The Heroic Era of Antarctic Adventure
And so our vessel turned to the south and embarked upon the 500 nautical mile journey from Cape Horn to the Antarctic Peninsula.
That part of my brain which remains interested in history turned from the exploits of the ancient mariners to that even more hardy band of adventurous souls; the Antarctic explorers.
On 1 November 1911, Robert Falcon Scott began a long-awaited British assault on the South Pole – a treacherous journey of 1,300 kilometres (and back again) – which Scott and his team hoped to traverse with the assistance of a mixture of motor sledges, dogs and horses.
Before setting out, Scott had received word from the Norwegian, Roald Amundsen, that he was also heading for the South Pole over a shorter route. And so the race began.
Scott and his men upheld that peculiar British trait of relying in competition only upon one’s natural ability, unenhanced by training, preparation or even extensive planning. The objective was to achieve glory with the apparent effortlessness of gods. To be a professional was not the way of a gentleman.
By contrast, the Norwegians were much better prepared. They had the assistance of four sledges and no less than 52 dogs. They wore animal skins to repel the water and biting Antarctic winds rather than the heavy woollen clothing preferred by Scott and his men. Furthermore, unlike the Brits – who paused to perform surveying work for the Royal Geographical Society – the Norwegians headed straight for the Pole.
It is, perhaps, no surprise, therefore, that as Scott trudged through the final approaches to the South Pole, he peered through the snow and was aghast to spy a cairn constructed by Amundsen and his men. The date was 17 January 1912. Scott’s trek had occupied over two and a half months. Amundsen had beaten him to the Pole by five weeks.
Yet the full extent of the tragedy was yet to unfold. Scott and his men – disconsolate and discouraged – turned and commenced the 1,300 kilometre return trek to their base. On their journey they were afflicted by frost bite, snow blindness and dysentery. Finally, they succumbed in a fierce blizzard, barely half way back to home.
What the British lacked in professionalism during this heroic age, they made up for with epic one-liners in desperate circumstances. In the days prior to their final demise, the health of Scott’s colleague, Captain Lawrence Oates, was declining sharply. On 16 March 1912, Oates left the relative comfort of his sleeping bag, voluntarily left the tent and walked into the blizzard which raged outside. Death was certain. According to Scott’s journal, the last words Oates uttered were: “I am just going outside and may be some time.”
Scott and his two remaining colleagues pressed on. However, their progress was halted by ever worsening weather. Scott is presumed to have finally succumbed to the elements on 29 March 1912, almost five months after setting out on his journey.
The Importance of Being Ernest
We, of course, are neither venturing onto the Antarctic landmass nor are we making any kind of assault upon the South Pole. We are, however, planning to sail in the same waters as Sir Ernest Shackleton.
After missing out on Scott’s expedition to the South Pole – after the two men suffered a falling out – Shackleton embarked upon the last remaining Antarctic challenge; to cross the entire continent via the South Pole.
Unfortunately, Shackleton did not get very far. His vessel, the Endurance, became trapped in an ice floe off the Antarctic Peninsula. The vessel was eventually squashed from all sides by the ice and ultimately sank. By this stage, Shackleton’s party had set up camp on the ice floe and were hopeful of floating to Paulet Island, over 400 kilometres away.
It became apparent that this, somewhat hopeful, plan was going to fail, so Shackleton ordered his men to board three lifeboats which they had retained from the Endurance and head for Elephant Island, which they reached after five harrowing days at sea.
Unfortunately, Elephant Island – which lies off the north-west tip of the Antarctic Peninsula – is far from any normal shipping route and there was, therefore, no realistic hope of a chance rescue.
So Shackleton and five of his companions manned one of the lifeboats and set off for South Georgia Island where they knew a whaling station was located. The other 22 men in his party remained on Elephant Island and would patiently await their commander’s return. They knew it would be many weeks before this would occur, if at all.
Shackleton only packed four weeks’ supplies. He knew that if they had not reached the whaling station within that period, they would not require any further supplies because they would be dead.
After 15 days at sea – at constant risk of capsizing in the stormy seas – Shackleton landed on the desolate southern shores of South Georgia Island. However, he and his men were not yet safe because the whaling station lay on the northern shore and a mountain impeded their path. With only 50 feet of rope between them, Shackleton and his five companions scaled the mountain and finally reached safety.
Shackleton immediately appealed to the Chilean government to lend him a boat to rescue the men stranded on Elephant Island. These men were finally rescued on 30 August 1916; a full four months after Shackleton had set sail on his mercy run to South Georgia Island and 19 months after the Endurance first became frozen in the ice floe in the Weddell Sea.
Remarkably, however, not a single man from Shackleton’s original party perished.
I can personally attest to the fact that the leadership skills Shackleton demonstrated during this epic journey are still taught in management training courses to this day.