Ernest Shackleton braved 1500 kilometres of open ocean to save his shipwrecked crew. By all accounts, it was a thoroughly unpleasant journey. So scientist Tim Jarvis decided to experience it for himself.
Early last century, Sir Ernest Shackleton braved glaciers, blizzards, and 1500 kilometres of open ocean to save his shipwrecked crew. By all accounts, it was a thoroughly unpleasant journey. So environmental scientist Tim Jarvis decided to experience it for himself. In this article taken from the pages of Smith Journal volume 26, he tells us why.
Interviewer Taz Liffman
In November 1915, when much of Europe was doing all it could to end the war that didn’t end all wars, Sir Ernest Shackleton and 27 of his men were milling about on an Antarctic ice floe, watching their ship, the Endurance, slowly sink.
For the past 10 months, they had been living aboard the stricken vessel, which had become trapped in thick pack ice en route to the Weddell Sea coast. During this period of enforced ennui, Shackleton employed various strategies aimed at keeping his men’s morale buoyed. He sent his scientists out to collect specimens, scheduled evening social activities, and instructed his sailors to keep swabbing the decks so their vessel would be ship-shape for the coming summer thaw that – it was hoped – would set them free. By October, though, it became apparent that the Endurance could, well, endure no more. Under amassing pressure from the building ice, the ship’s hull was breached and she began to take on water.
"Shackleton, knowing the game was up, gave the order to abandon ship."
Standing amid his stranded men and their salvaged provisions, watching their passage home crunch up and sink from sight, he’s said to have turned to them calmly and proclaimed: “So now we’ll go home.”
There’s something inherently comical about the image of a forsaken man standing on the earth’s highest, driest, coldest, windiest, loneliest continent, facing zero chance of rescue, watching his passage home getting swallowed up by the ocean, and saying, basically, “I think I’d like to go home now.” But Shackleton wasn’t simply trying to sound funny or stoic; there was actually something very strategic to his comment. I believe humour developed as a mechanism for coping with life; it’s a means of putting things into perspective and dealing with its challenges. By downplaying the gravity of their circumstances, Shackleton was imbuing his crew with confidence. He was showing them he wasn’t flustered by their situation, or fazed by the challenge that lay ahead. He was demonstrating leadership.
I’m an adventurer and a scientist who promotes environmental awareness by undertaking expeditions that highlight the impacts of climate change. In 1999, for instance, I spent 47 days trying to cross Antarctica on foot, pulling a 225-kilogram sled. I lost one-fifth of my body weight during this journey, had my fingers blackened by frostbite, and endured temperatures so cold that three of my metal fillings contracted and fell out. Eight years later, I recreated the survival story of Sir Douglas Mawson, an Australian explorer who, against inconceivable odds, made it back to his base after losing his two expedition companions: Belgrave Ninnis, who fell down a crevasse with the dog sled that was carrying most of their provisions, and Xavier Mertz, who went on to die in Mawson’s arms.
"Because many historians later speculated that Mawson might, in fact, have cannibalised Mertz in order to survive, I was keen to see whether I was able to complete the journey that Mawson did, with the same supplies he had, and thus potentially exonerate the legacy of a polar legend."
For the sake of Mawson, Mertz and myself, I was pleased to find that I was.
Above: Jarvis was given Sir Douglas Mawson’s balaclava by the explorer’s grandson to take with him on his journey. Photo: Tim Jarvis
Shackleton was a contemporary of Mawson and other polar pioneers, but his design on Antarctica was arguably the boldest ever envisaged. His ambition was to be the first to cross the continent on foot. Obviously, with the Endurance in the state it ended up in, things didn’t turn out that way. But the expedition he actually completed was even more remarkable. For the five months following the sinking of their ship, Shackleton and his men basically drifted around the Weddell Sea on an ice floe about the size of a football field. Their hope was that they would float towards the Antarctic Peninsula, where they would then be able to make landfall when the pack ice broke up. As they drifted further out to sea, however, their ice floe disintegrating in the open ocean swell, Shackleton again realised he was going to have to change course. He and his men clambered into three lifeboats they’d taken from the Endurance and paddled for five days straight to Elephant Island.
There, Shackleton selected five of his crew to accompany him on this crazy 1500-kilometre sail across the Southern Ocean to the island of South Georgia, where he knew there was a whaling station. To give an idea of the scale of this undertaking, South Georgia is 32 kilometres wide – which might sound big, but it equates to about one percent of what you’re aiming for when you’re dealing with 6500 kilometres of open sea. Worse, because the lifeboat they were in was keel-less, if they miscalculated and missed the island there wouldn’t have been any chance of sailing back at it into the wind; they would simply have seen South Georgia passing them by and known then that their next chance of hitting land was Namibia.
In 2007 I received a phone call from Alexandra Shackleton, the granddaughter of Sir Ernest, inviting me to commemorate the centenary of her grandfather’s journey by leading a recreation of his expedition. Not only would my team and I retrace the route he’d taken, but we’d also recreate it with the same sort of gear he had. We wore clothing made from cotton and reindeer hide, ate stuff called pemmican – which is basically congealed animal lard – and sailed on an exact replica of his boat. We also navigated using the same instruments: a sextant, which can determine angles from celestial bodies; a chronometer, which allows you to work out longitude; and an old ship’s compass.
"So, for 11 days in the summer of 2013, myself and five other men tacked through the Southern Ocean in what’s essentially a surfboat."
Above: Arriving on the shores of South Georgia. Photo: Skye Whelan
Two of us would be above deck at any given time, navigating and sailing, and the rest of us would huddle below deck in a space about the size of a dining room table. We were wet pretty much the entire time, and almost constantly cold as the water on the other side of the boat’s 15 millimetre-thick planks was one degree Celsius. The conditions outside were also incredibly rough. The Southern Ocean is one of the world’s wildest, and because a boat without a keel isn’t very stable, a lot of the time we were just skewing up and down these immense waves. Technically we did have a rescue boat, as we needed one for insurance purposes, but in the interests of historical accuracy I asked that they stay out of sight. If any one of us had fallen overboard we’d have died for sure. The rescue boat would have taken five hours to reach us, and in water that cold your survival time is only 10 minutes. Your muscles seize up and you just sink.
Something else I took with me on the journey was a familiarity with Shackleton’s style of leadership. Three aspects I found particularly exemplary. The first is that, as a leader, you should never ask someone to do something you’re not prepared to do yourself. The second is that, as a leader of a project, you need to be an absolutely consummate manager of change. Things were going wrong for Shackleton all the time, but he never lost sight of his goal. The ‘what’ was fixed, but how he was going to achieve it was always changing. This is an important skill for our modern world; you need to be able to adapt.
The third is a trait we now call emotional intelligence. You need to understand people, to appreciate that they are individuals and recognise what motivates them. Leaders are often portrayed as being steadfast and headstrong, but what good leaders should really aspire to is versatility and empathy. If you’re going to get people to do something, you need them to believe that you know they’re capable of doing what you’re asking them to. You need to empower them, and for that you’re probably going to have to appeal to them with slightly different versions of the story you’re telling. You have to work with them on a granular level.
Above: The Alexandra Shackleton obscured by rain, sleet and fog. Photo: Si Wagen
Once Shackleton landed on South Georgia, his next challenge was navigating a series of glaciers that had never before been traversed. This was the major point of difference between his journey and our recreation of it – and one that, unfortunately, was completely beyond my control. When Shackleton crossed South Georgia there were three glaciers. When we did it there were only two. The third is now a lake; we literally waded across it. It was this experience that gave me the idea for 25zero, an initiative in which I attempt to climb all of the mountains on the equator that still have a glacier. Today there are 25. If the current rate of global warming keeps up, within 25 years there will be zero. To stop this, we will all need to pull together.
I’ve come to believe you need three things in order to inspire people to act. You need to make the story you’re telling them tangible; you need to show the impact that environmental change is having on people’s livelihoods; and you need to tell them what they can do. Adventurous stories and photos of polar bears will get people through the door, but because greenhouse gas isn’t something they can see, people only get so excited about melting ice. You need the human element. Eighty-five percent of South Georgia’s glaciers are now in wide-scale melt, but because Antarctica has never had a stable human population it doesn’t engage our humanitarian sympathies. The melting of the glaciers on the equator, by contrast, is having a very real impact on the lives of the local people living at their bases.
In my opinion, the environmental movement has relied for much too long on guilt and fear to try and facilitate change. You could present some people with every single piece of evidence about the correlation between human industry and global warming, and they’d still just look at it and go ‘Nah…’ Now, I could spend time and energy trying to convince these people that climate change is real. Or I can couch the argument in terms they might actually care about. I can tell my neighbour how much money he’ll save if he puts a solar array on his roof, or I can encourage the insurance sector to reduce the premiums of their customers who minimise their environmental impact.
This, I like to think, is the sort of approach Shackleton would have taken: using different ways to get different people to work as a team. You don’t need someone to believe in the entire premise of your vision to get the result you desire. You just have to find one story that resonates with the person whose behaviour it is you’re trying to change.
At California’s Mammoth Mountain, avalanche prevention involves wheeling out the big guns.
Fighting Avalanches With World War II Cannons - YouTube
The ski patrollers at California’s Mammoth Mountain won’t settle for negotiation or diplomacy when it comes to avalanches. To protect the 5,000 to 18,000 skiers who hit the slopes on any given day, they are waging war. Chief in their arsenal is a World War II-era Howitzer cannon.
This video from Great Big Story offers a war correspondent’s perspective of the ongoing snowy skirmish. Most of the time working blind during storms, the Mammoth Mountain Ski Patrol wheel out the cannon, load the shells and fire like a besieged artillery company. The idea is to encourage smaller, controllable avalanches instead of letting a big avalanche build up. Probably intimidates the avalanches a bit, too.
Need to drown out the noise of the world? This 10-hour-long recording of a Norwegian icebreaker doing its slow, ASMR-inducing thing should do the trick.
10 hour Icebreaker ASMR - YouTube
Need to drown out the noise of the world? This 10-hour recording of a Norwegian icebreaker doing its slow, ASMR-inducing thing should do the trick.
According to the description the video contains 10 hours of "Arctic ambience with frozen ocean, ice cracking, snow falling, icebreaker idling and distant howling wind sound.
"Natural white noise sounds generated by the wind and snow falling, combined with deep low frequencies with delta waves from the powerful icebreaker idling engines, recorded at 96 kHz — 24 bit and designed for relaxation, meditation, study and sleep."
We don’t have much more to say about this, other than that it should be watched (or rather, listened to) with the AC cranked up, the blinds drawn, and your speakers on full.
Take a tour of a place we’re dubbing 'Rancho Relaxo'.
Log cabins. Many of us want one. Few of us have them. Fewer still have ones they can proudly say they built themselves.
Photographer Jon Coffer is one of these lucky few. He lives in a ramshackle, hand-hewn hut on 50 acres in New York, and as this short video from Lost and Found Films shows, life on the land is every bit as slow and charming as you might imagine. A tintype (read: very old fashioned) photographer, Coffer seems fully dedicated to doing things the old way. And while he makes 19th-century life seem pretty darn relaxing, we think we’d get even more out of the experience. “Monday morning, if I want to get out of bed at 9 o’clock, I can do that,” Coffer explains. “I don’t have to punch a clock somewhere and rush, rush, rush.” We’d probably extend the sleep in until at least 9:30, but we take his point.
COFFER - Vimeo
Are you one of the lucky few with your own cabin? We’d love to hear about it. Sling us an email with some photos and maybe we’ll feature your own Rancho Relaxo on the blog, too.
Enjoy books? Like road trips? This interactive map of American literature's iconic journeys is the most fun you can have without actually hitting the road.
What do Jack Kerouac, Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Steinbeck all have in common? Well, apart from being a) American, b) men, and c) self-serious writers, they’re also d) massive road-trippers who documented their various voyages across the U.S. in classic works of literature.
Did these authors imagine, as they took their respective, anecdote-laden expeditions across the Land of the Free, that their journeys would one day be plotted on an interactive map so that their readers might later retrace their footsteps? Seems unlikely, but this being the Internet Age, that is of course exactly what has happened.
Writer Richard Kreitner and map-maker Steve Melendez painstakingly scoured the pages of 12 modern American books for clues about the routes their authors took while writing them, and compiled them all into this fascinating map on Atlas Obscura.
It’s an ambitious work of literary cartography, and one sure to inspire many road trips. Interestingly, not all of the journeys were made by car: some were by foot (Wild by Cheryl Strayed; A Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins), others by motorcycle (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M Pirsig) – while others still had less to do with vehicles than they did states of mind (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe).
Bringing the 1500-plus literary entries together must have been almost as much work for the map’s creators as taking the trips themselves. Which, now that we think about it, sounds like a pretty good way to spend this coming Christmas break.
Where there are Americans, there are bowling alleys. Even at the end of the Earth.
Sure, the human race's ability to spread out to every corner of the globe is impressive. But what do you do when you get there? Take Antarctica, for instance: once you’ve got all your sciencing and penguin-viewing out the way, there’s not that much on going on. Back in 1961, those stationed at the U.S. MacMurdo research station came up with a novel solution to while away their idle hours: build a bowling alley.
Impressively, the bowling alley the members of the (presumably quite) bored naval construction force managed to build was strikingly authentic: it featured penguin-shaped bowling pins, and a semi-professional staff that included a bowl polisher and a pinsetter, (who also made a short film about the experience).
It’s a nostalgia-wrenching sight. But sadly, that’s all it is: the alley was torn down in 2009, forcing the base station's 1200 occupants to go back to slightly less ridiculous pastimes (a curling rink now stands in its place). Luckily we still have these pictures of the alley in the pristine glory of its early days, thanks to the U.S. Antarctic Program.
This water kingdom in southern Iraq was almost destroyed by Saddam Hussein – and its unique woven reed architecture along with it. But now they're both making a comeback.
Once upon a time there was a water kingdom in southern Iraq called Maʻdān. Home to over half-a-million “Marsh Arabs”, who lived in houses on the water made from woven reeds, Maʻdānf was a thriving wetland community so fecund with life that locals referred to it as the ‘Garden of Eden’.
Sadly Maʻdān was almost destroyed in 1991, when Saddam Hussein drained the marshes, forcing its inhabitants – who Hussein thought were being disloyal to his reign – to flee, leaving their houses behind in the now drought-stricken region.
Since the turn of the century, however, the area has been making a comeback. Led by the few thousand Marsh Arabs who remained, along with environmental activists and the lobbying efforts of groups like Nature Iraq, significant progress has been made to bring the region back to its former, Venice-of-Middle-East glory.
French website MessyNessyChic recently put together a selection of the few existing photos of the Garden and its unique ‘basket houses’. Well worth checking out if you can’t make it to south Iraq yourself.
Enjoy roller coasters but wish they weren't so damn fast? This mountainside walking platform in the Czech Republic could be right up your alley.
If you're visiting the Czech Republic, may we suggest a detour to this architectural marvel: a terrifying walking platform that looks like a rickety roller coaster.
Built by local firm Fránek Architects, the 55-meter high wooden and steel structure was grants the bold with 360-degree views of the Morava river and Krkonoše Mountains.
The tourist attraction opened in December last year, and stands sentinel at the summit of the Králický Sněžník mountain, 1116 metres above sea level. For visitors brave enough, the structure features a mesh net section that you can walk on, lie on top of, or assume the foetal position on while begging someone to rescue you.
As good as the walk looks, the best bit has got to be the 100-metre tall slide that takes you back down to the bottom.
For more pics, head over the ever-informative Dezeen.
Living off the grid usually means forking out for an expensive modular house and a dozen solar panels. But for this nomadic community in the Spanish mountains, the concept is a lot more basic. Photographer Ben Murphy investigates.
Living off the grid is a great ambition – if you can afford it. All that self-sufficiency can be pretty expensive to fork out for, particularly at the beginning when modular buildings, sewerage systems and solar panels need buying.
Of course, there’s a more “no-frills” way to go about getting off the beaten track. For this nomadic community in the mountains of southeast Spain, that can mean anything from chucking a tarp over a bunch of poles (and somehow adding a door), to building your own grass-roofed hut from the materials around you.
British photographer Ben Murphy has visited the area on and off for close to a decade, and the resulting photo series, The Riverbed, highlights the sheer variety of dwellings that have been built in the environment.
"The work aims to consider values and expectations of home, society and notions of freedom,” he told Dezeen, “while drawing out some of the inevitable paradoxes, compromises and entanglements inherent in rejecting the dominant system." We’re not ready to give up on that modular house just yet. But it’s nice to know what a little innovative thinking can get you.
India’s gravity (and seatbelt) defying stunt drivers risk life and limb for the thrill of the crowd. But their high-octane days may be numbered.
Carnival night in Solapur, India. It’s hot and humid, as it always is. Sweat and grit forms on your forehead like a second skin, trickles slowly down your spine, sticks to your T-shirt. The city officials have staked out an area on the outskirts of town: a flat and dusty fairground surrounded by pomegranate fields, now covered in multi-coloured tents, carts hawking gulab jamun, giant Meccano-like Ferris wheels and jackal-eyed carnies.
On the whole, Indian fairs are pretty much like fairs everywhere. Been there, done that, bought the sari. But there’s one building here that stands out as wholly and completely unique. It looks like a low-budget Colosseum, about six storeys high, built from rough timber planks with a metal gantry running around the top. Hundreds of steel girders sprout from the sides and anchor into the earth, like the structure is putting down roots, and there are stairways leading to the upper levels. From inside comes the angry buzz of a thousand mechanical hornets.
Welcome to the Well of Death, one of the most dangerous and popular fairground attractions in India.
Think of it like an enormous barrel. At the bottom, down on the ground, are several motorcycles and beaten-up Maruti Suzukis. They start driving in a circle, gaining speed, then ease up onto the Well’s sides, eventually roaring around a vertical wall, parallel to the ground, racing anti-clockwise at 100 kilometres an hour, held aloft by the Newtonian power of centrifugal force.
One of the daredevil riders tonight is Radha. She’s been performing in the Well of Death since she was just 13. “The Well visited my city, and I felt an urge to learn it,” she says. “I asked the man in charge, but he said, ‘It’s not your cup of tea.’ I asked him to give me a chance. He said, ‘Okay, bring your mother and father. I want it in writing. Tomorrow, if something happens, I’m not responsible.’ I agreed.”
That was 20 years ago. Radha is married now with two kids, and follows the fair all over the country. “My husband drives an auto rickshaw,” she says. “At first he was scared watching me in the Well. But after my first show, when he saw the crowd applauding and cheering, he told me to keep riding. In Hindustan, there aren’t many girls doing this. By watching me, other women have gained confidence and courage, and that’s a good thing. Even my little girl wants to learn it now. I told her to study first and we’ll see.”
Riding the Well has benefits beyond the self-confidence boosts and easy access to adrenaline. For starters, it’s one of the few workplaces on Earth where the gender pay gap is reversed. Female drivers can earn twice as much as their male colleagues. It’s simple supply and demand; with only a handful of women drivers in India, their presence adds to the spectacle.
For the people ringing the gantry, the experience is intense. The rickety walls shake as the cars roar past. Fumes hang in the soupy air. Engine noise chainsaws into your eardrum: the high-frequency rat-a-tat-rng-dng-dng-dng of a dozen ramshackle engines. Before entering the arena, riders remove the mufflers from their bikes and cars, and drill holes in the exhaust pipes. It would be thunderous enough anyway, but the added buzzing reverberates and echoes around the Well. As Radha zooms by on an old Enfield, she snatches rupees from her fans’ outstretched fingers, one hand steadying the handlebars.
“When the Well is full, and the public applauds me, I feel courageous,” she says. “I feel at peace. That’s what fuels my passion.”
The Well of Death isn’t a new phenomenon. Its antecedent can be found in the American motordromes and silodromes of the early 20th century, particularly on Coney Island. By the 1930s there were more than 100 ‘board tracks’ touring the U.S., but their numbers dwindled as carnival operators looked for attractions that required less maintenance. The motordrome enjoyed a relatively long life in India, but its days there might be numbered, too – a victim of cautious bureaucracy. The act has already been banned in Delhi, and state authorities are looking to stamp it out elsewhere. Radha and her troupe travel from city to city, securing council permits, making a little money where they can. Often they don’t know where they’ll be in two weeks’ time.
For most riders, the Well of Death is a day job. They’re on tour 11 months a year, performing 15-minute shows up to 20 times a day. Their office walls might be concave, but it doesn’t mean there isn’t boredom and routine. Days tend to go round and round. Between shows you’ll find them hanging out behind the Well, catching some sleep or smoking crumpled packs of beedis. They’re Evel Knievels with a 9-to-5.
But on carnival night, beneath a canopy of green neon, with the crowd screaming and rupees raining down, Radha comes alive. She guns the throttle and gives a wave. It’s show time.
This article was first published in Smith Journal volume 28. Grab a copy here. For more of Ken Hermann's amazing photography, head here.