Why has Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition achieved such legendary status? The answer is it’s a story, within a story, within a story.
The first story is the audaciousness of the goal. Being the first to walk across the continent of Antarctica in the early 1900s, knowing that your own survival and the success of your mission is 100 percent dependent on another team, on the other side of the continent, laying food and cooking fuel depots for you to pick up on your journey. And because “the only communication was as far as you could shout,” there was absolutely no way of knowing if that team arrived in location, and laid the depots for you.
The second story is the adventure — Shackleton turning down the first landing spot on the continent to choose one that would make the journey 60 miles shorter. The ship almost immediately got stuck in the sea ice. Months later the ship was crushed in the ice, and the most inspiring survival story in the history of exploration was set in motion.
Twenty-eight men living on an ice floe for months, and when that broke up, manning the three lifeboats for five days and five nights to arrive at Elephant Island, an uninhabited rocky island never before visited by human beings, and then Shackleton and five of the men set off in one of the lifeboats to sail 800 miles across the roughest seas in the world to seek a remote whaling station on South Georgia.
But they land on the uninhabited side, and Shackleton and two men (Worsley and Crean) walk for 36 hours non-stop across the unmapped, unforgiving mountains of South Georgia. It then takes four attempts by ships before one of them reaches the twenty-two men still stranded on Elephant Island. And they all survived!
But for me, there’s a third story that’s even more important. It’s what can we learn from it that we can bring into our modern lives? We live in perilous times. Shackleton and his men faced risks and dangers on a daily basis. It seems that we do too, thanks to covid, climate change, the Eastern European situation and many other things.
Shackleton’s Endurance story is one that can teach us about setting audacious goals, and not being afraid to take chances. Borrowing a few phrases from Theodore Roosevelt, it’s about “daring greatly”. It’s about striving for “glorious triumphs”. It’s about not being that person who lives a gray life of safety who knows not challenge or success.
The Endurance ship itself symbolizes the teamwork, camaraderie and empathy that enabled a group of men to work together for their collective survival when all hope was lost. There was great leadership by Shackleton, Frank Wild, and Frank Worsley. There were moments of levity and good cheer, and surely for some, moments of sheer unbridled terror. There was the common bravery of Tom Crean, and many others.
And all of it was captured by Hurley’s magnificent photographs that endure to this day, rescued from the crushed ship.
But most of all it’s the story of never, ever giving up. Of persevering. Of digging deep within oneself to believe that the impossible can be done. And, that by working together towards a common goal, there is always a way forward.
#resilience #leadership #teamwork #decisionmaking
Brad Borkan is the co-author of two books: When Your Life Depends on It: Extreme Decision Making Lessons from the Antarctic, and Audacious Goals, Remarkable Results: How an Explorer, an Engineer and a Statesman Shaped our Modern World. Sarah Barnard (@sarahb_polar), an award-winning polar artist, drew the accompanying images.