Sir Ernest Shackleton braved the brutal arctic weather to save his shipwrecked crew. Over 100 years on, adventurer and environmental scientist Tim Jarvis tells Smith Journal why he decided to experience Shackleton’s thoroughly unpleasant journey for himself.
Interviewer Taz Liffman
In November 1915, when much of Europe was doing all it could to end the war that didn’t end all wars, Sir Ernest Shackleton and 27 of his men were milling about on an Antarctic ice floe, watching their ship, the Endurance, slowly sink.
For the past 10 months, they had been living aboard the stricken vessel, which had become trapped in thick pack ice en route to the Weddell Sea coast. During this period of enforced ennui, Shackleton employed various strategies aimed at keeping his men’s morale buoyed. He sent his scientists out to collect specimens, scheduled evening social activities, and instructed his sailors to keep swabbing the decks so their vessel would be ship-shape for the coming summer thaw that – it was hoped – would set them free. By October, though, it became apparent that the Endurance could, well, endure no more. Under amassing pressure from the building ice, the ship’s hull was breached and she began to take on water.
"Shackleton, knowing the game was up, gave the order to abandon ship."
Standing amid his stranded men and their salvaged provisions, watching their passage home crunch up and sink from sight, he’s said to have turned to them calmly and proclaimed: “So now we’ll go home.”
There’s something inherently comical about the image of a forsaken man standing on the earth’s highest, driest, coldest, windiest, loneliest continent, facing zero chance of rescue, watching his passage home getting swallowed up by the ocean, and saying, basically, “I think I’d like to go home now.” But Shackleton wasn’t simply trying to sound funny or stoic; there was actually something very strategic to his comment. I believe humour developed as a mechanism for coping with life; it’s a means of putting things into perspective and dealing with its challenges. By downplaying the gravity of their circumstances, Shackleton was imbuing his crew with confidence. He was showing them he wasn’t flustered by their situation, or fazed by the challenge that lay ahead. He was demonstrating leadership.
I’m an adventurer and a scientist who promotes environmental awareness by undertaking expeditions that highlight the impacts of climate change. In 1999, for instance, I spent 47 days trying to cross Antarctica on foot, pulling a 225-kilogram sled. I lost one-fifth of my body weight during this journey, had my fingers blackened by frostbite, and endured temperatures so cold that three of my metal fillings contracted and fell out. Eight years later, I recreated the survival story of Sir Douglas Mawson, an Australian explorer who, against inconceivable odds, made it back to his base after losing his two expedition companions: Belgrave Ninnis, who fell down a crevasse with the dog sled that was carrying most of their provisions, and Xavier Mertz, who went on to die in Mawson’s arms.
"Because many historians later speculated that Mawson might, in fact, have cannibalised Mertz in order to survive, I was keen to see whether I was able to complete the journey that Mawson did, with the same supplies he had, and thus potentially exonerate the legacy of a polar legend."
For the sake of Mawson, Mertz and myself, I was pleased to find that I was.
Above: Jarvis was given Sir Douglas Mawson’s balaclava by the explorer’s grandson to take with him on his journey. Photo: Tim Jarvis
Shackleton was a contemporary of Mawson and other polar pioneers, but his design on Antarctica was arguably the boldest ever envisaged. His ambition was to be the first to cross the continent on foot. Obviously, with the Endurance in the state it ended up in, things didn’t turn out that way. But the expedition he actually completed was even more remarkable. For the five months following the sinking of their ship, Shackleton and his men basically drifted around the Weddell Sea on an ice floe about the size of a football field. Their hope was that they would float towards the Antarctic Peninsula, where they would then be able to make landfall when the pack ice broke up. As they drifted further out to sea, however, their ice floe disintegrating in the open ocean swell, Shackleton again realised he was going to have to change course. He and his men clambered into three lifeboats they’d taken from the Endurance and paddled for five days straight to Elephant Island.
There, Shackleton selected five of his crew to accompany him on this crazy 1500-kilometre sail across the Southern Ocean to the island of South Georgia, where he knew there was a whaling station. To give an idea of the scale of this undertaking, South Georgia is 32 kilometres wide – which might sound big, but it equates to about one percent of what you’re aiming for when you’re dealing with 6500 kilometres of open sea. Worse, because the lifeboat they were in was keel-less, if they miscalculated and missed the island there wouldn’t have been any chance of sailing back at it into the wind; they would simply have seen South Georgia passing them by and known then that their next chance of hitting land was Namibia.
In 2007 I received a phone call from Alexandra Shackleton, the granddaughter of Sir Ernest, inviting me to commemorate the centenary of her grandfather’s journey by leading a recreation of his expedition. Not only would my team and I retrace the route he’d taken, but we’d also recreate it with the same sort of gear he had. We wore clothing made from cotton and reindeer hide, ate stuff called pemmican – which is basically congealed animal lard – and sailed on an exact replica of his boat. We also navigated using the same instruments: a sextant, which can determine angles from celestial bodies; a chronometer, which allows you to work out longitude; and an old ship’s compass.
"So, for 11 days in the summer of 2013, myself and five other men tacked through the Southern Ocean in what’s essentially a surfboat."
Above: Arriving on the shores of South Georgia. Photo: Skye Whelan
Two of us would be above deck at any given time, navigating and sailing, and the rest of us would huddle below deck in a space about the size of a dining room table. We were wet pretty much the entire time, and almost constantly cold as the water on the other side of the boat’s 15 millimetre-thick planks was one degree Celsius. The conditions outside were also incredibly rough. The Southern Ocean is one of the world’s wildest, and because a boat without a keel isn’t very stable, a lot of the time we were just skewing up and down these immense waves. Technically we did have a rescue boat, as we needed one for insurance purposes, but in the interests of historical accuracy I asked that they stay out of sight. If any one of us had fallen overboard we’d have died for sure. The rescue boat would have taken five hours to reach us, and in water that cold your survival time is only 10 minutes. Your muscles seize up and you just sink.
Something else I took with me on the journey was a familiarity with Shackleton’s style of leadership. Three aspects I found particularly exemplary. The first is that, as a leader, you should never ask someone to do something you’re not prepared to do yourself. The second is that, as a leader of a project, you need to be an absolutely consummate manager of change. Things were going wrong for Shackleton all the time, but he never lost sight of his goal. The ‘what’ was fixed, but how he was going to achieve it was always changing. This is an important skill for our modern world; you need to be able to adapt.
The third is a trait we now call emotional intelligence. You need to understand people, to appreciate that they are individuals and recognise what motivates them. Leaders are often portrayed as being steadfast and headstrong, but what good leaders should really aspire to is versatility and empathy. If you’re going to get people to do something, you need them to believe that you know they’re capable of doing what you’re asking them to. You need to empower them, and for that you’re probably going to have to appeal to them with slightly different versions of the story you’re telling. You have to work with them on a granular level.
Above: The Alexandra Shackleton obscured by rain, sleet and fog. Photo: Si Wagen
Once Shackleton landed on South Georgia, his next challenge was navigating a series of glaciers that had never before been traversed. This was the major point of difference between his journey and our recreation of it – and one that, unfortunately, was completely beyond my control. When Shackleton crossed South Georgia there were three glaciers. When we did it there were only two. The third is now a lake; we literally waded across it. It was this experience that gave me the idea for 25zero, an initiative in which I attempt to climb all of the mountains on the equator that still have a glacier. Today there are 25. If the current rate of global warming keeps up, within 25 years there will be zero. To stop this, we will all need to pull together.
I’ve come to believe you need three things in order to inspire people to act. You need to make the story you’re telling them tangible; you need to show the impact that environmental change is having on people’s livelihoods; and you need to tell them what they can do. Adventurous stories and photos of polar bears will get people through the door, but because greenhouse gas isn’t something they can see, people only get so excited about melting ice. You need the human element. Eighty-five percent of South Georgia’s glaciers are now in wide-scale melt, but because Antarctica has never had a stable human population it doesn’t engage our humanitarian sympathies. The melting of the glaciers on the equator, by contrast, is having a very real impact on the lives of the local people living at their bases.
In my opinion, the environmental movement has relied for much too long on guilt and fear to try and facilitate change. You could present some people with every single piece of evidence about the correlation between human industry and global warming, and they’d still just look at it and go ‘Nah…’ Now, I could spend time and energy trying to convince these people that climate change is real. Or I can couch the argument in terms they might actually care about. I can tell my neighbour how much money he’ll save if he puts a solar array on his roof, or I can encourage the insurance sector to reduce the premiums of their customers who minimise their environmental impact.
This, I like to think, is the sort of approach Shackleton would have taken: using different ways to get different people to work as a team. You don’t need someone to believe in the entire premise of your vision to get the result you desire. You just have to find one story that resonates with the person whose behaviour it is you’re trying to change.
Top image: Jarvis testing the strength of 100-year-old technology. Photo: Malcolm McDonald