Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Great Shack!

Great Shack!

I've always been fascinated by the great polar adventurers. Scott, Nansen, Amundsen, Peary, and in the modern era, the unique Ranulph Fiennes, who has put himself through every agony the Edwardian explorers did, only without the actual dying encased in a block of ice.

These are men who have risked - and lost - their lives exploring the most inhospitable places on the planet, not forgetting to name the best parts after their main sponsors while they were out there. Nansen once walked across Greenland because no-one else had done so. Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, I suspect, walked to both poles to avoid having to tile the bathroom.

One man exemplifies the spirit of the age - Sir Ernest Shackleton.

I've written about Shackleton before as a personal hero, and with good cause. Utterly woeful with money, he spent as much time as possible trudging around Antarctica in order to put as much distance between himself and his creditors as humanly possible. He came within miles of the South Pole years before Amundsen did, before turning back through lack of rations.

Eschewing such modern technology as "skis" and "dogs", which the Edwardians saw as going against the whole British spirit of human adventure, Shackleton walked south and walked back. They didn't even get to eat the horse, which fell down a crevass. Or is it a crevice? A whopping great hole.

Dead livestock aside, Shackleton was able to say that he never lost a man under his command on his adventures. A boast he could repeat on his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914. A typical British tale of the ability to turn disaster to triumph, they never actually got to cross Antarctica, their ship crushed by the pack-ice at an early stage, Shackleton and his party had to walk and row to the relative safety of Elephant Island, where they sat out a second winter living of the remains of their rations, and any unfortunate seals or penguins they could capture.

As the weather cleared, Shackleton led a small party in the lifeboat James Caird, and they rowed 800 miles in two weeks across the Southern Atlantic to find help on South Georgia. It remains once of the great feats of seamanship. The slightest of deviations of course, and they would have missed their target completely, and they would almost certainly have been lost at sea.

All hands were rescued. Shackleton's reward: public indifference. His crew - all experienced sailors had missed the first two years of the Great War, and several were not to survive until 1918.

Naturally, Shackleton, heading south on yet another adventure - almost certainly devised to escape crushing debts - died in the South Atlantic. Antarctica didn't kill him - a heart condition did.

A bloody Anglo-Irish hero. Dedicated, deeply flawed, skint. I can identify with that, but then, I have never had toes frozen off, nor have I lived under an upturned rowing boat for a year. And today it is his 132nd birthday.

Oh, and I'm forty today, as well. Whoop. Send pie.

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