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Written by: Ryan Kresser
Date: November 1, 2000

Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure would seem to make a perfect topic for a Big Movie. Pretty soon, we'll see for ourselves!


Category: Columns

I haven’t seen any footage yet from White Mountain Films and NOVA/WGBH Boston's upcoming Big Movie about Sir Ernest Shackleton’s legendary, epic Antarctic adventure. But I do know that Shackleton’s true story is one of the greatest survival tales of all time. And it was all documented by the men present -- both in diaries, and with still photos and 35mm film. Indeed, some of the surviving photos, and even some 35mm footage will be included in this production (along with plenty of awe-inspiring, full-screen IMAX®-format footage).

The film will be a documentary recounting the following true story:

In 1914, hoping to bring glory to England (and to himself and his men), Shackleton embarked on an expedition to be the first in the world to traverse Antarctica on foot. The recruitment notice he used to attract crewmen did not attempt to sugar-coat the nature of the mission:

Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.

Alas, when Sir Ernest and his men attempted to sail to the edge of Antarctica, the Weddell Sea was still unusually full of ice for the Antarctic summer. Their awesome, super thick-hulled boat the ENDURANCE was trapped in the pack ice and immobilized. For ten months, the crew was stuck aboard the paralyzed ship, some of the time in constant darkness, drifting wherever the ice took them.

Over time, the ice floes shifted, exerting tremendous pressure against the ship's super-thick hull. Unnerved by increasingly loud creaking noises, Shackleton finally decided to abandon ship entirely and set up camp on the ice. The horrendous squeaks worsened as crew members crawled deep inside the Endurance to salvage supplies. Finally, the ship cracked with a horrendous boom. Slowly, eventually, it would sink and disappear entirely.

For the next five months the men camped on the ice, enduring temperatures reaching 70 below zero, waiting for their ice floe to drift near enough to open ocean so they could launch their three life boats. They lived on their rations, then on the occasional seal they hunted and shot, and eventually, reluctantly, some of their dogs (so as not to disturb children, NOVA says this will be omitted from the film).

Finally, the ice cracked in the middle of their camp, causing one man to fall into the frigid sea. Shackleton fished him out quickly, and the men embarked on their lifeboats for Paulet Island, where Shackleton had stashed emergency supplies on an earlier trip. After three days of braving brutal temperatures and rough seas, with their hands often sticking to the oars due to the cold, they realized they hadn't made any headway -- in fact, they'd drifed backwards. In desperation, they changed course and headed for desolate, uninhabited Elephant Island.

Managing to land there successfully, they found only a narrow beach backed by steep cliffs. As there were no supplies, and the island was outside all normal shipping lanes, Shackleton realized they would perish here too, if someone didn't go for help. They would have to try and reach the international station on tiny South Georgia Island, 800 miles away.

Most of the men remained behind while six of them took the biggest lifeboat, the 22-foot James Caird, and navigated ferocious, freezing seas for 17 days, with eighty-foot high waves and giant icebergs often bearing down on them, and only a claustrophobic crawl space beneath the deck in which to take shifts sleeping. To keep the boat sailing, they had to scrape ice off their ropes and sails constantly, with only sweaters and mittens to keep them warm. They navigated by taking their positions from the stars – when the clouds cleared for ten minutes or so, every several days. As South Georgia was the only outcropping standing between them and thousands of miles of open ocean, they faced certain death if their navigation was off by even one degree.

When the group somehow managed to find that island like another needle in a haystack, the shore they had reached was across a never before-traversed mountain range from where the station was located. Malnourished and dehydrated, with some of the men in extremely precarious health, they elected to land rather than risk going around by sea. After trying two or three routes to climb over the mountains, and having to turn back upon reaching sheer cliffs, they again found themselves at the top of a high ridge as night was falling. Knowing they'd freeze to death if they stayed at that altitude overnight, they took a blind jump off what seemed to be yet another sheer drop -- and had an incredible, wild slide down the mountainside. Miraculously reaching the bottom unscathed, they managed to stumble all the way to the South Georgia station.

The amazing thing was, Shackleton was able to return to Elephant Island in time to save the rest of the men, and not a single life was lost. Antarctica would not be successfully traversed on foot until 1989-90 by world-famous climber Reinhold Messner, who appears in the South Georgia portion of the film along with Stephen Venables and Conrad Anker.

Ironically, WWI broke out just as Shackleton and his men were leaving on their journey, and no one in England was paying attention, anyway. As it turned out, several of Shackleton’s men survived this insane, almost two-year ordeal in Antarctica only to be killed in WWI shortly thereafter.

Bio: Sir Ernest Shackleton

An Irish-born polar expedition veteran, Shackleton approached to within 745 miles of the South Pole with Robert Scott on the 1901 Discovery expedition, then pressed to within 97 miles on his own Nimrod expedition of 1908. Imperious, single-minded, ferociously loyal to his men, he once said "Optimism is true moral courage," a tenet he lived by until his death on South Georgia Island in 1922.

(Bio courtesy of NOVA/WGBH web site.)

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