Baby It’s Cold Outside! by Mike Creasy
Victoria was a little cool this past winter – ice on the yacht pond is most uncivilized. We had no snow (something to do with the Olympics) but there's still plenty of pictures and stories from recent years past when we had snow on the ground for days at a time!! Horrors!!! But our winter stories can't compare with many of the polar expeditions of the late 1800s and early 1900s.
There were plenty of them – Amundsen, Scott, Franklin, Peary and Steffansson, just to name a few, and they all shared a fascinating drive to explore places where sunshine often means that it’s going to be really cold. Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 expedition to the South Pole is one of the most fascinating because, although they never even landed on the Antarctic continent, they spent over a year in the most inhospitable regions in the world, on a journey where crossing hundreds of miles of sea ice - on foot and dragging heavy wooden boats - was the easy part.
Shackleton’s exploits were largely ignored by the world’s press because at the time of his voyage, the war in Europe was the only story of the time. Plus, Shackleton was an Irishman and he didn't get on well with the old boys of the Royal Geographical Society. Fortunately, he had a pioneering photographer with him, an Australian by the name of Frank Hurley, who used some of the latest photo techniques to record the journey and, being an Aussie, he was tough enough to bring his photos home.
Shackleton was no stranger to the southern continent; he had been with Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition aboard the steam bark Discovery in 1901/02, when Scott got to 82°S (about 400 miles short) before turning around. In 1908/09, Shackleton led the British Antarctic Expedition aboard the sealing schooner Nimrod for another go at the pole. This time, he got within 90 miles before being defeated by temperatures of 40 below, howling gales and dwindling supplies. But his 1914 expedition was to make his previous journeys – and, in fact, most polar explorations of any time – look like trips to the market.
The British Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (can you hear the brass bands?) began in August 1914, just as war was declared. The square rigger Endurance was to carry Shackleton and his men to a landing site in the Weddell Sea, from where they would set out to cross the Antarctic continent. A smaller support vessel, the Aurora, would position supplies for the journey from McMurdo Sound, on the other side of the Antarctic continent. Shackleton and the Endurance travelled first to the Norwegian whaling station at South Georgia Islands, latitude 54ºS. From there, he set out for the Antarctic on December 5, 1914. By January 18 the Endurance was at 76ºS, only 100 miles from the landing site... but that was as close as they would get. By February, the ship was frozen in; temperatures seldom rose above minus 20, and the sun was disappearing for the winter.
By October 1915, the Endurance had been carried north with the ice, but it was clear the ship was doomed. They were nearly 350 miles from the nearest land - separated by broken ice and huge pressure ridges. Still, the 28 men loaded up three heavy wooden boats with tons of supplies and set off across the ice, eventually landing at a remote little island near the northern tip of Antarctica, about 580 miles southeast of Cape Horn. They had no radio, there were no ships likely to pass nearby, and Elephant Island had very little to offer in the way of food and water. They had to do something!
Shackleton and five men set off in their 22 foot boat for South Georgia on April 24, 1916. It was about 800 miles distant across an open, hostile ocean, and they had a clock and sextant. Pumping hard to stay afloat in mountainous seas, they also had to chip ice regularly – both from the top of the boat and from their two sodden sleeping bags. Two weeks later, on May 10, they finally landed on South Georgia, and then the fun began.....
The whaling station was at Stromness Bay, 22 miles in a straight line but on the opposite side of the island and separated by a ridge of mountains rising to over 5000 feet. The weather (and the condition of the boat) meant that they couldn't sail around, so Shackleton and two others set out to climb the mountains. They had no climbing or camping gear, and no map of the area. All they knew was that the whaling station was on the other side of the island and if they didn't make it, every one of the crew would die.
At 3pm on the afternoon of May 20, 1916, they reached the whaling station. The three men on the other side of the island were rescued the next day. The remaining 21 men on Elephant Island were finally rescued on August 30 by the Chilean Navy steamer Yelcho. Not a single man was lost.
Sir Ernest Shackleton's scientific accomplishments may not measure up to some of the other great explorers, but there is no question that he was a leader. His achievement record was cut short when he died at age 47, while on yet another Antarctic expedition in 1921. He is buried at South Georgia.
The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition, Caroline Alexander, Bloomsbury,1998
Shackleton His Antarctic Writings, British Broadcasting Corp, 1983