Some years ago, as the millennium was drawing to a close, the American Museum of Natural History, in Manhattan, mounted an exhibition celebrating the polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton. The centerpiece of the show was a 23-foot whaler, the James Caird. In 1916, Shackleton and five companions rowed and sailed the small boat across 800 miles of rough and frigid seas to find help for the rest of the expedition’s men, stranded on Elephant Island off the coast of Antarctica after their ship, the Endurance, was crushed by ice.
Shackleton’s voyage was a matchless feat of navigation and seamanship. At the museum, the James Caird was enveloped by an ever changing Sensurround panorama of churning waves and angry clouds, with glimmers of a low, pale sun intermittently visible. Visitors were invited to use a sextant to attempt to take a sun sight under these conditions—nearly impossible. I certainly couldn’t, though I did feel seasick.
Sir Ranulph Fiennes, the author of a new biography of Shackleton, knows the brutality of polar exploration firsthand. In his long career, he has accomplished much of what Shackleton tried to achieve but never did.
From the coast of Antarctica, without satnav or satphone, Fiennes and his companions manhauled heavy sledges to the South Pole, a distance of roughly 750 miles; they played a game of cricket when they arrived. In the course of circumnavigating the globe on its polar axis, using only surface transportation, Fiennes walked across the entire Antarctic continent.
He uses this personal history to inform our understanding of Shackleton’s triumphs and ordeals. After noting that the members of one early expedition were made to see a dentist before embarking—resulting in 92 extractions and 102 filled cavities—Fiennes weighs in: “I once did something similar when, in order to avoid the danger of any team member coming down with appendicitis while we were in the Antarctic, I recommended we all have our appendixes removed in London, prior to departure.”
The Polar Pull
Ernest Henry Shackleton was born to Anglo-Irish gentry in County Kildare, in 1874; when still a boy, he moved with his family to England. He was entranced by tales of the first age of polar exploration—the era of the ill-fated Erebus and Terror—and was determined to perform great deeds in what we know today as the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.
His father sought to cure Shackleton of his ambitions by finding him a berth as a seaman on a sailing ship; the hellish voyage to Cape Horn and back brought out some of the boy’s best qualities—his immense stamina, his loquacious charm, his loyal friendship—and confirmed a taste for life-threatening adventure. Years later, his wife, Emily, would describe “a soul whipped on by the wanderfire.”
He joined Robert Falcon Scott as a junior officer aboard the Discovery for Scott’s first assault on the South Pole, in 1903; the team fell short but got closer than anyone else ever had. No sooner was he home than Shackleton wrote a book and embarked on a lecture tour. In competition with Scott, he began planning an expedition of his own, on a ship called the Nimrod.
This time, in 1907, Shackleton got even closer—within 100 nautical miles—before running short of food. The team turned back, fighting storms, frostbite, scurvy, and malnutrition. Fiennes recalls his own experience in prolonged subzero temperatures: “Even when in your sleeping bag, and with all the proper equipment, it is so cold at night that you continue to shiver, resulting in an average loss of 2,000 calories a night.” And yet, no matter how unforgiving Shackleton’s circumstances, a plum pudding always seems to materialize on Christmas morning.
The race to the South Pole was won by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen in December 1911; Scott reached the pole a month later, finding a note from Amundsen and then perishing on the return trip. The pole had been conquered, so Shackleton focused on something new: crossing the entire continent on foot.
In August 1914, on the eve of war, the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition set out aboard the Endurance. Shackleton had queried the government: Do you need my ship and my men? First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill cabled back: “Proceed.”
In the end, “proceed” is what the expedition could not do. The pack ice seized the ship and then swallowed it. The story of the expedition is one of survival, culminating in Shackleton’s desperate voyage in the James Caird to seek help on South Georgia Island.
The epic of the Endurance remains especially vivid because of Frank Hurley’s glass photographic plates, 150 of which were retrieved from the ship before it was lost. We see the masts rimed with ice, the mangled timbers, the men using blood-sample vials as pawns in a chess game. That we have the plates at all is because Shackleton succeeded—he brought his men home. When Shackleton’s heart gave out a few years later, his body was returned for burial to South Georgia.
An Edwardian Raconteur
The young Shackleton, Sir Ranulph tells us, was an avid reader of Rider Haggard and Jules Verne, and of the adventure stories in the Boy’s Own weekly. Fiennes has written something of a Boy’s Own biography.
He is familiar with the Shackleton literature and the many controversies, but his book is not a “last word” biography, dense with scholarly apparatus. Think of Fiennes, rather, as an Edwardian raconteur with veiny cheeks and a plummy growl who pours you a dram and pulls you close to the fire. He displays a hearty faith in Burberry and blubber and a schoolboy’s delight that his wife’s terrier, Bothie, had been “the first dog to have lifted his leg at both poles.”
Fiennes was dismissed from the S.A.S. for attempting to blow up the film set of Dr. Dolittle as an environmental protest; he admires “the bull-headed Irishman” and leans toward Shackleton’s side on many issues—dogs over ponies; not using skis; the feud with Scott. If the listener by the fire were to indulge an occasional rolling of the eyes, the movement would be arrested by the sight of the speaker’s fingertips, several of which happen to be missing. Fiennes did the amputation himself after frostbite turned them gangrenous.
Fiennes is a realist. He concedes that Shackleton was bad at business, bad at planning, bad at domestic life, and all too adept at taking risks. He acknowledges that Shackleton never once “reached his intended main goal.” But he endorses the conclusion of the polar explorer Sir Raymond Priestley: “When you are in a hopeless situation, when there seems to be no way out, get on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”
Cullen Murphy is an editor at large for The Atlantic and the author of several books, including God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World and Are We Rome?: The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America