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Centenary of Shackleton Polar Expedition

Centenary of Kildare-born explorer’s epic polar achievement
by
KEVIN KENNY
 
Edwardian Kildare  awoke to a typical winter morning on 9th January 1909. The newspapers were filled with news of horse racing, hunting and the recent introduction of the old age pension. However half a globe away, on the frozen continent of Antarctica, a Kildare-born explorer was pushing the limits of human endurance and reaching a point further South than anyone had ever been before.
Ernest Shackleton was born into the Kilkea Co. Kildare farming and milling family in February 1874. The second of 10 children, his wanderlust earned him the nickname of ‘Mr. Lag’ as his sisters waited on him while he wandered off the beaten track during childhood rambles. The family moved to Dublin in 1880 and then to London in 1884.
Aged 16, the young Shackleton realized an ambition to go to sea and joined the merchant Navy. In 1901, following a fortunate meeting with an influential backer of the National Antarctic Expedition, he was accepted as junior officer on Captain Scott’s inaugural voyage to Antarctica. This represented the burgeoning British Empire’s first purposeful mission to the Antarctic continent. Shackleton’s dramatic and independent character was also forming – two days before sailing with Scott on ‘Discovery,’ he had written to Charles Dorman asking for his daughter’s hand in marriage.
On 30 December 1902, Shackleton, Scott and Wilson, having trekked south for over 270 miles, established a ‘furthest South.’ The return journey to their base camp was nightmarish, with all three suffering from scurvy, shortage of food and adverse weather. In February 1903, a disappointed Shackleton was invalided home, unfit for further work in the Antarctic.  As he was to demonstrate on subsequent occasions, Shackleton didn’t treat this as a setback, but as a challenge to be overcome.
In February 1907, he announced a plan to lead his own expedition South to reach the magnetic and geographical poles. By August, ship, crew and supplies were ready, along with financial support from some of the wealthiest industrialists in the British Empire. King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra visited ‘Nimrod’ as she departed England, the Queen giving Shackleton a Union Jack to plant at the South Pole.
On 29th October 1908, Shackleton, Wild, Marshall and Adams along with ponies and sledges set off southwards. A month later, they had passed Scott’s Southern-most point. Slowly, they inched towards the pole itself, detouring to avoid bottomless ice crevasses while hampered by weather, inadequate food and equipment. On 6th December, disaster struck when Socks, the last remaining pony, broke through the ice and disappeared into a crevasse. At a crucial point, Shackleton’s team had lost their main method of haulage and a potential food source. Pushing onwards, each mile marched was a mile further added to the return journey and food supplies were depleting rapidly. Finally, at 9.00am on 9th January 1909, the party halted and Shackleton “with a few well chosen words” planted the flag given by Queen Alexandra. They had gone as far as possible, the South Pole was less than 2 degrees of latitude and under 100 miles away. On a judgement of their condition and the supplies remaining, Shackleton bravely choose to turn back. He recorded in his diary that "Whatever regrets may be, we have done our best." Later, he explained the decision to his wife Emily, saying he thought she would “rather have a live donkey than a dead lion.”
Between Shackleton’s party and safety lay a trek of 750 miles northwards, in freezing temperatures and on half rations. The account of the return journey is a testimony of hope and optimism against all the odds. Shackleton’s ability to unite, inspire and lead by example emerges as a dominant and essential theme. Dwindling food supplies, illness and treacherous conditions underfoot were countered by good judgement, belief while seizing strokes of good luck.  The return journey was a race against time as ‘Nimrod’ would soon depart for New Zealand to avoid the Southern winter. Missing it meant another year in Antarctica. They managed to signal to the ship hours before it departed on 1st March and so bring an end to an amazing achievement and survival ordeal.
In an equally heroic exploit, David, Mawson and Makay had reached the magnetic South Pole on 16th January.
On arriving in New Zealand March 1909, news of the achievement was relayed worldwide. Shackleton and his crew were lauded as heroes. Newspapers in Ireland headlined accounts of the epic news, proudly claiming Shackleton as an Irishman. The Irish Times of 24/03/1909 ran a piece entitled “Return of Lt. Shackleton. Party 100 miles from Pole.” For Shackleton, a knighthood soon followed. Two years later, he watched on as Amundsen, followed by the tragic Scott, reached the South Pole.
While Shackleton’s 1909 ‘furthest South’ achievement was to be eclipsed by his later exploits on the Endurance, to many it stands as his hallmark as a great leader, able to exercise sound judgement in the face of fierce pressure. In a response made by Shackleton, when questioned about overcoming adversity, he summarized “There would be nothing in it if there were not great obstacles to be overcome."

 

An article by Kevin Kenny to commemorate the centenary of the epic expedition by Ernest Shackleton in 1909 to within 100 miles of the South Pole. 


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