Shackleton’s heroism still inspiring

IMG_0123Life in Hope Ness is not all “sweetness and light,” especially in winter, the way we get it here sometime in this part of Canada: from sub-zero, Arctic-air-mass cold for days on end, followed by a day or two of winds from the south bringing a sudden thaw, and rain, like today. It’s not pretty.

Strange the way the mind works sometimes, but I was thinking I’d even prefer last winter’s record-setting cold, when the deep freeze came and settled in for months.

Then I thought of Antarctic, which led me to think of Ernest Shackleton, one of my historical heroes. And that led me to thoughts on the nature of his heroism, and that it arose in desperate circumstances stemming from apparently disastrous failure.

Shackleton, already a celebrated Antarctic explorer, planned in 1914 to cross Antarctica via the South Pole from west to east. One ship, Endurance, was to take Shackleton and others to the starting point, while the second ship, Aurora, sailed to the opposite side of the frozen continent and set up supply depots along the final stretch of the route to be followed by Shackleton’s group.

By the time the expedition was due to set sail for Antarctica the First World War had just started. But Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, told Shackleton to proceed as planned. Perhaps Churchill sensed the people of Great Britain would need the distraction of good news. But there was no news, good or bad, as Shackleton and the men aboard Endurance disappeared for the better part of three years. It must have been eerily reminiscent of the earlier, ill-fated Franklin expedition to find the North-West passage through the Canadian Arctic islands.

Before it could reach its destination Endurance got trapped in the off-shore Antarctic ice. The ship and its crew drifted helplessly with the massive ice flow for 10 months. They had no way of making contact with the outside world. As the ice started to break up the ship was crushed and finally sank. Shackleton and the crew lived precariously on the fracturing ice flow for another two months before being forced to take to the three lifeboats they had salvaged from the sinking Endurance. Exhausted, they managed to reach remote and uninhabited Elephant Island.

Shackleton decided the only hope of rescue was for him and several other men to set sail in one of the lifeboats in hopes of reaching South Georgia, an island where he knew there was a whaling station. A carpenter with the expedition managed to find materials to make the 20-ft boat more seaworthy for a 720-nautical-mile, open-boat voyage across one of the most dangerous seas in the world. After two weeks Shackleton and his companions sighted South Georgia but had to ride out a hurricane before attempting a landing. The whaling station was on the other side of the mountainous island. There was no choice but to climb the mountains, and hopefully find a way through them. They succeeded, again against great odds.

With help from the whalers Shackleton made his way from there to Chile, where the sympathetic Chilean government lent him a small rescue ship, a seagoing tug from its navy. Miraculously, when he made his way back to Elephant Island he found the 22 men there all still alive after four months.

They were doubtless remarkable men in their own right, but their faith in Shackleton and his promise to return with help had kept up their spirits. They knew the kind of man he was.

Meanwhile, Aurora had run into trouble on the other side of Antarctica. It had been blown out to sea and was unable to get back to pick up the men tasked to set up supply depots. They had done their job to the full, but four men died in the process. Aurora had managed to reach New Zealand. Shackleton sailed her from there and rescued the survivors of the supply-depots group.

Today Shackleton is celebrated more for his fortitude and determination, and dedication to saving the lives of his men against all the odds, than his failure to reach the South Pole and cross Antarctic.

His leadership skills, especially his ability to inspire his men, including by example, is also a big part of a story well worth telling now to a new generation. A cynic might say Shackleton got lucky to some extent. Yes, he did. But people like him create their own luck.

We can’t all be Shackletons. He was himself a man with faults, to be sure.

But we are remarkable creatures, especially when we work together as a team with good, caring, determined leadership and keep our heads up. We have it in us to be great, to do great things; perhaps especially when all seems lost. Don’t ever forget that.

So, I give myself a little tap on the wrist, as I say, “hey, Phil, smarten up, get moving, it’s just an Ontario winter, you can get through it. Get up there and shovel the melting snow off the leaky roof, water the plants, take Aussie for a walk, go into town for lunch with people you know, or not. Community is good for the soul.

“Perk up.”

Okay, I say, I can do that.

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