Ernest Shackleton

By: Peggy Nelson
February 15, 2011

Polar explorer ERNEST SHACKLETON (1874-1922) is today’s go-to fearless leader, although he didn’t discover the South Pole or cross the Antarctic continent. What he did do made such feats pale in comparison. In 1914, his ship, The Endurance, was crushed by pack ice, stranding his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition beyond hope of radio or rescue. Shackleton led twenty-seven men on a nearly two-year journey across shifting ice floes, treacherous oceans, and uninhabited island edges. Their adventure culminated in a near-suicidal 800-mile lifeboat journey across the roughest seas in the world, as well as an impromptu, inexperienced traverse of an uncharted and glacier-ridden mountain range. The story of The Endurance involves so much suspension of disbelief (even though it’s all true) that every film about it has fallen short, and every written account has been crushed by the packed action. In 1917, when he returned everyone under his care alive, a nation shrugged and got back to the business of slaughter. But Shackleton’s irrepressible optimism and perseverance outlasted his era, and today his adventure is recognized for what it was: the most excellent.


ADVENTURERS as HILO HEROES: Katia Krafft | Freya Stark | Louise Arner Boyd | Mary Kingsley | Bruce Chatwin | Hester Lucy Stanhope | Annie Smith Peck | Richard Francis Burton | Isabella Lucy Bird | Calamity Jane | Ernest Shackleton | Osa Helen Johnson | Redmond O’Hanlon | Gertrude Bell | George Mallory | Neta Snook | Jane Digby | Patty Wagstaff | Wilfred Thesiger | Joe Carstairs | Florence “Pancho” Barnes | Erskine Childers | Jacques-Yves Cousteau | Michael Collins | Thor Heyerdahl | Jean-Paul Clébert | Tristan Jones | Neil Armstrong

On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Conor Oberst.

READ MORE about men and women born on the cusp between the Anarcho-Symbolist (1864-73) and Psychonaut (1874-83) generations.

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What do you think?

  1. In terms of Shackleton books, one of the oldest is still one of the best, Alfred Lansing’s 1959 “Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage.” What it lacks in style it more than makes up for in nonstop adventure and tightroping-between-the-twin-towers-style suspension of belief. Lansing was able to interview some of the survivors ad had access to a number of the diaries. His very occasional interjections about the larger meaning of things and judicious, and spot-on. The first time I picked it up I literally couldn’t put it down, and there are very few books I can say that about.

  2. …suspension of DISbelief, of course I meant to say! but the impossible situations accumulate so quickly that suspension of *belief happens, too.

  3. It is hard to conceive of just where Shackleton would stand in our pantheon of heroes without the inimitable and incomparable Frank Hurley photos that documented the entire ordeal (minus, of course, the boat journey and traverse of South Georgia Island). In the U.S. the Scott expedition is less well known – precisely, I think, because of the lack of photographic documentation of his feat. Photos such as this one reify and cohere for us a saga that is, for the average American, not only hard to imagine, but literally inconceivable.

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