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Dressing for Antarctica: guts and glory

by Marco Del Freo Blog

“Men Wanted for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success.” You’d say this is not the best ad for a tour operator, but when it was published in London in 1914 it had great success. Five thousand men (and three women) answered the call.
Antarctic Peninsula

Dressing for Antarctica: guts and glory

“Men Wanted for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success.”

You’d say this is not the best ad for a tour operator, but when it was published in London in 1914 it had great success. Five thousand men (and three women) answered the call.

Glorious failure

Only 28 people (no women) were chosen to be part of Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Shackleton was already a well-known and experienced South Pole explorer. He wanted to become the first to cross the entire frozen continent by foot, from Vahsel Bay on the Weddell Sea to McMurdo Sound. They would not succeed, but their odyssey in the most inhospitable region of the world made them famous. Their Odyssey is still considered the most glorious failure in the history of human exploration until the aborted NASA Apollo 13 mission to the moon. It was a monument to human resilience, determination and courage, narrated in the best-selling book Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing.

Two freezing years

Endurance was the name of the ship chosen by Shackleton in the early months of 1915 for his Antarctica expedition. The weather decided differently. In January 1915, an early freeze delayed his party’s progress in the Weddell Sea: January 14th the ship was completely blocked. It took months, until October, for the pack to destroy the Endurance, leaving 28 men, 69 dogs, a cat, three tons of food and three life boats astray on the ice. In April 1916 the ice finally broke up enough to let the 28 men board the three lifeboats and sail for 100 miles to reach Elephant Island. Late in the same month Shackleton and five of his men (Frank Worsley, Thomas Crean, Henry McNish, Timothy McCarthy, and John Vincent) embarked on the largest lifeboat, the James Caird, aiming for South Georgia, 800 statute miles North East. After 17 days of the worst possible sea they got there. Shackleton and two others still had to climb the island’s mountains to reach Stromness, a whaling station on the other side of the Island. At the end, they were able to save all members of the crew, both in South Georgia and Elephant Island. None of the 28 men lost their life during this amazing journey.

A success that even by today’s standards would be considered amazing if run under the same conditions.

A big if.

Wet and cold

A picture taken by James Francis Hurley, embedded with Shackleton, gives the dimension of such an “if”. It shows four men onboard the James Caird (just over 22 feet long, not even 7 meters) fighting to set up the oars. Four other men on shore are pushing the lifeboat against the waves, immersed waist high in the water.


You look at this picture, you compare it to any digital image taken by any tourist on a polar trip today and you understand how big that “if” is.

No communications

No satellite antenna is sticking out of James Caird’s meager hull, no radar or transponder. No high power outboard engine is visible, no sonar, not even the simplest light spot hinting at an electric generator on board. Therefore, no way to communicate with the rest of the world. Nobody knew if they were still alive and they didn’t know anything about the war raging in Europe. Go back to the other picture: today’s explorers can update their blogs without even worrying about the batteries’ weight: all they need is a solar panel.

Low tech, no tech

Sir Ernest Shackleton and his skipper Frank Wolsey didn’t have a GPS. They had only a pocket chronometer and a sextant to find their way in the middle of the Ocean: they saw the sun to fix the position only three times in seventeen days of foggy and stormy weather.

Look again Hurley’s picture. These men are deep into the coldest, most furious waters in the entire world and all they are wearing is wool, linen, leather, reindeer skin. They couldn’t even imagine any of the fantastic hyper technological materials any modern pole visitor can choose for his comfort and safety.  No orange self-inflating vests, no strobe light to be seen by search and rescue copters, no beamer to tell them where you are…

Not a single garment they wore was waterproof. The Burberry tunics were perhaps the most technologically advanced, but they were good only against the wind. Good for the largest desert on Earth, with almost no rainfall, but useless for coping with seawater temperatures often down to minus 1.8 Celsius. Same story for the linen tents the Endurance crew lived in for months after leaving the wreckage. Same for their sleeping bags. The best of those were made of reindeer skin, the worst were woolen (Shackleton and his officers took the latter, leaving the former to the crew members). Take a look at any outdoor magazine online today and you’ll find any kind of tent you want: waterproof, windproof, self-mounting, lightweight, insulated...

Improvise and survive

Were they safe once they got to South Georgia’s shores? Not quite. They landed on the wrong side of the Island. To reach the whaling station where they could find help, they still had to cross the mountainous frozen inland. Their equipment? Exactly the same they had leaving Elephant Island. Ninety feet of rope and some screws taken from the James Caird and plugged into their worn-out leather boots to have some traction on the ice. “Improvise, adapt and overcome”, the US Marine motto was in charge…

Today that motto would be surf, order and pay! Online, any polar tourist can chose what he likes better. Boots are high tech, completely insulated for temperatures lower than minus 50 Celsius, waterproof, some even electrically warmed … The best boots at that time were in reindeer skin, insulated by felt and some kind of compressed hay!

Costly pictures

Look again at the picture. Its very existence is evidence of Hurley’s chutzpah. At the end he used a pocket camera and three rolls of film, but before that he had to carry for miles a heavy studio camera and 120 glass negatives around the pack (he also dove into the sinking Endurance to recover some of the latter). All today’s tourist has to endure is about a hundred grams of high tech cell phone. Thousands of high resolution pictures (and hours of videos) are immediately ready to be sent online using the satellite hot spot…

Food and effort

Talking about weights and energy, that black and white picture also tells us a lot about the simple effort to remain alive in such conditions. Any modern pole tourist, dressed in very light garments, although engaged in moving loads and sleds, can have more than six thousand calories per day. Tech food is very lightweight and highly digestible, perfectly balanced in proteins, carbs, fats, minerals, vitamins… After the Endurance was gone, the guys in the picture had to pull their life boats, each weighting over -a-ton, for miles (not only the James Caird, but also the Dudley Docker and the Stancomb Wills, all named after the expedition’s sponsors).  All of this enjoying not much more than 2000 calories a day, penguin and seal meat included, when they were lucky.

Their 69 dogs were much less lucky: they were consumed as food. 

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