Mt. Erebus, photo by Anthony Powell
… come November, if I’m writing here, I’m going to mention that chilly word: Antarctica.
So here we are, and the story this time is Ernest Shackleton’s. Surely you’ve heard of him and his polar exploits: his farthest south (along with our old friends Scott and Wilson) as a member of Scott’s 1901 Discovery expedition; and then again, a farthest south in 1907, this time in command of his own expedition, reaching just 180 km short of the South Pole. During that same journey, his party discovered the Beardmore Glacier, became the first to travel on the South Polar Plateau, and the first to ascend Mt. Erebus. (Amazingly, thanks to Thomas Edison’s breakthrough wax cylinder technology and the UC Santa Barbara library’s Cylinder Audio Archive, we can hear a short account of that expedition in Shackleton’s own voice.)
As we’d say at the Passover table, dayenu! “It would have been enough!”
But Shackleton didn’t stop there. The South Pole already attained by Amundsen (handily) and Scott (disastrously) in 1912, Shackleton devised a new 1914 expedition, the Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition, with the goal of being the first to cross the entire Antarctic continent.
He never got that far. On the way to the Antarctic continent, his ship, the Endurance, became trapped in the pack ice of the Weddell Sea on January 19, 1915, she and her crew slowly drifting northward with the ice. After a month of helpless drifting, Shackleton ordered the crew to abandon ship and they camped on the ice beside her, slowly emptying the wounded ship of as many supplies as they could, watching day by day as their home was slowly crushed by the force of the ice.
100 years ago today, Endurance sank.
And there they were, alone at the bottom of the world, with three lifeboats, 29 men, and little else.
And that’s when the adventure really began, because now they had to find their way home safely, with no ship, and no hope of rescue.
I won’t spoil the ending for you, but it’s a breathtaking, nearly unbelievable adventure. Read it yourself if you haven’t already, and then come back here.
We’ll build a warm fire and pour some wine or whisky and talk all night of ice and adventure and bravery and intelligence and luck, of the golden age of polar exploration, and the way a story can grip you like ice around a ship, holding fast, pulling you under, and still somehow showing you the way home.