The Worst Journey in the World

by Willem Lange

EAST MONTPELIER – Almost lost, regrettably, in the flood of news and commentary about the brutal Russian aggression against its neighbor Ukraine, as well as the grisly videos of plastic-bagged corpses being dumped into mass graves, was a singular bright spot: HMS Endurance, Ernest Shackleton’s almost legendary ship, crushed and sunk by Antarctic pack ice over 100 years ago, has been located and filmed almost two miles down on the floor of the Weddell Sea.

Shackleton’s epic voyage has been described and discussed ever since “The Boss” – as his crew called him – showed up, almost impossibly, at a whaling station on South Georgia Island seeking rescue for 22 men he’d left behind on Elephant Island, 800 miles away. There exist several good books, including Shackleton’s own account, about both the expedition and its climactic final chapter. To me, the best is Caroline Alexander’s “The Endurance,” an outstanding work of both scholarship (she had access to previously uncited journals and personal stories) and an empathetic appreciation of the situation of the crew of “Endurance,” shipwrecked at the icy end of the earth.

Side note: I’ve been signed up since 2021 for a cruise of the Southern Ocean that will trace Shackleton’s voyage in reverse, from South Georgia to Elephant Island, thence to Antarctica. A dear friend and I have had plans to visit the Boss’s grave on South Georgia and share with him a glass of his own special Scotch (being Irish, he didn’t know from Scotch, so it’s blended, and not very expensive, from the current distiller). If COVID hadn’t intervened, I’d be on my way home from the second postponed trip right now. But it did, and has; so now I’m scheduled to go in 2023, and my current challenge is to live long enough, and remain limber enough, to make the trip.

Alexander’s book, beautifully illustrated by dozens of black-and-white photographs made (and miraculously developed and rescued) by the expedition’s photo- and cinematographer, who often climbed the highest masts and yards to film, is both a tale of perseverance under the most desperate and hopeless circumstances, and a master class in leadership. Shackleton was as firm a leader as if he wore an admiral’s epaulets, but appears to have been utterly without airs. His men, a mixture of social classes and skills, required the touch of a fine conductor to keep them moving in the same direction when all seemed hopeless. The sailors were the closest thing to a clique and the most easily disaffected once their ship was crushed and sunk. Some even argued their contract was void after the ship had disappeared. Shackleton, though racked by occasional bouts of sciatica, aggravated, no doubt by sleeping on ice in a soaked sleeping bag, somehow maintained control.

It was one calamity after another: watching their beloved ship groaning, contorting, and finally slipping beneath the ice; trying unsuccessfully to haul the boats northwest toward open water; shooting their beloved sled dogs; the frozen hell of small boat travel through floating pack ice; and finally waiting, unable to leave the guano-soaked shores of Elephant Island while Shackleton, with five carefully chosen crew – a navigator, a carpenter (and trouble-maker), an “indestructible” Irishman, the strongest man of them all (and bully and malcontent), and an irrepressibly optimistic Irishman – set off in a 22-foot ship’s boat decked partly with canvas, to navigate the 800 miles across the Drake Passage to what amounted to a pinprick in the vast ocean.

As now, there was a war on in 1915. After the all-but-impossible success of Shackleton’s rescue mission – every man survived – most of the crew, on returning to England, tried to join in. Most were successful; Shackleton was given a transport job in Murmansk. Dogged by his expedition debts and dispirited, he tried one more expedition. He died on board his ship back at South Georgia Island of a massive heart attack at the age of 47, likely the result of a congenital heart defect. His wife requested that he be buried there, at the scene of his greatest achievement.

A young English nobleman, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, a veteran of Scott’s 1910-13 expedition and a survivor of a winter trek he dubbed “the worst journey in the world,” judged the four polar leaders of his generation: “For a joint scientific and geographical piece of organization, give me Scott; for a winter journey, give me Wilson; for a dash to the Pole and nothing else, Amundsen; and if I am in the devil of a hole and want to get out of it, give me Shackleton every time.”