Meet Sir Ernest

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Sir Ernest Shackleton's "wonderful journey" set out with these intentions: collecting valuable scientific information, and re-establishing Britain's exploring glory, as Shackleton, a native Irishman, explained in South, his memoir of the Endurance expedition.

Sir Ernest Shackleton, Endurance expedition leader, from his memoir South: After the conquest of the South Pole by Amundsen, there remained but one great main object of Antarctic journeyings: the crossing of the South Polar continent from sea to sea. After hearing of the Norwegian's success, I began to make preparations to start the last great journey, so that the first crossing of the last continent should be achieved by a British Expedition.

Modern polar explorer Will Steger has read and reread Shackleton's books and journals.

Steger: Shackleton definitely was the man at the early century to traverse Antarctica if there was anyone that could do it. History, I think, forgets that Shackleton got within 90 miles of the South Pole five or six years before Scott perished. He actually traveled with some of the men on the same expedition on the Endurance. So, he was, as an organizer as a person that could get the funds together and lead an expedition and draw the respect from his men, he was really the person of that era.

Sir Ernest Shackleton, Explorer
For a man who excelled at adventure and at organizing big projects, but found ordinary life difficult to handle, Ernest Shackleton was born into the ideal age. The beginning of the twentieth century was a heyday of polar exploration. Amundsen took a boat through the almost mythical Northwest Passage, Peary and Cook raced for the North Pole, and Amundsen, again, and Scott raced for the South. It wasn't easy, but you could be an explorer simply by making it to an unknown place. You didn't have to make your goal under some permutation of hardship to make it into the record books. In these years before cruise-ship tours to Antarctica, man was still testing his limits against the natural world. And explorers were the astronauts of the era.

In 1922 in The Worst Journey in the World, his book about the doomed Scott expedition, Apsley Cherry-Garrard writes about the unknown, captivating continent.

from The Worst Journey in the World: Even now the Antarctic is to the rest of the earth as the Abode of the Gods was to the ancient Chaldees, a precipitous and mammoth land lying far beyond the seas which encircled men's habitation, and nothing is more striking about the exploration of the Southern Polar regions than its absence, for when King Alfred reigned in England the Vikings were navigating the ice-fields of the North, yet when Wellington fought the battle of Waterloo there was still an undiscovered continent in the South.

Nations took pride in having their explorers be the first to the new lands, but there were also big holes in the atlases and scientific journals of the day. So expeditions brought along geologists, glaciologists, zoologists, biologists, and meteorologists who were kept busy every mile of every trip. In the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, which was actually aboard the Endurance, there are pages and pages on polar exploration, but the map of the Antarctic interior is virtually blank, and men like Amundsen, Scott, and Shackleton longed to fill it up. Or in the words of one of Shackleton's favorite Robert Service poems, they longed to mark "the map's void spaces."

Shackleton got his training in the British Merchant Navy.

Shackleton shipmate Thomas Peers: Shackleton was only a boy of 18 then. I was 20.

Thomas Peers, who served with Shackleton. When he was in his mid-80s, Peers told the BBC the future Sir Ernest was a blend of hardworking sailor and literate romantic.

Peers: He was a lad that you could never get at because when he wasn't on duty on deck he was stowed away in his cabin with his books. He was full of poetry and could quote it by the yard. The other lads used to say, "Old Shack's busy with his books. " But on duty he was always first up the rigging before the other boys.

Generations, cultures, and miles away, polar explorer Ann Bancroft draws strength from Shackleton every time she heads out on a new expedition. Bancroft was the first woman to reach both the North and South Poles. When she was a child, she read about Shackleton, and went back to his story before leading her own team of four women in an attempt to cross the continent that thwarted Shackleton. It thwarted her, too.

Ann Bancroft, polar explorer: You know, I related so much to Shackleton. Obviously I had read just about everything there is to read about polar expeditons before the Antarctic trip in '92-'93, and Shackleton for me has not only been the catalyst for thinking about Antarctica as a young person, but I started to reread his accounts of the Endurance expedition because it was just his leadership qualities that I was trying to learn from.

By 1914, when Shackleton was 40 years old, he'd already been to Antarctica twice. He went with Scott in 1901 and he led another expedition himself in 1907. On the the first trip he was sent home with scurvy. On the second he made it to 88 degrees south, known in explorer's shorthand as Furthest South, before he had to turn back. Shackleton turned back because even though he was less than 100 miles from the Pole, pushing on probably would have killed one or more of his team. It was typical for him to put the safety of his men ahead of the chance for immortality as the discoverer of the South Pole. His men might sometimes call him Sir Ernest, but more often it was simply, and admiringly, "The Boss." Endurance scholar Caroline Alexander says they had a saying about Sir Ernest.

Caroline Alexander, Endurance scholar: For scientific discovery give me Scott. For speed and efficiency give me Amundsen. But when you're in a hopeless case and disaster strikes, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.

This is not to say that Shackleton was a soft touch. Sir Edmund Hillary, who with Tenzing Norgay conquered Mount Everest in 1953, is another admirer. He says Shackleton could overcome appalling circumstances because he could really read his men and adapt his reaction, unlike the rigid Scott. Hillary made friends with an old sailor who served with Shackleton and Scott in 1901, and the old man told him this story:

Sir Edmund Hillary's introduction to Frank Worsley's book Shackleton's Boat Journey: One merchant seaman in particular was most reluctant to accept orders and was regarded as a very bad influence on the rest of the crew. Captain Scott decided that he would have to be sent back on the first relief vessel. To Scott's absolute astonishment the seaman refused to be repatriated - he had signed a contract and knew his rights - he was staying on to the end of the expedition whatever Scott might think. Then Shackleton asked permission to deal with the problem, and calmly informed the seaman that he was returning to Britain. The man insolently disagreed, so Shackleton, a powerful man, stepped forward and knocked him to the deck. The man rose slowly to his feet and Shackleton gave him his instructions once again. Somewhat more slowly and much less arrogantly the man refused. Once again the man was flattened by a mighty blow. When he got up this time and realised that Shackleton was prepared to carry on the procedure indefinitely, he was happy to agree to an immediate departure.
All photographs by Frank Hurley unless otherwise noted

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