Summary: Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 Antarctic expedition provides a powerful example of endurance (with applications for the marriage relationship).
This morning, I’d like to tell you a story. It’s a true story, about an epic journey undertaken in the early part of this century. It’s a tale of great deeds attempted, of great disappointments and failures, and also of great achievements. And it’s a tale of a group of ordinary men who were pushed beyond the limits of human endurance, but who somehow survived and triumphed.
On October 26th, 1914, the British explorer Ernest Shackleton set sail from Argentina with a crew of twenty-seven men, on what was to be the first expedition ever to cross the Antarctic on foot. The North Pole had been reached in 1909, and a Norwegian, Roald Amundsen had achieved the Southernmost point of the globe in 1911. This, then, was the last great polar adventure. Once their ship reached the Antarctic, Shackleton planned to travel by dogsled from East to West across the frozen continent, a distance of almost two thousand miles. There, they would be met by a second ship and returned home to England, where they could look forward to fame and wealth as heroic adventurers. Their dreams of glory were not unrealistic, assuming that they succeeded; in fact, in order to finance the expedition, Shackleton had already been successful in selling a book that he was to write on his return, and had also contracted for a worldwide series of lectures.
But the name of their ship, the Endurance, proved to be more prophetic than they knew. Because Ernest Shackleton and his men would not return home for seventeen months, and under very different circumstances than they had imagined. Their ship never even reached Antarctica, but instead became stuck sixty miles off the coast, while attempting to make its way through a sea of pack ice. And from that point on, they were stranded. All they could do was wait through the bitter Antarctic winter, looking forward to the Spring, when the ice would melt and they could sail free. But that day never came. Instead, after being trapped in the ice for nine months, they were finally forced to abandon ship, as the pressure of tons of ice pushing against its wooden sides finally began to crush it to pieces. When that happened, their mission changed. No longer were they concerned with crossing the Antarctic. Their only goal was to be rescued, to return home safely. And conditions looked very bleak. They were still stranded on a massive ice floe, except that now they had no ship, but only three lifeboats. And again, they could only wait and watch for another six months, as the ocean currents carried them along. Finally, the ice cleared enough to allow them to launch the lifeboats and set out for the nearest land, now about 80 miles away, and after several days of rowing, they made it to a small, uninhabited island.
But although they were now safe from the perils of the ocean, they still had no hope of being rescued. As far as the rest of the world was concerned, they had been lost at sea. No one knew that they were even alive, much less where they where. They had no radio, no way of contacting a rescue party. Somehow, they had to make it to civilization. And so Shackleton and a few of the men set off again in one of the lifeboats, heading for South Georgia Island, where there was a whaling station. Amazingly, they were able to cross 870 miles of open ocean in a rowboat, and reach their destination. But even then, they were not finished. The only human settlement was on the other side of the island, and the terrain was so treacherous, so icy and mountainous, that no one had ever successfully traveled from one side of the island to the other. And yet, these few men, exhausted after 522 days of survival at sea, somehow managed, with no climbing gear to march and climb and scale their way to the other side. From there, a rescue party was sent out to retrieve those left behind.
It’s difficult for us to imagine what these men went through, what they endured over those seventeen months at sea. First of all, there was the weather. The Antarctic is the most inhospitable region of the world, the part of the world most hostile to human life. Extreme cold. Gale and hurricane-force winds. Ice. Snow. No trees, no plants, no vegetation of any kind. Just a cold, barren landscape. And on top of that, several months a year of complete darkness. You may remember the American researcher, Dr. Jerri Nielsen, who was stationed at the South Pole in 1999, and who diagnosed herself with breast cancer. Even with all of today’s advanced technology, it was five months before the weather had moderated enough so that a plane could be sent to pick her up and return her to the U.S. for treatment. Yet these men survived in that environment with very little shelter, and only a small cooking stove to provide heat. They each had one set of clothing, which they wore for seventeen months straight. Their clothing and their sleeping bags were almost always wet; they were cold all the time. Can you imagine what it would be like to be uncomfortably cold for a year and a half, to go to bed every night for seventeen months in a cold, wet sleeping bag, wearing cold, wet clothes?