Sometime last year I read the brilliant biography of Douglas Mawson, written by Australian author Peter FitzSimons. While reading it, I came across another of the great explorers of the early 1900’s, who were determined to conquer Antarctica. His name was Sir Ernest Shackleton, and he is probably one of the most important of these explorers. He was not the first to walk the icy terrain of the frozen continent, nor was he the last. But he was the one who showed the way for others to follow in his stead and he was a true explorer in every sense of the word.
While reading Mawson, I found that I rather disliked Sir Ernest. To me he seemed to be a person constantly making promises and not following through with them and he appeared to be more than a little self involved. But then I read Roland Huntford‘s, Shackleton. First published in 1985, it is a completely thorough account of the life of Sir Ernest all the way from his birth in 1874, to his death in 1922. What I discovered about him was that my initial feelings towards him were accurate. He was constantly making promises and not keeping them and was very self involved. But what changed for me, is how these initial feelings were perceived. Promises were made and not kept but not because of any malice – at the time of making the promise he would always have the full intention of keeping it. His self involvement appeared to stem from a need to prove himself and achieve greatness – we’re all guilty of that one! But I also discovered that Sir Ernest was a man to be followed and a man to be relied upon when things got bad.
The race for the South Pole in the early 1900’s was overshadowed only by the outbreak of the First World War. Every explorer wanted to be the first man to reach 90°S and plant the flag of his country in the icy ground. Shackleton was convinced that this was his way to fame and fortune. He was never one to take his time with things and so would never have been suited to a conventional occupation, working his way up the corporate ladder. His first venture into the polar regions, was on the first expedition there led by the ill-fated Captain Robert Falcon Scott, in 1901. Unfortunately for Shackleton, things on this expedition didn’t go his way, marking the beginning of bitter rivalry between Shackleton and Captain Scott. Upon returning home, Shackleton was more convinced than ever that the conquering of the South Pole would be the making of him, he was determined to be the man to win the race and set about organising his own expedition. In 1907, he led the crew of the Nimrod into Antarctic waters and in 1909, he and three companions marched into the heart of Antarctica. They eventually achieved a position less than 2° away from the pole (roughly 180km) before they had to turn back. Despite not reaching their goal, the expedition was still lauded a success, as Shackleton and his crew managed to explore more of the continent than anyone before them had managed to, meaning that terrain was no longer entirely unknown and anyone following Shackleton would have a clear route to the pole. No one before had ever got so close to the pole and on return to England, he was knighted for his efforts.
But for me the most thrilling part of the entire book, was the account of the great open boat journey – it still gives me chills thinking about it. After the sinking of his ship on his third expedition in 1914, Shackleton and his crew found themselves on Elephant Island – completely uninhabitable and miles away from where anyone would be looking for them. So he decided to risk an open boat journey in one of the lifeboats, named the James Caird, taking with him five of his crew and hoping to get help to rescue the rest of the men being left on Elephant Island. The journey was roughly 800 nautical miles and they would hopefully end up near the whaling stations of South Georgia. The James Caird was a mere 6.1m long and not at all suited to such a journey. This journey and the subsequent 51km trek across South Georgia (which was achieved in less than two days), must surely be one of the greatest testaments to the human ability to overcome all obstacles. They crossed terrain that had never been crossed before, with next to no food, no proper climbing equipment and next to no sleep. It certainly puts into perspective the achievements of people we call heroes today, particularly when taking into consideration that the next successful crossing of South Georgia wasn’t until 1955 and was done by a fully equipped group following the same route as Shackleton and his companions.
While it took me a while to get through this book, it was difficult to not become completely immersed in the world of Sir Ernest. Huntford leaves no stone unturned in the search for the true character of Shackleton and when reading this book, you feel like you really become to know the man. The contrast between his public persona and that of his private one is interesting to say the least, and his obsession with greatness is in many ways admirable, as is his way of making things happen when in reality they shouldn’t have. He always thought that he was born under a lucky star and if this book is anything to go by, it must be true.
RATING – 8 out of 10. I enjoyed reading this but found myself comparing the writing of Huntford, to that of FitzSimons and decided that I preferred FitzSimons’ beautiful style of storytelling.
WHO SHOULD READ IT – Lovers of history, exploration and adventure.
WHO YOU’LL LOVE – If the charismatic Sir Ernest is not quite your cup of tea, you can’t go past his faithful second in command, Frank Wild, or the captain of the Endurance expedition, Frank Worsley. Both admirable men in their own rights.
FAVOURITE QUOTE – I don’t have a favourite quote as such, but I do have a favourite anecdote. On the crossing of South Georgia, Shackleton and his men were just about running on empty. So he told them he would sit watch while they slept for half an hour (I think it was half an hour). But after 5 minutes he woke them up and told them they’d been asleep for the allotted time – and they believed it! It may seem mean, but if you read the book and see the circumstances they were facing, then you’ll understand why he did it.