BRITISH ANTARCTIC EXPEDITION Sledge used on the British Antarctic Expedition 1907–09 ('Nimrod Expedition'), retained by explorer Eric Marshall, approximately 3360mm. (11 ft.) long; together with framed presentation plaque, stating "The Sledge, hanging above, was one of those used on the Expedition, & was presented to the School by Dr. Eric Marshall" (2)

Shackleton's expeditions won him a reputation for valor. But, in truth, bungles with boats, motors, ponies and dogs led them to within an inch of disaster, says Rosie Boycott. At least they had sledges...

About 30 years ago, I boarded an overnight flight from New York to London, with one book in my bag: Roland Huntford's biography of Shackleton. I was reading the final pages when we pulled up at the gate at Heathrow. Until then, I had known very little about Shackleton beyond the fact that he was involved in Scott's disastrous expedition to the South Pole in 1910, when they thought that motor cars and small ponies would be a good way to travel.

Shackleton would also make a failed attempt to get to the South Pole in a motor car, but that did nothing to obscure his heroism. He became famous for making a journey so dangerous that even today, with modern high-tech kit, no one would repeat it. And, because his men loved him and trusted him to a fault, he was able to step from the mountains of South Georgia, not just into legend, but into the ranks of superhero whose name would forever be associated with the highest qualities of leadership, ones that seminars have labored to teach students ever since.

Ernest Shackleton was born in County Kildare in 1874, into an Anglo-Irish family. After school, where he did not excel, he joined Mercantile Marine and in 1901 signed up to Scott's expedition to Antarctica, the first official British exploration of the Antarctica since James Ross's voyage 60 years earlier. They took huskies, but left the dog-handlers behind. None of the party knew how to ski. Their lack of skill with the dogs meant they made mistakes about feeding them. The animals were all soon killed and eaten by the men, who struggled with scurvy, snow blindness and frostbite. Christmas Day 1902 was only enlivened by a Christmas pudding Shackleton had kept hidden in his socks. He was eventually invalided home with scurvy. Nonetheless, in 1907, he launched his own expedition on the Nimrod. Money was tight, but Shackleton had high hopes of rewards when he got back. In 1907, he wrote to his wife, "I have already made arrangements with Heinemann to publish a book on my return, and it means 10K if we are successful. That is quite apart from all the newspaper and news which we hope to fix up tomorrow. ... I think it will be worth 30,000 in the way of lectures alone, judging by what the lecture agency said today. Then, sweetheart, we will settle down to a quiet life with the little ones."

Was this what he really wanted? His granddaughter, Alexandra Shackleton, whom I met while recording an episode of Great Lives on her valiant forebear, doubts it: "His long-suffering wife just said one must not try to tame an eagle in a barnyard."

One of the sponsors for the Nimrod expedition was the Arrol-Johnston motor car company, but the mechanized transport was a disaster. Fellow explorer Sir Raymond Priestley – expedition geologist – later reported:

"For several miles we went at 15mph and, over a fair surface, we kept to an average pace of 7mph to 8mph until engine trouble necessitated a stoppage; the carburetor got stopped. McKay, who was officiating at the handle, staved in his wrist and broke one of the small bones. After this stoppage, the surface became considerably worse... We had to hold ourselves ready to jump off the car at a moment's notice and shove her through drifts. At the worse ones, it was necessary to swing out by catching hold of the spokes of the front wheel and rocking the car backwards and forwards, to heave the wheels out of the holes they had got into. About 13 miles from home, I caught my fingers between the front-wheel spokes and the brake mechanism, tearing the skin off... The blood came out in streams and I was forced to borrow the professor's handkerchief to bind them up."

The Nimrod's objective had been to reach the South Pole. They failed, but Shackleton and his men at least manage to travel "the furthest south". Indeed, the sledge offered by Bonhams at the Travel and Exploration Sale in London was part of this expedition. It was owned by surgeon, cartographer and photographer Eric Marshall, one of the four-man party who reached 88°23S 162°00E with Shackleton in January 1909. They were to be trumped within three years by the Norwegian expedition led by Roald Amundsen, but the party returned home to a hero's welcome.

Shackleton duly received a knighthood from Edward VII, but Marshall's Nimrod diaries frequently expressed irritation – much later, Marshall would call him "the biggest mountebank of the century". It is hard to imagine that Shackleton cared. He had immediately begun to plan his next journey to Antarctica. Certain that others would soon succeed in reaching the South Pole, he decided to cross the Antarctic continent from coast to coast via the South Pole, a distance of about 1,800 miles. His plan was to set out from the Weddell Sea region (south of South America) to the Pole across a completely unexplored region of Antarctica. He would return via the Ross Sea/ McMurdo Sound area (south of New Zealand). His ship, the Endurance, was newly built in a Norwegian shipyard, and had been intended for tourist cruises in the Arctic. The First World War was looming.

On 4 August 1914, Shackleton read in a daily newspaper the order for the general mobilization of troops and supplies, along with calls for volunteer soldiers. He immediately returned to the ship, stationed in Southend, gathered all hands, and told them that he would telegram the Admiralty offering the ships, stores and services to the country. Within an hour, he received a reply from the Admiralty: it said "Proceed". Within two hours, another arrived in which Winston Churchill thanked them for their offer but desired that the expedition go on. That night, at midnight, war broke out.

The misfortunes of the Endurance are well known. Soon after arriving in Antarctica, the ship was frozen solid in ice. Over the next year, it drifted 1,186 miles, trapped in ice floes. On Sunday 23 October 1915, the grip of the ice became too strong and the ship started to break up. Shackleton ordered the boats, gear, provisions and sledges lowered onto the ice. The men pitched five tents 100 yards from the ship, but were forced to move when a pressure ridge started to split the ice beneath them.

'Ocean Camp' was established on a thick, heavy floe about a mile and a half from what was fast becoming the wreck of the Endurance. Five days before Christmas, deciding that there would be no rescue, they began to walk, pulling the life rafts behind them – boats they would soon need to reach Elephant Island.

They made it to Elephant Island, but it was no safe landing. Some 800 miles from the tip of South America, it was as isolated as any place on earth. Shackleton set off with six crew members to reach South Georgia. In the 23-foot James Caird, they attempted a crossing through the wildest and most dangerous seas on earth. The other men, left behind to their fate, "never doubted him", said Alexandra. Landing in South Georgia, Shackleton's party had to scale high, windswept cliffs, then walk across snow-covered cliffs towards the whaling station. Shackleton undertook the walk with two crew members, Frank Worsley and Tom Cream. I watched the Kenneth Branagh film about Shackleton from a sofa in Alexandra's cozy living room in Hammersmith. She gave me the tin cooking pot that had accompanied her grandfather on this historic walk. The tin was battered and thin, weighing almost nothing, yet it had been in this container that the three men had boiled snow to make drinking water.

All three men later talked of the 'fourth person who walked beside them' during that journey, a fact that has moved me greatly ever since. A guiding hand at least offers an explanation for their extraordinary survival. Having made three frantic attempts to rescue his men, Shackleton finally reached Elephant Island at the fourth attempt on 13 August 1916. George Marston spotted the Yelcho through the mist. He yelled, "Ship O!" – but the men thought he was announcing lunch. The steamer soon approached close enough for Shackleton, who was standing at the bow, to shout to Frank Wild, "Are you all well?" Wild replied "All safe, all well!" and the Boss replied, "Thank God!". They had survived on Elephant Island for 137 days.

It was three months since Shackleton had left with his small crew on the James Caird. "We tried to cheer but excitement had gripped our vocal cords. Marston rushed for the flagstaff, ... but the running gear would not work and the flag was frozen into solid compact mass, so he tied his jersey to the top of the pole for a signal. The ship stopped... and we were able to recognize Shackleton. We gave a cheer with more feelings from the heart that I can express words. We said to each other, 'Thank God, the Boss is safe'."

Rosie Boycott is a journalist, publisher and campaigner.

Sale: Travel & Exploration
Knightsbridge, London
Wednesday 6 February at 1pm
Enquiries: Matthew Haley +44 (0) 20 7393 3817

  1. Matthew Haley
    Montpelier Street
    London, United Kingdom SW7 1HH
    Work +44 20 7393 3817

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