“Life was not so bad,” – Ernest Shackleton

Shackleton2 photoshopped

Sir Ernest Shackleton – courtesy of Time magazine

After drifting on slabs of pack ice for five months, escaping in small open boats when the rising temperature at last did its job and finally, after 16 months of living on the ocean, Sir Ernest Shackleton’s crew landed on Elephant Island, Antarctica. “The accomplishment of another stage of the homeward journey” boosted morale, prompting an enthusiastic declaration, “Life was not so bad.” Sir Ernest narrates one of the most arduous itineraries in the annals of travel literature: South the Story of Shackleton’s 1914 – 1917 Expedition. Alfred Lansing also chronicles the epic journey in his highly praised Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage. Both recount a mythic yarn of doggedness, fortitude, grit, resolute determination and dwarfing all, indefatigability. It is a supreme traveler’s tale, an itinerary of perseverance and courage, a life-affirming route one had to follow, for the stark reality of doing otherwise spelt irrevocable doom.

The voyage began on December 5, 1914. It lasted 22 months. Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, entered Antarctic pack ice two days later, never to leave. Floes obedient only to current and wind crushed, crumbled and utterly destroyed her the following November. Shackleton and his crew had abandoned ship one month earlier, setting up camp on the ice. All 28 men survived to return to England. All 69 dogs succumbed to disease and [the sailor’s] famished appetites.

She went down bow first, her stern raised in the air. She then gave one quick dive and the ice closed over her for ever. It gave one a sickening sensation to see it, for, mastless and useless as she was, she seemed to be a link with the outer world. Without her our destitution seems more emphasized, our desolation more complete. The loss of the ship sent a slight wave of depression over the camp.

Reading of the mariners’ relentless determination to press forward, to move toward a rendezvous with a rescue ship, any rescue ship, one keeps asking oneself, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid kept asking each other, after seeing time and time again the posse of Pinkerton detectives in pursuit, who are these guys?

They are survivors, led by an archetypal human being. In an interview with NBC’s Anne Curry, celebrating the 100th Anniversary of Shackleton’s Voyage, Tim Jarvis, an Australian adventurer who reenacted the most difficult parts of the itinerary, said

Everybody has a certain element of Shackleton in them… his compassion… his ability to think of others… his ability to explore life on the grandest scale.

Their ship crushed by colliding ice flows floes, drifting on pack ice for 5 months, surrounded by killer whales capable of easily breaking through the ice and nabbing any one of them (indeed, a leopard seal attacked a crew member), hunting any living creature for food, experiencing unrelenting hurricane force winds at any moment, living through ferocious blizzards, successfully sailing 800 miles across “the most tempestuous storm-swept area of water in the world” in a 20 foot runabout, living in the same clothes for seven months – a minor inconvenience, really – hiking over glacially coated mountains never before traversed to arrive, finally, at home base, it was, all in all, a rough patch.


Tucker Cox — Zeteo Contributing Writer


Photo of Shackleton is from “Shackleton – world of endurance,” an informative photo essay from Time Magazine. I could only view the first 9 (of 10) pictures, the last being unavailable.

There are too many links on the Web about Ernest Shackleton’s expedition. Some good ones that i found are:

1. PBS – in “100 Years Later, Retracing Shackleton’s Antarctic Trek, Hari Sreenivasan interviews Joanne Davies about her plans to trek across Antarctica and finish what Sir Ernest Shackleton started.” (5 mins 39 secs)

2. PBS science show, NOVA, has a timeline of the expedition. The page has other interesting links about the voyage and survival in Antarctica

3. A map with links to historical photos and film of the expedition, plus some drawings of events. Part of the promotional campaign for the movie, South.

4. Through key word searches, you can find film and commentary on YouTube. “The Shackleton Crossing of South Georgia (Island)” is well done. (about 5 mins.)


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