Stoic Lessons: Ernest Shackleton (Part IV – Stranded)

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It had long been apparent that the transcontinental trek was not going to happen. With the ship wrecked beyond repair, and the crew stranded on the ice, it seemed that the expedition was in tatters. Shackleton’s mind now turned to rescuing his men. This would not be easy.

It was time to start weighing up the possibilities. One option was to march west to Paulet Island, where Shackleton knew there was a food depot (a 12-year leftover from the relief mission for a Swedish expedition led by Otto Nordenskiöld). Or perhaps they could try to reach Snow Hill Island, or Robertson Island, and from there make their way across Graham Land to a whaling outpost on the other side. The problem was that all of these targets were hundreds of miles away. Arduous man-hauling would be required.

Before they could set off, there was one particularly dreadful task to be carried out. It would be impossible to take the animals on the long journey, so they would have to be put down. Shackleton stoically ordered all of the dogs – and Mrs Chippy, the ship’s cat – to be shot. This was a terrible blow to the animal lovers among the crew, like Chief Petty Officer Tom Crean (one of the bravest and hardiest men in the history of polar exploration), but Shackleton knew there was no choice. It had to be done. In pragmatic terms, the dog meat would provide a welcome boost to the dwindling rations.

Two of the lifeboats were put on sledges, and the hauling began. It should be explained that the ice was not flat like a frozen lake; it was littered with ridges and troughs, and made an already difficult task even more difficult. It was Shackleton’s belief that “Superhuman effort isn’t worth a damn unless it achieves results”. This echoes Seneca’s writing, in which he said: “I should rebuke men who toil to no purpose”. Once again, Shackleton was behaving like a stoic. He ordered the march be abandoned. They would wait until the ice broke up, then use the lifeboats for their intended purpose. Now came the waiting game.

They retrieved the last of their supplies from the Endurance, and watched it finally sink, a surely disheartening sight. To make matters worse, the ice was subtly but continuously drifting, and only served to drag them farther away from Snow Hill Island. Many supplies and personal effects had to be abandoned for being too large, heavy or unwieldy. It is notable that one of the items Shackleton insisted be salvaged was a banjo. A lesser leader would have discarded this instrument, failing to see the morale-boosting opportunities it provided. Shackleton, as ever, knew that keeping spirits up was supremely important.

Unable to set the boats on the water because of the ice, and unable to cross the ice by foot because of the boats, the choices were extremely limited. After some calculations, another march was attempted, this time in the direction of Paulet Island, which was still in reach. Unhappily, conditions had not improved since the last effort, and tensions were starting to flare. One of the men lost his cool and refused to obey orders, but was firmly rebuked. Shackleton had to maintain discipline in exceptionally tough circumstances, and it is to his eternal credit that he kept order was well as he did.

Progress was glacial. After a week of hauling the men had covered just over a mile a day. Once again Shackleton had to call off the march, set up camp, and wait. Six months would pass before the ice had broken up sufficiently to launch the lifeboats. What followed was one of the most dangerous stretches of the entire expedition.

Part V is coming soon.

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