The last few years have proven to be challenging for us all; we have had our endurance, resilience, and patience tested in ways none of us ever expected. We need to know that we can survive, that the dawn will come when the long night at last draws to an end. All throughout human history, we have turned to our stories to help motivate us in times of challenge; we have read the adventures of great heroes who faced enormous obstacles, and in the end, managed to overcome them.
Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story and Story Genius, tells us that “we don’t turn to story to escape reality; we turn to story to help us navigate reality” (Cron 16). For those still waiting for the dawn, I have a story that might inspire you and help you to navigate whatever your reality is putting in front of you. It served as a light for me in recent times of darkness. I share it now in the hope that it will serve you in a similar fashion and inspire you to not just stand before your current challenges but to surmount them once and for all. Gather close and hearken to me, friends—this story is true, no matter how astonishing and unbelievable it may sound. That’s what makes it as amazing as it is.
His name was Ernest Shackleton, an Irish born sailor turned English merchant marine with aspirations beyond those harbored by common men. Great leaders of history rarely conform to status quo expectations or follow established procedures and rules in terms of how their careers should go. Shackleton knew that his dreams could not be achieved by rising through the traditional ranks of the merchant marines. He needed a challenge, one that could match his self-assuredness and confidence in his abilities. He found it far to the south, among the forbidding environment of the Antarctic. The south pole had not yet been reached; Shackleton resolved to be the first to reach it.
He was not alone in wanting to achieve this goal. British explorer Robert Scott made an attempt in 1901, with Shackleton as a member of his crew, and came within 745 miles of the pole on that expedition. In 1907, Shackleton launched his first attempt to reach it and came within 97 miles of the pole before being forced to turn back due to a lack of food. In 1911, the goal was achieved by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who beat Scott to the pole by a mere month. Scott would then die attempting to return.
Many leaders who have their dreams taken away or their goals achieved by others might abandon their future efforts or not know how to proceed. They might give up, wondering what the point is if their efforts are only to end in defeat. Not Ernest Shackleton. For him, it was simply a matter of re-prioritization. He needed a new mission, one that would still fulfill the yearning he had for Antarctic exploration while at the same time being something no one had ever before done. So it was that the Imperial Transantarctic Expedition was born.
Shackleton intended to land on, cross, and map the Antarctic continent. This is in the year 1914 mind you. No powerful ice-breaking iron ships, no radio communication—none of the modern technologies or advantages we might take for granted today. He would have a wooden sailing ship with a steam engine, what supplies he could carry in her, a team of sled dogs, and the finest crew he could assemble at the time.
The ship had already been built. Originally christened the Polaris, Shackleton had her name changed to the Endurance, inspired by his family motto “Fortitudinae Vincimus”—By Endurance we Conquer. Once he had secured his ship, he needed a crew. The official advertisement for the expedition promised bitter cold, long periods of total darkness, unlikely success, and even less likely survival. However, there was always the honor and glory that might accompany mission fulfillment.
Over 5,000 people, including three women, applied for the 28 positions available as members of the Endurance crew. This was not so that they could earn the meager salary; they saw the opportunity to serve under Ernest Shackleton, whose charisma and proven leadership attracted the best, brightest, and bravest to his banner.
On August 1, 1914, the Endurance left England, bound for Buenos Aires, where she would pick up the last of her crew (and join up with Shackleton, who headed first to Canada to secure his sled dog team). On October 26, after an uneventful crossing of the Atlantic and the acquisition of supplies and the last of the crew in Argentina, the Endurance set sail for South Georgia island and the Stromness Whaling Station, the last bastion of civilization they would see before striking out for Antarctica itself.
After arriving at South Georgia and relating his intentions to the whalers, he was warned against proceeding. The pack ice that year was particularly thick, extending much farther to the north than the whalers were used to seeing. It was a bad omen. However, confident in his skills and unwilling to turn back, Shackleton held fast to his dream and departed for Antarctica on November 5, 1914.
On January 15, 200 miles out from their landing site at Vahsel Bay, Antarctica, heavy pack ice was sighted. Nine days later the crew of the Endurance found themselves surrounded and encased by it. Imagine a small wooden vessel, measuring a mere 144 feet long and 25 feet wide, stuck fast in the middle of over a million square miles of floating rafts of ice, driven in a circular motion by the currents of the Weddell Sea. I have often envisioned this to be like pouring a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle made up of entirely white pieces into a filled bathtub, and then tossing a single grain of brown rice into the middle of that. Of course, the puzzle pieces Shackleton and crew had to contend with ranged from one to many football fields in size.
Now, the Endurance was built for this; she had a prow built for slamming into the ice and cracking it, and a steam engine that could muscle the ship into the cracks, widen them, and make headway through the ice. Well, she may have been designed for ice breaking, but it was the ice of the Antarctic that would break the spirits of the Endurance crew. By February 24, 1915, they came to realize there would be no escaping the pack. The mission, as it had been originally scripted and planned, was over. They would have to winter in the pack ice, enduring the long polar night—total darkness for weeks on end, and constant, incessant cold. Once again, Shackleton saw one of his dreams drift away.
For months, the Endurance and her crew drifted along as captives of the pack, until the night of October 24. Penguins, usually making no more than strange croaking sounds, gathered about the ship and began a long, mournful howl, the meaning of which was not lost on many of the more superstitious members of the crew. One was heard to remark “Do you hear that? We’ll none of us get back to our homes again.”
The Endurance was caught in a vise—massive slabs of pack ice constricting the oak beams of her hull beyond what they were built to withstand. At last, they buckled under the pressure, and Shackleton was forced to give the order to abandon ship. The crew stood on the drifting pack, helpless to do anything more than watch in numbed despair as the deep claimed the Endurance for all time.
With only what supplies they could salvage, three lifeboats, and no means of communicating with the outside world, they faced what appeared to be a hopeless situation. No one knew where they were, and even if they did, there would have been no means of coming for them. Leader that he was, Ernest Shackleton’s log entry for October 24 began “Suffered a minor setback today…”
Minor setback? Hardship beyond what most human beings have ever had to endure lay before them, but for Ernest Shackleton it just meant one more realignment of the mission. Now, the goal was simpler: stay alive, and get home. 346 miles to the North lay Paulet Island, where Shackleton knew some food stores had been left in 1902 for any souls unfortunate enough to be marooned there. They would simply march to the island—hauling three lifeboats, each weighing more than a ton.
The expanse of the pack before them wasn’t exactly smooth terrain; huge hillocks of ice needed to be surmounted or hacked through to carve a path forward. At the end of their first day of being harnessed to the lifeboats and pulling them on sledges over and across the almost impassable floes, they managed one mile of progress. 345 to go, and they were constantly drifting, not always in a favorable direction. It became clear soon enough that the plan was untenable. They established a camp on the ice to await its eventual break up, when they would pile into the boats and attempt to navigate the Antarctic ocean and reach land. Simple.
Just imagine—you haven’t bathed in months; you haven’t had a change of clothes in months; you have been largely reduced to eating seal blubber, sometimes raw; you sleep (if and when you can) on a board inside a tent, which can generate just enough heat to melt the snow at the bottom of it so that you are constantly immersed in a layer of water; in the night, you hear what sound like explosions outside of your tent, which in actuality is the sound of killer whales bursting up from below the pack ice while hunting the seals on the surface; you also know that at any moment the very floe beneath you could split apart and you could fall into the Antarctic Ocean, never to emerge from it. This was the daily and nightly reality of the crew of the Endurance following the sinking of the ship and the realization that traversing the floe would not be possible. Could you endure it? I try to think of this situation whenever I might be tempted to complain about being cold or hungry. That tends to bring any complaints I might have to a screeching halt.
After nearly five months of living on the floes, the crew saw that the ice was breaking up to the point where the lifeboats could be launched. They put to sea and made efforts to sail to one of the islands to the north of them, such as Paulet Island. Now imagine being packed like sardines into a tiny lifeboat that is constantly taking on water—freezing cold water—as you ride the swells of the ocean like you were on a roller coaster. You are connected to the other boats by a mere rope; if that connection is broken, you will likely be lost to the waves. After six days of sailing, the three lifeboats—named the James Caird, the Stancomb Wills, and the Dudley Docker after three of the expedition’s most lavish contributors—reached Elephant Island, a small, uninhabited rock in the sea. They were 800 miles from South Georgia Island. It had been over two years since they left the whaling station there and set out for Antarctica—two long, dark, wet, despairing years.
Well, at least Elephant Island wasn’t a floating piece of ice; they had solid ground—or rock at least—beneath their swollen and frost-bitten feet. Two of the lifeboats were overturned and made into makeshift shelters under which the crew could huddle and—live? Would that be the right word? Shackleton knew that if they were to have any hope of survival, they would have to go for help, for help was unlikely to come to them. He ordered the James Caird, the largest and most seaworthy of the lifeboats, to be reinforced with additional wood and covered with a canvas tarp. A makeshift sail and mast were also constructed and installed. He selected five other members of the crew to accompany him on what would be the next phase of the mission, and what stands as one of the most magnificent feats of sailing ever recorded. They would take the James Caird and attempt to sail her the 800 miles to South Georgia, across the Antarctic Ocean in the middle of the winter. What could go wrong?
Sixteen days after leaving Elephant Island, the James Caird miraculously arrived on South Georgia Island thanks to two sextant readings taken during the journey and no small amount of luck. Unfortunately, the luck wasn’t quite strong enough to take them to the side of the island where the whaling station was. They landed on its opposite side. The James Caird itself was no longer seaworthy at this point, and three of the crew who had set out with them from Elephant Island were no longer able to walk. The soggy, barely intact maps of the island they had that were still somewhat legible dubbed the center of the island to be “uncharted”—a mass of glaciers and rocky peaks they would have no choice but to attempt to cross. Shackleton and the two other crewmen capable of walking set out for the whaling station on the opposite side of the island, reaching it in a mere 36 hours. Modern explorers, equipped with the best equipment obtainable, have taken up to a week to recreate the crossing.
When the whalers saw the three explorers stagger into the whaling station, they were barely recognizable. Once Shackleton revealed who he was, the first thing he requested was not what many others might hope for after all this time, such as a hot shower or warm bed. He needed a ship. There were 22 men still stranded on Elephant Island, who might not survive much longer. It was May 20th, 1916. After a number of unsuccessful attempts to penetrate the pack ice to rescue his crew, the government of Argentina loaned him a vessel, and the pack at last broke up sufficiently for the ship to reach the island. They were rescued on August 30, 1916. Throughout the entire expedition, despite the privations they experienced of hunger, cold, pain, and abject misery, not one crewman—not one—died.
* * * * *
I first became aware of the story of the Endurance when I stumbled across an article about the voyage in National Geographic a decade or so ago. The article sparked my interest, and I acquired a copy of South, the story of the mission told in Shackleton’s own words. Since then I have read several different accounts of the story, sought out documentary films about it, and even had the opportunity to visit the restored lifeboat James Caird, housed in the science building of Dulwich College in London, where Shackleton attended school.
The story has inspired and fascinated me like no other. I’ve thought about why that is, and it comes down to the fact that the story is true. It demonstrates the astonishing degree of suffering human beings are capable of enduring, both physically and spiritually. How often must individual members of the Endurance’s crew have wanted to simply curl up in the snow and die, just to make the suffering stop? Or did they? Tragedy after tragedy, disappointment after disappointment—and still they pressed on, singing songs, telling jokes, and demonstrating the fortitude we would all hope to possess under similar circumstances.
Marcus Aurelius, in his Meditations, tells us that “Because a thing is difficult for you, do not therefore suppose it to be beyond mortal power. On the contrary, if anything is possible and proper for a man to do, assume that it must fall within your own capacity” (Meditations, Book Six, Entry 19).
We can take heart from that, knowing that since all of the members of Shackleton’s crew were human, and we are human as well, that their qualities, or the potential for them, rest also in all of us. We can endure what they did, and survive it (not that we would willfully seek or wish to).
If we as humans can endure the physical and emotional suffering described in the story of the Endurance, then we are surely capable of withstanding and triumphing over our current troubles. “What a piece of work is a man…” Hamlet once said, “how noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals!” That’s us. Beings of extraordinary physical, mental, and spiritual capacities that, when pressed to their limits, show us to be capable of enduring the worst that life can throw at us.
Let us, no matter how dark the night, remember the lessons of the Endurance. Let us draw courage and fortitude from the example set by every member of her crew. Let us work to channel the leadership capacities of Ernest Shackleton himself so that we can inspire others to weather the storms of life. We have such a deep well of endurance in each of us—we have but to tap into it when the darkness comes, and wait for the dawn.
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Aurelius, Marcus. Meditations. Translated by Maxwell Staniforth. London: Penguin Books, 1964
Cron, Lisa. Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel. New York: Penguin Random House, 2016.
Lansing, Alfred. Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage. New York: Basic Books, 2007