The epitome of an adventurer

I just finished reading the book Epic: Stories of Survival from the World’s Highest Peaks, an anthology of first-class mountain-themed adventure writing edited by Clint Willis.  The last excerpt comes from Alfred Lansing’s 1959 book Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, an account of the extraordinary 17-month epic survival effort of Ernest H. Shackleton and his 27 men after their ship was crushed by ice in the Weddell Sea in January 1915.

The excerpt describes Shackleton’s last 36-hour trek across the uncharted interior of South Georgia Island, a mountainous, rugged jigsaw of ridges, glaciers and precipitous cliffs falling into the sea.  “In the three-quarters of a century that men had been coming to South Georgia, not one man had ever crossed the island,” writes Lansing, “for the simple reason that it could not be done.”

Yet, driven by no other alternative than death by starvation and exposure, Shackleton and two of his party made the crossing.

What impresses me most about their effort is that they went with absolutely no prior information about the area, except that it was considered impassable.  “On the chart they carried,” writes Lansing, “only the coastline of South Georgia was shown — and a great deal of that was missing.  The interior was blank.  Thus, they could only be guided by what they could see.”

Nevertheless, the men set off, equipped with only three-days’ rations, 50 feet of rope, two compasses, a pair of binoculars and a carpenter’s adze to use as an ice axe.  They were dressed in the same tattered clothing they had been wearing since their shipwreck 17 months earlier, and they were already physically depleted by the rigours of their journey to date.

In this condition, the men trekked to the tops of one ice-covered ridge after another — some as high as 5,000 feet — only to be forced to backtrack in the face of impossibly steep cliff descents.  They hacked their way up icy slopes, never knowing what lay on the other side, never knowing whether there was a passable route anywhere on the island’s 3,500-square-kilometre surface.  They kept going without rest, until, 36 hours later, they lucked upon the opposite coastline, finding their route by little more than trial and error balanced on the point of a compass.

To me, Shackleton and his men are the epitome of true adventurers.  Yes, they lived in a different time, yet compared to modern mountain expeditions, supported as they are by GPS maps, aerial photography, elevation profiles, previous trip reports, satellite communications, base camps, lightweight equipment and the like, Shackleton’s achievement seems all the more remarkable.

Shackleton, you have my admiration and my respect.


One Comment to “The epitome of an adventurer”

  1. Sounds like a great book! Love stories of adventure and pushing the limits!

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