In the footsteps of Shackleton
Summit Daily News
To say they don’t make men like Sir Ernest Shackleton anymore may be a bit of an understatement. The Anglo-Irish explorer is famed throughout the world as the leader of the infamous Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914 – a monumental failure in its original goal of traversing the Antarctic continent but a wild success in that Shackleton brought every man home alive after several grueling years on ice, snow, rock and freezing water.
Arriving in the Weddell Sea in late 1914, it wasn’t long before the expedition’s ship, the Endurance, was stuck in the pack ice. There the Endurance remained until November, 1915, when the ice eventually crushed the ship. As it sank, the men took to the lifeboats, resting on ice floes in the hope they’d drift to cached stores on Paulet Island. But when it finally broke up, the men ended up on uninhabited Elephant Island with zero hope of rescue. That left the difficult and ultimately heroic decision to strike out in one of the boats for the whaling station on South Georgia Island – nearly 800 miles away across one of the most inhospitable seas on earth. Thanks to the navigational abilities of the Endurance’s captain, Frank Worsley, the men were able to make it to the island in May of 1916.
But they landed on the wrong side, separated from the whaling station by mountainous terrain covered in snow. Leaving some of the men to wait, Shackleton, Worsley and seaman Tom Crean struck out across the mountain, arriving at the whaling station 36 hours later. Shackleton then saw to the rescue of the men on the other side of the island and the remainder of the expedition on Elephant Island.
Shackleton’s amazing tale has been told in a number of books and films – including a movie starring Kenneth Branaugh as Shackleton. In Breckenridge Thursday, someone with intimate knowledge of Shackleton’s route will present an overview of the story – and it’s not to be missed by those who like a good tale of cold-weather adventure.
Dr. Richard Reaney, a New Zealander visiting Summit County for several weeks, is an Antarctic historian who’s been to Antarctica more than a dozen times and who was part of an expedition in 1998 that retraced the route of Shackleton from Elephant Island to South Georgia Island and over the mountain to the site of the old whaling base. And while Reaney and his cohorts did not tackle the trek in winter, they were still unable to come close to the 36-hour time Shackleton did.
“I’ve done it three times, and the quickest we did it was in three days,” Reaney said. “And we had all the modern equipment, GPS and all that.”
Reaney’s group also retraced the sea route in a modern vessel, but it was enough to instill in him an admiration for Shackleton that borders on awe.
“What fascinates us about this story is Shackleton himself, his ability to lead men and the loyalty he generated by caring for his men,” Reaney said. “They were ready to follow him anywhere, even if it meant going into hell – which they did. When adversity struck, he had an answer for it.”
What’s amazing about Shackleton and other Antarctic explorers such as Amundsen, Scott and Byrd is that they faced unbelievably difficult conditions using clothing and gear quite primitive compared to explorers of today – yet they went back for more. Shackleton was somewhat unique in the level of compassion he had for his men. As Reaney said, most polar expeditions figured they’d lose some percentage of their men, but for Shackleton – who the men affectionately referred to only as “Boss” – that wasn’t acceptable.
“Shackleton put the lives of his men before the goals of the mission,” Reaney said.
But he couldn’t stay away from Antarctica. Even after the events of 1914-1916, Shackleton returned to South Georgia Island in 1922. On the way there, he suffered a heart attack and died at age 47 and was buried on the island.
Reaney said explorers like Shackleton were drawn to Antarctica not only for the challenge but because of the continent’s strong allure.
“Until you go down there and experience it, it’s hard to describe,” he said. “It’s almost alien to this Earth, a world of intense and immense beauty that casts a spell on you – like you can’t get enough of it.”
On Thursday, Reaney will show a PowerPoint presentation that goes over the history of Shackleton’s journey and which features original images from the expedition’s official photographer, Frank Hurley. He’ll then focus on the 1998 reenactment, conducted by a group of New Zealanders who wanted to underscore the importance of Captain Frank Worsley – himself a Kiwi.
“Here’s a New Zealander who took part in the expedition and who was in large part responsible for its success,” Reaney said. “Shackleton was not a small-boat man, but New Zealand is a nation of sailors and Worsley was quite the navigator.”
Indeed, Worsley feat finding South Georgia Island using the archaic method of dead reckoning and trying to fix his location on a sun that was rarely visible through the clouds was extraordinary.
“It’s uncanny that he was able to find that small island,” Reaney said.
Perhaps even more remarkable for Summit County residents, whose closets are stuffed with the latest high-tech clothing and gear, is that the men of the great age of polar exploration did it in wool and leather, stuffing their boots with something called sennegras to wick moisture. Frostbite was common, and snow blindness a hazard in the absence of modern eye protection.
But they went anyway.
“It was the last place on Earth we needed to explore,” Reaney said. “These were real men, tough. As one colleague told me, the Antarctic is like a mistress, but no mistress was ever as demanding as the Antarctic.”
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