott unfurled his real greatness--not for expeditionary leadership, but for language.
"We shall die like gentlemen," he wrote to the expedition's treasurer in England. "I think this will show that the Spirit of pluck and power to endure has not passed out of our race." His Message to the Public is a litany of excuses stirringly presented--failed pony transport, weather, snow, "frightfully rough ice," "a shortage of fuel in our depots for which I cannot account," the illness of his brave companion Titus Oates. Yet, it is a cynical reader indeed who remains unmoved by this tide of final words penned in the gallant little tent and poured forth into the white night that raged around it.
"Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions, which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale."
"It seems a pity," he wrote as his diary's last entry, on March 29, "but I do not think I can write more."
It took nearly a year for Scott's last words to reach the outside world. When they did, in February 1913, they plunged the entire empire into deep mourning. "With the sole exception of the death of Nelson in the hour of victory, there has been nothing so dramatic," a journalist noted. Scott's tragedy was commemorated in the press and in the pulpit. In the public telling, his party's fatal, perverse blunders were not merely forgotten but evaporated out of existence. A myth was born, and propagated by the eventual publication of Scott's diaries, subtly edited by Sir James Barrie, the author of Peter Pan and a master of sentimental prose.
This, then, was the background against which Shackleton pulled together his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Setting out the year after the news of Scott's death, the Endurance expedition was ambivalently perceived as both a gripping national event and an anticlimax. In the public imagination, Antarctica was very much the place for heroic adventure; yet it seemed unthinkable that any future success could surpass Scott's glorious failure.
Shackleton's aims, as stated in his expedition's prospectus, were compelling:
From the sentimental point of view, it is the last great Polar journey that can be made. It will be a greater journey than the journey to the Pole and back, and I feel it is up to the British nation to accomplish this, for we have been beaten at the conquest of the North Pole and beaten at the conquest of the South Pole. There now remains the largest and most striking of all journeys--the crossing of the Continent.
Shackleton eventually cobbled together funds for his grand venture. His principal backers were the British government and Sir James Key Caird, a wealthy Scottish jute manufacturer who contributed a princely gift of 24,000 [pounds sterling]. Other benefactors of note were Miss Janet Stancomb-Wills, daughter of a tobacco tycoon, and Dudley Docker, of the Birmingham Small Arms Company. Lesser outright gifts came from the Royal Geographical Society, other individuals, and public schools throughout England, who underwrote the dog-sledging teams.
Another source of money was the advance sale of all "news and pictorial rights" to the expedition. Antarctica was the first continent to be discovered by camera. Beginning with Scott's first expedition in 1902, photography had captured the slow inroads made on its white, inviolate vastness. These photographic records had proved to be not only of historic and geographic interest, but also highly popular. Herbert Ponting's 90 [degrees] South, a cinematographic tribute to Scott's last expedition, was still a favorite when Shackleton's party set out. Mindful of this, Shackleton formed the Imperial Trans Antarctic Film Syndicate specifically to exploit all film rights to the expedition, exclusive story rights having been sold to the Daily Chronicle.
Shackleton purchased a ship from Norway's famous Framnaes shipyard, long a supplier of polar vessels. A 300-ton wooden barquentine, she was named Polaris and had never sailed. She was 144 feet long, built of planks of oak and Norwegian fir up to two and one-half feet thick, and sheathed in greenheart, a wood so tough it cannot be worked by conventional means. Every detail of her construction had been scrupulously, even lovingly, planned by a master shipwright to ensure her maximum strength. She was, it seemed, ideally equipped to withstand the ice. Shackleton renamed her Endurance after his family motto: Fortitudine Vincimus--"by endurance we conquer."
In fact two vessels were required. While Shackleton intended to commence his overland trek from the Weddell Sea, his plans called for a relief ship to sail to his old base at Cape Royds in the Ross Sea. From there, a six-man depot-laying party would advance inland, depositing caches of supplies for the use of Shackleton's transcontinental party when it slogged its way overland from the other side. For this task, Shackleton purchased the Aurora, an old-time sealer built in 1876 that had served a former colleague, the great Australian explorer Douglas Mawson.
By August, all seemed ready. Although the British press had shown keen interest in Shackleton's latest polar adventure, the departure of the Endurance from its London dock on August 1, 1914, was eclipsed by more important news: Germany had declared war on Russia, and a European war was now imminent. Having sailed from London to Plymouth, the ship was still in British waters when the order for general mobilization was given on Monday, August 4. After consulting with his crew, Shackleton placed the Endurance and her company at the disposal of the government, believing "there were enough trained and experienced men among us to man a destroyer." Privately, he must have held his breath: After so much work and planning, to be thwarted at the start! But the one-word telegraphed reply from the Admiralty dissolved his fears: "Proceed." A longer cable from Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, followed, saying that the authorities desired the expedition to take place, and on August 8, the Endurance set sail from Plymouth.
With the example of Amundsen's triumph of efficiency vividly before him, Shackleton had taken what were by British standards enormous pains with his preparations. He had succeeded in having seconded to the expedition a young officer from the Royal Marines who, although officially the motor expert, was also proficient enough on skis to act as an instructor for the company. The Illustrated London News ran a photograph of Shackleton testing his new domed tents in Norway. He had consulted with professional nutritionists regarding sledging rations and, heeding the adamant advice of the Norwegians, arranged to have sixty-nine Canadian sledge dogs delivered to Buenos Aires, where the Endurance would pick them up on her way south. These were, according to his second-in-command, "a mixture of wolf & about any kind of big dog, Collie, Mastiff, Great Dane, Bloodhound, Newfoundland, Retriever, Airedale, Boarhound etc."
Despite these efforts his party was not as shipshape as Shackleton may have thought. He had his dogs, but his sole experienced dog trainer and driver, a Canadian, dropped out at the last minute when Shackleton was unwilling to pay a hefty insurance deposit; also left behind were worm pills, which, as matters turned out, the dogs would desperately need. Shackleton's plans for the continental crossing called for an average of fifteen miles' sledging a day, very close to Amundsen's outward-going average of sixteen--and yet only one of Shackleton's men left England actually knowing how to ski.
But the expedition had intangible assets deriving from Shackleton's previous endeavors. In 1909, having trudged to 88 [degrees] south, 100 miles short of the pole, he had turned his back on certain glory and led his men on the long journey home. After so many hard miles, it was excruciating to leave the unclaimed prize for another man--let alone a rival. Yet Shackleton resisted persuading himself that he could safely cover those forgone miles, or that they counted for more than life itself. Had he been less self-possessed, or more desperate for glory, undoubtedly Ernest Shackleton would have been the first man to stand at the South Pole--and he and his trusting men would have died somewhere close to where Scott and his party perished in their little tent. Shackleton's decision to turn back was more than a singular act of courage; it bespoke the dogged optimism that was the cornerstone of his character. Life would always offer more chances.
"One has the feeling that if it had been Shackleton who lost to Amundsen at the pole, he would have met up with the Norwegians on the way back, and they would have all held a big celebratory party," a distinguished polar historian once told me. The despondency that clearly crushed Scott on his loss to Amundsen was unknown to Shackleton. He seems to have been possessed of a ferocious but handily adaptable single-mindedness: Once intent on achieving the pole, he strained every nerve to get there; but when survival became the challenge, he was not distracted by such demons as regret or the fear of being perceived a failure.
Early in his career, Shackleton became known as a leader who put his men first. This inspired unshakable confidence in his decisions, as well as tenacious loyalty. During the march back from 88 [degrees] south, one of Shackleton's three companions, Frank Wild, who had not begun the expedition as a great admirer of Shackleton, recorded in his diary an incident that changed his mind forever. Following an inadequate meal of pemmican and pony meat on the night of January 31, 1909, Shackleton had privately forced upon Wild one of his own biscuits from the four that he, like the others, was rationed daily.
"I do not suppose that anyone else in the world can thoroughly realize how much generosity and sympathy was shown by this," Wild wrote, underlining his words. "I DO by GOD I shall never forget it. Thousands of pounds would not have bought that one biscuit."
When Shackleton headed south on the Endurance in August 1914, it was with Frank Wild as his second-in-command. Wild never forgot the private act of kindness, and his adamantine loyalty to Shackleton would prove to be one of the expedition's major assets. However deficient the preparations for the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition may have been, on one point it was secure: Its men had a leader who had shown signs of greatness. To be sure, Shackleton would fail once more to achieve his expedition's goal; in fact, he was destined never to set foot on the Antarctic continent again. Nevertheless, he would see his men through one of the greatest epics of survival in the annals of exploration.