Navigating the Icebergs

Image by Job Savelsberg at

One of the books I received for Christmas was a biography of Sir Ernest Shackleton, the polar explorer. The particular edition, simply called Shackleton and written by Roland Huntford* had long been on my reading list following good reviews I’d read.

I also feel a ‘personal’ connection with Shackleton, as Charles Green, who was the cook on what was the third and best-known of Shackleton’s expeditions, visited my primary school when I was about ten years old and showed us slides of that trip. After his talk he signed my autograph book, which I still have.

Though I was expecting to find the book interesting, I’ve been completely gripped and would thoroughly recommend it.

I’m writing this blog post on 9th January which was the date in 1909 when Shackleton, on his second expedition and while trying to reach the South Pole, reached the furthest point south ever travelled in the Antarctic region at that time, beating the man who was the leader of his first expedition but, by then, his arch rival, Scott by 360 miles.

The details of that trip aren’t for the faint hearted. Using minimal equipment, with almost no knowledge of how to use their rudimentary skis, mostly walking for over 120 days despite having rations for only 91 of them and suffering the effects of malnutrition and the disappointment of having to turn back before the Pole, Shackleton brought everyone involved home safely.

Yet the difficulties of that expedition were as nothing when compared with his next adventure. As the South Pole had been reached by Amundsen in 1911, in 1914 Shackleton attempted a journey across the Antarctic via the Pole. However, his ship Endurance became stuck in pack ice and drifted for over 1100 miles before being crushed and abandoned nine months later and subsequently sinking.

After almost six months living on ice floes, Shackleton, with five crewmen, sailed one of Endurance’s three lifeboats over 1300 km to try and reach the whaling stations on South Georgia and mount a rescue operation. Again, he was successful despite almost unbearable odds.

Shackleton (the book) draws heavily on the diaries of each expedition kept by Shackleton and other team members. Those of the crew members constantly make reference to two inspiring aspects of Shackleton’s personality. Firstly, his instinctive understanding of what he needed to do – and when – in order to keep morale high and people working together.

Secondly, his willingness to sacrifice his own comfort. He never presumed on his seniority as expedition leader and often gave up some of his clothing and food when he felt others had a greater need.

I know that I won’t ever be drawn to go on an expedition, or even a holiday, to the Antarctic. I feel the cold and I enjoy the comforts of my home too much!

But I do find myself sliding around sometimes, struggling to grip onto aspects of my life, deciding which will be the safest path to take. Although I’m never in as much danger as I would be if I were on an iceberg, even my relatively conventional life can get pretty unsettling.

Apparently, Shackleton was not especially religious, yet in his own book about the expedition** he noted:

“When I look back at those days, I have no doubt that Providence guided us, not only across those snowfields, but across the storm-strewn sea that separated Elephant Island from our landing place on South Georgia. I know that during that long and racking march of 36 hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia, it seemed to me often that we were four, not three. I said nothing to my companions on the point, but afterwards Worsley said to me, “Boss, I had a curious feeling on the march that there was another person with us.” Crean confessed to the same idea.”

Unlike Shackleton I don’t have to sail miles across treacherous seas to find my help and, unlike him, I name Jesus as my companion on my life’s journey; the one who always knows when I need a morale boost or some encouragement and who wouldn’t sacrifice just food or clothes for me but sacrificed even His life for me.

Exactly 114 years to the day after Shackleton turned away, reluctantly, from his goal of reaching the South Pole, I’m finding his story very inspiring. We all need people to inspire us, don’t we? His story has fascinated me since the age of ten and I’ve been glad of the opportunity to read about it now.

There are less and less places on the globe which remain undiscovered yet we can all set out on journeys and voyages of discovery, both in literal and faith terms, as 2023 gathers pace.

I hope you won’t hit too many icebergs along your journey but feel Jesus with you, keep pushing forward even when you can’t see, or even imagine, where you’re going.

And now…. I’m off for a nice warming cup of tea!

* “Shackleton” by Roland Huntford pub. Hodder & Stoughton Ltd (1985) and Abacus (1996) ISBN 978-0-3491-0744-** “South : The Endurance Expedition” pub. Penguin Modern Classics (2004) ISBN: 9780241251096 Original Pub. William Heinemann, London, 1919. (Many editions now available.)


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