Sitting here surrounded by one of the last great wildernesses on the planet, it’s hard not to reflect upon the great sacrifices and struggles which have taken place to reach this white continent where the difference between life and death is but a single mistake.
On the outskirts of an abandoned, rusting Norwegian whale processing factory is buried an Irishman who lived and died an inspirational leader-hero of men, a giant during the heroic age of Antarctic exploration. I speak of no other than Sir Ernest Shackleton, a man whose name and South Georgia will forever be inextricably linked in the history of romantic and heroic exploration.
As leader of the some of the greatest expeditions of the early 20th Century (Discovery, Nimrod, Endurance and Aurora, and Quest), he was once described by the great Norwegian explorers Roald Amundsen and Fridtjof Nansen as ’will forevermore be engraved with letters of fire in the history of Antarctic exploration”. In fact had he managed to land at the Bay of Whales in 1908, there was no doubt that Shackleton would have been the first to reach the South Pole, however faced by treacherous conditions and low supplies he took the difficult yet wise decision to cut short his expedition some 97 nautical miles short of his goal. Returning to England, he received a hero’s welcome though some of the newspaper titles (“splendid failure”) inferred that he should have gone further and should he have died in the process, thus becoming the perfect Edwardian hero, alas Scott was to meet this fate several years later. None-the-less Shackletons failure was soon to prove to be an irresistible invitation for others to follow in his footsteps in the race to be first to conqueror the South!
So how should we compare Shackleton with his great contemporaries Robert Scott and Amundsen. I think this was summed up beautifully by Sir Raymond Priestly when he said “For scientific leadership, give me Scott, for swift and efficient travel, Amundsen. But when you’re in a hopeless situation, when you are seeing no way out, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton. Incomparable in adversity, he was the miracle worker who could save your life against all the odds and long after your number was up. The greatest leader that ever came on God’s earth bar none”.
Surprisingly though Shackleton was only one of a handful of Irishman who dared risk all in the pursuit of the unknown. During a time when Ireland was experiencing tremendous political upheaval within as the country began to seek independence from the British Crown let us not forget the contributions from the great Tom Crean, Mortimer McCarthy, Patsy Keohane and Cecil Meares – men from a golden age of polar exploration who sought not the spotlight but ended up inspiring many generations to follow including yours truly!
As you may have gathered by now, Shackleton remains one of my all time inspirational hero’s. A man who was intuitive and adaptive, decisive and good humoured. Leadership was his art, a chisel by which he could sculpt men’s lives and inspire them to believe in each other. So in closing perhaps it’s only fitting to leave you with a quote from the man himself.
“Leadership is a fine thing but it has its penalties. And the greatest penalty is loneliness.”
Until next time my armchair adventurers!