Ernest Shackleton is one of my historical mentors. He lived during the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, the period from 1897–1922 during which sixteen major expeditions from eight countries focused on the Antarctic continent.
Shackleton first ventured to Antarctica in 1901 aboard the Discovery as a member of the well-financed National Antarctic Expedition under the command of Robert F. Scott. Although this was the best equipped scientific expedition to Antarctica to date, Scott and his team failed to reach the South Pole.
Shackleton returned to Antarctica in 1908 aboard the Nimrod as a member of the British Antarctic Expedition. By January 9, 1908, Shackleton and three companions had trudged to within 96 miles of the South Pole. However, finding themselves dangerously short of supplies, Shackleton made the most difficult decision of his life — he turned his men toward home.
In 1911, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and the British explorer Robert F. Scott led their respective expeditions to Antarctica in an attempt to reach the South Pole. On December 14 of that year, Amundsen arrived at the pole a month before Scott. Sadly, Scott and his four companions died on their return journey.
In 1914, with the prize of the pole already having been claimed by Amundsen, Shackleton set his sights on an ambitious new challenge — a trans-Antarctic expedition from the Wedell Sea to the Ross Sea. He hoped to be the first to cross the cold continent on foot. Shackleton described this expedition as “the last great polar journey that can be made.”
In December 1914, Shackleton set out with twenty-eight men on the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. However, once again, Shackleton encountered an unexpected and devastating setback when his ship, the Endurance, became trapped in an ice pack in the Wedell Sea. The ship was later crushed, leaving Shackleton and his men stranded.
Shackleton and his men endured a twenty-month ordeal — one of the greatest survival stories of all time. After finally reaching Elephant Island, Shackleton selected a few men and made a daring attempt to reach a whaling station on South Georgia Island in a small lifeboat. He promised the men he left behind that he would return for them. He did. And he did not lose a man.
I first learned about Shackleton and the failed trans-Antarctic expedition by reading Alfred Lansing’s book, Endurance. The story is remarkable. I could not put the book down. One of my favorite characters in the story is Frank Worsley, captain of the Endurance. When Shackleton selected a small group of men to travel from Elephant Island across 800 miles of ocean to South Georgia Island to get help, Worsley accompanied Shackleton.
Shackleton reached South Georgia Island thanks to Worsley’s brilliant navigation skills. Sailing across the stormy South Atlantic Ocean from one tiny island to the other was no small feat. But Worsley got them to South Georgia where Shackelton was able to arrange for the rescue of his men.
A couple of weeks ago, Henry Worsley, a distant cousin of Frank Worsley, set off on a remarkable journey. In his own words: “In this centenary year, to commemorate Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1915 attempt to complete the first crossing of the Antarctic Continent, I will attempt the first ever solo crossing of the Antarctic landmass, unsupported and unassisted.”
Thanks to modern technology, Worsley is posting daily updates on his website, including oral logs sent by satellite phone. And, satellite tracking devices enable us to follow his adventure step-by-step. I am especially inspired by the fact that Worsley, who spent 36-years in the military, is attempting to do this solo crossing at the age of 55. Go Worsley!
In a day when most people seek comfort as they grow older, I have deep respect for guys like Worsley who pursue great adventures. In many ways he reminds me of Caleb, one of my favorite Old Testament characters. At 85 years-old, Caleb said, “I am still as strong today as the day Moses sent me out; I’m just as vigorous to go out to battle now as I was then” (Joshua 14:11).
I know that anything can happen to stop Worsley in his tracks as he walks across Antarctica alone. But I am rooting for him and I am praying that he is able to complete his great adventure. He is motivated by his own family’s history and his desire as a soldier to raise funds to help injured veterans. Frank Worsley and Ernest Shackleton would be proud!