For Endurance scholar Caroline Alexander, and others who analyze Shackleton
the leader, the five months the men of the Endurance spent on the ice are the
most instructive period.
Alexander: It's really the sense of his commanding presence, that one gets even today just reading about it, is clearly what held the men together. Shackleton's own hopes for glory and success had been dashed. He knew he was going back to an uncertain future and to continually be interested in every single one of these men, sort of never throw a fit of pique, never stamp off, never bully or threaten, but always be there for all of them, always be there to sort of prevent any spark from catching alight was perhaps as much his genius of leadership as in being able to lead men across high seas.
The crew abandoned ship in late October, 1915. From then until early April,
1916, they lived on the ice. Five months of what for most of us would be mind-numbing
tedium, but Shackleton kept them busy. They played football. He taught them to
play bridge. They hunted - killing countless seals and penguins - and as the expedition
meteorologist Leonard Hussey told the BBC, they raced their sled dogs:
Endurance expedition member Leonard Hussey:
We marked up the course with old bits of wood and two teams, Wild and Hurley started.
It was about 700 yards the course, one man dressed up with an old bowler hat as
a bookie, and we all laid bets with him. Of course the Antarctic currency is chocolate
or tobacco; money's no good down there. We started off, these two teams started
off at a great pace. And we were cheering them all the whole length of the course.
We could hardly see them in the darkness of the Antarctic midday. And with a terrific
finish, Satan's team just won from Sampson's by about a tongue.
Don't think Shackleton's men didn't realize they were very possibly doomed
and that The Boss's activities and attentions alone tricked them into thinking
they'd make it. This was 1915, and death was no stranger to sailors and other
adventurers. But this was a Shackleton expedition. Men had jumped at the chance
to serve with him. Literally thousands of men applied for positions on the Endurance,
and when, for instance, the first cook was fired for drunkenness, there were instantly
20 applicants for the position. His men knew the saying "when disaster strikes,
get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton." They took it seriously. They
knew they were being led by a man who would do everything to give them every chance
at survival, and they knew that pessimism could only hurt them.
seaman Walter How talking to the BBC:
He was a wonderful organizer. He could always change his plans quickly. He always
found a way out.
That helps explain the crew's good cheer, but it doesn't explain how Shackleton
managed to keep his cool. The simple answer might be that getting stuck in the
ice wasn't the worst thing he'd been through. In his memoir, Shackleton mentions
a good six months of what he calls "mule work," before the Endurance expedition
was publicly announced. By mule work he means the drudgery of convincing people
to contribute money and material to the expedition. Fund-raising. He planned to
use speeches, books, and photos to pay off the expedition's debt once he returned.
He named the Endurance lifeboats after major sponsors. Fund-raising is extremely
hard, frustrating, humiliating work, and Will Steger thinks there's no question
it readied Sir Ernest for his expeditions.
Steger: Putting together a major expedition I don't think is much different now than what it was a hundred years ago because you have to raise money, and raising money for me is harder than the expedition itself. If someone just gave me the money and I was going to go to the North Pole, I don't think I would have succeeded because the raising of the money and that whole segment of the expedition really tempered me. I learned for one how to deal with stress. I mean, you take a million-dollar debt and all the pressure of the media on top of you, and if you collapse you're in big trouble. You live in the here and now and be real practical and have a lot of faith in yourself.
Ship's captain Frank Worsley, from his memoir Shackleton's Boat Journey:
Worsley: Each successive frostbite on a finger was marked by a ring where the skin had peeled, so that we could count our frostbites by the rings, after the method of a woodman telling the age of a tree.
Bancroft: You know, I don't know why there isn't more frostbite.
The winter issue for each man included two Jaeger (YAY-gur) wool shirts, long
underwear, Shetland wool mitts and sweaters, and Burbury pants and coats designed
to be wind- and waterproof. When they camped on the ice, they slept under thin
tents in either wool or reindeer-hide bags. No GPS or Goretex Dry Suits for Shackleton's
men. But while Ann Bancroft isn't about to try a polar trek in vintage gear, she
thinks it's a mistake to put too much emphasis on the new and better equipment
Bancroft: I think what excites me about
Antarctica and places like that are so harsh is that even though there are huge
differences in certainly the technology of both clothing and gear, the winds are
the same and the storms are the same and the unpredictable nature of the continent
is the same. It hasn't gotten all that much easier. The biggest area is the navigation.
Now with our global positioning systems, it's much easier to do, but if you follow
any of the modern-day expeditions that are going on at both ends of the globe
right now as we speak, they're struggling. They're still dragging their sleds.
Their sleds are made out of different material but they're laboring with the same
sorts of physical challenges ahead of them. And not a whole lot has changed in
that regard. So there's sort of a, poorly put, an equalizing force that nature