In the Footsteps of Sir Ernest Shackleton
Shackleton's Antarctic journey of survival is eclipsed by his trip from oblivion to pop-culture phenomenon
Seattle- August 20, 2002
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Ernest Shackleton

Crossing Drake Passage

A hooded figure emerges from the soggy whiteout, bent into the wind and hunkered over a pair of skis that move rhythmically back and forth beneath him. The small white noise of skis scraping on the icy surface of the glacier reaches me and blends with the pelting of wind-driven snow — or is that sleet or freezing rain? — on the fabric of my parka hood. In the unearthly reality of the icy fog, the approaching apparition could be anybody, perhaps even the ghost of Ernest Shackleton himself, trudging forever across this wild interior of South Georgia Island, the scene of the explorer's greatest trial, and greatest success.

But soon I see the figure is followed obediently by a red sled on a 12-foot tether of nylon webbing, and I know it's not "the Boss." It's Duncan Gray, the former British paratrooper who is our expedition doctor. The two of us seem to be alone on the bleak, windswept expanse of the remote Fortuna Glacier. But that illusion is given away by the ropes that snake from our harnesses to disappear in the weird monochromatic opacity, even if our companions to whom those ropes are tied remain unseen in the sub-Antarctic cloud through which we move. This is some thick weather.

"The men of the Endurance party were walking, working dead men. Their ship was crushed by sea ice and sunk in 1915...."

Duncan skis up and raises his goggles, giving me a crooked grin. "Aye, Peter, we should have drilled holes in these things," he says in his Scottish brogue, motioning to the sleds and the 10 inches of snow and frozen slush that have accumulated there. It's unwelcome cargo that adds weight and inertia to discomfort and cold. We're finding out first-hand that even with modern gear and navigational devices, retracing the steps of Shackleton across South Georgia is no easy matter, and the outcome far from certain.


Duncan and the rest of us got to know each other over single-malts in the ship's tiny bar. It seemed the best way to pass the time on the stormy six-day crossing of the Drake Passage as we steamed from Argentina's Tierra del Fuego to South Georgia Island. But after four days on the island itself, those comfortable evenings aboard ship seem like a dream.

Like the others with me on this twisted adventure, I've been deeply impressed for much of my life by the story of Shackleton's epic. I first read Alfred Lansing's book Endurance at age 10. It was the first modern re-telling of the Shackleton tale, and the agonizing, uplifting truths of the experience resonated with me like nothing else before: The men of the Endurance party were walking, working dead men. Their ship was crushed by sea ice and sunk in 1915, the men left adrift on a frozen sea for 18 months, facing an impossible journey by foot and small boat through an inhospitable environment of ice and ocean to reach even the hope of salvation.

Eventually, after a heroic 16-day voyage in an open boat, Shackleton and five others reached South Georgia. But they landed on the wrong side of the remote island, so three of the party had to cross the unexplored mountain ranges of South Georgia's interior to reach safety at a whaling station on the opposite coast. That historic crossing of the island is what our party is trying to repeat.

Peter Potterfield, Staff