Tag Archives: Shackleton

Stoic Lessons: Ernest Shackleton (Part VII – Conclusion)


We rejoin the story with Shackleton, Worsley and Crean having reached the Husvik whaling station at South Georgia’s Stromness Bay. They were exhausted after their mighty 36 hour trek, but could not rest for long; their fellow crewmembers were still at the mercy of the elements. Worsley was sent on a whaling ship to collect McCarthy, McNish and Vincent from the other side of the island (they did not recognise him when he arrived, as he was now clean-shaven), while Shackleton and Crean planned the rescue of the men who were on Elephant Island.

Worsley returned with the men, and three days later he joined Shackleton, Crean and volunteers from the whaling station as they set sail for Elephant Island. The ice conditions prevented them from reaching Point Wild, so they diverted to look for a more suitable ship. Few were forthcoming; World War I had broken out shortly before the Endurance Expedition set sail, and was now in full swing, leaving British ships unavailable. A vessel from Uruguay was procured, but it too failed to reach the island, as did a subsequent Argentinian ship. Finally, a Chilean ship made it to the island, and the 22 men were rescued at last.

It is remarkable that despite all the calamities which befell the crew of the Endurance – the destruction of the ship, the months spent living on the ice, the perilous lifeboat journeys and the mighty trek across South Georgia – not a single man died. There was exhaustion, injury and a some amputated toes, but everyone under Shackleton’s command had survived almost unbearable hardship (It should, however, be remembered that the Aurora – the ship on the other side of the continent, tasked with depot-laying – lost three of its men: Victor Hayward, Rev Arnold Spencer-Smith, and the ship’s Captain Aeneas Mackintosh).

One wonders how they did it, particularly in such an unforgiving climate. I believe the main explanation for their success (and it can be called success, in spite of failing their original mission) lies in Shackleton himself. He was the ideal leader: calm under pressure, logical, reasonable, a good judge of character, strong-willed, brave and always undeterred by adversity. Chief amongst his qualities was that which he shared with the name of the ship: endurance.

His excellent command of an almost doomed expedition can serve as a lesson to any budding Stoic (or even an experienced one). Turn after turn he and his men were faced with another fresh difficulty. To face one of these situations would be too much for most people; Shackleton faced each new low with undeniable stoicism (at least on the surface).

This is not to say he was a model person. He had a terrible way with money, and his many failed business dealings landed him heavily in debt. Upon his death (he died of a heart attack while preparing another antarctic adventure) he had not made sure that his family could be provided for after he was gone. He was a frequently restless man between expeditions, always itching to return to the polar regions (it is fitting, therefore, that he is buried in South Georgia). These are not stoic qualities.

Additionally, some have accused him of holding grudges, as apparently evidenced by his denying four men the Polar Medal (McNish, Vincent and two fire-stokers named Holness and Stephenson) while everyone else was awarded. I am less inclined to judge him on this point. If he felt that the men’s conduct or attitude did not deserve recognition, I would not begrudge him his decision.

This has not been a hagiography. It has been a look at a man whose noble words were backed up by his determined actions. He did not spout empty aphorisms. When he said: “Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all”, he meant it. What’s more, he proved it.

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.

Stoic Lessons: Ernest Shackleton (Part V – Lifeboats)


When the ice had sufficiently broken up, the crew of the sunken Endurance launched the three lifeboats, each of which had been named after an expedition donor. Shackleton commanded the James Caird, Frank Worsley was in charge of the Dudley Docker, while the Stancomb Wills was under the control of Hubert Hudson (nominally) and Tom Crean (de facto).

Their target initially was Deception Island, a distant prospect, but Shackleton soon changed his mind and selected Hope Bay. Always willing to review his plans when necessary, rather than blindly and stubbornly sticking to one idea, he ultimately settled on Elephant Island as their destination. His decision was influenced by the unavoidable facts that provisions were running low, the temperature was below freezing, and the men’s strength was depleted. Elephant Island may not have been the ideal place to land, but it was the nearest. Trying to push the men further could have been fatal. Shackleton made a sensible decision.

When the men landed at Elephant Island, it became apparent that the beach was not a suitable place to camp, and another location on the island was sought. They found a better spot on the western side, and named it Point Wild.

Elephant Island was utterly desolate; a remote place which antarctic whalers rarely had any cause to visit. There was very little chance that anyone would stumble upon the crew. If they wanted to be rescued, they would have to go looking for help. Shackleton devised a plan that one of the lifeboats would be fortified to better endure the rigours of seafaring. He and a select few men would sail this boat to South Georgia (over 900 miles away) to seek assistance, while the rest would stay behind and wait.

The James Caird was deemed the most suitable boat for this journey, but still required some modifications at the hands of Endurance’s carpenter Harry McNish (the same man who had refused to obey orders when they were stranded on the pack ice). Shackleton selected five men to accompany him: Endurance’s captain Frank Worsley, the ever-reliable Tom Crean, the aforementioned McNish, and sailors John Vincent and Timothy McCarthy. Frank Wild would be in charge of the men remaining on Elephant Island.

McNish and Vincent had reputations as trouble-makers, and it has been suspected that Shackleton took them along to keep an eye on them (presumably on the principle that you should “keep your enemies closer”), and also to relieve the others of their presence. He knew that waiting on Elephant Island would be a grim existence, so everything should be done to maintain a sense of cohesion.

The boat was launched and began its difficult journey to South Georgia, an ordeal in which Worsley demonstrated exceptional navigational skill under horrendous circumstances. The six men had to contend with terrible weather, biting winds, extreme cold and dangerous icebergs. Their rations were slim, and their clothes were not waterproof. True to form, Shackleton was stoic throughout, and never let the situation dampen his resolve.

Shackleton’s odyssey will continue in Part VI.

Stoic Lessons: Ernest Shackleton (Part IV – Stranded)


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.

Stoic Lessons: Ernest Shackleton (Part III – Patience)


We rejoin Shackleton and crew with their voyage well underway.

The Endurance had reached the Weddell Sea, a tricky area riddled with icebergs and impenetrable stretches of pack ice. With the ship getting nearer to the antarctic continent, Shackleton was looking for an area to land, but could not locate an ideal spot. Progress slowed to a halt, and eventually the ship was surrounded by ice. Soon it was stuck fast.

Realising that they were encased in all directions, Shackleton ordered the fires to be banked in order to preserve fuel. He had the men set to work trying to free the ship from the ice. Despite their toil, they did not make any significant progress. The chances of breaking free looked slim. There was no option but to sit and wait until the spring.

The men were now faced with the unenviable prospect of spending the antarctic winter afloat – but immobile – in the middle of nowhere, far from civilisation. There was no way to communicate with the rest of the world, and therefore no possibility of rescue. The crew was well and truly alone, entirely at the mercy of nature.

A lesser commander would have struggled under such a heavy burden, but Shackleton was made of strong stuff. Like a Stoic, he knew that he had no influence on outside conditions, so it would be pointless to fret about things that were beyond his control. His duty now was to make the best of the situation; to concern himself only with those things he could change.

The men set about turning the Endurance and its immediate surroundings into a winter base. They constructed igloo kennels to free the dogs from being kept on board all the time, and to allow them to be exercised. Occasionally dog races were held to raise spirits. Everyone did their best to maintain a positive mood.

Although the ship could not move in the ice, the ice itself was drifting, and carrying the ship with it. For a brief time it seemed that they might reach the continent after all, but it was not to be. The longer they were surrounded, the more pressure was being exerted on the ship. If the ice did not start to break up, it would eventually crush the Endurance. For anyone else this would be a terrifying possibility, but not for Shackleton. He kept his head throughout the ordeal.

Things went from bad to worse. The pressure caused the ship to shudder and list. The hull began to buckle and break. Water started seeping in. With the ship now leaning at a concerning angle, and the men trying their best to mend the leak, the decision was made to lower the lifeboats onto the ice, along with supplies. The situation looked grim. Shackleton finally had to give the dreaded order: abandon ship.

The crew set up camp on the ice, climbing on board the broken ship for the occasional piece of equipment and supplies. It is hard to imagine camping on ice; to be essentially afloat in a frozen expanse must surely be a surreal experience.

Shackleton and crew were stranded, with three lifeboats as their only sea-worthy vessels. Amazingly, things would get even worse, as we shall see in Part IV.

Stoic Lessons: Ernest Shackleton (Part II – Planning)

endurance1“By endurance we conquer” – Shackleton family motto

The aim of Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition (or the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition to use its official name) was to traverse Antarctica, from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea, via the South Pole. It would prove to be the last major attempt of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.

This would be a mighty undertaking. Shackleton was well aware of how dangerous this land could be; Captain Scott and his team had died partway through their return journey from the Pole. Any adventure of this magnitude would require planning, discipline, bravery, good men and a strong leader. Luckily, the Endurance Expedition possessed all of these qualities.

One of the absolute requirements of successful Antarctic travel was laying supply depots along the way. This meant the men would have to carry less provisions on their main journey, and would also provide a safety net if the elements turned against them. Scott’s party perished just 11 miles from their nearest depot, one which Scott had placed far short of its original intended location (due to the supply ponies struggling with the harsh climate). If Scott had perservered at the start, and pushed on with the depot laying, it is possible he might have saved himself and his men at the end.

The plan was to have two ships – the Endurance under Shackleton and the Aurora under Captain Mackintosh – one at either end of the continent. The respective crews would begin laying depots further inland, each covering half of the journey. Shackleton and six of his men (along with 69 dogs and two primitive motorised sledges) would make the complete trip to meet the Aurora at the other end. His remaining men would stay with the Endurance and carry out scientific research. It was a good plan, but it would never be carried out.

A few days after the Endurance set sail, a stowaway was discovered; a young man named Perce Blackborow. In order to make an example of the boy in front of the crew, Shackleton flew into a rage, culminating in the warning that if times got tough, the stowaway was always the first to be eaten. Unfazed by this tirade, Blackboro replied that the men would get more meat off Shackleton. Shackleton had to stifle a smile, the tension was broken, and the boy became part of the crew (to get the last word, Shackleton instructed that the young man should be introduced to the cook first).

This humorous episode provides an important insight into Shackleton’s character. Although he may have genuinely lost his temper at the beginning, he was able let this emotion go and see the lighter side of the situation. His amused response to Blackboro’s cheeky reply (some would say insult) shows that he was not vain or precious, and could accept a witty quip at his expense. Credit is also due to Blackboro for acting so laconically in such a heated situation.

Throughout the expedition, with all its gruelling hardships, Shackleton never forgot the necessity to maintain good humour. Keeping the men’s spirits up was just as important as their physical condition, as we shall see in the forthcoming Part III.

Stoic Lessons: Ernest Shackleton (Part I – Introduction)

Shackleton1“Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all” – Shackleton

While the great Anglo-Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton may not have been a Stoic with a capital S, he certainly demonstrated many of the admirable qualities which any follower of this philosophy should aspire toward. Shackleton’s name is a byword for courage, fortitude, and mental strength in the face of adversity.

The business world has appropriated Shackleton’s story as a guide to leadership, using his achievements as inspirational tidbits for the benefit of corporate executives. Here we examine Shackleton as a guide to real world stoicism.

Our journey takes place during the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. At this time the Antarctic continent was the last unexplored landmass on the planet. Fame and glory were the rewards for any men who could conquer this frozen desert; a miserable death was the reward for any who could not.

Captain Robert Falcon Scott first made headway into Antarctica, recording a new Furthest South of 82°11’S by modern estimates. Shackleton was a member of this expedition, but suffered some sort of physical collapse on the way back (as a result of scurvy), the exact extent of which has been debated. He was sent home on the relief ship while the rest carried on without him.

Undeterred, Shackleton began raising funds for his own Antarctic expedition. In 1909 he and his companions set a new Furthest South record of 88º23’S, the closest anyone had come to the South Pole. On the arduous trek back to base, each man had to subsist on a paltry one biscuit a day. Shackleton selflessly gave his rations to his comrade Frank Wild, who was facing starvation.

The success of this operation demonstrated that the Pole was within reach. Soon, two expeditions were established to this aim; one led my Roald Amundsen and one led by Scott. Amundsen was first to attain the Pole. Scott and his men famously (and bravely) perished on the return journey.

With the Pole conquered, Shackleton knew that the only remaining Antarctic achievement would be a transcontinental journey: right across Antarctica from one end to the other. This would become known as the Endurance Expedition, and represents Shackleton’s finest hour. What makes this voyage so remarkable is that despite being a complete failure on paper (they didn’t even set foot on the continent let alone cross it), it remains one of the most inspiring stories of survival in human history, and a lesson in virtue to all students of stoicism.

We will examine Shackleton’s Endurance in Part II.