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The original lifeboat, the James Caird, built in 1914, had an open top, exposing its inhabitants to the elements. (Frank Hurley)

Reliving Shackleton's Epic Endurance Expedition

Tim Jarvis's Plan to Cross the Antarctic in an Exact Replica of the James Caird

“It was extremely claustrophobic, cold and noisy [in the James Caird]. With the sounds of the waves on the hull, in rough sea it would’ve been like a washing machine,” Jarvis says. “The cold comes through the hull. The Southern Ocean’s temperatures range from 28 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit.”

There have been many attempts to trace Shackleton’s steps in the past, but the journey to South Georgia Island hasn’t become any less harrowing than it was 96 years ago. Trevor Potts, the leader of a 1994 expedition that recreated the James Caird journey with modern equipment, can vouch for that.

“The risks of such an expedition are very high,” Potts says. “It would be very easy to get swamped or rolled over. In severe weather in the open ocean, an escort ship would be very little help until the conditions moderated.”

On their journey, Potts and his crew fought gale winds up to 50 miles per hour across the Southern Ocean. They dropped anchor in South Georgia at a derelict whaling station—one of three used by hunters during Shackleton’s era. On land, faced with heavily crevassed terrain and little visibility, their attempt to retrace Shackleton’s mountaineering leg of the journey in reverse was halted. The following is an excerpt from Potts’s entry into a logbook at the Cumberland Bay station:

“Left to do Shackleton’s crossing both ways, not surprising we did not make it. Crossed the stream off the König [glacier] a bit deeper and very fast, not a pleasant experience. Chris nearly ruined a perfectly hideous pair of underpants with fear.”

Potts knows the list of risks with using period equipment is a long one: Crevasse fall, climbing injury, frostbite, exposure to the elements and capsizing—to name a few. Many of Shackleton’s men were frostbitten; records from those left on Elephant Island note the amputation of one man’s toe and part of an ear.

“Shackleton only had Burberry windproof clothing suitable for the dry, frozen continent. Once that type of clothing is wet, it will stay wet for the whole journey,” Potts says. “Shackleton and his men were hardened to it after a year on the ice and still some of them were more dead than alive when [the five men] returned [to Elephant Island].”

The key to making it through the journey in one piece—besides a healthy dose of luck—Jarvis says, is in the training of his crew. Prior to embarkation, they will complete crevasse rescue training and man-overboard drills and consult with other expert sailors.

“We will keep Shackleton’s story alive by attempting the journey. If successful, we will not claim to truly have done what he did, as our chances for rescue will be better than his were,” Jarvis says. “Nevertheless, we will have gotten as close as we can to doing what he did.”

About K. Annabelle Smith
K. Annabelle Smith

K. Annabelle Smith is a writer based in Santa Fe, New Mexico who covers a wide variety of topics for Smithsonian.com. Her work also appears in OutsideOnline.com and Esquire.com.

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