My travel heroes are many but none of them demand the kind of admiration I have for Sir Ernest Shackleton.
So far, my sea voyage has followed in the wake of the very first stage of the infamous Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, in which the heroic polar explorer Ernest Shackleton sailed from Buenos Aires to the lonely southern isle of South Georgia. The year was 1914, and upon arriving, Shackleton spent a month in the harbor of Grytviken making final preparations for what would turn out to be his final journey to Antarctica.
Shackleton’s story is a legend that is told and retold all around the world: upon arriving in Antarctica, his ship Endurance became stuck in the ice and eventually broke apart. The crew of 28 camped on an ice flow until it finally melted away and they boarded lifeboats and sailed to Elephant Island.
Stranded on such a remote and inhospitable piece of Antarctica, Shackleton took a major risk in setting out on a 20-foot lifeboat across 800 miles of stormy South Atlantic Ocean before reaching South Georgia. Braving some of the roughest seas on the planet, Endurance Captain Frank Worsley achieved this incredible navigational feat using only a sextant and the stars.
Arriving on the steep cliff-ridden southern side of the island, Shackleton led Worsley and sailor Tom Crean in a treacherous hike up and over the impenetrable mountains of South Georgia. The three men walked for 36 hours straight until they came upon the whaling station at Stromness at Husvik harbor. After being lost for more than a year and a half, Shackleton and his men had finally regained civilization.
Every year, I reread Shackleton’s firsthand account of his ordeal and try to put myself in his shoes. After dancing with death for 18 months, having never bathed or changed clothes, he arrived at this tiny village at the edge of the world.
Shackleton describes how a group of young boys took one look at his castaway self and then ran off, petrified by his filthy, hairy appearance. In Shackleton’s own words: “We were in no condition to sit in anybody’s house until we had washed and got into clean clothes.”
Welcomed into the Norwegian station manager’s home, Shackleton and his men were brought hot water, razors, and new clothes.
“Soon we were clean again. Then we put on delightful new clothes supplied from the station stores and got rid of our superfluous hair. Within an hour or two we had ceased to be savages and had become civilised men again.”
Despite all that Shackleton and his men had endured, his personal rescue and “return to civilization” was manifest in the shaving of his face. When the three men went back around the island to rescue the remaining three men from the James Caird, Shackleton describes how, “They did not recognize Worsley, who had left them a hairy, dirty ruffian and had returned his spruce and shaven self.”
Shackleton remained clean-shaven for the rest of his life, perhaps as a testament to surviving one of the most epic expeditions in the history of Antarctic exploration. Just like the rest of the crew who were rescued on August 30th claimed that they would celebrate that day for the rest of their lives.
Somewhat ironically, “The Boss” died of a heart attack in 1922, aboard a ship that was anchored in the harbor of Grytviken, South Georgia. He was preparing to leave on one last expedition to Antarctica when his body simply gave out.
At the request of his wife, Ernest Shackleton was buried in the whaler’s cemetery in South Georgia, where even today visitors are granted a breathtaking view of the surrounding mountains and glaciers.
Every time I visit South Georgia, I visit my hero’s grave, either to drink a toast to one of the world’s finest explorers or to quietly honor one of the bravest men in history. Not only has my ship followed the early travels of the Endurance, but I have walked in Shackleton’s footsteps, even trudging over the mountains and down into Stromness where he and his men were rescued nearly a hundred years ago.
No matter how many times I read his story, my respect for Shackleton will never diminish. Nor will I ever forget his ability to remain calm in the face of daily disaster. As I continue my voyage from Cape Horn to the Cape of Good Hope, traveling with far more comforts than ever existed in Shackleton’s time, I am grateful for a chance to stop at this remote southern cemetery and remember a fellow traveler who has inspired so many of us.
Excerpts taken from Ernest Shackleton’s SOUTH: The Trans-Antarctic Expedition; 1914-1917; pp.155-156