At this time of year in the Northern Hemisphere, with the wind howling like a banshee and ice gathering in the corners of our windowsills, it’s understandable that our thoughts turn to warmer places. How about the Mediterranean in late May and early June, winding your way lazily through the Greek islands under hot skies, with seas warm enough to dangle your toes in, and plates of crusty bread that are perfect for mopping your plate after a terrific meal? That’d do nicely.
So it may seem strange that right now, so much of the public imagination is turning to the coldest places on Earth, as the 5th January marks the centenary of the most famous polar explorer in history.
Ernest Shackleton, by any measure, was fanatically obsessed with the Antarctic. His time as an officer in his late twenties on Robert Falcon Scott’s 1901-1904 expedition to the continent awakened an infatuation that Shackleton would spend the rest of his life trying to control. When he wasn’t leading or planning expeditions, he was on the lecture circuit raising funds for his next attempt, or pursuing business ventures that failed to take off, perhaps because his heart was always elsewhere.
All roads drew him back to the frozen ends of the earth. When he published “South,” his extraordinary (and frequently horrifying) account of his trans-Antarctic ordeal of 1914-1917, he labelled the first edition as “the story of Shackleton’s last expedition.” Yet however much he initially believed in this statement of intent, and despite his failing health due to a congenital heart condition, he couldn’t resist one last try...
At first, his target seemed to be the unmapped Beaufort Sea in the Arctic Circle, north of the Yukon and Alaska - but when the Canadian government declined to provide financial support, Shackleton moved his gaze back to the other end of the planet.
His plan was to circumnavigate Antarctica, chart its coastlines and islands, and look for mineral deposits to perhaps fund future expeditions. In the words of his biographer Margery Fisher, it was a plan "far too comprehensive for one small body of men to tackle within two years."
On the 17th December, shortly before departing Rio in the expedition’s ship Quest, Shackleton suffered a suspected heart attack - but the next morning he refused to be examined and described himself as “feeling better”. On the subsequent voyage to the island of South Georgia, according to the crew, he seemed subdued, and prone to a worrying habit of drinking champagne in the mornings…
In the early hours of the 5th January, anchored at Grytviken, Shackleton suffered a severe seizure and died. His body was prepared for return to England - but enroute, his widow sent a message that it be returned to South Georgia and buried there.
What to make of such a complicated story? The modern tendency to apply a neat summary and hunt for a moral component can take you in all sorts of directions here. Was it admirable or vainglorious to keep going back, again and again, risking the lives of his crewmates, abandoning loved ones at home and plunging himself into deeper and deeper financial ruin? Is he a stirring example of the restless heroism that every explorer aspires towards - or the wearisome, destructive machismo that so often plagues such stories?
However your feelings land on the matter, Shackleton’s story of his most famous trans-Antarctic expedition, “South,” is a superb, thrilling and haunting read. (It’s in the public domain in the U.S., and you can pick up a digital copy here.)
What is it about Antarctica that captures our imagination?
Part of it is surely down to just how astoundingly inhospitable it is. As I wrote previously:
“It’s a place too extreme, too formidable, too mysterious and far too big for you to go exploring. But you can come here, and you can set foot out here, beyond the edge of everything you know, and get a feel for what an entirely different world without people would look like.”
But in every age, there are some who refuse to be told what their human limits are, and are willing to risk their lives in testing them. Shackleton was one - and just a few days ago, British Army Captain Preet Chandi became another.
After two years of training in central England and Greenland, she set off alone to trek 700 miles in 40 days (an average of 17 miles a day), pulling a 90kg sled through temperatures of -50 Celsius, 60 mile-an-hour winds, poor visibility and a persistent cough & sickness (which thankfully didn’t turn out to be COVID-19).
She’s the first person to reach the South Pole on foot in the last two years, and believed to be the first non-white woman to do it - with the women’s record for the fastest trek belonging to Johanna Davidsson from Sweden in 2016 (38 days, 23 hours, 55 minutes).
Captain Chandi, an Army physiotherapist by trade, completed her incredible journey days earlier than planned (!), and sent the following message from the Pole:
“I made it to the South Pole where it's snowing. Feeling so many emotions right now. I knew nothing about the polar world three years ago and it feels so surreal to finally be here. It was tough getting here and I want to thank everybody for their support. This expedition was always about so much more than me. I wanted to encourage people to push boundaries and believe in themselves."
Speaking to The Guardian during her pre-expedition training, she said:
“I am an Asian woman; I’m not the image that people expect to see out there. People say the outdoors is for everyone and yes, it is. But if you come from a community that is not involved in it at all, or you don’t see anybody that looks like you doing it, it can be really hard.”
Whether this is her only visit to Antarctica or the first of many, she’s left her mark - and will inspire others to follow her example, just as Shackleton did. How far will humanity’s obsession with the least welcoming place on our planet go?
Perhaps this is just the tip of the iceberg.
If all this has given you a hankering for the ends of the earth, join us on our 11-night cruise through the majestic fjords of Norway at the end of April.