What more harrowing story has the history of twentieth-century exploration produced than that of Ernest Shackleton’s disastrous Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914–17? With one of their ships, the appropriately named Endurance, crushed by pack ice, Shackleton and company had to spend years far outside civilization, living in makeshift camps and ultimately using a lifeboat to make the grueling 800-mile journey to the hope of rescue. Though the heroic efforts of Shackleton and others ensured no loss of life among the men they led, making the expedition at least a success in survival terms, the famed explorer had had much better luck last time.
Shackleton’s British Antarctic Expedition of 1907-09, also known as the Nimrod Expedition, took him and his crew nearly to the South Pole, setting a record for the longest southern polar expedition to that date. Or, to describe the achievement in Shackleton’s own words, “We reached a point within 97 geographical miles of the South Pole; the only thing that stopped us from reaching the actual point was the lack of fifty pounds of food. Another party reached, for the first time, the South Magnetic Pole; another party reached the summit of a great active volcano, Mount Erebus. We made many interesting geological and scientific discoveries and had many narrow escapes throughout the whole time.”
You can even hear that account given in Shackleton’s own voice in the video above, which captures the playback of My South Polar Expedition, an Edison Amberol wax cylinder record he recorded in New Zealand just a week after re-entering civilization. He returned to great acclaim, but also in serious debt, and so putting out a piece of merchandise like this, and setting out on the extensive lecture tour that followed, only made good financial sense. But before long, the celebrated Shackleton found himself at loose ends, becoming, in the words of journalist and politician Sir Harry Brittain, “a bit of a floating gent,” one who must have felt more than ready to take on a challenge as an ambitious Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.
As vividly as history has remembered Shackleton’s Endurance experience, he himself came home from that second grueling voyage to little fanfare. He arrived in England not just during the news-dominating Great War but later than the rest of his crew, having given another lecture tour in America first. But this explorer, it seems, did not live for fanfare. Despite what happened in his second Antarctic expedition, he organized a third, the Shackleton-Rowett Expedition, in 1921, though he died of a heart attack the following year, with the journey still underway. Shackleton enthusiasts, and there are many, can only imagine what tales that expedition would have given their hero to tell — and how they might have sounded on the slightly higher-fidelity recording media developed by the time he’d planned to return.
To hear an audio version of Shackleton’s harrowing 1914–17 voyage, listen to Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, which you can download for free if you sign up for Audible.com’s 30-day Free Trial program.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.