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Sir Ernest Shackleton: The Man Who Accomplished The Impossible

Photo by Lara Jameson for Pexels

In these uncertain times we live in there are adventures to inspire us, that are worth recounting and remembering, and Shackleton‘s story is certainly one of them.

“Give me Scott to lead a scientific expedition, Amundsen for a rapid and effective raid, but if you are in adversity and see no way out, get down on your knees and pray to God to send you Shackleton”.

These words were spoken by Raymond Priestley, a British geologist, geographer and explorer, who was also president of the Royal Geographical Society. Exaggerated? Not at all.

Three times, in vain, Sir Ernest Shackleton challenged the South Pole. His ship was crushed by ice. He never gave up: sailing eight hundred miles in a seven-metre lifeboat in Antarctica, he saved all 27 members of his crew.

It is for these reasons that Ernest Shackleton is hailed even today as a man capable of achieving the impossible. 

Having left the Irish countryside for the Pacific, after embarking on a British merchant ship, Ernest soon realized that the merchant navy would not satisfy his ambitions.

In pursuit of fame and fortune, he joined the Royal Geographical Society’s Antarctic expedition, with the aim of being the first one to reach the South Pole.

In partnership with Robert Falcon Scott, another sacred monster of pole exploration, Shackleton got as far as 480 miles from the South Pole before he had to surrender.

It took Shackleton four years to return to the South Pole, this time leading his own expedition. Onboard the three-masted Nimrod, he reached Ross Island in 1907, where he set up a base camp that is still visible today.  

Photo by Charles Odinot for Pexels

For three years, Shackleton held the record for approaching the South Pole, but after it was snatched away by Amundsen and Scott, there was only one remaining achievement: crossing the Antarctic continent.

On 1 August 1914, just days before the outbreak of the First World War, the three-masted Endurance set sail with 28 men aboard.

Designed for Arctic exploration, the 44-metre-long vessel had a single-propeller engine developing approximately 350 horsepower, which enabled the vessel to average a speed of 10 knots.

During his first attempt to cross Antarctica, the ice conditions were difficult and particularly extensive and unfortunately, on January 19, 1915, the Endurance became stuck in dense pack ice and sank months later on November 21, the same year.

During the cold austral winter, the men decided to remain aboard their ship, but on 27 October the Endurance had to be abandoned.

Shackleton’s crew moved to an emergency camp on a slab of ice called “Ocean Camp,” where they remained until December 29th, when they moved, towing three lifeboats, to a slab of ice they called “Patience Camp.” That name could not have been more fitting.

Shackleton realised that there was no alternative but to reach the mainland as soon as possible because they were constantly wet and unable to light a fire for warmth.

Following seven days of navigation, all three lifeboats arrived at Elephant Island, which was almost completely covered in snow and ice and constantly buffeted by strong winds.

It was already astonishing that Shackleton was able to keep the crew alive up to this point, but now it was time for the expedition to enter the realm of legend. 

In light of the dire situation, Shackleton decided to depart for South Georgia, the home of a whaling fleet, as soon as possible.   

At first glance, the decision seemed absurd: it involved navigating more than 800 miles in one of the most dangerous oceans, onboard the James Caird lifeboat, one of the seven-metre-long lifeboats saved from the wreckage of the Endurance.

In light of the slim chances of success, Shackleton loaded up with provisions to last just four weeks. If they did not reach their destination within that time frame, it was most likely they would be sunk and, worse, lost in the remote frozen waters.

Photo by Dick Hoskins by Pexels

In April 1916, Shackleton and his five selected crewmembers departed Elephant Island.

It took them fifteen days to reach South Georgia after battling enormous waves and winds with gusts estimated at 100 km/h. Having failed to circumnavigate the island, Shackleton and two crew members transformed their shoes into crampons by inserting nails into the soles and, without any other equipment, climbed the thirty kilometres from their landing point to the Stromness base in 36 hours.

Shackleton’s sailing trip on the James Caird as well as the fact that he didn’t lose a member of his expedition during the incredible hardships, won him his Olympus of explorers.

Unsatisfied with his experiences, Shackleton set sail for Antarctica once more in 1921 aboard the ship Quest.

Unfortunately, soon after arriving in the same South Georgia port from which he managed to escape death years earlier, he died of a heart attack.  

Before he was buried in England, his wife arranged that his remains should be buried in Grytvyken, which he considered to be his true home.

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