“For scientific leadership, give me Scott; for swift and efficient travel, Amundsen; but when you are in a hopeless situation, when there seems to be no way out, get on your knees and pray for Shackleton.” -Sir Raymond Priestly
Ernest Shackleton was the also-ran of the last great age of exploration, when men forged their way across the Antarctic wilderness, mapping the left over bits of land that had resisted the last few centuries’ forays. The world’s largest desert, so cold it gets only a few inches of actual rain per year, a mile of ice extends underfoot, dwarfing everything we’ve ever built. It’s a wasteland the size of Europe so hostile, so alien, that even with our billions of crowded people and warehouses of fancy toys, only a few thousand researchers ever even temporarily live there. And at the beginning of the twentieth century, handfuls of men trekked into that frigid hell long before such niceties as GPS, air support, or radio.
There’s something pure about the attempts at the South Pole. There’s no conceivable economic gain, no chance at finding and claiming gold or diamond mines, stumbling upon lost civilizations. It’s the very definition of a non-rational venture by any cost-benefit analysis. They go, in order to go, knowing with certainty that there is no material pay off to be had at the end, save perhaps a frozen grave.
Shackleton was on Robert Scott’s attempt to reach the South Pole in 1902, one of three men who made the dash southwards from the ships. Everything that could go wrong did, with all 22 of their dogs dying of tainted food, and Shackleton himself getting so sick that some accounts say he had to be carried back on the sled by the others. Seven years later, Shackleton almost made it to the South Pole again, this time leading his own expedition, but ran out of food and came up a hundred miles short. Three years later, Roald Amundsen made it to the pole, before Shackleton could raise funds for another attempt. This might be the point when a rational man would give up, but Shackleton made another bid at history, plotting out a way to top getting to the South Pole: getting there and keeping going all the way across Antarctica to the other side. Sounds simple, except that it’s the rough equivalent of walking from Los Angeles to Chicago, in cold so murderous that your freezer is balmy in comparison.
That’s when Shackleton’s luck really collapsed. The ship froze in sea ice short of land, and for the next 8 months the crew was trapped on the ice, hoping that in the brief southern summer, they’d be able to work their way south again. Instead, they drifted for hundreds of miles and as the ice begin to melt, the ship sank, crushed by the strains of the ice. Shackleton led the men out onto the ice sheets, dragging supplies and lifeboats with them. They almost reached Paulet Island, where supplies had been cached, but could only get as close as 60 miles before the ice became impassable again. As the ice broke up, they manned the boats and reached the barren rock of Elephant Island, where the wind gusts to a hundred miles an hour. When they finally landed, the men had not been on dry land for 497 days.
Shackleton left with five men in one of the lifeboats, only taking four weeks of rations because if they needed more they’d already be dead. They made it across 900 miles of open Antarctic ocean through hurricane force winds and 60 foot waves in a 20 foot long lifeboat. And once they landed on South Georgia Island, three of the men were too weak to go on, so Shackleton took the other two who could still walk and climbed over a mountain range with 6,000-foot peaks to reach a whaling station on the other side. They marched for 36 straight hours, unable to stop because they would freeze to death with no gear of any kind. Once they reached the whaling station, it took four months before weather permitted an attempt to rescue the men back on Elephant Island. They were close to starvation by that point, subsisting on what few penguins and seals they could find, but in the end, every man survived. Shackleton brought them all home.
Shackleton returned to the South years later in 1921, many of his last crew signing on again. He had only a vague plan, but managed to raise the funds from an old friend. On the way he had bouts of illness, that in retrospect seem to have been mounting heart attacks. Upon reaching South Georgia Island again on their way south, Shackleton died of a final heart attack at only 47 years of age. His wife asked that he be buried there instead of brought home to England. One gets the overwhelming sense that he just had to get back south before he could let go.
Hollywood makes the occasional horrible movie about Antarctica; Kate Beckinsale needs the paycheck after all. And what they’d need to do to tell this story right is to do exactly what they never would. It needs played as a tragic farce. George Clooney as Shackleton, sad eyes getting sadder, making the audience laugh through the tears. This is the Bull Durham of explorers, the guy who never quite makes it all the way. There’s a wealth of trivia buried in the crevices of the story that peek out with unblinking dry irony. Shackleton could barely manage to raise funds for the expeditions, dying in massive debt. His interviews for hiring crew members bordered on the insane: asking them to sing, selecting others on sight because he liked their look. Between expeditions he was a failure as a diplomat, and tried constant overseas business schemes that inevitably fell through. His final words were to his doctor, summoned in the middle of the night: “You are always wanting me to give up things, what is it I ought to give up?” The response: “Chiefly alcohol, Boss.” And then the final heart attack hit.
There’s no comedy without tragedy.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.