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Shackleton’s Island

The Irish Examiner published the the following story I wrote in August 2009, as a review of the National Geographic’s episode of Ice Patrol entitled ‘Shackleton’s Island’ which screened on 17 August 2009. Please note that a full version of Shackleton’s story, on which I based my 2022 podcast, can be found here.



Ernest Shackleton

Of all the remarkable events that befell Sir Ernest Shackleton during his relatively short life, the Irishman’s attempt to cross the Antarctic by land will be remembered as his boldest. And of all the challenges which that godforsaken adventure threw at him, successfully crossing the uncharted mountains of South Georgia in April 1916 was arguably his finest hour. Or 36 hours, to be precise.

Shackleton’s much hyped Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition had come to a terrifying halt when his ship, the Endurance, became trapped in pack ice and sank in the treacherous Weddell Sea.

As his options faded away, the Kildare-born explorer deduced that he had but one option – to send a rescue party to the island of South Georgia where he knew there was a manned Norwegian whaling station. Together with five other men, he set off in a small open lifeboat. For fifteen days, these men were at the mercy of the ice-cold, choppy waters of the Southern Ocean. At last, after riding out a hurricane, they landed on the unoccupied southern shore of South Georgia.

Now that the rescue party was on dry land, Shackleton had no intention of continuing by sea to the whaling station on the other side of the island. Instead, he proposed to cross the island by foot. He placed four of his men in strategic positions along the coast and then set off with the other two. Indeed, there is simply no way Shackleton could have survived the journey without these two accomplices. One was New Zealander Frank Worsley, one of the finest maritime navigators the world has known. The other was County Kerry’s indomitable seaman Tom Crean. And so these three men began their long and desperate trudge across this vast, unknown and highly precipitous glacial terrain in pursuit of help from the Norwegians.

Nearly a century later, Shackleton’s journey remains a feat that astonishes even the hardiest of men. The National Geographic Channel are presently screening a series called ‘Ice Patrol’ which follows the journey of the Royal Navy’s ice patrol ship in the Southern Ocean. Episode 3 (Monday 17th August, 9pm) focuses on the journey of four good-humoured Royal Marines as they attempt to retrace Shackleton’s gruelling trek across South Georgia, billed as one of the most challenging terrains on Earth.

Endurance trapped in the Weddel Sea.

Of course, the Marine’s situation was somewhat different to that of the valiant explorers of a hundred years ago. For starters they arrived on the island on board a state-of-the-art Lynx helicopter, rather than an open-top, hurricane-lashed lifeboat. Secondly, they had a radio and the helicopter was never too far away. Thirdly, the Marines knew exactly where they were going. Shackleton and his friends hadn’t a clue, save that Worsley’s sextant suggested east. Nor did the Shackleton team arrive at the now-abandoned whaling station to be greeted by a bottle of champagne and hoots of joy. On the contrary, when they stumbled into the whaling station in 1916, the whiskery Norwegian whalers within could not believe their eyes. Everybody knew that crossing the island of South Georgia by foot was impossible.

That is not to detract from the achievement of the Royal Marines, three of whom had just returned from a tour in Afghanistan. Their leader, Colour Sergeant Daz Pope, considered the expedition to be one of ‘the greatest challenges I will ever undertake.’ And their journey was not without mishaps. They encountered winds ‘strong as a machine gun’ that flattened them onto the ground. While clambering up the perilous slopes of the 4,400ft Trident Ridge, one Marine slipped, plummeted and banjaxed his hip and thumb. In 1916, that would have meant RIP. In 2009, that means you whistle up a chopper and get this soldier to a hospital. The three remaining Marines then faced into a brutal thirty-six hour blizzard, much of which they spent huddled in a canvas tent while the world around them screeched and howled like a bad heavy metal gig.

The final and rather peculiar challenge for the Marines was to negotiate a path through thousands of hostile seals lounging upon the ‘honking beaches’ around the whaling station. ‘Even the pups would have a real good go at you’, explains one Marine. ‘It seems they’re born with that attitude and it stays with them for life’. Shackleton never had a problem with seals. In the early 20th century, fashionable ladies enjoyed wearing clothes made of seal fur with the result that, by 1916, the local seal population was virtually extinct. But now, with seal fur out of favour, there is upwards of five million of these tenacious characters on South Georgia, which presumably poses an increasing dilemma for any future plans to retrace Shackleton’s extraordinary adventure.




Shackleton pictured for the Illustrated London News after his return from the Nimrod expedition in 1909.

On 8 August 1914, five days after the outbreak of the First World War, a three-masted ship set sail from Plymouth and set its course on the coast of South America. The ship was called Endurance and carried a crew of twenty-eight men under the command of Captain Frank Worsley. Amongst these was the expedition leader, the polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton.

Shackleton was a truly extraordinary man. Born in Kilkea, near Athy, County Kildare, he was the second son of an Anglo-Irish doctor. As a teenager he served four years apprenticeship on a passenger ship that sailed all over the world. In 1901, he took part in Robert Scott’s Discovery Expedition to the Antarctic with, among others, Tom Crean. Six years later, he led the Nimrod Expedition on what was the longest southern polar journey to that date. The Nimrod Expedition made him a household name but he was determined that next time he would reach the South Pole.

He began to plot the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition and purchased the Endurance in 1913. Unsubstantiated rumours persist that he raised the money through the theft of the Irish Crown Jewels seven years earlier, a misdemeanour that his younger brother Frank Shackleton was certainly tarred with. The money was in fact achieved through his own fund-raising prowess, assisted by a government grant and three substantial private donations.

However, Shackleton’s polar adventure came asunder when the Endurance was hemmed in by pack ice in the treacherous Weddel Sea. Shackleton and his crew waited nervously for the ice to melt but when the ship was finally loosened nearly a year later, the hull was so badly damaged that she began leaking and had to be abandoned.

Six months later, Shackleton embarked on his epic open-boat journey to the whaling station on South Georgia. It was an incredible feat that all twenty-eight of the Endurance crew returned to England alive.

Back in Europe, Shackleton’s health deteriorated. He took to the bottle, began to have heart trouble and invested unwisely in pre-Communist Russia. In 1920, he persuaded a former school friend to fund a circumnavigation of the Antarctic. The expedition was in its relative infancy when Shackleton, defiant to the last, suffered a heart attack and died in January 1922. The place of his death – and burial – was South Georgia, the island to which he had sailed for his life six years earlier.