For many years, I’ve always tried to wile away the hours on long, dark winter days re-reading some of the classic sagas of early polar explorers.
The exploits of such intrepid adventurers as Sir Ernest Shackleton, the Irish-born explorer lionized for his incredible tale of survival when his three-masted, wooden-hulled ship Endurance became trapped and eventually destroyed in Antarctic pack ice, make the dreary skies and cold rain of a Northwest winter seem downright convivial.
Truthfully, Shackleton was one of the most star-crossed explorers ever, having mounted a 1909 expedition to reach the South Pole that was turned back by vicious storms at 89 degrees latitude, less than 100 miles from the Pole. Two years later, Norwegian Roald Amundsen beat British Captain Robert Falcon Scott in a race to reach the South Pole, the equivalent at that time of putting a man on the moon.
His failure drove Shackleton in 1914 to attempt to become the first person to cross Antarctica by ship. These days, that seems crazed, now that we can view satellite imagery showing the incredible breadth and expanse of the Antarctic ice sheets. As it turns out, it was a crazy idea for Shackleton, too.
It’s not like he didn’t give it a go, as they say in the UK, however. His ship was built as strong as early 20th century technology allowed. The keel was made of layers of solid oak seven feet thick. The sides of the hull were three feet thick and sheathed in greenheart, a South American evergreen so hard it can’t be worked with normal iron tools. The ship’s bow, which would be hitting the ice floes head-on, was made from a single four- foot thick oak tree chosen so that is natural shape followed the curve of the design. The ship also had a 350-horsepower coal-fired steam engine capable of speeds up to 10 knots an hour.
Nevertheless, the Endurance soon became trapped in shifting pack ice and after drifting for almost nine months, was crushed and sunk, which forced Shackleton and his 27-member crew to abandon the giant ice floe on which they were camped and set out in three tiny lifeboats to Elephant Island, some 350 miles away.
The rest of the story is well-known, as they battled storms, dodged icebergs and even crossed South Georgia Island on foot over mountains never previously traversed to reach a whaling station that sent out a ship to rescue the rest of his expedition.
The impact of rapid change
Shackleton’s story is more than mere entertainment to kill off a few weeks of winter weather, however. The account of his ill-fated journeys over pack ice have taken on a new relevance, as recent data show that 100 years after he set out from Great Britain, his dream of sailing across Antarctica is no longer so implausible.