Thursday, 23 September 2010
Men Wanted for Hazardous Journey
“Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return is doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success. Contact E. Shackleton, London.”
Purists may avert their eyes as your humble servant makes yet another digression from things totally West Point, although the story behind the classified advertisement quoted above was the subject of an excellent lecture delivered in the Haig Room atop West Point’s Jefferson Hall yesterday. It was part of a Department of English and Philosophy seminar on the theme of “The Explorer” led by Dr. Elizabeth Samet. The lecturer was Ms. Caroline Alexander, author of The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition, published in 1999.
The Endurance departed England on 8 August 1914, bound for Buenos Aires, to link up with the expedition commander, Sir Ernest Shackleton, a renowned polar explorer of his day. By 5 December 1914, the Endurance departed Grytviken Whaling Station on South Georgia Island and encountered pack ice near the South Sandwich Islands two days later. On 18 January 1915, the ship was beset off the coast of Antarctica and attempted to find a path through the ice. By 27 October the Endurance was crushed in the ice and abandoned, sinking on 21 November 1915. The crew drifted, with salvaged provisions and three small boats, north on ice floes towards Paulet Island at the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Often they dragged the boats across the ice, to gain a better position or to move away from cracks in the ice, and subsisted on penguin and seal meat, plus some provisions. On 30 March 1916, the last of the sled dogs were killed, some of them turned into a meal.
Then, on 9 April 1916, the crew launched their boats, hoping to reach one of several islands, stopping at night to camp on ice floes or tie up to them. Bedeviled by rain and snow squalls, surrounded by killer whales, pushed back repeatedly in their attempts to reach open water, it appeared that their efforts were for naught. Finally, Shackleton decided to head for Elephant Island, arriving on 15 April. After fifteen months trapped in the ice, the crew was about to begin their greatest ordeal because it was unlikely that anyone would find them there. Already exhausted and stranded on an island constantly assaulted by wind, with little shelter and only seals and penguins for food, the crew was distraught. “Such a wild and inhospitable coast I have never beheld,” wrote expedition photographer Frank Hurley. Shackleton, however, had a plan. He and five others would attempt to sail one of the open boats, the 22-foot James Caird, across 800 miles of open sea back to South Georgia Island for help. They would cross a formidable ocean in the dead of an Antarctic winter, with only a sextant and chronometer to guide their navigation.
To Frank Wild, his second in command, Shackleton wrote this order: “In the event of my not surviving the boat journey to South Georgia you will do your best for the rescue of the party. You are in full command from the time the boat leaves the island.” This meant waiting out the winter and then sailing to Deception Island, difficult to reach except in summer.
Shackleton was an exceptional charismatic leader, able to stay awake for days, shoulder more than his share of arduous physical labor, and still move among his men, exhorting them and reassuring them that all was not lost (on one particularly bad morning, he delivered breakfast), but the trip to South Georgia Island tested the limits of even his endurance and leadership. The crew took provisions for only four weeks, assuming that they would reach their goal or sink by then. The men were soaked wet most of the time and frostbitten, sleep was impossible, taking readings with the sextant was difficult, and all knew that missing the island would thrust them into 3,000 miles of ocean. Gales beset the boat for ten days and a keg of precious water had been contaminated by salt water, leaving them without water for the last two days. When they finally reached the island, they were on the side away from the whaling station and still subjected to horrible weather. Even landing in the rough seas was frustrating, more so because of the condition of the crew. On 10 May, however, they completed “one of the greatest boat journeys ever accomplished” but were too exhausted to haul the James Caird onto the beach.
Shackleton and two men set out to climb the snow-covered ridges separating them from the other side of the island. This also proved frustrating, with the snow turned to mush, and they had to retrace their steps up and down steep slopes many times. Finally, after marching for more than 36 hours without stopping, they reached the whaling station. The other three men were picked up shortly thereafter, but rescuing the crew on Elephant Island provided yet another challenge. An immediate attempt was forced back by heavy pack ice. A Uruguayan vessel also was turned back by ice, as was yet another chartered by the British Association. World War I had begun in Europe, and getting a British ship for a non-military rescue mission proved difficult. The Admiralty said one would be sent later, but said Shackleton would have to defer the Navy skipper regarding the rescue. It was not until 30 August 1916 that the Chilean ship Yelcho, a small steel tug with Shackleton aboard, reached the 22 crew members left on Elephant Island. The ordeal was over.
When Shackleton finally reached Punta Arenas in South America, he penned a quick letter to his wife: “I have done it. Damn the Admiralty . . . . Not a life lost and we have been through Hell.”
What was his secret? The ability to keep focused wholeheartedly on the next thing that had to be done rather than on opportunities lost, according to Ms. Alexander.
Your humble servant, J. Phoenix, Esquire.
Please forward guest articles, comments and suggestions for future topics to JPhoenix@wpaog.org
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