Adventure Legend – Sir Ernest Shackleton
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A legendary polar explorer, and one of the chief figures of the time period known as the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, Sir Ernest Shackleton led three British Expeditions to the Antarctic. So strong was his love for the region that after his death in 1920, his wife asked that he be buried in South Georgia, accompanied by the stormy seas.
Here is a look at this great man’s life:
1. Explorer Extraordinaire
Ernest Shackleton is the ultimate personification of a time at the beginning of the 20th century that is now regarded as the “Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration”. An Irishman by birth, Shackleton put behind him the disappointment of his first foray into the frozen wastes of Antarctica – poor health led him to return home from the 1901-04 Discovery Expedition (also known as the National Antarctic Expedition) – to become one of history’s most storied polar explorers. His epic, though ultimately futile, attempt at crossing the continent of Antarctica would become a feat of “Endurance” for the ages.
2. Pull of the Ocean
It was through books that Shackleton got his taste for adventure. But such was his restiveness as a teen that his school (Dulwich College London) let the boy leave to seek a life out at sea. With the (reluctant) encouragement of his doctor-father, Shackleton became an apprentice aboard the Hoghton Tower, a sailing boat, and spent the next four years living the life of a seaman, learning the tools of the seafaring trade. Shackleton travelled around the world, sailing with men from all walks of life. These experiences would prove invaluable as he turned his gaze towards Antarctica.
3. “The Great Southern Journey”
Shackleton’s second journey to the South Pole was as part of the four-member Nimrod Expedition, which he led. During this trip, Shackleton and his fellow explorers reached as far south as anyone had ever done at that point in time – a latitude of 88° 23’ S, the equivalent of 97 geographical miles (that’s 112 statute miles, or 180km) from the South Pole. The party also reached the summit of Mount Erebus (3794 m/12,448ft), the first men to do so. Shackleton proved to be a fine, as well as an empathetic, leader of men. For his Nimrod exploits, he was knighted by King Edward VII.
4. Crossing the Continent
Though Norway’s Roald Amundsen became the first man to reach the South Pole (in December 1911, thus bringing an end to the enthralling race to the pole), Shackleton wasn’t short of motivation. The Anglo-Irish adventurer set his sights on crossing Antarctica from one end of the continent to the other – from the Weddell Sea to McMurdo Sound, via the pole. This was the aim of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, a three-year (1914-1917) journey that would go down in history as the epitome of heroic endeavour. So while Europe plunged into a bloody conflict (WWI), many thousands of miles away a band of intrepid voyagers was focused on making the marriage between man and science work positively.
5. Heroic Failure, Part-I (Trapped in Ice)
From the start, the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition was dogged with ill-luck. Upon arrival, before the party had set foot on land, their ship Endurance found itself trapped in pack ice in the Weddell Sea. This rendered it unsafe for routine on-board tasks, so once it became clear that there was no chance of the vessel extricating itself from the ice until at least the spring, Shackleton ordered that it be used as a winter station. But when the thaw came, the breaking of the floe only put pressure on Endurance’s hull, which led to the vessel being slowly crushed. With water rushing in, Shackleton gave the call for the ship to be abandoned – Endurance finally sank 10 months after coming under the vice-like grip of Antarctica’s ice.
6. Heroic Failure, Part-II (Land, Finally)
There seemed no end to the crew’s troubles. Floating ice stymied all attempts to reach posts where rations were stored, and Shackleton ordered all to evacuate in lifeboats and sail towards the nearest land. After five traumatic days at sea, they reached desolate Elephant Island, 557 km (346 miles) from where Endurance had gone down. Shackleton and five other expedition members then set sail, in three lifeboats, for the whaling stations on South Georgia, another harrowing journey, of 16 days, through stormy seas. Upon reaching the island’s southern littoral, Shackleton and two others trekked across mountains to reach a whaling station on the northern shore, from where a boat was sent to pick up the other three men. Shackleton, meanwhile, readied to rescue his fellow Endurance colleagues. That all of the expedition’s members were able to escape alive from such a dire situation, was nothing short of astounding. In time, the resourcefulness and courage of these men would become legendary.
7. At Rest, in the Southern Seas
After the exertions of polar exploration, Shackleton would die close to where he made his name, and where his legend was made. In 1921, restless as ever, he again set sail towards the planet’s southernmost extremity, as part of the Shackleton-Rowett Expedition, with an objective to circumnavigate the continent (and also to survey the area and conduct scientific studies). Sadly, Shackleton wasn’t able to start on the work, succumbing to a heart attack on board his ship, Quest, while it was anchored off South Georgia, in the south Atlantic. His wife requested that he be buried on the island – there could be no more fitting resting place for this great adventurer.