Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Taphophile Tragics: Sir Ernest Shackleton

The spirit of Sir Ernest Shackleton looms large on South Georgia and at the Whalers Cemetery on the south side of the bay at Grytviken. Enclosed by a white fence the cemetery has 64 graves, the earliest dating back to 1846 when a typhus outbreak on board a British sealing ship Esther claimed the lives of five crew.

For over a decade I had dreamed of going to the very end of the earth - Antarctica - and from there following in the footsteps of Sir Ernest Shackleton's epic journey across the Southern Ocean. This time last year I was arriving in Ushuaia, South America in preparation for a voyage of adventure from windswept Elephant Island where 22 of Shackleton's crew from the Endurance were marooned across the 800 miles of wind swept, icy cold Southern Ocean to South Georgia.

It was a remarkable journey. Shackleton and a small number of his crew set out from Elephant Island in mid winter. As if to demonstrate the extremes of the weather in this part of the world, when our ship arrived at Elephant Island, the weather deteriorated quickly and so badly that there could be no thought of a landing. Experiencing these conditions made the success of the eventual rescue of all the marooned men even more extraordinary and the effort almost superhuman.

For Shackleton there was no comfort from navigation aides, comfortable beds, food, bedding, warm tea and clothing. In the James Caird, a ships whaler measuring 22 feet and 6 inches long, a small crew of six including Tom Creen an Irishman who had proved his worth on two Scott expeditions, Sir Ernest Shackleton and Frank Worsley, a veteran of square rigged ships rowed the 800 hard earned miles across the Southern Ocean to South Georgia, a mere speck of land in a vast ocean. Shackleton later described this journey as: The ocean south of Cape Horn in the middle of May is known to be the most tempestuous, storm-swept area of water in the world...the tale of the next sixteen days is one of supreme strife amid heaving waters. Accounts state that ten of those days saw gale force winds and that at one point, the boat was coated with 15 inches of ice that had to be chipped off.

The James Caird arrived at King Haakon Bay on the other side of the island to the Stromness Whaling Station. To be rescued, three of the party - Shackleton, Creen and Worsley - trudged across the island to the whaling station, a journey that took them 36 hours. 

This photo of Tom Creen, Sir Ernest Shackleton and Frank Worsley is in the Museum at Grytviken. It was taken following their arrival at Stromness and immediately after they had eaten, washed and showered. The clothing they are wearing here was borrowed.

The amount of snow in the picture shows the extent of the severe conditions through which they had trudged while crossing the island. In speaking of the success of the James Caird rescue party reaching Stromness Sir Ernest Shackleton said: It was like this. The thought of these fellows on Elephant Island kept us going all the time. It might have been different if we'd only had ourselves to think about. You can get so tired in the snow, particularly if you are hungry that sleep seems just the best thing that life has to give. And to sleep out there is to die. But if you are a leader, a fellow that others look to, you've got to keep going. This was the thought which sailed us through the hurricane and tugged us up and down those mountains. 

The headstone reads:
Ernest Henry Shackleton
Born 15 Feb 1874
Entered Eternal Life 5 Jan 1922

The inscription on the rear of Sir Ernest Shackleton's headstone reads: "I hold that man should strive to the uttermost for his life's prize". Robert Browning

The photo above is of the view down to Stromness Whaling Station and below is picture perfect Grytviken. Whalers Cemetery is to the left of this photo.

You can read more about Taphophile Tragics here.


  1. That would have been an adventure of a lifetime!!
    It looks so peaceful when you were there - but without any trees, I can imagine the wind being very forceful.

  2. Rugged landscape, but beautiful. I'm not surprised that people here lived through difficult moments. Previously, everything was harder. Lacked today's technology. Thank you for seeing the way nice pictures. Sincerely, Peter.

  3. These photos look like paintings; certainly good enough to frame. The Shackleton story is an adventure of amazing proportions.

  4. What a beautiful resting place and a stunningly beautiful spot altogether. Sometime in the next few years I am determined to make the same journey that you did.

  5. What an amazing adventurer he was. To visit that area today is also adventurous. I'm not good in cold weather, I doubt it would be for me. beautiful photos and a good tragic story.

  6. He was an adventurer and clearly you are too!

  7. I agree with Joan, you really are a modern day adventurer Rae. What tough conditions they had to endure back in those days, even now it wouldn't be the easiest of journeys. What an amazing man Shackleton was, I found his words 'you get so tired in the snow, particularly if you're ..... so incredibly inspiring, when people depend on you, it really does propel you onwards!

  8. Rae I cannot believe you have been to South Georgia!! In the holidays I reread Bruce Chatwin's 'In Patagonia', such an interesting place on our planet. Shackelton was a true adventurer thanks for this really interesting post.

  9. How very remote but beautiful .... Your pics have captured the essence of this place and it's history .....an amazing story about an amazing man.
    A great post Rae ...beautifully written.

  10. I first read your post this afternoon, Rae, but did not have the headspace to do it justice, so it has just sat there open among the drop-downs.

    What I needed to do was plot all those places on Google map so that I could SEE the vastness, and the isolation. And also to see how massive Antarctica actually is way down there. So I plotted Ushuaia, Elephant Island, and the two places on South Georgis (Grytviken and Stromness). My jaw gapes in admiration, not just of Shackleton, but of you also.

    The photographs are spare and striking. The text likewise.

    A wonderful post.

    So where have I journeyed today: to Chile, to Paris, to South Georgia, to NYC. Oh Wow!

  11. Such brave man to be so determined to get their goal. It must have been a hell of a trip. Great you have been there.

  12. Well done story. I hadn't known about this man until I saw the excellent movie 'Shackleton' starring Kenneth Branagh a few years ago.

  13. Great to see. The movie is good, but Shackleton's "South: The Endurance Expedition" is a fascinating read. The things they survived were staggering. I'd love to visit Antarctica and South Georgia Island, but probably not in the cards for me

  14. such pretty pictures!
    thats a nice place to have your final resting place.. :)

  15. Some beautiful landscape shots there, Rae. Lovely work!