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Shackleton: He's So Hot Right Now

Frank Hurley
"Stop what you're doing. Read this book." - Catie Talarski

Years ago, I needed a book for a long plane ride home from Austin, Texas. My cousin threw me a tattered paperback. It looked mediocre at best: on the cover was an iceberg, a ship, and the word ENDURANCE in bold letters.

A short time and several chapters later, I would start what some would call an obsession with a man named Ernest Shackleton, and one of the most incredible adventure/survival stories ever. 

This month, PBS is airing a three-part re-enactment of the Endurance crew's epic journey.

For those unfamiliar with the story: In 1914, celebrated explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton set sail with a 27-man crew, with a hope to be the first to cross the continent of Antarctica.

Not long into the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, his ship, Endurance, became frozen in pack ice, and was eventually crushed, leaving the men stranded on an iceberg.

In dire straits, Shackleton led his men on three small life boats for seven days across the world's most treacherous ocean to the rocky, remote Elephant Island. There, he left the majority of his crew to live under overturned boats, while he and five others sailed the James Cairda 22.5-foot wooden boat, for 17 days in freezing, stormy waters to the whaling island of South Georgia.

Once at South Georgia, the soaked and frostbitten men had to hike across ragged mountains to reach a whaling station. Eventually, the remaining men at Elephant Island were recovered. All told, the revised expedition lasted 20 months, and not a single life was lost. 

You can hear Sir Ernest Shackleton's voice on these old cylinder recordings from 1910, talking about his earlier South Polar Expedition:

These days, it seems the great explorer is back in the news every couple months. In December, a box of frozen negatives were found in a block of ice in a hut used first by Robert Falcon Scott, and then Shackleton. Amazingly, they were able to salvage some of the images.  

In 2007, crates of Mackinlay's scotch were found in Shackleton's expedition hut. The century-old preserved liqueur was "meticulously re-created," and you can buy it today. (I have a bottle. It tastes good, but the presentation is really the best thing about it: encased in a wood box, nestled in straw. It also comes with a replica letter with original shipping instructions.)

Ships continue to get stuck in the Antarctic pack ice to this day, as we recently saw with the Russian Aurora Australis. Fortunately, modern day technology comes to the rescue.

Credit Antarctic Heritage Trust
Iceberg and land, Ross Island

This month, PBS is airing a three-part re-enactment of the Endurance crew's epic journey. In 2008, Shackleton's grandaughter Alexandra approached modern day explorer Tim Jarvis about recreating the voyage from Elephant Island to South Georgia. "She asked me if I would do it," he said, "and I felt so honored that I basically said yes before I realized the enormity of the challenge I was taking on." 

It took him three years to pull it together, and Jarvis did. He and a team built a boat almost identical to the James Caird. They gathered a crew of extreme athletes and adventurers who wore the same clothes Shackleton wore, ate the same food he and his men ate, and they filmed the adventure. You can find out more about "The Shackleton Epic" on their slick website. Jarvis, a former Yale World Fellow, spoke on Where We Live in March 2013, having just returned from the trip. 

The fact that all the men survived the 1914 expedition is credited in large part to Shackleton's leadership. It's the topic of many books, including Shackleton's Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer by Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell. Both joined WNPR'sWhere We Live in 2011 to talk about the great explorer's legacy, and what politicians and businessmen can learn from him. They talked about four key ways Shackelton succeeded in his leadership role: leading by example, communicating effectively, keeping up morale, and encouraging optimism.

"Throughout the ordeal," which lasted almost two years, Morell said, "they're actually having a remarkably good time." While that seems like an overstatement, the expedition did find ways to entertain themselves, and these moments were important to their overall survival: sending birthday cards, playing sports, group sing-alongs, frolicking with dogs (before they ate them), mock trials, hair cutting, and theater.

While living on desolate Elephant Island, crewman Thomas Orde-Lees wrote in his journal, "We've had a grand concert tonight of 24 turns. And so ends one of the happiest days of my life." 

Morrell and Capparell recalled the time the Endurance was finally crushed in the ice floe. Shackleton turned to his men and said, very decisively, "Now we will go home."

"In that one short sentence of setting a clear goal," Morell said, "he quickly re-frames the situation and sets them on a path to getting every single one of them home alive." The authors said the leader would call everyone together to make big announcements, often ask his men for their advice. "He unleashed the powers of his team by getting them to use their strengths," they added.

Credit Shackleton Epic
Tim Jarvis wearing traditional expedition clothing

In one review of the "Chasing Shackleton" PBS  series, the modern explorers are called out for their "self induced flagellation." ("Why a group of six grown men have cared to retrace the route would appear to be between them and their psychiatrists.")  In his WNPR interview, Jarvis talked about the inconveniences of cotton clothing, sea sickness and trenchfoot. But he said that the wet and cold made him "feel like we were getting that much closer to the experience that [Shackleton] had. That gave me sort of an inner strength." 

Maybe the resurgent interest in polar exploration comes from a longing for the great Exploration Age: a time before GPS, when men would set out (for science or national pride) to the middle of nowhere, in the harshest of conditions, with no way to contact civilization. Some survived, many died. Some ate the dogs, some ate the remains of their comrades. Romantic  notions of a time past, in a part of the world that is now in flux. Tim Jarvis hopes his footage will also bring attention to the affects of climate change happening in Antarctica and South Georgia.  

For more reading on science, history and exploration, check out University of Hartford History Professor Michael Robinson's blog Time to Eat the Dogs. 

Catie Talarski is Senior Director of Storytelling and Radio Programming at Connecticut Public.
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