As I wandered through the ice coated village this morning, that had been enchanted by the ice rain of the night, my thoughts got caught up again by the story of Ernest Shackleton and his famous Antarctic expedition. See, as I was in wonder and took pictures here and there of grass, trees, flowers and lichen with a thick layer of ice upon them, I had to think of the power of ice, that had for example turned my car into a fortress overnight. It was a hard battle to get it out of its thick hard shell. The thought that just some degrees more would have let the coat slip off with no chance to hold on – but as the temperatures were, didn’t let me open a door – is a fascinating one. And how beautiful and wonderous my morning walk was… Ice can crush a ship, might have come into my mind. And in a heartbeat I was back at the Endurance, a ship that was crushed by ice. And how fascinating and adventurous the real life story of the Endurance expedition was – the most thrilling part for me are the circumstances of Ernest Shackleton’s death years afterwards. They provide a fascinating look at a captivating psychological phenomenon, which never left my mind since.
Ernest Shackleton was an Irishman who ran expeditions to the Antarctic under the British flag. It was the time before the first World War, it was the time, where nations battled each other in races to the most remote places on earth – a time of great adventures, that promised successful adventurers glory, fame and wealth (maybe like great sportspeople nowadays). He was sent home on his first Antarctic endeavor by the head of the expedition, Robert Falcon Scott of later tragic-diary-fame. The second, he led himself and although he couldn’t reach the South Pole, he set a new record for being the to this date southiest traveled man. He managed to sell this as a success, got knighted by the king and tried to find money for his next expedition. His rival Scott was already on the way to reach the South Pole, so he had to wait for the outcome. No one gives you money to conquer the South Pole, when someone else has already a huge head start. And then Amundson – for the Brits quite surprisingly as stated on Wikipedia – reached the South Pole (well and Scott died on his way home), so Shackleton went from “discovering the South Pole” to “land crossing the Antarctic continent” as a goal, stating that that is “the one great main object of Antarctic journeying.”
He got his money and set sail for the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1914, but it is way more famous under the name Endurance-Expedition. It is named after one of the two ships that took part in that endeavor, but it is actually the perfect name for that adventure, for it was a test of endurance for all participants – and it was endurance that saved their lives.
They sailed from South Georgia south in the Weddell-Sea, but in January their beautiful ship got trapped in ice. How I now, that ship was beautiful? They had a real good and proper famous photographer with them who took really nice shots of the trapped ship. They hoped, the ship would free up, but that didn’t happen. Then May came and it went dark for three months. They played football and theater to keep them fit and sane. In September it was clear that the ship that still was intact, will give in soon to the pack ice. They saved everything they could – even photographs. The ship leaked and was sinking, they abandoned it in October and changed the expedition goal from “crossing Antarctica” to “Let’s try to survive”. And so they tried to march the pack ice with their rescue boats on sledges. But it got warmer, the ice was melting, they couldn’t walk on it properly. Food shortages occurred, they shot their dogs and ate them – the usual stuff. And months got by, were they could see land, as they drifted by, but could not reach open water. It was April again, as they finally had the chance to reach real land. They traveled on their three boats, by -30 degree and made it to Elephant Island, all of them.
“Yay!”, you might want to shout here. Maybe safe it for later. Elephant Island is a very remote piece of rock. You can find sea lions or something similar there, but nothing else. Whale hunters don’t travel there, there is no camp, no hidden food and no Wifi or any other form of telecommunication. So, what to do next? The men are in bad shape, but Shackleton is a very responsible leader. He lets one of his man turn one boat, in a boat that can take a longer journey and looks out for the healthiest men left. Ten days after they landed on Elephant Island six men, Shackleton and a great navigator included, left on a boat to reach South Georgia. Two weeks they traveled through the rough sea, soaking wet from ice water waves that swept over their boat. Almost there, they got hit by a hurricane-like storm. They had to shovel out water constantly to stay afloat. Half sinking, they managed to get on land. “Yay!”, you say. “Unbelievable! They got to South Georgia alive.” Yes, alive, but with a problem. They were on the wrong side of the island. The tiny part of civilization in form of a whale hunter base was on the other side. They could have tried to surround the island per boat. The trouble with that was, that two of the men were too exhausted to move. So they decided to let the them rest and cross the island per foot to get help and fetch them later. Wonderful plan, only problem with that was – and you might enjoy that bit – there are a lot of mountains on South Georgia, glorious, beautiful snowy mountains. It is May again, so not that much sun, I would guess, but a full moon. They have no map, they just go up a mountain and then look around. They have to walk back their path more than once. They don’t make breaks. They walk and climb for 36 hours. They slide down mountains and just hope for the best. They climb down a waterfall. They hear a foghorn in the morning and they make it. They finally reach help. Ernest Shackleton might have not crossed Antarctica, but he survived and saved all of his men against all chances.
Maybe, because we came that far, I should mention, that the rescue of the men on Elephant Island wasn’t easy at all. It was winter again, and there was a lot of ice surrounding the Island. England was already involved in a thing called World War and sent no help at all. Shackleton found help in Uruguay and later in Chile. It took him four tries till he finally came through and saved his men. They had in the meantime built a shelter out of stones, canvas and the two boats, they had turned upside down to have a roof. It is kind of a miracle, that all of them survived. Nowadays Shackleton is famous for his leading skills and I can imagine some asshole leading a shitty team building camp and using his name as an excuse to bully others… Well, that is just my usual imagination…
“Yes, Shackleton survived, so why are you obsessed with his death, you weird team building camp inventing person”, you might say at this point (which is a bit rude to be honest). This was an amazingly long near death experience, but everyone survived. So where is the psychological bit, that I sold as thrilling and fascinating?
As I read the story of the Endurance expedition for the first time (through articles on Wikipedia, as I believe to remember), I got caught by the horrible circumstances that had to be endured by the crew. Not only danger, but also the hopelessness that must have taken its toll. Waiting on the pack ice, not able to move forward, waiting on that rock in the sea, waiting to be saved my men, who could have easily been dead already. The cold, the dark, the hunger, nothing to drink than a spoonful of melted ice a day… fighting over immense exhaustion, still going on in the knowledge, that when you stop moving, everyone will die. A truly horrible experience. If it had happened to me, I would never want to set a foot in the cold. I would never want to board a ship again. I would quit all adventures for the future. Wouldn’t you think the same, if it had happened to you? I thought that after I read that story… but I am not so sure of that anymore.
Shackleton and his crew didn’t come back as heroes. There was no time for that. They kind of immediately went into military duties. Shackleton was already in an age, where he didn’t have to go, no, he volunteered. He got a position as a Major, stationed in Russia. During a war. And he complained in letters about boredom and feeling useless. There is the first clue of what is going to happen. Yes, he tries to get another expedition. In the warmth of a jungle? No, of course not. He wants to be on a ship in the cold. The South Pole missions are no longer en vogue, so he plans to discover some new landmass and islands around the North Pole. He even got Canada on board. But yes, the times are insecure and in the end, Canada takes back its money. But Shackleton is in luck, he finds an old school colleague of his, who got rich. He wants to give him money for an expedition, because he believes in science and research. And now Shackleton changes the expedition plans to… Well, where does he want to go more than anything? Oh, you are a good guesser! He wants back south, back to South Georgia! This school friend of his gives him an unusual amount of money and I have to say, that I wonder about that event. It sets my imagination free. I see this friend, depressed, not liking his life anymore sitting in front of Shackleton, a once great man, but now depressed, not liking his life anymore. He gives him the money and I wonder, if he knew, what Shackleton’s dreams were made of? Did he see himself in his eyes? Did he make Shackleton’s eyes glow with the expectation of going back? I don’t know anything about it of course, but as I read it, I imagined it like this. And then I read, that a few years later this friend took his own life. Because of going bankrupt maybe. But it might have not been the first time, death had come to his mind. I wonder, what he saw in Shackleton’s eyes…
Shackleton tried his best to let his expedition look like a groundbreaking scientific endeavor. But his goals weren’t clearly defined. He stated this and that, much more than it is doable in the two years the expedition should take. He went on his journey with 20 men. Who they were? Well, most of them were veterans from other expeditions of Shackleton – yes, you guessed it – other men, who survived that horrible adventure with the Endurance joined him to go back. As soon as they left England, they went into trouble with the ship. So they had to fix the whole thing in Rio de Janeiro, which took a month. Before they left Rio, Shackleton had a heart attack. He denied to be treated, he denied his own two doctors, also veterans from the Endurance expedition, to look after him. So they set sail to South Georgia. On their journey, Shackleton was in a bad mood. He seemed apathetic and tired. They had to cancel their Christmas celebration because of a storm and Shackleton, who had never allowed alcohol on board, started his days now with Champagne to ease his pain, as he said. They arrived in Grytviken in South Georgia on the 4th January 1922. Shackleton went on land and came back in a very good mood. Sadly, the Wikipedia article only mentions that he had visited a whale hunter base, but I could easily imagine that it was the whale hunter base, which marked his greatest achievement in life. He looked happy, said he wanted to celebrate Christmas in the next days and went to bed. In the night he suffered from pain, the doctors spoke to him. Shortly later, he died on a heart attack.
I see now, that you might have waited for a murder complot after my first sentences of this letter… No, it was a heart attack. But a fascinating one, don’t you think?
It seems to me, that he really wanted back to the harsh sea, to the cold, the loneliness – but mainly that he wanted back to the place, where he had felt most useful in his life. There, he had endured pain, hunger, unimaginable stress, but he had succeeded and he had saved his crew. He had felt like the hero he definitely was for his crew, here, he had felt undisputedly important, here his life had made sense. I can imagine how hard coming back was. After an life threatening adventure like that, what is there to live for in civilized London? He had a wife and kids, but I doubt that a man, who likes to be at sea for years is a family-bound man, who can enjoy the calm. He struggled feeling useful again. The job as a major was certainly more a job of planning than fighting. So shortly after he came back to England, he started fantasizing about going back. Yes, he had planned to travel North, but only because the chances were better to get funding. He actually planned a journey back to South Georgia the same time he made plans for the Canadians. And as soon as he got private funding, he changed his plan to go south again. And it is clear, that he wants to go to South Georgia. He doesn’t feel good, he starts drinking, he tries to hold everything together, because his wish is to go back to that spot. I think, he was very sick and was only held together by the wish to go back. And then, when he got there, all pressure falls off. It falls off and he dies. Only hours after he finally had reached that spot again. Like he had postponed his death, till he got his wish fulfilled.
And that is fascinating. And he wasn’t the only one, who wanted back. It was a traumatic experience, yet real life seemed more traumatic. They couldn’t fit in anymore. They wanted to be close to their “Boss”, as they called Shackleton. They came with him this last time, although they hadn’t been paid by him the full amount of money, that he had promised them for the Endurance expedition. They nearly died, they didn’t get their heroes welcome and weren’t paid their full share, yet they wanted to go back with him. That is just unbelievable! By the way, they tried to complete the expedition without Shackleton, but they were not very focused. And of course, they tried to go back to Elephant Island (but couldn’t, because of pack ice)…
Maybe the reason that I got captivated that much by this adventure is because it relates to my inner problems. The feeling of not being useful, that haunts me, day and night through depression; the feeling of my talents not being challenged enough. And then there is also this knowledge, that adventures make me feel better – sometimes even real happy. Depression has less influence on my mood after a great adventure. Way less actually. After the adventurous riding trip in Iceland, I was symptom free for a whole week. I was happy seven days long! Can you imagine, how that felt for me? Feeling happy for so long, that was amazing! And all that energy! I worked with ten horses a day! Being healthy must feel awesome! (Maybe it would have even lasted longer than a week, but then my beloved cat died and I had a breakdown…) I can relate to that last bit of the story. Maybe it could happen to me as well. Feeling the desire to go back to a moment, where there was no place for self-doubt. Were you were in survival mode and everything made sense, because of that….
And that brings me to questions that haunt my mind for decades now: What happens when you switch into survival mode? When your purpose for the day is so clear defined, because the goal is surviving? Does this change you? And could it feel good? I clearly don’t want to be in a situation like this and especially not with my children at risk, but what would happen, if I had to be clever and disciplined in order to survive? Would I thrive or would I just lie around, paralyzed by the pressure? And if I would thrive, would I be able to get back to the life I led before? Would I be happy to be safe again, or would I drown in the feeling of uselessness even more than now? I don’t want to make an experiment to find out the answers for obvious reasons, but yes, I would like to know the answers to these questions…
I don’t like ships that much, I don’t feel safe in the ocean, I wouldn’t volunteer to go on an Antarctic expedition. But do I go back, after I got hurt by a horse? Yes, of course! Do I go back to the place, I got my biggest trauma? No. Would I want to see Elephant Island again after being trapped there for months with only little hope to survive? I have no idea. So I roll around these thoughts again and again. What would you do? Would you feel the desire to go back to such a place? Would you hear the adventure calling you and would you follow its song? And when you would get sick, would you be driven by the wish to reach that place just one more time? One more time and all is in its right place again…
After Shackleton’s death one of the expedition participants volunteered to bring Shackleton’s body back to England. When he landed in Rio, he got a message from Shackleton’s wife. She said, they should bury him in South Georgia. So he brought the body back and you can visit his grave in Grytviken, if you ever go on an Antarctic adventure yourself. The order of his wife sounds to me like that she knew her husband’s wish. Maybe he even stated it, before going on that journey. “Oh, how I wish to see that snowy mountains again”, he says in my fantasy, “the salty waves of the rough sea that throw themselves against the rocks, tirelessly, in their demand to be untamable. Oh, how I want to smell that air and was it even for a moment. If I was there and it was my last breath, I would die happily, I swear. Buried there beneath the mountains that I conquered, besides the waves that couldn’t break me, listening to the storms that would howl upon my grave, you can be assured, that I would indeed rest in peace.”
I wish you the best,
Your friend, enjoying her warm duvet