Stoic Lessons: Ernest Shackleton (Part VI – Resolve)


16 days after leaving Elephant Island, and having braved some of the worst elements imaginable in a boat never designed for such navigation, the six man crew of the James Caird finally landed on the shore of South Georgia.

Shackleton was faced with a tough decision. As the only known human outpost was the on the other side of South Georgia, they could either set off once again and sail around the island, or attempt to make their way on foot. The interior land was completely unexplored, so the men had no idea if it was impassable. The boat was not in very good condition, so Shackleton chose the latter option.

McNish and Vincent were in no fit state to make the journey, so Shackleton decided that those two, under the care of McCarthy, would stay by the bay with the James Caird while he, Worsley and Crean would make the trek across land. With no maps, and no knowledge of the geography of the island, they would have to navigate largely on intuition.

The three men set off before dawn, and soon made their way up to a height of 3000 ft. From there they had a better idea of where they needed to go. There was one major challenge, however. They needed to descend before nightfall, which would be almost impossible without the proper mountaineering equipment. Another difficult decision therefore presented itself to Shackleton: they could climb down and risk darkness falling while they were doing it, or try to slide down the slope on a makeshift rope sledge, saving valuable time.

Although Shackleton, Worsley and especially Crean were brave and resilient men who were willing to put their lives on the line, this was no longer about their own personal safety. Even if they could accept the possibility of being killed, the rest of the crew depended on them. If Shackleton’s three-man team perished while crossing South Georgia then the helpless McCarthy, McNish and Vincent would soon die too, and if the crew of the James Caird failed, this in turn would spell doom for the 22 men left behind on Elephant Island. Everything relied on the survival of Shackleton and his two companions.

With time running against them, Shackleton made his decision: they would sled down the mountain. Sitting on their unpromising rope-sledge, they held onto each other and pushed off. They shot down the slope, and soon came to a stop at the bottom. To their collective amazement they were uninjured. Once again Shackleton had chosen the right option; one which most other people would be too scared to even consider. Like a Stoic, Shackleton showed no fear (though he must doubtless have felt it).

Their journey was not over yet; there was much ground still to cover (including a frozen waterfall). They trudged through the night and into the next morning, without resting since setting off at 3am the previous day. Later that day, unimaginably exhausted, the three bedraggled men reached the whaling station. Since the Endurance had become stuck in the ice, the entire expedition had been a series of events where things went from bad to worse. For perhaps the first time, the situation had got better. What remained now was to collect the three men from the other side of South Georgia, and then make way to Elephant island to rescue the main body of the crew.

We will conclude this remarkable journey in part VII.

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