By December 1911, the South pole was just another notch on Roald Amundsen’s belt. Robert F. Scott, as we know, reached that awful place a month later, and then perished on the return.
If you were a south polar explorer in 1914, all the good stuff had been claimed already. But Ernest Shackleton couldn’t bear to stay home, so he came up with a bold idea and he gave it a grand name: The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. His aim, in short, was to be the first human to walk across the Antarctic continent.
Shackleton, no stranger to Antarctic expeditions (having been part of Scott’s 1901-1904 Discovery expedition, and claimed the Farthest South prize in 1909) was full of grand plans and schemes and the story of his expedition is riveting, replete with danger, disaster, impossible odds, extreme bravery, and all you’d expect of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. His ship, the Endurance, was beset and then crushed in the pack ice off the coast of Antarctica and there he was with the rest of his crew, the sled dogs, three lifeboats, and anything else they could drag from the doomed ship before it sunk below the ice.
Stranded on the ice with no one who would even notice they were missing for at least a year.
But there’s a difference in this story: he came out of it alive, and so did every single member of the expedition. This was no small feat in a place that has no respect for human life, where even today, in the age of synthetic fabrics, specialized diets for athletes, and satellite phones, brave explorers perish just miles from safety.
So here I am, armchair polar explorer who detests the cold and is so low on the bravery scale that I’ve repeatedly refused to walk across the frozen Connecticut River in deep mid-winter even though M really really really wants to.
Here I am, 100 years from the end of that story, exploring the only way I know how: by rereading the words of the true explorers and charting my own kind of expedition across the ice.
Beginning April 11, each day for 30 days, I’m writing a found poem from Shackleton’s book South, beginning from the port of London and stopping at each significant milestone along his journey, to the final rescue. I’ll be posting the poems along the way.
Will I make it to my goal? I have a lot of granola, chocolate, good tea, highlighters, pens, pencils, and a faithful dog. What could go wrong?
Now, hand me that harness and hook me up to the sledge of words. Onward!