Wednesday, February 3, 2010

What one explorer did - that inspires others to go to Antarctica!

Probably everyone who is caught by something has some hero who embodies what’s best about that sport or profession or art.

For this Southern passage, I am in awe of Sir Ernest Shackleton who explored Antarctica in 1914.

He was not the only person to explore this brutal environment. Nor did he succeed in the way he hoped, But he used his wits to take a ship and a crew to the South Pole. And something unexpected happened along the way. They got trapped and it didn’t appear they would escape.

Sir Shackleton could well imagine the risks involved before he set out. He had been there before.

He was skilled in the treacherous waters. He took dogs to pull the sleds. He had the best men who all shared his passion. He covered his decks with coal so they could have the fuel to navigate around the bergs to find the summer water to get them close enough to their target for the continental trek.

Sir Shackleton did what he could to make a record of what transpired. He took cameras and film. He took notes.

But the ice he finally couldn’t avoid lodged his ship solid on either side, and then, as the ice expanded hour by hour, for days, and over time, it literally crushed his ship.

Before their hopes at passage to the south pole and their ship were shattered, the men would climb off the ship and play soccer on the ice.

Of course, one man slid into a crevasse and was almost lost when pulled free.

The men even got ropes and tried to pull the ship from the ice.

But to no avail

The men finally took the lifeboats and pushed them along the rough terrain of hard ice packed with their supplies so that they camp on the hardened ice until they could navigate themselves away to one of the northerly islands whenever the winter ice finally gave.

Shackleton helped his men survive until the ice melted, and prevented them from falling into the icy waters.

He got his men in the life boats to one island and went on against all odds to another island to get help.

He sailed in a small boat through rough waters under cloud cover except for a short time when his hand-picked navigator on what everyone assumed was a suicide mission, made a dead reckoning of their course and they found land and climbed over icy cliffs and rocks that no man had ever crossed to find a whaling village.

Sir Shackleton simply knocked on the door of a whaler who would never have believed his ears if his eyes didn’t behold Shackleton himself standing before him.

It was an extraordinary feat and it was told with great panache and detail in a journal published by Lord Schackleton.

So how does that grand adventure, deemed a failure, compare with what we’re doing?

We will sail cross some of the same icy water and see bergs like those that Shackleton engaged in another time and see much but not experience half as much as Shackleton did. But that’s as it should be when honoring a legend by an excursion to appreciate what he accomplished.

While it is still summer, we will enter the waters where there are tabular bergs in a few days, large chunks of ice, 100 feet high above the surface.

There can be terrible fog and we may see nothing at times. Of course, that presents certain navigation challenges.

The weather is severe or gentle, cold or colder, winds as high as 120 miles, water rough as you can imagine south of South America.

We have an ice pilot aboard ship to study how best to traverse the ice and to find a safe channel.

The fear that Shackleton had, other than getting stuck in the ice, was that the propeller or rudder would be damaged, preventing him from running forward.

To a much much lesser degree, these are all still matters of safety concern but technology increases the odds dramatically in favor of the ship and its passengers.

What we experience we expect will be nothing like the danger Shackleton had to confront with his men.

Shackleton’s ship was aptly named the endurance.

The ship lasted as long as it could but it was the men who endured.

Shackleton gave the men strength and conviction and directed their talents and blunted their anger and frustration.

As we leave the warmth of Buenos Aires, hour by hour, and the winds rise, as the air chills, and dolphins and seals and whales and sea birds are sighted from the ship, there is an anticipation and excitement to be even colder and stand in awe of this barren but beautiful continent to peek at what provoked Shackleton to help write the history of this continent.


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