Shackleton and the Death of Whining

Shackleton and the Death of Whining February 10, 2018
Shackleton leaves Elephant Island with five others to reach South Georgia Island 800 miles away. Public domain.

Part 11 on the Pennine Way [Back to Part 1 / Part 10]

As I turned away from the swollen beck for a detour I couldn’t afford, the ground became an even more unrelenting bog. Every step now required a hard yank to extract the boot as the peat tried its damndest to suck it off my foot. Dammit. 5:50. Where is that goddamned bridge?

I started to fixate on the misery, the pelting rain and cold, the sucking ground — then slapped myself out of it by whispering the name that should strike shame into every whining heart: Shackleton.

Shackleton in 1915 after a year on the ice.

For those of you unfamiliar with the story of British polar explorer Ernest Shackleton and the fate of his ship Endurance, I offer an inadequate condensation. It will call you back for the rest of your life from every complaint of discomfort, every pissy little feeling of being inconvenienced or cold or homesick, or having to eat your second-choice food, or claiming (as I did last time) that even on a marked national trail, you were somehow walking through the valley of the shadow.

Shackleton left England on the three-masted sailing ship Endurance in August 1914, leading an expedition of 28 men to cross Antarctica by way of the South Pole. Long story shorter, Endurance ended up trapped in ice floes less than 60 miles from its destination. Eventually the ice froze fast around the ship. The men tried cutting a channel through the ice to the open water they could see just a half mile away, cutting by hand, mind you, and pulling the massive wooden ship forward with ropes by hand through the channel. After a month of trying, they gave up.

I know, they gave up after just a month. As you will see, these men were complete pansies.

The ship traveled with the ice floes for nine months, then was crushed to splinters by the pressure. Three smaller boats and all other salvageable supplies were rescued from the ship before it sank out of sight.

The men lived on the Antarctic ice for another six months, eating penguin and a few of the dogs they’d brought along, their spirits kept high by the man they called “The Boss” – Shackleton.

Forget about Gore-Tex and goose down. They had clothes of cotton, leather and wool. Many kept journals, all of which were amazingly free of complaint, but all of which casually mentioned the fact that their feet and hands and arms and legs were soaked by the end of the first day and never really dry again for the duration of their time on the Antarctic ice.

Can I get you anything? Cup of tea, a little cheese, perhaps? Sofa cushion firm enough, but not too firm?

The floes began to break apart, so Shackleton had the men pile into three 23-foot open boats for a thousand-mile journey through the expanse of the South Atlantic, without instruments, in hopes of hitting one of the three unimaginably small specks of the South Shetland Islands.

Which they did.

Endurance succumbs to the ice floes as the dogs wonder what’s for lunch.

Seven days later they stepped onto the shore of one of the freezing, windswept, uninhabited South Shetland Islands – Elephant Island – and set up camp.

Shackleton then set off with five of the men in one of the tiny open boats to reach the whaling station at South Georgia Island. Sixteen days later, sick and exhausted, having survived several storms and 40-foot seas, the men stepped onto the shore of South Georgia. That 16-day voyage is considered one of the greatest feats in navigation history.

Unfortunately, the currents had landed them on the opposite side of the island from the whaling station. So the six sick and exhausted men hiked 36 hours straight across the frozen interior, over a seemingly impenetrable wall of mountains rising as high as 9,500 feet, mountains so forbidding that they had never before been crossed before.

They reached the whaling station, got warm and dry (see? pansies) and raised an expedition to rescue their comrades. They tried three times to reach the island and failed each time, repelled by violent weather. At last, four months after first leaving Elephant Island and two full years after leaving England, Shackleton reached his men, clinging to life, and brought them back to South Georgia Island, then home to England.

Total survivors out of the original 28 men in the expedition? Twenty-eight.

Almost immediately after reaching England, Shackleton began organizing another Antarctic expedition. Read that again. For the rest of my life, if I’d been any one of the 28 men on Endurance, I’d scream like a pinched infant every time a waiter brought me ice water.

Shackleton got another expedition together all right, in 1921, but had a massive heart attack and died on the boat as it docked at South Georgia Island. He was 47.

I’ll bet somebody brought him ice water.

If he accomplished nothing else in his life, Shackleton decisively robbed the rest of us of our right to whine.

On to Part 12 of 14


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