Shackleton Found

Poet at work

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.

Dark odds.

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!

If there’s one thing you can count on…

… come November, if I’m writing here, I’m going to mention that chilly word: Antarctica.

Mt. Erebus, photo by Anthony Powell

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.

The real goal is coming home

For the two or three of you not following the Scott Expedition blog on Boxing Day, refreshing your screen every hour through the evening, I’m happy to report that Ben and Tarka made it to the South Pole on December 26, 2013.

As Ben puts it, the scene was nothing like Scott’s arrival in that cold, desolate spot 101 years ago, yet entirely similar:

In short, I’m afraid to say -though it’s probably quite apt- that I concur with Captain Scott himself when he said of the South Pole “Great God this is an awful place”. For him, of course, there was nothing there at all. A patch of snow at the heart of a barren, deeply inhospitable continent. For us, it felt like walking into a cross between an airport, a junkyard and a military base. Or perhaps a scene that was omitted from a Star Wars film: skiing along with sacks swinging from our backs, futuristic mirrored goggles and hoods framed by coyote fur, we looked like two bounty hunters approaching some sort of outpost on a frozen planet.

In both cases, they were just happy to turn away from the long-aimed for spot and head for home.

And that, of course, is the tricky part. After 60+ days of pulling hard, laying depots, walking through whiteouts, and expending everything, they now have to retrace their steps, find the cached depots, and hope they planned well enough and travel quickly enough to make it back to safety.

There’s a sense that, in this Internet age, Ben and Tarka are not so alone as Scott, Bowers, Wilson, Evans, and Oates because we are watching. They’re in satellite communication with their base team and us, uploading blog posts, videos, and photos. But that really doesn’t lessen the hard work ahead that only they can do, one step at a time. They are most definitely out there on their own, walking another 900 miles across Antarctica to safety.

That they’ve chosen to make this journey of their own free will, just to see if they can do it, doesn’t mean it isn’t devilishly difficult to do. Many before, who had no more reason to go than the desire to do it, have tried and failed.

This armchair explorer, warm by her fire, will be watching with bated breath.

p.s. In a semi-related story, Conservators of the New Zealand Antarctic Trust have recently discovered a box of 22 negatives left by Shackleton’s Ross Sea Party. The negatives were found in a block of ice in Scott’s hut. Shackleton didn’t make it to the South Pole, but he made it home. And now so have these amazing photos.