There is one man in the great saga of Polar history that stands head and shoulders above all. A man who never achieved any of his Polar ambitions, he was impecunious – a philanderer and he drank too much. He was fired by Robert Scott from a Polar expedition, known for his ‘gift of the gab’ he was a man who never led a group of more than 30. Earnest Shackleton was the only one to be knighted.
His plan was as sweeping as it was ambitious. Amundsen had earlier claimed the South Pole as a prize for Norway – Scott died in the attempt. So what was left? Shackleton’s expedition involved walking across the entire continent from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Ice Shelf, a distance of well over 3000 kilometres. In August 1914 Shackleton left for Antarctica on the Endurance. The Aurora arrived at Ross Island in December 1915 and started laying depots in expectation.
By mid-January 1915 the Endurance arrived in Antarctica and was quickly iced into the Weddell Sea. Hope turned to despair when the summer thaw did not release the ship from an icy grip. Firmly lodged in the ice the Endurance was crushed by the ice and finally sank in November 1915. The crew were stranded in Antarctica with little hope of rescue.
The survivors of the Endurance dragged the salvaged life boats toopen sea and sailed to Elephant Island – an uninhabitable and remote piece of rock off the Antarctica Peninsula. From there Shackleton and two crew members undertook the most dangerous and daring voyage to South Georgia over 1300 kilometres away. There lay a whaling station and help. Space does not allow us to dwell on this windswept and icy journey in their life boat, save to say that Shackleton refused to pack supplies for more than four weeks, knowing that if they did not reach South Georgia within that time, the boat and its crew would be lost.
The small boat did make it to South Georgia and the men found themselves on the wrong side of the island with a twenty kilometre glacier to climb. Over this final, mighty barrier there was help and rescue. Undaunted the men now stranded in such icy climes for over a year-and-a-half made their way to the whaling station at Stromness, a journey that would take them over 36 hours.
Here at the edge of endurance a miracle occurred. Much has been written of the mystery of the fourth man. The three men separately sensed the presence of another as they pressed on over the ice, now at the end of their tether. It became the inspiration for T.S. Elliot in his famous poem The Waste Land. The poet took license and spoke of the ‘third man’ but the lines grip our imagination and plucks at our minds.
Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
– But who is that on the other side of you?
Shackleton will be remembered for this epic. Under his watch no man perished. By the time they returned nations had fought a war to end all wars and millions lay dead. Yet he endures. Books and courses have been written on how to manage under crisis. Crisis Management. For me, I turn to this one man for guidance. I follow in the shoes of Shack.
“For speed and efficiency of travel, give me Amundsen; for scientific discovery, give me Scott; but when all hope is lost get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton” – Sir Raymond Priestly.