ROGER COX Gallery images


Published: The Scotsman (TSMag) 19 February 2011

Virgin Books, 260pp, £18.99

UNSURPRISINGLY perhaps, the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-17 is Sir Ernest Shackleton’s most famous adventure. It’s so packed full of nail-biting drama and iconic imagery – from the moment his ship, Endurance, becomes trapped in the ice of the Weddell Sea to the moment Shackleton finally stumbles into the whaling station on South Georgia to raise the alarm – that it seems almost too improbable to be true.

Shackleton himself feels more like a character from Homeric myth than a man who dreamed and schemed merely a century ago, and it can be hard for students of polar exploration to break through all the patriotic bluster and unerring optimism of his diaries and letters and locate the real person.

In this book, British Army officer Henry Worsley comes closer than most to getting inside the great explorer’s head – not by attempting some sort of psychoanalysis or by bringing to light fresh primary sources, but by reconstructing Shackleton’s lesser-known but ultimately much more successful Nimrod expedition of 1908-9, in which he came tantalisingly close to being the first to reach the South Pole but decided, at a crucial moment, to turn and head for home.

Worsley is descended from Frank Worsley, skipper of the Endurance, and along with Will Gow, Shackleton’s great-nephew, and Henry Adams, great-grandson of Jameson Boyd-Adams, Shackleton’s No 2 on the Nimrod expedition, he sets about re-tracing their epic 820-mile journey to the lonely spot at latitude 88 degrees 23 minutes South, longitude 162 degrees East, just 122 miles short of the Pole, where Shackleton called it a day.

Like Shackleton, Worsley and company had a hard time raising funds for their trip and also faced early logistical difficulties. In 1908 Shackleton struggled to find a suitable shore on which to establish a base camp, eventually settling on Cape Royds; similarly, in 2008, due to stormy weather, Worsley and his team had to endure a maddening series of delays before arriving at the same starting location several days behind schedule.

Worsley’s writing is clipped and unshowy, verging on matter-of-fact, and in the first couple of chapters it can sometimes feel a little leaden. Once the Matrix Shackleton Centenary Expedition makes it onto the ice, however, his prose acquires a new spring in its step, and the narrative hurtles along. As we follow Worsley, Gow and Adams across the Ross Ice Shelf and onto the treacherous, crevasse-riddled Beardmore Glacier – the make-or-break section of the journey – we gain an intimate understanding of what conditions must have been like for Shackleton.

Worsley’s narrative is interspersed with snippets from Shackleton’s diary, constantly hammering home the fact that, although an 820-mile trek in sub-zero temperatures is tough with modern equipment, it must have been twice as difficult with the rudimentary kit available at the start of the 20th century.

Scholars have long puzzled over Shackleton’s decision to abandon his goal on 9 January, 1909. Why didn’t he just gamble and have a crack at those last 112 miles? Based on his remarkable recreation of the experience, Worsley provides a convincing answer. When he and his team arrive at the spot where Shackleton planted their “Furthest South” flag – against all the odds, exactly 100 years later to the day – they are “utterly drained” and “quite physically empty”. For Shackleton, so expert opinion goes, the decision to turn back must have been agonising, but Worsley begs to differ.

“Under the conditions that Shackleton faced, I do think that the prospect of a 200-mile round trip back to this same spot, then back all the way to the start line, was out of reach,” he writes. “He had only to consider the lives of the men who were with him for that decision to be taken with huge regret but, actually, with some ease.”

After reaching Shackleton’s Furthest South, the members of the Centenary Expedition continue on to the South Pole, and there is a moving moment when, at journey’s end, Worsley takes Shackleton’s compass from his pocket, watches the needle spin as if “it seemed to know exactly where it had reached” and observes: “Irrevocably, part of him [Shackleton] had finally reached 90 degrees South.”

Whereas Worsley and colleagues are then flown back to safety, of course, Shackleton and his men had to trudge more than 800 miles to achieve a last-gasp rendezvous with the Nimrod on 1 March, 1909. This book does much to humanise Shackleton, yet in the end, the huge gulf between what he achieved, and what a well-equipped modern expedition was able to accomplish 100 years on, only makes him seem more mythical, unknowable, harder to reach.

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