“For sudden the worst turns the best to the brave.”
– “Prospice” by Robert Browning
SILICON VALLEY, CA. – Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914-1917) was a “failure” in that he did not complete the first-ever overland crossing of Antarctica. Yet, 100 years later, Shackleton and the crew of the “Endurance” evoke spirited passion and debate about the ultimate survival story in human history. Shackleton has been called “the greatest leader who ever came on God’s Earth – bar none.” Was his life a success or a failure?
What drove Shackleton to Antarctica again and again and again? The Discovery Expedition (1901-1904) and the British Antarctic Expedition (1907-1909) – also known as the “Nimrod Expedition” – had brought Shackleton notoriety and fame. Members of his team climbed the Mount Erebus volcano. He’d made it to 88 degrees South. Nobody had ever gotten that far in human history. Polar explorer Robert Scott once sent Shackleton back home to the U.K. from Antarctica, calling him “our invalid.” Scott, a British military officer, eventually made it to the South Pole. But after marching 1,500 miles across Antarctica, he died 11 miles from his salvation – meaning a food depot that could have saved him and his men. Roald Amundsen became the first man to reach the South Pole in 1911, beating poor Scott and his party by about a month.
Scott and Shackleton were among the very first humans to explore the interior of Antarctica. Shackleton had found a way through the 125-mile long Beardmore Glacier – a major feat of cartography – as it slopes down more than 7,000 feet from the Antarctica Plateau to the Ross Ice Shelf.
In fact, Shackleton had gotten within 97 miles of the South Pole before having to turn back. Had he used skis and sled dogs as opposed to Siberian ponies, Shackleton would have claimed the South Pole for himself. To have come so close to the Pole and securing an elite place in history – only to see it slip through his fingers – would have broken a lesser man.
Scott’s insults did not sit well with Shackleton, who (as noted) was widely admired. Sir Ernest was a friend of King Edward and even flirted (allegedly) with Queen Alexandra. He was a patriotic citizen of the British Empire. He left boarding school to join the Merchant Marine at the age of 16 to sail around the world. Yes, he drank too much. He was swashbuckling and charming in an era when the British Empire viewed itself as decadent and in decline. His wealthy wife, Emily, offered him access to the upper classes and thus inroads for fundraising.
One should remember 100 years ago, the quest for Antarctica, in terms of popular culture, could be seen in the same light as the race to the moon in the 1960s. Before Shackleton (who was born in Ireland) left for Antarctica on the Endurance – on the eve of the outbreak of World War I – he received a telegram from Winston Churchill granting permission to continue. It simply read, “Proceed.” Churchill and others at White Hall felt the war would be over in just a few months. When they became lost in the Antarctic, Churchill dismissed the entire crew as “penguins.”
Shackleton had allegedly placed an ad for the Endurance’s journey in search of men with the toughness to endure the harsh rigors of Antarctica. A continent which ironically, despite the snow, ice and freezing temperatures sometimes exceeding minus 50 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, is officially classified as a desert. Antarctica is the driest, coldest, windiest and loneliest place on Earth. It also contains most of the Earth’s fresh water.
His ad read: “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.” Some claim this ad was never placed. We know it first appeared in “The 100 Greatest Advertisements: 1852-1958” as written by Julian Watkins in 1949. The ad might have actually been placed for the Nimrod Expedition. The Smithsonian weighs in on the controversy here.
For those so inclined, the A&E drama “Shackleton” is a life-changing event. Sir Kenneth Branagh shines in the lead role. It has been said that A&E could not have completed the project without him. PBS/Nova takes a shot at Shackleton’s adventures here. Perhaps the greatest reminder of the ordeal endured by the crew of the Endurance are the images captured by the ship’s photographer and filmmaker, Australian Frank Hurley. Mr. Hurley was known as “a warrior with his camera.” He knew that if the crew perished, without the photographs there would be no record of what happened to them.
As Shackleton himself noted, “Sometimes words are not enough.”
To summarize the tale: The Endurance sailed from Great Britain to South America and then to a whaling station on South Georgia. There, they were implicitly warned the pack ice had come very far north that year. It would be difficult – if not impossible – to reach Antarctica. Yet Shackleton had to appease his financiers, so he pressed on. In the summer of 1914, the ship became stuck in the pack ice. It was crushed and sank. The crew (at times) observed with awe the Aroura Borealis during the long Polar nights. They drifted northward 600 miles on an ice floe. When it melted beneath their feet in April of 1916, they made way for land, rowing in small boats they’d lifted from the Endurance. Frank Wild, one of Shackleton’s most trusted men, helped keep the crew together during this extremely trying time.
Killer whales haunted them at every turn. One man said they “sounded like locomotives.” From the remoteness of the inhospitable Elephant Island (merely an outcropping of rock), Shackleton and a handful of his best men made an epic 800-nautical mile (920 mile) open launch in the 22-foot James Caird to South Georgia. Despite using only a four readings taken by navigator Frank Worsley from a sextant over the course of 16 days – while sailing through 60-foot waves, higher rogue waves and hurricane-level winds – they actually hit their target.
Imagine how easily they could have missed South Georgia! Worsely carried out “dead reckonings” without use of the hidden stars. He dictated the sextant readings to Shackleton, carefully noting the time and position. Worsely instinctively calculated the speed of the boat, the wind and tides. The men took turns chipping ice from the hull threatening to sink the boat.
The seaworthiness of the James Caird was augmented by Harry McNeish, a talented carpenter who did not get along well with Shackleton. At one point during the expedition, according to the A&E documentary, McNeish escaped summary execution for insubordination. The Caird was a narrow “whaler” – perhaps so named because it was used for whale watching. Working on Elephant Island without the benefit of Home Depot around the corner, and tapping into his Jesus of Nazareth-level carpentry skills, McNeish built a makeshift deck, raised the side walls and affixed the mast of the James Caird inside the tiny vessel. Rocks were added as ballast. The men actually slept on the rocks as a bed during the voyage.
Of all Shackleton’s men, he chose an interesting assortment to sail with him to South Georgia on the Caird. John Vincent was one of them – a former boxer and bully quickly demoted by Shackleton, Vincent had also been a trawler in the brutal North Sea. He was physically very strong and in the best shape of any crewmember. Tom Crean had distinguished himself on several polar expeditions and was one of Shackleton’s right-hand men. History notes an odd fact in that neither McNeish nor Vincent received a Polar Medal. Only four crewmembers of the Endurance failed to do so.
Why were these key members excluded for honors by Shackleton? Apparently, he was capable of holding grudges. Alexander Macklin, a surgeon on the expedition, said McNeish and Vincent, while not always endearing to the other sailors, “had never let the expedition down.” Shackleton had killed McNeish’s cat, “Mrs. Chippy.” The U.K. Telegraph deconstructed this sad twist of their complicated relationship in this article.
The crew of the James Caird sighted the mountains of South Georgia on May 7, 1916. Before they could land, a giant squall came up out of nowhere. It was so powerful, it sank a 500-ton coal ship steaming for South Georgia at the very same time. Worsely zigzagged along the coast while waiting out the storm before mercifully landing at a spot they called “Cape Cove.”
The titanic problem upon arrival on South Georgia was the fact they’d landed on the wrong (south) side of the island. So leaving in the middle of the night under the light of the full moon, they marched for 36 hours over a mountainous area with 9,000-foot peaks to the whaling station on the north side. Worsley, Crean and Shackleton made this journey – never before attempted. They used screws from the James Caird in their shoes as mountain climbing crampons. During this strange and eerie march, Shackleton, Crean and Worsley all claimed they were accompanied by “The Fourth,” an unseen guardian angel that helped them find their way back to civilization. The U.K. Guardian published an interesting article about “The Fourth” that’s worthy of contemplation. You can read it here. In an age when men were not encouraged to be open with their feelings, Shackleton felt “The Fourth” was best never to be discussed again.
This two-year survival ordeal is recounted in Worsley’s own book, which can be found here. Says Worsley: “By self-sacrifice and throwing his own life into the balance, [Shackleton] saved every one of his men … although at times it had looked unlikely that one could be saved.”
Speaking of the aforementioned killer whales, Worsley also writes: “Squall by squall the wind grew fiercer and the sea heavier. Through a rift in the clouds the moon shone out on the stormy sea and for two minutes revealed the ghostly white uplands and glaciers of the island. Another squall blotted everything out. We heard whales blow right alongside. They may have been killers … a push from one of them would have capsized us.”
The San Francisco Chronicle described Worsley’s account as “Lucid prose leavened by dry British wit.” Worsley’s tale might be best described (LoBaido’s own take) as an important piece of a multi-dimensional jigsaw puzzle where multiple, co-existing realities of the “Shackleton survival experience” come together to offer unique perspectives on the adventure.
From South Georgia, three relief attempts were made to get to the marooned sailors. On the fourth attempt – after 128 days – all of the men left behind on Elephant Island were rescued. Amazingly, not one of them perished. Some of the crew were immediately sent to the front in France upon their return to England. While millions fighting in Europe (and the Middle East) had perished, these crewmembers were seen (unfairly) as has having “gotten off easy” by (allegedly) opting out of World War I.
One of them had written a letter home that exclaimed, “What a glorious age we live in!”
Again, we must ask if Shackleton (the man, his life and expeditionary missions) was a success or a failure. Although (as noted) he never completed his dream of marching completely across Antarctica, humanity remains strangely attracted to him. It should be noted that when Shackleton attempted to return yet again to Antarctica in 1922, he had a heart attack, died and was buried on South Georgia, the latter according to the wishes of his devoted wife, Emily.
Lessons taught by Shackleton
In our culture, a person’s job/career is synonymous with their identity. As is so often articulated by President Donald J. Trump, we do not tolerate so-called “losers.” While coal mining and Goldman Sachs dominate the discourse, in postmodern times, artificial intelligence, robotics, H1-B visas and illegal immigration are all impacting the job market on various levels. Real empirical data shows 100 million Americans either do not have jobs or are underemployed. How many out-of-work Americans would have answered Shackleton’s ad as listed in the space above? It is said that 5,000 men applied to the original ad. Imagine if the Internet and Indeed.com had been available!
Here in Silicon Valley, men like Shackleton are held up by motivational speakers as being worthy of adulation. The basic notion is that, in our business culture, failure is seen as a vital precursor to success. Yet, how can we reconcile this notion? As men, we are groomed to seek to dominate, conquer and, yes, endure. Often we do not tolerate failure in ourselves, nor in others.
We would be remiss not to investigate Shackleton’s darker cognitive motivations for pushing on initially from South Georgia – despite the warnings of the whalers. He was involved in an affair with a pretty American actress. His own brother had been sent to prison in a financial scandal. Shackleton had little reason at that point to return to England as a failed explorer.
These days, consultants can help us deal with failure while charting a new course. One of my favorites is Sam Ovens. Take a look at the insights he has to offer right here. According to one salient article: “After nine months of hard work and spending all the money he had, Ovens’ first business – a reverse job board – went live. It quickly failed miserably, as did the next two businesses he started. Rather than giving up and going back to the mundanity of office life after each failure, Ovens used the experiences as learning opportunities.
“Why didn’t his great ideas fail to resonate with consumers? What did he do wrong? What did he do right? This self-evaluation and his willingness to learn and grow, led Sam to try his hand once more at entrepreneurship, starting his fourth company – a business consulting firm.”
Ovens’ Facebook page is also interesting as it details the importance of leveraging social media tools as a consultant. (Just imagine if Shackleton and the crew of the Endurance had been able to utilize Facebook, Twitter, YouTube.com, Google Maps and Google Images.) We are told by Ovens that it is OK to “fail.” This is one of the most important lessons we can inculcate to ourselves in our dog-eat-dog economic climate.
Echoing Ovens, journalist Jonathan Long counsels that in our quest for success, we should do things like “monetize our personal networks, build our personal brand and get over rejection.” Are these not the very same lessons presented to us by Shackleton? How many financiers had turned him down? How was he able to bounce back time and time again in pursuit of his dreams?
It’s amazing how much our world has changed in 100 years. May we hazard a guess at how much it will change by 2117? One thing we can know for sure is our children and grandchildren will struggle to overcome their failures as they strive for success. Let’s hope they’ll be told the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton – the man whose “failures” still echo as the greatest survival story in all of human history. It’s impossible to defeat a man – or a woman – who never gives up.
Robert Browning was indeed correct when he wrote, “For sudden the worst turns the best to the brave.” Failure is indeed a vital precursor to success. Men like Vincent and McNeish – who came through in some of the worst conditions known to mankind – are worthy of praise and the award of the Polar Medal even at this late date. It would be nice if the British government would intervene and see said medals given to the relatives of these two brave, resourceful men.
Vincent was truly blessed. For example, in 1918, while serving with the British Foreign Office, his ship was torpedoed in the Mediterranean. Yet he somehow survived. He was even offered a position as a fishing instructor by the government of Norway. Vincent died during World War II, serving in the Royal Naval Reserve and having succumbed to pneumonia.
In terms of the metaphysical aspects surrounding the Endurance’s crew, perhaps each of us really does have a guardian angel like “The Fourth.” If so, is this not something that should constantly be acknowledged, rather than put out of mind as nullified by Shackleton?
While Shackleton gets all of the credit, without Worsley, clearly the men would not have survived. Shackleton knew nothing of sailing in small boats and admitted as much. Worsley’s future days included erudite, charming lectures as celebrated in “Shackleton’s Captain.” Watch it here. (“The Fourth” is adroitly fleshed out at 1:11.) He became a treasure hunter. Tom Crean opened a hotel in Ireland called “The South Pole Inn.” Frank Wild died penniless in South Africa in 1939. McNeish emigrated to New Zealand and also died in poverty.
For those driven to delve deeper into this subject, the book “Shackleton’s Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer,” is an excellent resource. It contains diaries of his men, various anecdotes and ancillary observations. As such, it may be considered the Rosetta Stone of crisis management. The book can be found here.
Shackleton – loser or winner, success or failure? Sir Ernest awaits your decision. Churchill was right on target when he said, “It’s not what they say about you that counts … it’s what they whisper.”