A hundred years ago, Sir Ernest Shackleton set out to cross the Antarctic in his ship The Endurance, an expedition that went horribly wrong when the vessel was crushed by ice and sank. In a daring rescue mission, Shackleton and five crewmen crossed 800 nautical miles of ocean from Elephant Island to South Georgia in a lifeboat, subsequently trekking overland to the nearest whaling station. Miraculously, after 500 days stranded on the ice, all 28 members of the expedition were saved.
How did Shackleton do it? Australian adventurer, scientist, author, lecturer and environmentalist Tim Jarvis decided to find out for himself, after Shackleton’s granddaughter Alexandra approached him in 2008 with the idea of recreating the mission. Armed only with equipment, clothing and provisions that would have been available in 1914, Jarvis and a skilled and intrepid team of Aussies and Brits set out in January 2013 in an exact replica of Shackleton’s 22.5-foot boat, The James Caird, dubbed The Alexandria Shackleton. The result is the three-part PBS documentary “Chasing Shackleton,” which premieres on Jan. 8.
For Jarvis, also the author of the companion book “Chasing Shackleton: Re-creating the World's Greatest Journey of Survival,” the undertaking was a massive effort, even long before it started. “Convincing people to back the project wasn’t easy,” he admits. “The reasons it was difficult to get off the ground and the reasons people backed it were one and the same: a fascination and admiration at the enormity of the challenge. As Shackleton said, ‘By endurance we conquer,’ and it was very much the case with planning and executing this project.”
Jarvis wanted to honor Shackleton’s extraordinary achievement, mark its centennial, “and highlight his key leadership message: the importance of individuals putting their differences aside to work together to overcome the huge challenges they face is a message as relevant to today’s world as it was for Shackleton’s men 100 years ago. The expedition also has major environmental goals, including highlighting the level of environmental change happening in Antarctica, a program of environmental science being conducted by the team and fundraising goals for our nominated charity, Fauna & Flora International.”
He felt that it was crucial to recreate the period-authentic details to properly pay homage to Shackleton “and get close to what he experienced. Doing it any other way would be cheating! We wanted to see if modern men still had it in them to do this. We were very proud to be the first to retrace Shackleton’s original James Caird journey and climb across South Georgia [Island] as he did it, using traditional equipment, clothing, a replica boat and of course traditionally navigate using a sextant, almanac and chronometer,” says Jarvis. “When we suffered, as we did, it somehow made it more bearable to think we were suffering as Shackleton had done 100 years before by doing it exactly as he had.”
In assembling his team — none of whom were acquainted with each other before — Jarvis sought men who “thought through the consequences of many of the things that could go wrong and wanted to come anyway. They were a fantastic top-notch crew of sailors and climbers and the experience has bonded us.” Before embarking, however, there was extensive training and preparation. The men attended a sea survival course run by the U.K.’s Royal National Lifeboat Institute and practiced freezing water immersion, sailing, mountaineering, cold weather survival, and crevasse rescue in Scotland and Antarctica. They made sure they were in top shape with running, climbing, sailing, cycling, and weight training. The boat was tested for two weeks prior to launch, as was their gear, put soaking wet through a wind tunnel.
Nevertheless, it was impossible to prepare for everything. Staying true to Shackleton’s reality meant navigation by sextant, not GPS, steering an unstable keel-less boat, and wearing non-waterproof clothing — all things they were aware of going into the adventure. But they had no control over the weather, how the boat would respond, how their bodies would deal with the cold, and unknown factors like rogue waves.
“The toughest moments on the expedition included concern about our losing someone overboard or capsizing at sea in the storm — we had 40-foot waves — or one or all of us drowning,” recalls Jarvis. “We almost ran aground on the rocks of South Georgia, with a strong wind blowing us directly onto the rocks. We had multiple crevasse falls, 20 over the course of 48 hours, crossing the mountains using rudimentary 100-year-old gear. The only thing that prevented serious injury or death was the fact that we were roped together, as Shackleton was.”
Did any of this make him think, “What have I gotten myself into?”
“Daily at least, sometimes more,” Jarvis admits. "It was more challenging than I thought both during the planning and execution of the trip. The pressure of knowing all of those men were risking their lives in the Southern Ocean because of my idea was a big burden to shoulder. Logistically, and from the point of view of managing a large team of high caliber individuals, it was harder than I thought. We got through it by looking positively at problems, breaking down the enormity of the journey into manageable pieces and working through these one step at a time, a fantastic well-drilled team and great teamwork, perseverance and a sense of humor.”
When it was over, Jarvis “embraced the guys who had done this journey with me, took off the cold wet clothes that we’d been living in all the way through this thing and began the process of trying to drink in our success. Coming to terms with what we achieved is a far longer journey,” he says.
As an environmentalist, Jarvis wanted to use the expedition to draw attention to diminishing polar ice and loss of biodiversity in the Antarctic. “The temperatures in the western part of Antarctica where this expedition took place have warmed almost 5 degrees since Shackleton’s day. My environmentalism is fueled by a love of the planet, as are my adventures to try and see more of it and discover more about my place in it. Travel to the polar regions allows you to discover more about yourself once background noise of modern life is removed. I now use my expeditions and the books and films about them to communicate messages to the corporate world, politicians, schools and the general public about the importance of trying to be more sustainable and make a positive difference.
“In addition to advocacy work about the importance of protecting places like Antarctica, I also work on projects involving renewable energy and minimizing biodiversity loss that contribute to solving aspects of climate change,” Jarvis says, pointing out that “the climate change that is impacting Antarctica is being caused elsewhere, with our global emissions and destruction of forests.” With his expedition mission accomplished, “I now need to apply the same endurance, vision, passion and planning to work on saving the planet. Shackleton was trying to save his men from Antarctica. I am trying to save Antarctica from man.”
For Jarvis, whose next expedition involves “climbing at the equator” (details to come at his website), “exploration is the adventure of seeing whether or not you can achieve something, the thrill of trying, and the process of learning more about yourself and your surroundings that going on a journey to find out teaches you. I have learned about who I am to an extent I would never have been able to sitting at home. As Shackleton said at the end of the expedition when they reached the whaling station with just the clothes on their backs, ‘We had seen God in His splendors, heard the text that Nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of man.’”
He hopes that viewers will tune in to “Chasing Shackleton” and pick up the companion book for well-rounded experience. “The film allows you to be in the boat with us while the book contains over 200 images from the expedition, many of which are pretty spectacular, and a lot of behind-the-scenes information about what it took to do this thing. On a broader level, I would like people to hear the environmental messages that get put across and see this as an example of what you can achieve if you give things a try. I believe everyone has their own Shackleton expedition in them. It’s just a case of finding it.”
Explorer Tim Jarvis