Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Ernest Shackleton, Antarctic Explorer

Sir Ernest Shackleton led one of the most incredible Antarctic survival stories of all time. In an epic struggle of man versus nature, Shackleton showed superior skills in protecting his men from certain death at the hands of unbearable cold. In the process, he became immortalized as one of the Britain's epic explorers.

As an accomplished explorer of the Antarctic, Shackleton was granted knighthood in 1909 after reaching the southern-most latitude ever, a scant 112 miles from the South Pole. The journey back to their home base required that he and his crew live off reduced rations, in order to stave off near-certain death. He ultimately return to the United Kingdom a hero.

Even if his story ended there, he would still be fondly remembered as a great explorer of the Antarctic, at a time when many explorers were trying to map the region. But, with exploration in his blood, Shackleton launched his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition as an effort to cross Antarctica, a feat which had never been done.

Men signed up for the expedition at a fevered pitch, but only 56 men were finally selected. Half of that number would actually trek across the continent, while the other half started from the opposite side and placed supply depots at strategic locations. These depots would store food, fuel, and other supplies that would sustain the trekkers as they crossed the continent; without them, the expedition would be doomed.

The expedition ran in to trouble early on, as Shackleton's half of the men, on board the ship Endurance, became hopelessly trapped in an ice jam. The depot-providers, aboard the ship Aurora, had their own difficulties, in which several men perished.

With their ship wedged solidly in the ice, Shackleton had no choice but to weather out the winter season. The hope was that the spring thaw would break up the ice and the journey could continue to their designated starting point for the cross-continent trek. Unfortunately, after about 6 months of being surrounded by ice, the thawing and moving ice pack began to crush Endurance. In November of 1915, the ship sank below the sea, leaving all 28 men on that portion of the expedition stranded on the ice.

Trapped in Antarctic ice

For the next 5 months, the crew of Endurance, who had managed to salvage almost everything from the ship, survived on the ice floes. When the ice began to split, they boarded three lifeboats that they had retained and headed for nearby Elephant Island.

Elephant Island is a desolate, ice-covered place, with no natural shelter. Dense fog and strong winds made it inhospitable to almost everything living thing other than migratory penguins and seals. Shackleton knew that he and his crew had no chance for rescue from such an isolated place, so he forged his rescue plan.

Upon landing his men at Elephant Island, plans were established for Shackleton and four other men to sail one of the lifeboats to the island of South Georgia, 800 miles away, through some of the most treacherous waters on Earth. After a brief period to prepare the crew and to ready the lifeboat James Caird for the momentous crossing, the 5 men set sail in a desperation journey in which their failure would probably doom the 23 men left behind on Elephant Island.

Clearly theirs was a last-ditch effort at rescue. The odds for a small boat to cross the storm-tossed waters were infinitesimally small. Yet Shackleton knew that it was the only hope that he and his crew would have.

After two weeks of sailing, including dealing with monstrous waves that threatened to sink the tiny boat, the men spotted the island of South Georgia. Unable to navigate to the harbors on the island, Shackleton was forced to land on the opposite side of the island and climb over mountainous terrain to the tiny village of Stromness. In doing so, Shackleton and his sole companion, having left their three colleagues with the beached lifeboat, became the first people to climb over the mountain to reach the village.

After acquiring supplies and a sailing vessel, Shackleton was able to go back after his men on Elephant Island. Miraculously, not one man on his portion of the expedition had died. The same could not be said for the depot supply team, which had lost 3 men during the mission. The surviving shore party was surprised when Shackleton landed his ship to pick up the survivors.

Ultimately, Shackleton's goal of trekking across the continent did not occur; the rough weather and circumstances had forced Shackleton to abandon his expedition. But he is fondly remembered as a fearless explorer who cared about his men to the point of risking his own life to make sure they were rescued.

Great Britain, 2003
Shackleton, his men, and Endurance

Shackleton's story does not end there. Several years after returning to England, where he wrote his account of the expedition, Shackleton once again got the urge to explore. This time, he set about gathering funding and public support for his plan to circumnavigate Antarctica. While heading south, he began to experience health problems, yet continued on, against his doctor's advice. Then, while preparing for the final push to the start of his expedition, he landed at South Georgia, where 7 years earlier he had arrived via the lifeboat James Caird. But this current visit would be his last, as he died of a fatal heart attack, one day after landfall.

Shackleton was honored by Great Britain as part of their Extreme Endeavours stamp issue. Consisting of 6 stamps, the set was issued on April 29, 2003. Shackleton is depicted on the 42 pence stamp, along with a picture of the doomed ship, Endurance, and several men awaiting rescue.

Other notable people appearing in the set include aviation pioneer Amy Johnson, Mt. Everest conquerors Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, travel writer and Arab explorer Dame Freya Stark, sailor Francis Chichester, and Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott.

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