Shackleton’s centenary: what does it mean to survive?
As we count down the days to the centenary of Sir Ernest Shackleton setting off on his Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition of 1914-16, I find myself considering what it was that compelled him to go, enabled him to survive and motivated me to follow him 100 years later?
Certainly the strength of Shackleton’s team, his leadership, the unique motivation that death as an alternative provides, and both luck and spiritual guidance all played a part in Shackleton’s success. But perhaps the key reason he was able to motivate himself against such incredible odds is because it represented precisely why he was in Antarctica in the first place: to pit himself against the greatest challenges he could find in order to discover more about what lay within him.
Shackleton said as much when writing after the expedition about arriving in Stromness with virtually nothing save their ship’s log, adze and cooker:
“That was all, except our wet clothes, that we had brought out of the Antarctic, which we had entered a year and a half before with well-found ship, full equipment and high hopes. That was all of tangible things, but in memories we were rich. We had pierced the veneer of outside things.
“We had suffered, starved and triumphed, grovelled down yet grasped at glory, grown bigger in the bigness of the whole. We had seen God in his splendours, heard the text that nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of man.”
The need to rescue his men against seemingly impossible odds served this just as well as the original quest to cross Antarctica and meant he was able to bring all of his energy, optimism and belief to bear on achieving it.
Although less eloquently put than Shackleton, my reasons are consistent with his in that I also undertake journeys to such places for reasons of self-discovery and to experience a greater understanding of life at some level.
Antarctica, removed as it is from the noise of everyday life, allows you to explore who you are without having society dictate it to you. It is a challenging environment but, in response to it a resourceful side of your personality emerges – one that only appears in response to those challenging situations.
Bound up in the definition of adventure for me then is the concept of challenging myself where I don’t know what I’m going to find at either a literal or a personal level. It is seeing whether or not you can achieve something, the thrill of trying, and the process of learning more about yourself and your surroundings that going on a journey teaches you.
And in that regard Antarctica is surely the best teacher. As Andre Gide said: “It is only in adventure that some people succeed in knowing themselves–in finding themselves.”
TOP PHOTO – On Elephant Island, minutes before departure…L-R Ed Wardle (cameraman), Seb Coulthard (bosun), Tim Jarvis (expedition leader), Nick Bubb (skipper), Barry Gray (mountain leader), and Paul Larsen (navigator).