Last month, the Norwegian Prime Minister travelled to the Earth’s southernmost point to mark the centenary of the conquest of the South Pole, where Roald Amundsen and his team, having spent months travelling on the planet’s coldest and most hostile environment, planted their country’s flag on 14 December 1911.
Yet it is the story of Robert Falcon Scott that is best remembered: in the Antarctic Summer of 1911 the British explorer was also making a bid for the Pole—his second, after a failed attempt in 1902, when the extreme conditions on the Ross Ice Shelf forced him and his party to turn around at 82º17’S, variously afflicted by snowblindness, frostbite, and scurvy. Scott and his men reached the South Pole on 17 January 1912, a month after Amundsen, and then perished on the return journey. Their tale, recorded in the explorers’ diaries, made Scott a tragic hero across the Empire—‘the Englishman who conquered the South Pole and who died as fine a death as any man has had the honour to die.’
In 1911 Scott had followed a route to the central Antarctic pleateau that had been discovered by a team member in his first polar journey, Ernest Shackleton. Invalided home by the expedition leader after the team returned to base in February 1903, and much aggrieved by Scott’s decision, Shackleton soon organised an expedition of his own, announced at the time as the British Antarctic Expedition.
Polar historian Beau Riffenburgh’s Nimrod is the author’s account of that expedition, which spanned the years 1907 to 1909. As such the account is both educational and entertaining, balancing readability with comprehensive scholarship. It also includes information excluded from Shackleton’s own account, The Heart of the Antarctic, such as his biography, the character of the Victorian era, anecdotal evidence of unrecorded events, the expedition’s aftermath, and the fate of his fellow expeditioners in later years.
Objectively, Shackleton was a failure. His participation in Scott’s British National Antarctic (now known as the Discovery) Expedition of 1901-1904 was terminated early. He failed to reach the pole during his own expedition seven years later. His subsequent trans-Antarctic crossing expedition failed before his ship even reached the continent, trapped in the pack ice of the Weddell Sea. And on his final expedition he died within a day of reaching the first stop of an intended (sub-)Antarctic circumnavigation. Moreover, none of his many business ventures and money-making schemes prospered, and his life outside exploration was restless, aimless, and unfulfilled. His financial affairs were muddled, and he died heavily in debt.
Indeed, although a hero and celebrity across the Empire during the first two decades of the 20th century, he was largely forgotten after his death in 1922, outshone by his former leader and then rival, Robert Scott. Scott’s diaries, on display until May this year at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge (a scan of the whole polar journey diary is also available online), had by then enjoyed numerous editions. And in 1948 Scott’s conquest of the South Pole was immortalised in a film, Scott of the Antarctic, while Shackleton’s achievements received no such treatment.
It was not until until Alfred Lansing’s Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, published in 1959, that Anglo-Irish explorer’s reputation experienced a revival, which continued thereafter until it finally eclipsed Scott’s, which was by then suffering from cultural shifts and critical examinations of his legacy. By 2002, when asked to choose the 100 greatest Britons by the BBC, polls ranked Shackleton 11th and Scott 54th.
What makes Shackleton remarkable, now universally acknowledged, is his leadership, which shone brightest when adversity was greatest.
The British Antarctic Expedition was not as well funded as its predecessor. The ship after which it has since been named, Nimrod, was tiny, old, and at the time of acquisition woefully in need of repairs. What is more, Shackleton had promised Scott not to use the latter’s base on Ross Island, so he had to set up his own base at Cape Royds—a location still on Ross Island, and therefore in violation of the promise to Scott, but nonetheless farther away from the South Pole.
Shackleton’s main preoccupation was reaching 90ºS, and, unlike Scott, he was not interested in the science. All the same, because his funding depended on it, he assembled an impressive team of scientists, which included among others T.W. Edgeworth David and Douglas Mawson. Thus, the expedition included auxiliary goals, both of which were successful: conquering Mount Erebus, an active volcano in Ross Island, and conquering the magnetic South Pole, at the time located within Victoria Land.
The centre piece of Riffenburgh’s book is the South Polar journey. Led by Shackleton, his was a party of four: Jameson Adams, a Royal Navy Reserve Lieutenant; Frank Wild, a Petty Officer in the Royal Navy; and Eric Marshall, a surgeon, being his team-mates. The size of the party was determined by the number of surviving ponies, four in total, which were the only non-human component of Shackleton’s transport strategy. As originally envisioned, the return journey was to involve a march of 1,719 statute miles (1,494 nautical miles; 2,767 kilometres) over 91 days. When they departed from their base at Ross Island, on 29 October 1908, they knew only that they would need get onto the ‘Great Ice Barrier’ (the Ross Ice Shelf), an structure hundreds of miles long and hundreds of feet deep, and walk due south; the route to the pole, and the geographical features of the pole itself, not to mention any obstacles that may exist in between, were unknown.
Once on the barrier, years earlier, Scott had imagined that he and his party would be able to walk on flat ice all the way to the South Pole. As they neared the end of their march they observed mountains first appearing and then nearing on their right hand side. Once Shackleton passed the previous expedition’s farthest South, using a route farther to the east of Scott’s in order to avoid the heavily crevassed terrain that had previously slowed down their progress, he found the mountains blocked the way south. These were the Trans-Antarctic Mountains, which divide the continent into East and West Antarctica. By the time he reached them, a slow start and difficult conditions on the barrier meant they had already lost three of their ponies, fallen behind schedule, cut their rations, and become weakened by the cold, the physical strain, and inadequate nutrition. Indeed, the Edwardians’ state of knowledge regarding human nutrition and of the demands imposed on the human body by Antarctic conditions meant that by the time the explorers found a route up the mountains and onto the elevated plateau beyond their daily caloric intake of 2,500 was less than half of what they needed.
On a starvation diet, Shackleton and his men ascended what they named the Great Glacier. The latter, subsequently renamed the Beardmore Glacier after the expedition’s biggest sponsor, happened to be also one of the largest in the world. Over the course of a month, the explorers pulled hundreds of pounds of food and equipment on wooden sledges along a fiendishly difficult and crevassed surface for what seemed an unending gradient, each hill revealing a new one behind it, their instruments revealing ever increasing altitude, day after day after day. Mid way up Shackleton found that their remaining food supplies would not last them to the pole, then still thousands of feet higher and still 287 miles away. He cut rations further.
It was not until Boxing Day on 1908, 57 days into their journey, that the explorers reached the polar plateau, well over 10,000 feet above sea level. They stood at the edge of a miles-deep ice sheet extending out into the horizon. Riffenburgh is not as descriptive as Cherry-Garrard, who would be a member of Scott’s subsequent Terra Nova expedition and would later write the world’s best ever travel book, narrating his own and his fellow expeditioners’ incredible experiences on the White Continent. From Cherry-Garrard’s account of the conditions Scott found on the plateau two years later we can imagine what the Shackleton party witnessed for the first time in human history. The low temperatures on the Barrier already caused touching metal to give instant frostbite. At such temperatures the ice was iron hard. Back at base, photographic cameras had to be drained because the oil froze. The explorers generally considered a temperature of 32ºF (0ºC) boiling hot; -4ºF (-20ºC), at which boiling water freezes instantly when thrown up in the air, was very normal. Conditions on the plateau are much, much worse. On average it was colder still. Snow felt much harsher, the ice stickier; manhauling across it was like pulling heavy loads on sandpaper. The air was thin, due to the high altitude, but also loaded with ice crystals and thick to the sight, to the point where explorers often walked into a featureless whiteness that made invisible even a hand held before the face. The rarefied air caused respiration and heart rate to increase, in order to supply enough oxygen to the brain. For our standards, any diet had to be insanely high in fat: in 1909 a meal would consist of pemmican (50% pure pork fat, 50% dried meat) dissolved in a pannikin in a ‘hoosh’ with fortified biscuits, chocolate, and raisins; or months-old pony meat. Needless to say that when it is –50ºF outside, ones does not answer the call of nature in the open air.
Even this will be difficult for a city dweller to comprehend. Try doing a ten-mile walk. Then try it pulling a fifteen-foot-long wooden sledge on the asphalt, loaded with two hundred pounds of equipment—see if you complete even a mile like that. Then attempt it on a broken, uneven, undulating surface. Then attempt it again on that surface, going uphill, on a steep gradient. Then attempt it yet again in the rawest North Dakotan winter you have experienced or can imagine, and think even that was a mild day for the explorers. Now try that every day for sixteen hours every day for a week, breaking only once for lunch, and having to unpack and repack your tent and supplies ever time while getting freezer burns and having freezing gale-force winds blowing in your face. After all this, think about doing that while eating only a small fraction of what you need, from October until March. And then of doing it while you have the worst flu you’ve ever experienced. And then doing it with sleeping on a wet, frozen sleeping bag, in a tent so cold that your breath turns into a beard of ice around your face, separated by the rough rock-hard ice under your back by a piece of canvas. Finally, try to lead three men who do not take crap from anyone under these conditions on a journey to a theoretical and otherwise unknown location, with no certainty of success, low pay that may never be paid, likely death, away and cut off from everything and everyone you know, with no comforts, no means to contact anyone, no means for anyone to locate you, and no means to return home except via a ship that docks hundreds of miles away once a year and which will leave you behind if you are not there on the day that you are expected. If you are able to imagine all of this, you will have a sense of what made Shackleton so extraordinary, even for the much higher standards expected from the men of his day. But that is not all, as we will see shortly.
On 4 January 1909, about ten days after reaching the plateau, Shackleton realised that conquering the South Pole would be possible only at the cost sacrificing their lives, for if they pressed on to claim their prize with supplies as low as they were, they would never survive the return journey. When other explorers would have chosen to plant the flag on the Pole and die in a blaze of personal glory, certain that their men would have followed loyally to their graves, Shackleton decided to put the safety of his men first and settle for simply extending their newly established farthest South record. Thus he led his men across the plateau, all of them knowing that the prize of months of toil and hardship was now irrevocably out of reach. Still, they went as far South as they possibly could. On the final day, leaving all their supplies behind, they made a final dash, even running at times, to the turnaround point. After several hours they achieved 88º23’S, 97 nautical miles from the Pole. So near, yet so far. It must have demanded enormous strength of character to resist going those final 97 miles—especially knowing that Scott was already planning an expedition for the following year, which would include a South Polar journey should Shackleton fail.
This was achievement in itself. Yet there was more to come. The explorers, much weaker and thinner than when they set out, now faced a return journey that they would have to complete in 50 days when the outward journey had taken them 73. The reason was not only food: they had a 1 March deadline; if they were not back at base by 1 March, their ship would sail home, leaving them for dead.
Although already skin-and-bone wraiths, the men achieved impressive distances. Supplies they had depoted along the way, however, were not enough and a pattern was established with one good meal at a depot, followed by many days surviving on biscuits until the next stash of supplies. By the end of January Wild had developed dysentery, and a week later the entire party was struck by severe enteritis, having eaten tainted pony meat. There was no choice but to press on.
Fortunately, wind in Antarctica blows outwardly from the plateau, so the explorers were able to use their sail to keep up the distances.
The men finally reached their forward base at Hut Point on 28 February. They found the place deserted. There was no sign of the ship. No note had been left. Hoping the ship may still be in the vicinity, Shackleton decided to burn the wooden hut used for magnetic observations in order to attract attention. At first cold made it impossible to set it on fire, but after further attempts they succeeded. Not long afterwards, their ship came into view, having been anchored at some distance, and three days later they were off the barrier and aboard the Nimrod, on their way home.
I enjoy reading about the heroic age of Antarctic exploration not only because it is about as extreme as it gets on our planet, but also because it is emblematic of who we are as a people. As Oswald Spengler wrote:
At the base of every culture lies an idea that is expressed by certain words of profound significance. In Chinese culture these words are tao and li; for the Apollonian Greeks this cultural idea was contained in the words logos and to on (“that which is”). In the languages of Faustian man the basic cultural idea is expressed by the words “will,” “strength,” and “space.” Faustian man differs from all others in his insatiable will to reach the infinite. He seeks to overcome with his telescope the dimensions of the universe, and the dimensions of the earth with his wires and iron tracks. With his machines he sets out to conquer nature. He uses his historical thinking to take hold of the past and integrate it into his own existence under the name of “world history.” With his long-range weapons he seeks to subdue the entire planet, including the remains of all older cultures, forcing them to conform to his own pattern of life.
The feats of Robert Scott, Ernest Shackleton, and Douglas Mawson, express a desire to conquer the limits of the Earth. Spengler would argue that Faustian civilisation had already been in its twilight for a hundred years by the time these men claimed swathes of the southernmost continent for the British Empire, mapping and naming hitherto unknown geographical features, setting up scientific bases and communications, and for the first time undertaking—along with Germans, Norwegians, and other European explorers—the scientific study of its geology and climate. Yet this was also a time when the British Empire, and by extension Faustian man, were at their peak of territorial extension and cultural influence. There was a great deal of nervousness and worry about the prospect of decline and degeneration at the time, but these explorers not only thought in terms of national glory—they thought of themselves part of a superior race of men. This was a mentality that was partially destroyed with the First European Civil War of 1914-1918, and definitively obliterated with the Second one that ended 1945.
In terms of exploration, putting an American on the moon remains the crowning achievement for the United States. The Faustian men of 1969, however, were already thinking in terms it being a ‘great leap for mankind’. Only sixty years earlier the glory would have been for the ‘British race’ and the British Empire, not the whole of humanity. However, Spengler would have seen Neil Armstrong’s phrase as a more perfect actualisation of what the German metahistorian called ‘Faustian universalism’. Spengler wrote:
this instinct, totally directed to the outside world, still nourishes the old Faustian will to power and the infinite; now it has become the direful will to absolute domination of the world in the military, economic, and intellectual sense. It can be felt in the historical fact of the World War and in the concept of a world revolution, the idea of forging the swarming multitudes of humanity into a single whole. The imperialism of Babylon aimed only at control of the Near East, while that of the Indie people was limited to India itself; Greek and Roman imperialism was bounded by Britain, Mesopotamia, and the Sahara, and China’s empire extended no further than the Caspian Sea. Modern imperialism, on the other hand, aims at possessing the entire globe. We recognize no borders or limits at all. By means of a new Volkerwanderung we have made America a part of Western Europe. We have constructed on every continent our special kind of cities, and have subjected the native populations to our own way of life and thought. Such activity is the highest possible expression of our dynamic sense of world power. What we believe, what we desire, is meant to be binding on all. [my emphases]
The above reflections may highlight our Western universalist outlook in terms of explicit power, but it is entirely consistent with Armstrong’s mentally extending the franchise of the United State’s accomplishment in space exploration to the entire human race, by implication ascribing to every human on Earth America’s and Faustian man’s particular aspirations. Not every human wanted a man to walk on the moon, millions probably never even thought about it. What is more, among Americans only a tiny group was involved in the effort, while on the other side of the globe their rivals in the U.S.S.R. where hoping that an American would not walk on the moon—at least before the red flag had been planted on the lunar surface for the glory of Soviet man.
A hundred years since Amundsen and Scott planted their respective flags on the South Pole, the space has been controlled by the United States for fifty-five years, and Antarctica is held up as a model of international cooperation, all claims made during the early half of the 20th century having been put aside and all future claims having been prohibited by international treaty since 1959. While Brazil, China, India, Japan, Pakistan, and South Korea have research stations on the continent, Antarctic research remains a largely a White man’s affair, and its exploration an almost exclusively a White man’s enterprise for much of its history. The ideal of an apolitical spirit of human scientific cooperation transcending all borders remains a Faustian ideal. Yet humans are tribal, and we know full well that that which drove our greatest achievements in the history of exploration and science—the will to power and the infinite—also spells our doom. The same way that a hundred years ago Antarctic exploration and conquest was imbued with racial pride and a nationalist spirit, a hundred years from now this may well be the case again, although it may not be our descendants who dominate that part of the globe, or even of space exploration.
It does not have to be that way, of course, and, should we prove successful in our cause, the White race may rise again with a new civilisation, the way that the Faustians rose as the Graeco-Romans fell. But will they have the same will to power and the infinite? If so, the legacy of our early explorers will continue to be honoured in centuries to come, and it will be the names of our ancestors, our gods, and our heroes that name planets and celestial objects as we discover them. Let us hope that there are men of Shackleton’s calibre out there, or that we are still capable of producing them.
 Apsley Cherry-Garrard. The Worst Journey in the World. London: Constable & Company, 1922.