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About the Book
We all have childhood heroes. But rarely do they inspire adventure on the grandest scale.
In 1908, the legendary explorer Ernest Shackleton led a group of three men on a daring and death-defying attempt to become the first men to reach the South Pole. A mere ninety-seven miles from their goal but in the face of the harshest weather conditions, near-starvation and certain death if they continued, Shackleton and his men turned back to safety. Their exploits have never been forgotten.
Exactly one hundred years later, a team of three men led by Henry Worsley decided to retrace the 820-mile route that Shackleton and his men had taken, and finish the journey to the Pole. Inspired by Shackleton’s spirit, courage and leadership, Worsley walks in his hero’s footsteps and comes to truly understand the limits of human endeavour.
Describing in fascinating detail the stark contrasts between the two expeditions – food and medical supplies, modes of travel and communication – as well as the emotions and challenges that both teams share, In Shackleton’s Footsteps parallels the history of the original expedition with the grit and determination of Worsley’s own journey.
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A Return to the Heart of the Antarctic
Henry Worsley
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Epub ISBN: 9780753544402
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Published in 2011 by Virgin Books, an imprint of Ebury Publishing
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Illustration, second page: A watercolour of Ernest Shackleton in front of Nimrod, by F. Haenen.
Endpapers: Author’s map of the expedition, plotting daily progress.
To Joanna, Max and Alicia
Cast List
Author’s Note
1: A Family Affair
2: Unfinished Business
3: The Waiting Game
4: The Antarctic Malt Whisky Appreciation Society
5: Battle with the Blue Ice
6: Masters of our Fate
7: Rendezvous with History
8: Reflections in the Ice
Appendix I – The Shackleton Foundation
Appendix II – Ice Team Travel Log and Graph
Missing Images
Author’s sketch of the expedition route.
Missing Images
Ross Island and McMurdo Sound.
Cast List
Nimrod Expedition: 29 October 1908–3 March 1909
Ernest Shackleton, 34
Former Merchant Marine officer, turned Antarctic explorer, born in Kilkea, County Kildare, Ireland, leader of the Nimrod expedition.
Frank Wild, 35
Former Royal Navy officer from Skelton, North Yorkshire, and the only man to take part in all of Shackleton’s Antarctic expeditions.
Eric Marshall, 29
Ship’s surgeon and cartographer, responsible for mapping detail on the inland expedition. Like Shackleton, suffered badly from dysentery on the return journey, their weakened state slowing their return to the coast before the agreed date by which Nimrod was due to depart.
Jameson Boyd Adams, 27
Youngest of the four men, from Rippingale, Lincolnshire, serving as a lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve, before joining the Nimrod expedition as meteorologist. He turned 28 just before the team’s ‘Furthest South’ achievement.
Matrix Shackleton Centenary Expedition: 14 November 2008–19 January 2009
Ice team:
Henry Worsley, 48
Army officer from Hereford, and a descendant of Shackleton’s Endurance skipper, Frank Worsley.
Will Gow, 35
A City worker from Ashford, Kent, Shackleton’s great-nephew by marriage and the one who first thought of the centenary expedition.
Henry Adams, 34
A shipping lawyer from Snape, near Woodbridge, Suffolk, and a great-grandson of Jameson Boyd Adams, Shackleton’s number two on the unsuccessful expedition.
97-Mile Team (Team members who flew to the 97-mile point on 9 January 2009 to complete the final stage of the journey):
Dave Cornell, 38
From Andover, Hampshire, a City fund manager and another great-grandson of Jameson Boyd Adams.
Tim Fright, 25
Policy analyst from Billingshurst, West Sussex, and a great-great-nephew of Frank Wild.
Andrew Ledger, 23
A policy researcher from Dronfield, near Sheffield, who won his place on the expedition as part of a national competition.
Ronnie Gray, 38
Ex-Army officer who generously joined the 97-Mile team late in the centenary expedition’s planning.
Matty McNair, 58
The leading female polar guide of her generation.
Author’s Note
Distance, temperature and weight on the Nimrod expedition were recorded by Ernest Shackleton in The Heart of the Antarctic in nautical miles, degrees ‘of frost’ in Fahrenheit and pounds of weight. During the modern expedition, we measured the distance travelled in nautical miles, our sledge weight in kilograms and the temperature in degrees Celsius. In Appendix II, which records the daily details of our journey, also illustrates the difference in mean air temperature and the effect of the wind which creates a ‘wind chill’ factor. The lowest temperature we encountered was -52°C of wind chill. Only two measurements in statute miles are mentioned in this book: Shackleton’s journey to the point he stopped and turned around was in the region of 820 statute miles and our journey covered 920 statute miles (799 nautical miles).
The cigarette cards at the end of each chapter are from a collection issued to mark the success of the Nimrod expedition.
‘Men go out into the void spaces of the world for various reasons. Some are actuated simply by a love of adventure, some have the keen thirst for scientific knowledge, and others are drawn away from the trodden paths by the “lure of little voices”, the mysterious fascination of the unknown.’
EHS, The Heart of the Antarctic, 1909
November 2003
I turned inland from the water’s edge and walked the slight slope over the tussock grass towards the white picket fence. I opened the gate and headed to the back of the enclosure, where I stopped. Turning around I sat down on my rucksack and stared out across the bay, the water rippling in the weakening light. The feeling of excitement on doing something that had seemed beyond all possibility, yet was now actually about to happen, wrapped itself around me. I unpacked my sleeping bag, wriggled inside it and, settling down into the gathering warmth, turned to face the upright block of granite at arm’s length from my face. The metal lettering hammered into the rough face of the stone was just visible. Reaching out to touch it I considered for a moment just how significant a moment in my life this was; all my life I’d hoped one day to be here. I was about to spend the night in the whaler’s cemetery in Grytviken on the island of South Georgia beside the grave of my hero since childhood – Sir Ernest Shackleton.
My interest in the daring exploits of Shackleton and Captain Scott began when as a boy I came across accounts of their expeditions in the travel and exploration section of the school library. Ignoring reminders from the librarian that my books were long overdue, I saw the Discovery, Nimrod, Terra Nova and Endurance expeditions come vividly alive through the brilliant camera work of the expedition photographers, Frank Hurley and Herbert Ponting. There was also delicate and skilful artwork produced by Edward Wilson and George Marston, which added colour to the panoramas and wildlife that the monochrome photographs were unable to capture. But it was the story of Shackleton’s Endurance expedition in 1914, captured by Hurley, that first transported me back to a time that I longed to have been part of – the Edwardian heroic age of polar exploration.
Hurley’s images of the Endurance trapped and crushed in the ice of the Weddell Sea, the campsites set up on the treacherous floating ice when the expedition’s crew had to abandon the ship to her fate, the entire party of twenty-eight men escaping in the ship’s lifeboats to Elephant Island where they survived on a diet of seabirds, seals and seaweed and then the unimaginable rescue after Shackleton and five others had sailed the open boat James Caird, more than eight hundred nautical miles across the Southern Ocean to South Georgia to seek help. This extraordinary story of courage, fortitude and outstanding leadership depicted an age where hope and optimism would unquestionably prevail over adversity and disaster. There can be no better example of that optimism and willingness for duty and sacrifice than the following text from a crew member of the Endurance writing to his father in August 1914: ‘Dear old Dad. Just a line before we sail. We’ve had a very good time so far and I think we shall do well. I hope to be home again within 19 months and go straight to the Front. What a glorious age we live in.’
In the archives of polar exploration, Shackleton’s 1914–1916 Endurance expedition is probably the most well known because despite disaster and adversity, extraordinary triumph prevailed. The South Pole had been conquered by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen in December 1911, with Britain’s Captain Robert Falcon Scott arriving three weeks later, only to perish tragically with the other members of his Terra Nova team on the return journey. With the South Pole claimed, only one further crown remained – a crossing of the entire Antarctic Continent. This was the prize which Shackleton sought for Britain on his 1914 Endurance expedition. His plan was to sail from South Georgia into the Weddell Sea, making a landing on the shores of the Antarctic. From there he would lead a sledging party more than seven hundred miles to the South Pole and then continue onwards to the other side of the continent, to the coast of the Ross Sea. A second group, having set sail from New Zealand, would lay food depots over the second half of the journey to supply the transcontinental team once they had reached the Pole.
But disaster struck in the very early stages when the Endurance became trapped in the unrelenting ice of the Weddell Sea. Once the ship finally succumbed to the intense pressure of the thickening sea ice and sank, the expedition became a race for survival. Under Shackleton’s leadership, the crew dragged the three lifeboats across the sea ice then rowed to the desolate, rocky outcrop which is Elephant Island. The subsequent journey of the James Caird to South Georgia rightly has its place in maritime history as the greatest of its kind ever attempted. It took four months before Shackleton was able to return with a rescue ship to Elephant Island but he achieved it and eventually all of his comrades returned to England – not a man had been lost.
I became mesmerised by the extraordinary levels of hardship these men were prepared to endure in order to achieve those early polar explorations. The relentless struggle of man having to operate at the utmost limit of his capability against the deadly forces of nature appealed to me. The diaries that the Edwardian explorers so assiduously wrote, even when death stalked them to the very last page, provided the added detail of those hopeful, but also dreadful, journeys.
By the time I joined the British Army in 1980, Shackleton had become more than a hero to me; I looked upon him as a mentor. I was going into the business of leading men and as a nineteen-year-old, new to his trade, I believed that there was no better example to follow than his. Leading, particularly through times of setback and crisis, requires someone who can make his men do things that often go against their natural judgement. Therefore, in order for the team to follow, they must trust their leader. There is no better way to build up that trust than by demonstrating to them that their welfare, and their lives, matter most of all. With this guiding principle uppermost in his mind, it is not surprising that no one died under Shackleton’s command.
Shackleton’s Antarctic baptism had occurred some twelve years before the 1914 Endurance epic when, as a young officer in the Merchant Navy, he volunteered to join the British National Antarctic Expedition under the leadership of Commander Scott. On Christmas Eve 1901, final letters having been written by the crew to their wives and sweethearts, the expedition ship Discovery set sail for the Southern Ocean from New Zealand. Although he was unaware of its significance at the time, this expedition would change Shackleton’s life for ever. Like everyone else on board he was soon to witness the Antarctic for the first time and the ‘stark polar land had gripped his heart’. But it was not a happy time for Shackleton. Although he had been chosen by Scott to travel with him and naturalist and doctor Edward Wilson on the journey to the Pole in 1902, the entire expedition did not go to plan. The polar team members suffered from the onset of scurvy and returned to the Discovery hut ninety-four days later having penetrated only about two hundred and fifty miles across the Great Ice Barrier. But it was a record-breaking ‘Furthest South’ journey. However, Shackleton was singled out by Scott and invalided back to England on grounds of ill health. It was a huge blow, but ignited within him a desire to return again – on his own terms.
As I faced challenging situations in my army career, Shackleton’s example was always there to add a steady hand on the tiller if I required it. When facing a demanding challenge I might ask myself, ‘How would Shacks get out of this, then?’ One particular incident in Bosnia during 2001 springs to mind. During a highly charged riot in which a civilian had been beaten to death, I became separated from my group of soldiers and forced to take refuge in a small café. Stones began raining down on to the building, smashing all the windows in an attempt to flush me out. Rather like the Endurance disaster, I couldn’t stand and wait in the hope that the situation would improve; I had to be decisive and make a move, as Shackleton had done. I made a dash for it and somehow avoided the rocks and bottles that filled the air as I ran for further cover. Of course it is a much more simplistic example than the decisions which had to be taken in the Antarctic, but I remember fleetingly recalling Shackleton’s unwavering boldness, and this almost subconsciously helped me to act quickly. But Shackleton also knew how important it was to maintain morale during difficult times when patience is tested and boredom threatens. Again, this could often apply to life in the army on operations and I found Shackleton’s style of leadership helpful if I ever needed to be reminded of how to get it right.
As the years passed I absorbed all that had been written about him. I had read the books he had written after the Nimrod and Endurance expeditions and many of the biographies by others. There were also accounts and diaries written by those who had been part of his expeditions which provided a rounded perspective on the man, and what was so clear to me was the faith that his crew had in him, well described by Frank Hurley, who said, ‘I always found him rising to his best and inspiring confidence when things were at their blackest’. A few found him a hard taskmaster but the rest adored him, trusting him with their lives.
Collecting ‘Shackletonia’ slowly became an obsession for me. Many hours – and many hundreds of pounds – were spent ferreting through antique shops and auction houses in search of anything associated with his exploits or, better still, items that he had owned or bore his signature. I found old magazines containing accounts of his expeditions, first-edition books, photographs, cigarette cards and, given to me by my wife Joanna, my most treasured possession of all, the copy of South that Shackleton gave his parents inscribed, ‘To Mother and Father, For Christmas, With Love from Ernest, Xmas 1919.’
My fascination with Shackleton had a further, personal link: I was connected to that heroic age through a distant relative called Frank Worsley. Worsley was the captain of the Endurance and is revered in polar lore for his navigation of the James Caird on the journey from Elephant Island to South Georgia in 1916. I am not a close descendent of his, but we each have a traceable line to the Worsleys of Yorkshire. As an American fellow polar buff once said to me as I played down the connection, ‘Damn it, man – you must have the same genes.’
On return from the Discovery expedition, Shackleton’s mood changed from disappointment at being sent home early to restlessness with having to earn a living in a series of desk-bound jobs. He had married his sweetheart Emily Dorman but found professional work tiresome; he wanted only one thing and that was to return south and be the first to the Pole. Using his abundant charm, he raised enough money to announce in February 1907 that he was to lead an expedition to do just that. He purchased the Nimrod, equipped her and on New Year’s Day 1908, waved off by a crowd of thousands, he departed New Zealand bound for the Southern Ocean. Four weeks later the heavily laden ship reached the Antarctic and in the shelter of Cape Royds the team built a hut as the base for the journey to the Pole the following summer. When the sun finally rose three months later, heralding the end of the constant darkness of the Antarctic winter, Shackleton’s plan was ready. He had chosen Frank Wild, Jameson Adams and Eric Marshall to form the southern party. On 29 October 1908 the team of four, each leading a pony and sledge, set off across the frozen sea into the unknown.
After a month, Shackleton had passed the ‘Furthest South’ point reached with Scott in 1903. But then disaster struck. Snow-blind, off their food and weakening fast, three of the four ponies had to be destroyed. Nevertheless, the optimistic Shackleton persevered and on climbing some high ground, discovered a mighty glacier that led the team, now man-hauling their sledges, through the Transantarctic mountains and on to the polar plateau. On joining the glacier the last remaining pony plummeted down a crevasse to an icy death, nearly taking Frank Wild with him. Through extraordinary leadership Shackleton held the team together and, on half-rations and pulling two sledges, continued the arduous journey across the polar plateau. Then on 9 January 1909, just ninety-seven miles from their goal, Shackleton made what must be the most selfless and astonishing decision ever in the history of polar exploration. Having covered eight hundred and twenty miles, he stopped in his tracks and ordered the Union Flag which Queen Alexandra had given the expedition to be planted. Shackleton could see that if they were to go on, the chances of surviving were virtually non-existent. He would take no further risks. Despite the glistening prize of the South Pole staring him in the face, the lives of his men were too important.
The journey home became a fight for survival. Travelling downhill, the crevassed glacier again came close to claiming more lives. Crippled by dysentery from eating pony meat, the four stumbled feebly on to the waiting Nimrod, which picked them up, ironically, from Scott’s Discovery hut, where they had taken refuge. Shackleton’s decision and judgement were evidence of his extra ordinary leadership. Despite staggering hardship and a display of unbreakable mental strength, he had pioneered a route right to the heart of the Antarctic and returned to Britain to be knighted a hero.
In November 1992, a comparable, ground-breaking polar expedition caught my eye and confirmed to me just how much I wanted to take part in something similar; in an immature way I felt jealous because someone else was living out their dream. Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Dr Mike Stroud had set off from the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf where it joins the Weddell Sea, aiming to complete the first unsupported crossing of the Antarctic continent. Ninety-seven days later their journey ended on the Ross Ice Shelf, just three hundred miles short of the Ross Sea which marked their goal. Despite not quite making it, their journey was an astonishing feat of endurance. They had laid an unbroken trail of more than thirteen hundred miles across the Antarctic and blazed their way into the record books.
For months on end I dreamed about taking part in a similar venture but, to be honest, I lacked the boldness to even consider undertaking such a project. I was afraid of the unknown – the planning, the training, the fund-raising and, not least, the risk of failure. I had no idea where to start and it all seemed to be too overwhelming to even give it a go. But I knew I had the passion, and I believed I was developing the mental toughness to succeed.
Deep within me, I had an eagerness and ambition to one day get to the polar regions. I didn’t know when it would be but I was beginning to learn in life that if your heart lifts at the thought of fulfilling a dream then all that stands in your way is to take the first step and enter the arena. As long as my passion for Shackleton and the Antarctic burned with a bright flame, I did truly believe that one day I would get there. I would walk in Shackleton’s footsteps.
A Family Affair
‘The difficulty that confronts most men who wish to undertake exploration work is that of finance, and in this respect I was rather more than ordinarily handicapped. The equipment and despatch of an Antarctic expedition means the expenditure of very many thousands of pounds, without the prospect of any speedy return, and with reasonable probability of no return at all.’
EHS, The Heart of the Antarctic, 1909
‘You must meet my cousin, Will Gow,’ said Alexandra Shackleton. ‘Like you, he admires my grandfather very much and for a few years now has had an idea for an expedition in 2008 to celebrate the centenary of the Nimrod journey. I will arrange for you both to meet.’
Ernest and Emily Shackleton had three children: Raymond, Cecily and Edward. Edward, later Lord Shackleton and himself an explorer and geographer, was Alexandra Shackleton’s father. I had met Alexandra first at the annual polar sale at Christie’s auction house in London, where I had bid successfully on a portrait photograph signed by her grandfather. Later our paths were to cross at lectures at the Royal Geographical Society, polar society receptions – in fact, wherever and whenever there was an event with a polar theme. Will Gow, the man she wanted me to meet, was Shackleton’s great-nephew by marriage; Will’s great-aunt was Emily Dorman, Shackleton’s wife.
In conversation with Alexandra Shackleton over the years, I had made it obvious that I aspired to visit the Antarctic and, if I was lucky, preferably somewhere linked to her grandfather’s expeditions. I’d already told her about sleeping beside his grave on South Georgia so I doubted she needed any further evidence of my deep interest and ambition. Alexandra had explained that Will’s plan was not simply to celebrate the Nimrod expedition centenary, but to do so with descendants of Shackleton, Wild, Adams and Marshall, if he could find some who were eager, committed and capable of taking part. It was a bold and original idea and sounded very interesting. This was the opportunity that I had been longing for.
I arrived last at the Fox and Hounds pub in Battersea, south London early one March evening in 2004, and headed towards the table where Alexandra and Will were already sitting.
‘Henry, meet Will.’ A stocky, powerfully built, dark-haired man rose from his chair and we shook hands.
‘I thought that you two should meet,’ said Alexandra. ‘I have told you about Will’s idea and I know how interested you are in my grandfather – perhaps you could be involved in Will’s plans. And please, call me Zaz.’ Although this first meeting was hardly a formal selection interview, I was keen to get across to Will that I was more than eager to be part of his expedition. Aside from my interest in Shackleton and the longing to travel across the Antarctic, I explained that I was a serving soldier, had been in the army for twenty-four years and was working in the Ministry of Defence. I was pretty confident that the army would give me time off to take part. But I also thought I should be frank with Will about my family claim – if he was looking for a descendent of the original Nimrod party, then I was not qualified, as my link to Shackleton was through Frank Worsley, who had been on the later Endurance expedition. As we relaxed and talked further, it became clear that Will and I would get on well. His optimism and drive were obvious from the start. I learned that he had first thought of the centenary expedition idea after leading a group of children to Nordkapp in north Norway in 2002 as a volunteer staff member of the British Schools Exploring Society. He also had some experience of organising fund-raising events, having helped to raise more than £100,000 for multiple sclerosis charities, the disease which had recently been responsible for his mother’s death. Will, who worked for a financial services company, clearly loved the outdoor life and saw the Nimrod centenary as too exciting an opportunity to ignore.
‘How are you getting on finding descendants?’ I asked.
‘Not too bad,’ he replied. ‘Zaz has a son, Patrick. So between him and me we have the Shackleton link. I have recently met Dave Cornell, a great-grandson of Jameson Adams and we know of some great-great-nephews of Frank Wild – hopefully one of them will be up for it. But no news yet of a Marshall.’
By extraordinary coincidence I knew Dave Cornell quite well. Now working in the City, he had spent a few years in the army, commissioned into the Royal Green Jackets, which was also my regiment. An interesting feature of this project was already beginning to emerge: the final team would be made up not of close mates with friendships forged over time, but of strangers drawn together only by a line of descent to four Edwardian polar explorers. With nearly five years to go until the expedition’s start, there would be time for team spirit to grow but I wondered also whether our disparities may prove to be the source of future difficulties. There was an obvious parallel with army life here. Soldiers come together from all backgrounds to form teams of many sizes, but it is the shared experiences of training together and learning to trust each other, ultimately with their lives, that glues them together as a team. But it takes time for the glue to harden and for everyone in the team to respect and trust one another. In order to give ourselves the best chance of building a strong unit for this venture, we would have to optimise the time available before the expedition began.
‘How did you get on?’ asked my wife Joanna, half an hour after I had left the pub and returned home to our army flat in Putney. I explained what we had talked about, how much I had liked Will and highlighted our similar interests.
‘Yes, but are you going?’
‘I don’t know, darling. I wasn’t expecting to be told this evening but I couldn’t have been more enthusiastic and interested. I explained what I could offer – based in London, time available to train and fund-raise, etc. We have arranged to meet up soon to talk things through in more detail, which is a positive sign. He has two others in the frame already – funnily enough, one of whom I know from the army, Dave Cornell. But it is early days yet, so I musn’t get too excited.’
I tried to play down the meeting and looking back now, probably came across as rather dismissive to Joanna’s enthusiastic questions, which was foolish. For if I was going to be part of this five-year project then she would be the person whose support I would need most. If she was excluded from my selfish dream, then I would be a damn fool. Joanna had been unbelievably understanding over the twelve years that we had been married, never once complaining as I flew off on an army deployment for yet another six months, leaving her alone with our two children, Max and Alicia. Utterly selfless, she strongly believes that partners in a marriage should not feel that they must cast aside things they are passionate about. And she knew I was passionate about achieving my lifetime’s dream.
Missing Images
L–R: Shackleton, Scott and Wilson at ‘Furthest South’, 30 December 1902.
The genesis of Shackleton’s dream to venture to the then-unknown centre of the Antarctic started on the Discovery expedition with Commander Scott in 1902. ‘Like three polar knights they were away with banners flying in the wind, a small party but full of grit and determination’ was how Louis Bernacchi, the physicist on Scott’s expedition, remembered Scott, Shackleton and Wilson departing from Hut Point, heading for the Great Ice Barrier on 2 November 1902. The journey got off to a worrying start. Deep snow, heavy loads and disobedient dogs caused progress to be sluggish and, once the support party had left them, the three men faced a daunting array of tasks on their own. The weather mocked them as they battled against a merciless headwind and driving spindrift – their skis, too difficult to use in this weather, had long since been stowed away. The allocated sledging rations soon proved inadequate as the weather slowed their progress, forcing them on to a reduced intake of food. And so it continued, day on day. The weaker dogs began to tire and, overcome by the cold, fatigue and poor nourishment, some curled up at the end of the day, never to wake again; others had to be shot. This placed an even greater burden on Scott, Wilson and Shackleton who were now forced to relay their sledges, taking one load forward together then returning for the next, through the still-deep snow, often covering fifteen miles but, as Shackleton noted, making only ‘five miles to the good. But there is satisfaction that every foot of ground is new’. Yet by mid-December 1902 they had crossed the symbolic 80˚S line of latitude and were heading to the centre of the golden circle that marked the ten remaining degrees to the Pole.
Despite the hardships, Christmas Day 1902 was celebrated in style. Breakfast, wrote Shackleton, consisted of ‘a pannikin of seal’s liver with bacon mixed with biscuit, each topped up with a spoonful of blackberry jam . . .’. Having made ten miles that day they camped and Shackleton took over the cooking to ensure he could produce a morale-raising surprise at the end of supper; ‘. . . the other two chaps did not know about the plum pudding. It only weighed 6oz and I had it stowed away in my socks (clean ones) in my sleeping bag, with a little piece of holly which I got from the ship. It was a glorious surprise for them – that plum-pudding – when I produced it.’ But away from the celebrations, unseen forces were at work, as Shackleton recorded in his diary that Christmas night. ‘Now we are doing the pulling, the dogs being practically useless’, and ‘We have definitely settled our furthest south to be on the 28th, as examination shows that the Captain and I have slight scurvy signs. It will not be safe to go further.’
Stumbling along due to snow-blindness and growing exhaustion the gallant men pushed south until the end of the year. On 30 December 1902, leaving Shackleton to rest for a few hours, Wilson and Scott made a final push to claim the furthest point reached by man, S82˚ 17'. Pausing briefly to consider the significance of their achievement, they looked ahead through bloodshot eyes and silently pondered what might lie ahead. To the west, Commander Scott spied a break in the face of the mountain range which he named Shackleton Inlet. The two most prominent peaks that rose above the distant skyline he named after his loyal supporters, Mounts Longstaff and Markham – Sir Clements Markham being awarded the highest peak perhaps with the hope of securing his support for a future expedition. Back with the sledge, Shackleton rested awkwardly on the frozen fabric of the tent and reindeer-skin sleeping bags, awaiting their return. Staring first towards the same spine of mountains and then ahead to the horizon that separated the white and blue, I imagine that he must have spent time considering the precarious state they were in and their prospects of a safe return journey. But I also believe that, alone with his thoughts, he promised himself that one day he would return on his own terms to venture past this point and not stop until he had reached 90˚S.
The return journey, like many in extreme expeditions of that time, became a race against death. Dwindling food supplies, snow-blindness, increasing fatigue, irrational judgement and merciless weather conditions came close to claiming their lives. The remaining dogs were killed and eaten as the weakening trio staggered from one food depot to the other. On windy days they created a makeshift sail for the sledge but they lacked the energy to keep up with it. Bleeding, spongy gums, loose teeth and anaemia were signs in all of them that scurvy was fast taking hold. Then in the distance the flattened cone shape of Mount Erebus and the outlines of Black Island and White Island sharpened with every mile as they moved painfully towards the sanctuary of the Discovery.
On 3 February 1903, after ninety-four days away from their winter quarters, the torment came to an end. As they drew closer and saw the familiar outline of Hut Point and the three masts of the Discovery, they noticed that the relief ship, the Morning had also arrived from New Zealand and was at anchor in the open water of the bay. ‘It was a great homecoming, and as we turned past Cape Armitage we saw the ship decorated from top to toe with flags and all the ship’s company up the rigging round the gangway ready to cheer us, which they did most lustily as we came on aboard’, wrote Wilson in his diary that night.
Missing Images
The Morning cutting through ice returning to New Zealand.
A few days later, having rested and recovered, Scott called Shackleton to his cabin and informed him that he had decided to invalid him home on grounds of poor health. The following day, from the stern of the Morning, a devastated Shackleton fixed his stare on the broken sea ice, cracked open and parting as the ship headed north, away from the frozen continent. Behind her she created a dark highway through the pancake ice that led back to Hut Point and the faint outline of the distant peaks. The longing to return South was burning inside him. Shackleton turned to face the other way for he was not a man to look backwards and into the past – he was interested only in the future. Over the following three weeks he paced the deck of the Morning, deep in thought, his head awash with ideas and dreams. But in the quiet of his cabin his mind focussed on home and his beloved Emily and what the future had in store for them.
Prior to leaving England, Shackleton had made clear to Emily’s father that on his return he intended to ask for her hand in marriage. That moment was now only a few months away, and despite the obvious love that he had for her, expressed so tenderly in his letters, Emily was shortly to learn that she would have to share him with a captivating mistress – the virgin-pure wasteland of the Antarctic.
Over the months that followed that first meeting with Will, I re-read accounts of that Discovery expedition to fully understand the beginnings of Shackleton’s obsession and his longing to return south. But it was the detail in The Heart of the Antarctic – Shackleton’s personal account of his 1907/09 expedition, the one we were to retrace, that I needed to understand completely. Although I was familiar with what he achieved, my knowledge of the route and daily detail of the struggle were sketchy. All the information we needed was in the pages of his book. I read it many times and each time it was alarming. There was the sheer scale to comprehend – a nine hundred-mile journey, a climb to over ten thousand feet and the immense and extremely dangerous crevasses of the Beardmore Glacier to contend with. On top of all this, there was the merciless southerly wind and sub-zero temperatures that certainly I had never experienced before. But I kept reassuring myself that we had plenty of time to prepare.
I met with Will in his London flat on a fairly regular basis to hear and develop his concept for the five years of preparation that he had sensibly set aside before the centenary expedition. Dave Cornell joined us when he could, a tall, thinly built man, like a long-distance runner, who came across as very determined, sharp and articulate. And so, too, did Patrick, Shackleton’s great-grandson. Patrick was very amusing and extremely bright but from the first did not strike me as a chip off his great-grandfather’s block. Far from being the outdoors type, Patrick quickly confessed that he never took regular exercise and despite admiring his adventurous forebear greatly, the explorer had not been a major influence in Patrick’s life. Although Patrick was clearly going to be great company, the more I absorbed the harrowing detail of the everyday hardships faced in The Heart of the Antarctic, I begun to doubt he was really going to be up for the whole journey. But long ago I learned to be wary of first impressions, and also realised that a lot can happen over five years.
As the summer of 2004 passed by, a clearer plan began to emerge. Although it had never been specifically said by Will, I felt very much as if I was a definite member of the team now. We talked at length about the training required and the timescale we had allowed ourselves to prepare, but because we were all new to this polar adventuring, we were going to have to master the basics pretty quickly. Will was one-up here – he had recently invested three weeks’ holiday on Baffin Island in northern Canada on a polar course run by the renowned Matty McNair, the leading female polar guide in the world at that time. Matty had set foot on both poles on more than one occasion, she snow-kited wherever there was wind and handled sledge-dogs with ease. She was totally in tune with the polar way of life and Will was adamant that she should be our teacher over the next few years and that we should all start by attending her course in Canada.
As daylight shortened and winter approached, my mind wandered away from the training schedule and into an aspect of the project that worried me far more. Will’s idea had allowed us plenty of time to train for the expedition, and I was confident that we would be well trained in time. However, where was the money going to come from? I had never sought sponsorship for anything before and I kept asking myself why anyone would want to pay for us to go to the South Pole? Perhaps I was being overly gloomy but I was not familiar with the financial world. But I kept reminding myself that expeditions on the same scale as ours had been funded in the past, so there was no reason why ours should not. I just needed an injection of Shackleton’s optimism.
My main concern was that I sensed the others were also unsure of where to start. We talked about drawing up lists of potential sponsors, organising fund-raising events, running marathons, doing car boot sales and pestering relations and friends for help. There were lots of good ideas but it all seemed rather amateurish to me. Based on research of recent expeditions, I reckoned we would have to raise at least £200,000, probably much more, and I began to understand that no company would commit money upfront, so far away from the start of an event.
Towards the turn of the year, still with no money in the bank, Will suggested that the four of us should take part in a demanding endurance event held annually each February across the wilderness of the Canadian Yukon. Called the Yukon Arctic Ultra, it is a race over three hundred miles to be completed in eight days on foot, bike or skis. All survival equipment is pulled behind in a small sledge and if you fail to meet certain checkpoints on time then you are disqualified. Even with four years to go, it was a good idea to put ourselves through such a test at this time, as the race was a perfect test for us. It was a third of our expedition journey, to be completed in just over a week and we would probably experience temperatures around -25˚C. But beyond coping with the physical demands, I wanted to see if I had the mental strength to complete such a task. Simple mathematics told me that we would have to do up to forty miles every twenty-four hours, which meant a minimum of around fifteen hours’ travelling through day and night. And it would be an individual effort, so there would be no encouragement from others. For me, there was no option but to dig into my own money and holiday allocation and join Will; unfortunately, neither Dave nor Patrick were able to escape from work to compete. So in February 2005, Will and I set off for the frozen wilds of the Yukon in western Canada.
The Yukon race turned out to be a significantly valuable experience, for it placed exceptional physical and mental demands on us both. It was a relentless battle to stay within the time frame allowed, but I was spurred on by the sight of other racers who had given up. I was nervous that I might contemplate doing the same, for any sign of quitting on this short event would spell disaster for the future challenge and, if I did give up on the Yukon event, I would have to seriously consider my place in the expedition team. For me, the real value of the experience was being forced to dig deep into my mental reserves. As the days wore on I became increasingly exhausted. I had no one to encourage me onwards – just the silence of the forestry blocks, frozen lakes, monochrome wilderness and the night-time spectacle of the Northern Lights for company. At my lowest, and hallucinating because of intense fatigue, I had to find ways to motivate myself through each hour. Resorting to drastic measures, I forced myself to imagine that in my sledge I was pulling my dangerously sick daughter to a doctor who lived in the town where we would finish the race. It worked. Both Will – never one to quit, as I would discover – and I completed the race and returned to England with aching limbs and very swollen feet. But, most important, we had shared an intensely brutal adventure which I was quite sure would benefit us enormously later on, as it had shown us what we were able to achieve when running on empty.
The remaining months of 2005 passed swiftly. The four of us continued to meet every few weeks but too often I came away from each meeting thinking we were making little headway; there was no overall leadership, no one really pushing to get things moving. We did, though, at least have a training plan sketched out for the next three years, which was centred around an overseas event each year. We agreed that first, in spring 2006, we should all go off to Baffin Island to attend Matty McNair’s course.
There was no flag-waving crowd to meet the downhearted Shackleton when he returned to England in June 1903, as he had travelled the final stage of the journey on a nondescript mail ship. But his beloved Emily was waiting patiently on the quayside to welcome him home. She had been longing for this moment for eighteen months. They had much to talk about, including their future together. But Emily’s plans were to be short-lived, for Shackleton was in huge demand and she was forced to step back into the shadows. Both the Admiralty Board and Sir Clements Markham, president of the Royal Geographical Society, were furious with Scott for wintering again in the Antarctic, as expedition funds had dried up. Allowing the Discovery to be trapped in the pack ice for another season appeared careless, a standard not expected from a Royal Navy officer. Shackleton’s account of the expedition, the ‘Furthest South’ journey and the decision by Scott to stay on provided an invaluable update and enough information for the organisers to decide to mount a rescue. Despite the use of the Morning as a relief ship, the Admiralty agreed to send a second ship to assist in the recovery. The Terra Nova, a whaler built in Dundee and capable of withstanding the mighty Southern Ocean was purchased and provisioned, with advice from Shackleton, who was now regarded as an experienced polar explorer.
But Shackleton had to turn his attention, in the short term at least, to a life on land. Emily’s father had died leaving her financially cushioned for the rest of her life but Shackleton still needed, and wanted, to work. An attempt to creep in through the back door of the Admiralty selection board for a Royal Navy commission was unsuccessful for the former merchant navy officer, as was a hopeful foray into the world of journalism. So when an application to be the secretary of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society (RSGS) was successfully approved, Shackleton felt that, for the time being, his financial future was assured. With his move to Edinburgh he could now support Emily, whom he married in London on 9 April 1904.