In the Footsteps of Shackleton — Martin Thomas — 9th September 2019

Martin Thomas is a retired vas­cu­lar and thyroid sur­geon, keen sailor and a very old friend. He came all the way to Sheffield from where he lives in Bosham, Sussex, espe­cially to deliver this talk. He was a com­modore of the Ocean Cruising Club. He has sailed to the Antarctic twice and then seven years ago, with a group of retired sur­gical col­leagues from St Thomas’ Hospital, he sailed across the Southern Ocean from the Falklands to South Georgia and back, tra­cing the exact route of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s epic “Traverse” in 1916 across the massive, unex­plored and uncharted moun­tains and gla­ciers from Peggotty Bluff in King Haarkon Bay to the other side of South Georgia at Stromness. There Shackleton knew he could summon help from the Norwegians in the White House at the whal­ing sta­tion to save the other mem­bers of his Endurance crew marooned on Elephant Island and at King Haarkon Bay

In the first part of this fant­astic, superbly delivered (not one um or ah!) and beau­ti­fully illus­trated talk with dra­matic video clips, Martin gave an account of Shackleton’s exploits com­par­ing them with those of Amundsen and Scott, in order to give a detailed insight into the very dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters of each.

While Roald Amundsen was hugely suc­cess­ful, and the first to reach both Poles, he was so driven and force­ful in achiev­ing his ambi­tions but at the expense of the well­being of his men and dogs, slaughter­ing the latter for food. Scott believed in naval dis­cip­line, was irrit­able and not the best man man­ager, but his rel­at­ive fail­ing, in con­trast to Amundsen, was his reluct­ance to use dogs and skis, rely­ing on less effi­cient man­power to drive the sleds along, and using up 7000 instead of 4000 cals/day. Shackleton (Fig 1), on the other hand, led his men by example, was much less formal, knew how to get the best out of them.

Sir Raymond Priestley in 1956 said of Shackleton “Scott for sci­entific method, Amundsen for speed and effi­ciency but when dis­aster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton”. He became a role model as one who, in extreme cir­cum­stances, kept his team together by incred­ible lead­er­ship. One of many examples was Shackleton’s fixing of the lots drawn for the better fur-lined sleep­ing bags, making sure his men got them instead of him­self.

His first exped­i­tion was with Scott and Wilson to a record lat­it­ude of 82 degrees South in 1901–4, fol­lowed by Nimrod in 1907–9 to 88 degrees South  just 97 miles from the South Pole. Amundsen won the race to reach the South Pole in 1911. Shackleton then raised funds for a coast to coast cross­ing of Antarctica via the South Pole. Disaster struck when Endurance was trapped, drift­ing for months in the ice flows and even­tu­ally crushed in pack ice in the Weddell Sea (Fig 2). Martin showed Hurley’s dra­matic video of Endurance dis­in­teg­rat­ing and sink­ing. The crew escaped (Fig 3) with pro­vi­sions, even­tu­ally reach­ing Elephant Island, 346 miles from where Endurance was lost, and where they were marooned. It was the first time in 497 days that they could stand on solid ground but the chances of rescue from here were zero. Shelter was made by upturn­ing two of the three boats and con­struct­ing upper and lower floors – the “Snuggery”. They sur­vived on ele­phant seal, pen­guin meat and albatross. The chicks were a real del­ic­acy.

Notables amongst the crew were Frank Worsley (cap­tain), Frank Wild (second-in-command), Hussey (met­eor­o­lo­gist), McIlroy (head sci­ent­ist), Tom Crean (head dog hand­ler), McNish (car­penter), Frank Hurley (pho­to­grapher), Alexander Macklin (one of the two sur­geons), Marston the artist and Mrs Chippy, the cat, who was shot (act of com­pas­sion as she could not sur­vive the con­di­tions and needed feed­ing).

The only course of action for sur­vival was to risk a 720 mile open-boat jour­ney to South Georgia. The James Caird (Fig 4) was adap­ted by Harry McNIsh the car­penter to raise its sides to allow rock bal­last for sta­bil­ity, strengthen the keel, seal the joints with a mix­ture of artist’s oil paint and seal’s blood and to create a deck. Those chosen to make the jour­ney with Shackleton were Frank Worsley (nav­ig­ator), Tom Crean, two strong ABSs McCarthy and Crean and the car­penter McNish. The latter had been insub­or­din­ate and mutin­ous when stran­ded on the ice flow (see the excel­lent 2002 film “Shackleton” with Kenneth Branagh) and it was a stroke of man-management genius on Shackleton’s part to take along McNish, in order to sep­ar­ate him from Vincent, all for the good of those left behind on Elephant Island. McNish was trouble but if he declined to come, Shackleton threatened to shoot him. In any case, McNish’s car­pentry would prove indis­pens­able.

They trav­elled light, with pro­vi­sions for just four weeks. Success came from Shackleton’s lead­er­ship, Worsley’s mag­ni­fi­cent nav­ig­a­tional skills, much of it by dead reck­on­ing, sex­tant, naut­ical almanac (which was almost des­troyed, “shed­ding its pages so fast” from the ele­ments), a  chro­no­meter, only an occa­sional glimpse of the sun and stars in the extremes of appalling weather and the prob­lem of get­ting bear­ings, and the need to be con­stantly baling out. The ever-optimistic McCarthy was a huge sup­port to Shackleton and the others: “it’s a grand day sir”. They were very cold, inad­equately clothed and con­stantly wet. Thirst and exhaus­tion was very ser­i­ous prob­lems, but all over­come by the sheer will to sur­vive. It was endur­ance to the extreme, through superb seaman­ship and dis­cip­line.

After defer­ring land­fall to avoid the real risk of destruc­tion on the South Georgian rocks in a gale, they back­tracked, then entered King Haarkon Sound (Fig 5) the next day but faced a gruelling 51km trek across the moun­tain range (Fig 6), scal­ing 9000ft and totally inad­equately kitted out. Screws were inser­ted into their boots (which leaked) to act as make­shift cram­pons. Shackleton, Worsley and Crean made the jour­ney armed with min­imal tackle such as rope, rations, tobacco and primus, to travel “light”. Picking fair weather to set off, there were trial ascents into a series of moun­tain gaps and forced des­cents and re-ascents before finally reach­ing a pre­cip­ice… and over they went, blindly and roped together, as there was no altern­at­ive. “I was never more scared in my life than for the first thirty seconds…the speed was terrific…that hair-raising shoot into the dark­ness” (Frank Worsley: Shackleton’s Boat Journey. 1940. Hodder & Stoughton – an abso­lute must-read for Probus). And so to Grytviken and rescue.

They turned up totally filthy and unre­cog­nis­able in Stromness (Figs 7 and 8), unwashed and unshaven for months. The Norwegians were very hos­pit­able, offered baths and food, and they returned to pick up the other sur­viv­ors. Elephant Island was a chal­lenge with four attempts over four months and in four ships before they could be evac­u­ated and repat­ri­ated

Martin’s voyage on Pelargic Australis (Fig 9) and tra­verse of South Georgia in Shackleton’s foot­steps was cer­tainly a chal­lenge for men in their 60s. There was fit­ness train­ing and cre­vasse man­age­ment in the Alps. Mountaineering and skiing exper­i­ence was vital. They were all old like-minded med­ical friends who got on together and they had to be in peak con­di­tion. There was also the risk factor: no emer­gency facil­it­ies in South Georgia! Evidence of life lost in more recent times was seen with a heli­copter wreck en route from an attemp­ted SAS rescue during the Falklands War. Martin fell 600ft and, as he put it, “a very silly thing to do”, thank­fully with only minor scrapes. But, at worst, they risked not sur­viv­ing. Extremely unpre­dict­able severe weather (Fig 10), which changes quickly, makes for a very hos­tile envir­on­ment. But what a hol­i­day!

Fig 1. Ernest Henry Shackleton CVO OBE FRGS FRSGS1874–1922 aged 47.  Born County Kildare. Educated Dulwich College. Died GrytvikenSouth Georgia

Fig 2. Endurance trapped in pack ice

Fig 3. Across the ice flows after Endurance sank

Fig 4. Launching the James Caird from Elephant Island 1916

Fig 5 King Haarkon Bay, South Georgia

Fig 6 South Georgia moun­tains – the chal­lenge for Martin’s group

Fig 7. Grytviken whal­ing sta­tion (by Frank Hurley)

Fig 8 Shackleton’s grave at Grytviken

Fig 9. Martin’s chartered yacht Pelargic Australis

Fig 10. Martin and co. pitch­ing camp at Trident Ridge