Thursday, August 01, 2013

23: Where Snowman Has Gone Before, pt2

To continue with the South Pole story: Big exploration ventures to places that are, in all probability, useless, seem to go through three phases in the eyes of the cultures that produce them.

1. "We must do this, it'll be fantastic."
2. "We're doing it, and it's fantastic, but it's also incredibly expensive."
3. "What was the point of that, exactly?"

We were already in the third phase when Ernest Shackleton decided to mount his own expedition to the South Pole. Shackleton had been with Scott on his first Antarctic expedition and narrowly failed to reach the Pole with his own venture a few years later, so he sort of had a bee in his bonnet about the place.
Problem was, it had already been done.
Ah, said Shackleton, but this will be different - we'll traverse the continent from one side to the other.
You can imagine the level of public enthusiasm for that, with Scott barely thawed out in his grave, but Shackleton would have none of it. Unfortunately the government was also cool on the idea and refused to fund it, so Shackleton had to find private backing. His timing could scarcely have been worse either, as Wold War I broke out almost the day he set sail, diminishing interest still further.
After that, to paraphrase Douglas Adams's Marvin, things went into a bit of a decline. After getting stuck in the ice for a whole winter, the ship sank. And that was only start of it. Weeks of hauling the ship's rowboats over the ice were followed by weeks floating around on chunks of pack ice, then still grimmer weeks of rowing their open boats through the icy ocean before fetching up on a barren, icy rock called Elephant Island, hundreds of miles from any hope of rescue.
Not one to hold out false hope or fail to face reality, Shackleton took five other men on a thirty-foot rowing boat and sailed and rowed across 800 miles of the world's most hostile sea to the nearest inhabited land, South Georgia, where there was a Norwegian whaling station. Once there, all that remained was to cross the uncharted mountain range down the middle of the island, as they'd been forced to land on the wrong side and the current made sailing around impossible.
For the icing on the cake (though I don't think he'd have appreciated the expression), the first news Shackleton heard when he reached the whaling station, and before he got to have his first hot food, hot bath, or more than lukewarm anything for some time, was that not only had the war not been over by Christmas as expected, it was still in full flow two years later.
Properly refreshed, Shackleton still had work to do. After no less than four attempts at commandeering a ship in the middle of a major war and navigating it through icy seas, he succeeded in picking up his stranded crew, every one alive and as well as could be expected.
For achieving all of this, Shackleton is rightly held in high regard as a great hero, but it's worth remembering that by undertaking the expedition in the first place, he was after all the one who got them all into that fine mess for no better reason than a place in the history books.
Ever heard of Aenaes Mackintosh?
Shackleton's plan had been to cross the Antarctic continent, and to achieve that he needed a support party on the other side to lay supply depots for the last few hundred miles across the ice shelf. For this purpose, he sent a second party to the far side of the continent. Unfortunately, when only the captain - Mackintosh - and five others were ashore, with a fraction of the expedition's supplies and equipment landed, the ship was swept away in a storm and couldn't get back. Mackintosh and his men, believing that the lives of Shackleton's party depended on them and with no way of knowing that he wasn't going to need those depots after all, had to make do and lay the depots anyway. This they did, dragging what supplies they had across 600 miles of ice, with not enough of anything, and what they had - tents, furs, sleeping bags - inadequate for purpose. Three of the six men, including Mackintosh, died of exhaustion, cold and malnutrition before the job was done.
To me, Mackintosh's standing in the hero stakes is at least equal to Shackleton's, but either way, it all makes the familiar modern expression 'sporting hero' ring a little hollow, doesn't it?


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