Walking in Shackleton’s wake

The crew of the Shackleton Epic on the <i>Alexandra Shackleton</i> near King George Island this week, shortly before setting out for Elephant Island.
The crew of the Shackleton Epic on the Alexandra Shackleton near King George Island this week, shortly before setting out for Elephant Island.
Ernest Shackleton's rowing boat, the James Caird, is launched from Elephant Island in 1916. Photo taken by expedition photographer, Frank Hurley.

Ernest Shackleton's rowing boat, the James Caird, is launched from Elephant Island in 1916. Photo taken by expedition photographer, Frank Hurley.

Note: The Shackleton Epic crew plans to depart from Elephant Island, the same location where Ernest Shackleton and his crew sailed from almost 100 years ago, at 8am AEDT tomorrow. 

“Stormy, snowy weather. Rolling, pitching and tumbling, we laboured before the roaring grey-green seas that towered over us, topped with hissing white combers that alas! always caught us. Bruised and soaked, with never a long enough interval for our bodies to warm our streaming clothes, in zero weather we now fully gauged the misery and discomfort of our adventure.”  - F.A. Worsley, Shackleton’s Boat Journey.

Returning to the Antarctic is like getting reacquainted with an old friend … or nemesis. I’ve been pushed to the brink by this place on many occasions, but choose to return, voluntarily like many adventure devotees have done throughout the history of polar exploration.

Figures like Shackleton, Mawson and Scott were pulled here, almost magnetically, driven by their yearning to return to the great, white continent no matter what cruel challenges it threw at them. I too feel the lure of the glaciers, the call of the tempestuous sea, and the irresistible pull of the grand adventure.

Needless to say, when Sir Ernest Shackleton’s granddaughter Alexandra Shackleton requested that I attempt to authentically recreate her grandfather’s epic journey, I accepted. Sailing 800 nautical miles in a wooden lifeboat, then traversing unpredictable glaciers on one of the driest, windiest and coldest places on earth may not be a palatable prospect to some, but a personal request from “the boss’s” family is not something I was game to refuse.  
This expedition has been a long time coming. Four years in the making, the logistics required to put together a re-enactment of Shackleton’s legendary feat is an adventure in its own right.  From juggling finances, permits, securing sponsors and organising insurance, to selecting a capable crew and locating appropriate vintage era gear, it’s been a long (and winding) road. A road that at times felt steep and filled with an insurmountable amount of peaks to climb.

Just like Shackleton, I believe accurate, precise planning is a crucial element to any undertaking of this nature, yet ironically, the Antarctic environment is a true wild card to have to play with. It’s a devil of a place - conditions can change in seconds and all you can do is adapt, quickly. You can plan as much as possible but ultimately, Antarctica is a fickle beast to try to tame, so best not to!

Just recently, crossing the notorious Drake Passage in our support vessel Australis was a prime example of this. We had made great time on the first day of the crossing, assisted with favourable north-west winds for the first 24 hours. The voyage slowed down on the second day, yet it was the final day when we headed directly into a low pressure system, where the accompanying gale force winds forced us to find safe harbour away from the steep waves and wind shrieking at over 55knots.

Even though the Antarctic summer is significantly milder than its far more brutal winter, the environment is still a serious force to contend with and a law unto itself. People often comment that they’ve experienced colder temperatures than this, say while skiing in Canada. And while the temperature gauge may be registering a warmer temperature here, the never ending howling winds induce a wind chill factor that cuts through skin and bone, straight to your soul.

Authentically recreating a polar expedition of years gone by is nothing like skiing in Canada where you can wear the latest gear and return to your heated hotel for a hot shower and mug of warm cocoa by the fireplace. Here, there is nothing but the relentlessly cold, wet, windy, icy environment you are in, day in, day out. There is no opportunity to retreat to a warm place or add another layer of Gore-Tex.

We’ve decided that the maximum amount of time we’ll be able to spend on deck keeping watch is 1.5hours, adjusted down from the planned 2 hours.   We simply can’t afford to have someone suffer from hypothermia.  It’s the wind, wet and inactivity that will do us in.

Our plan is to eat continuously via the burner that’s positioned just below the hatch to vent fumes. The diet of pemmican (bullion-flavoured lard) and other treats like nougat and castor oil should give us between 4.500-5,000 calories a day which is a good amount.  Sea sickness will probably prevent us keeping much of the food down for the first few days.

We are still working on how four men will ‘fit’ and sleep below deck at the same time and we’re putting in some wooden planks over the batteries which are simply too uncomfortable to balance on.  Like Shackleton’s men, in the past few days we’ve made a canvas fabric cover to stop too much water coming in the cockpit from waves crashing in from behind.  One person will crouch in the small cockpit by the feet of the crew member steering to keep at least one of the two people who’ll be on deck at all times out of some of the wind and wet while they’re on their watch.

When I was recreating Mawson’s journey back in 2006, I lost 37 kilograms and was driven to the absolute brink of what I thought I was capable of surviving. Many nights were spent huddled in a modest tent, waiting in earnest hope for the weather to change so I could continue the journey. It was a great lesson in patience, acceptance and surrender – qualities that I will need ample supply of this time around. We may not be able to control the weather patterns, but what we can determine is our attitude towards the challenges that no doubt will arise.

Shackleton had an extraordinary ability to remain optimistic in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Adaptable and always solution-driven, he was known for being a positive and inspiring force to be around. Almost everyone in his orbit was drawn in by his leadership qualities and I only hope to be able to conjure up these same qualities on the road ahead, to lead with a sense of purpose, strength and humility.

There are many unknowns ahead, yet I have assembled a mighty crew of talented men who possess the exact qualities Shackleton looked for when selecting men to take part in his expeditions. Nick Bubb, Seb Coulthard, Barry Gray, Ed Wardle and Paul Larsen are a resilient mix of Brits and Aussies. Bubb and Larsen (from Victoria) are both seasoned sailors, Coulthard is a multi-talented member of the Royal Navy, Gray is an exceptional  mountaineer who instructs the Royal Marines on survival methods and Wardle is an inveterate adventurer and respected film maker who has summited Everest twice. While their credentials are no doubt impressive, it is their character that will count while on this expedition, and I have no doubt that their characters are as solid as their skill set.

There is inherent risk involved in doing something of this magnitude, and naturally people often ask me why I’m attempting an expedition that is laden with hazards. There is no simple answer except that when I’m in the Antarctic, battling the elements, striving for a seemingly impossible goal, I’m able to access a more resourceful side of myself that is difficult to locate in ordinary, day to day life.

Shackleton obviously had ‘expedition fever’, and I too appear to be infected with this strange affliction. It’s my reverence for this iconic man (affectionately called ‘the Boss’ by his men) that has led me here. The legend of Shackleton has given birth to numerous books, films, documentaries and leadership movements – a great indication of how universally he is admired.

While I am recreating his expedition as authentically as possible, with similar gear, navigation instruments and boat, I’m merely walking in Shackleton’s wake. I hope this expedition not only does his memory justice but also reminds the world of how incredibly beautiful, yet fragile, this part of the world is.  Hopefully, if we succeed, we’ll be able to shine another light on the changing Antarctic environment.

Follow the expedition live at www.shackletonepic.com.

Tim Jarvis, The Shackleton Epic expedition leader, as told to Jo Stewart on King George Island.

This story Walking in Shackleton’s wake first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.