12 April 2008

One Unbelievably, Incredible Journey

I don't know what you think of when you think of the Antartic, but this painting, by Eric Shackleton, pretty well sums up what I've always imagined... cold, majestic...

And then I read an amazing book that made the Antartic seem not just forbidding, but ferocious...

Painting by Xavier Cortada
"He [Shackleton] was...an explorer in the classic mode -- utterly self-reliant, romantic, and just a little swashbuckling." (p. 11)

...ENDURANCE Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing. While we were back in the States for our vacation/Christmas holidays, we were spending more time traveling in the car than we typically do here in Niger. And, since the roads in the States are mostly decent, I CAN keep my eyes focused on a written page since... I am not hanging on for dear life as we bounce in and over potholes or slip and slide through thick patches of sand,... I am not so worried about slamming into the dash because Tim had to brake suddenly due to the unpredictable pedestrian, animal or vehiclular traffic,... so I often read to Tim and the family as we travel.

Polar explorer, Ernest Shackleton, planned an expedition - the Imperial Trans-Antartic Expedition. His goal was to be the first to traverse still unmapped and uncharted Antartica on foot. He knew his goal was an ambitious, even an "audacious" one, but he never dreamed just what a challenge it would be. He and his mostly hand picked crew departed England on the 8th of August, 1914. They sailed to Grytviken whaling station on South Georgia Island, where they made their final preparations. Then, on the 5th of December, 1914, they joyously and excitedly sailed away from the whaling station, anxious to begin the adventure before them... Just two days later, they encountered their first pack ice.

The Endurance herself was a masterpiece, the last of her kind, designed and constructed for this very purpose. Many of the sailors first found this ocean of fluid and moving ice and ice bergs fascinating. "...though the pack in every direction appeared to stretch in endless desolation, it abounded with life. Finner, humpback, and huge blue whales, some of them a hundred feet long, surfaced and sported in the leads of open water between the floes. there were killer whales, too, who thrust their ugly, pointed snouts above the surface of the ice to look for whatever prey they mmight upset into the water. Overhead, giant albatross, and several species of petrels, fulmars, and terns wheeled and dipped. On the ice itself, Weddell and crabeater seals were a common sight as they lay sleeping. And there were penguins, of course..." (p. 27)

Hoping to take advantage of the Antartic summer, Shackleton originally hoped to be on the continent by the end of December. The heavy pack delayed their progress, yet by January 15th, 1915, they were within approximately 200 miles of their destination. January 18, a northeasterly gale began to blow - 6 days later, after the wind had pushed and pressed the ice of the Weddell Sea against the land, the Endurance was trapped, held fast by a sea-sized ice cube. Or, as one of the sailors wrote, the boat was "...frozen, like an almond in the middle of a chocolate bar." (Orde-Lees, p. 30)

The men lived rather comfortably on their trapped boat for the next nine months, even surviving an Antartic winter before Shackleton was forced to give the order to "abandon ship" on October 27, 1915. The men worked quickly as they watched and listened to the pressure of the ice literally crush their home.

And thus began the real part of their adventure...

Photos taken by ship photographer, Frank Hurley.

...as they lived on the ice floes until April, when the warming weather and melting ice forced them to attempt to reach land in the much smaller lifeboats they'd brought with them. After a desperate sail through icy and stormy seas, they finally reached the forbidding coast of Elephant Island, where almost immediately, Shackleton and a small crew took the most sea-worthy of the lifeboats and departed, attempting to locate South Georgia Island and assistance for the remaining crew "camped on a precarious, storm-washed spit of beach, as helpless and isolated from the outside world as if they were on another planet." (p. 220)

This picture is a reconstruction of the James Caird, the boat that made that 870 mile journey carrying 6 men through some of the worst seas known to sailors (rolling waves 80-90 feet high, moving at speeds of 30 knots), navigating by the use of a sextant - taking sights when there was a break in the clouds - and gently peeling the pages apart of a soggy navigational books.

After a harrowing 2 week journey, they did reach South Georgia - the wrong side of the island and with a boat no longer sufficiently sea worthy to sail around the coast. Shackleton and two other men then crossed the 29 mile wide island on foot. It seemed a straightforward, simple proposition, but in the 75 years that men had used this island as a whaling base, it had never yet been accomplished. "A few of the peaks on Sough Georgia rise to somewhat less than 10 000 feet, which certainly is not high by mountain-climbing standards. But the interior of the island has been described by one expert as 'a saw-tooth thrust through the tortured upheaval of mountain and glacier that falls in chaos to the northern sea.' In short, it was impassable. Shackleton knew it -- and yet there was no choice." (p. 258)

Miraculously, Shackleton, Worsley, and Crean reach the whaling station on May 20, 1916, 21 months and 12 days after first departing from England.

Photo by Frank Hurley

And although it required several efforts and tons of persistance and perserverance, the rest of the crew (those on left on the uninhabited side of South Georgia and those who remained on desolate Elephant Island) were all finally rescued by August 30, 1916.

No where in this book does it mention that these were men of faith, or that they relied on God as they faced this incredible ordeal. However, as I read the book, God's hand of protection and preservation is unmistakeable. One of my favorite moments was when Shackleton gave the order to abandon ship: forseeing a harrowing trip over the ice pack, he greatly limited what the men were able to take with them. He himself, however, chose to tear out the flyleaf of the Bible given the expedition by Queen Alexandra, the 23rd Psalm, and the following passage from Job:

"Out of whose womb came the ice? And the hoary frost of Heaven, who hath gendered it? The waters are hid as with a stone. And the face of the deep is frozen."

I think my initial picture of the Antartic (remember the pic at the beginning of this post?) was way too neat and "pretty," wouldn't you agree?

And why am I writing about all this now? Maybe it is because a video documentary/re-enactment made by NOVA/PBS is due to be released May 2, 2008 and I can't wait to see it... Maybe it is because I'm not sleeping as well - the heat has been bothering me the past few nights - and blogging is more entertaining than tossing and turning... But maybe it is also a comfort as I'm wondering, "Is possible to die from the heat?" - that the same God who took care of these men nearly 100 years ago in unimaginable circumstances is the same God taking care of me right now, and thinking about all this puts my "hardships" into perspective...

For more information: http://www.south-pole.com/p0000097.htm , a general biography of Ernest Shackleton; http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/shackleton/1914/ ; and/or http://main.wgbh.org/imax/shackleton/index.html .

  • Re-enactment Photo Credits: 2001 WGBH and White Mountain Films, LLC, Reed Smoot Cinematograpy & Reed SmootPhoto.
  • Frank Hurley, photos, The Macklin Collection
  • WGBH, Photographers: Kelly Tyler and Stephen Venables, working with the co-production of White Mountain Films and NOVA/WGBN (PBS), Boston.

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