Beginning in 1914 and ending in 1917, straddling the First World War, the Endurance expedition is often said to have been the last in the Heroic Age of polar exploration. The significance and ambition of Shackleton's proposed trans-Antarctic crossing is best appreciated within a context of the ordeals of heroism-and egotism-that had played out before. Indeed, Shackleton's greatness as a leader on the Endurance owes much to the sometimes insane suffering of his earlier Antarctic experiences.
The Heroic Age began when the ship Discovery, under the command of Captain Robert Falcon Scott, set out for Antarctica's McMurdo Sound in August 1901. Despite public talk of scientific advancement, the real objective of this first inland expedition, as of subsequent ones, was to reach the as yet unclaimed South Pole and win it for Britain. Scott chose two men to accompany him on this first bid for the pole-Dr. Edward Wilson, a physician, zoologist, and close friend; and Lieutenant Ernest Shackleton, a twenty-eight-year-old merchant service officer, whose commissions had taken him to Africa and the East. On November 2, the three men set out with nineteen sledging dogs and five loaded sledges. They faced an unspeakably daunting challenge, a round-trip journey of more than 1,600 miles, hard sledging all the way, through an entirely unknown and uncharted environment.
By day, the three man-hauled their loads with or without the aid of the dogs, ferrying their supplies in time-consuming relays. By night they meticulously divided their meager food into three equal portions and read Darwin to one another before retiring to their frozen sleeping bags. They starved, they suffered from scurvy. The dogs sickened and dropped, and were butchered to feed the survivors. Scott pushed his band on to 8217 south, 745 miles north of the pole, before acknowledging their desperate situation and reluctantly giving the order to turn back. By this time, Shackleton was spitting blood, undone by scurvy, and sometimes had to be carried on the sledge. On February 3, 1903, three months after setting out, they arrived back at their ship. The last leg of this terrible journey had been a race for their very lives.
This first Antarctic trek established the pattern of heroic suffering that would characterize subsequent British expeditions. Yet even a casual perusal of the explorers' diaries suggests this suffering was unnecessary. Less than three weeks into their journey Wilson notes: "Dogs getting very tired and very slow (19 November). . . . The dogs made terribly heavy weather of it today, and the dog driving has become the most exasperating work (21 November). . . . Dogs very weary indeed and terribly slack and the driving of them has become a perfectly beastly business (24 November)." Day after day, one follows the downward spiral of these wretched, exhausted animals. It is unpleasant reading.
Scott's own diary sounds more alarms: "On the whole our ski so far have been of little value. . . . [T]he dogs, which have now become only a hindrance, were hitched on behind the sledges," Scott wrote on January 6, 1903. The following day he notes that they "dropped all the dogs out of the traces and pulled steadily ourselves for seven hours, covering ten good miles by sledge-meter. . . . [T]he animals walked pretty steadily alongside the sledges." It is a stunningly improbable image: Three men walking across Antarctica at about a mile an hour with their skis securely strapped to the sledges, accompanied by a pack of dogs. Scott and his companions had not taken the time to become proficient on skis, nor did they have any knowledge of driving dogs. Their prodigious difficulties, therefore, were the result of almost inconceivable incompetence, not necessity. And the men were starving-not because unforeseen disaster had taken their supplies, but because they had not rationed sufficient food. Shackleton, the biggest of the men, suffered the most because he required more fuel than did the others.
Reproduced from Endurance : Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition, by Caroline Alexander. © 1997 by Caroline Alexander, used by permission of the publisher Knopf.
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