I’m not one for hero worship. I admire some people greatly, but I am not to the point of ignoring their faults, or putting them on a pedestal.

One individual who at least has a leg up on that pedestal is Sir Ernest Shackleton, the polar explorer.

I first came across Shackleton’s name reading Roland Huntford’s controversial and iconoclastic account of the expeditions to reach the South Pole, Scott and Amundsen, also published as The Last Place on Earth. In his book, Huntford exploded the myth of the heroic Scott losing the race to a somehow less-than-heroic Amundsen. It’s a book well worth reading, and was made into a mini-series for PBS.

Huntford also wrote a definitive biography of Shackleton. This book is another that repays reading.

Shackleton was a man of his time, with the same prejudices of his contemporaries. These can be a real thumb in the eye, when one comes across them. On the flip side, he was a man who seemed to have been born a hundred years too late — and sometimes felt that way, himself. He was a useless git as a husband, employee, friend. The only times in his life he was happy were when he was off in polar regions, exploring. It’s cliche, but his life is one from which the cliche was made.

Shackleton was the only polar explorer who always brought his team back alive. He’s noted for two events. He came within 100 miles of the South Pole. And, he made the greatest open ocean sailing journey in known history. After his ship, the Endurance, was trapped in Antarctic sea ice and crushed, Shackleton and his 27-man crew were stranded on floe ice, from which they rowed in lifeboats to Elephant Island, after the ice broke up. Without any other hope of rescue, Shackleton and five other men sailed a 22.5-foot lifeboat from Elephant Island to South Georgia Island, 800 nautical miles (1,500 km; 920 mi), over a stormy winter ocean with seas up to 60 feet. Reaching the southwest side of the island, they then hiked over the island’s mountain range (at that time, unmapped) to reach a whaling station on the North side of the island. From the whaling station, rescue missions were arranged and all the men on Elephant Island were rescued.

The South Georgia boat party could expect to meet hurricane force winds and waves — the notorious Cape Horn Rollers — measuring from trough to crest as much as 60 feet (18 m). Shackleton therefore selected the heaviest and strongest of the three boats, … It had been built as a whaleboat in London to Worsley’s orders, designed on the “double-ended” principle pioneered by Norwegian shipbuilder Colin Archer. Shackleton asked the expedition’s carpenter, Harry McNish, if he could make the vessel more seaworthy. Using improvised tools and materials, McNish raised the boat’s sides and built a makeshift deck of wood and canvas, sealing his work with oil paints, lamp wick, and seal blood. The craft was strengthened by having the mast of the Dudley Docker lashed inside, along the length of her keel. She was then fitted as a ketch, with a mainmast and a mizzenmast, rigged to carry lugsails and a jib. The weight of the boat was increased by the addition of approximately 1 long ton (1,016 kg) of ballast, to lessen the risk of capsizing in the high seas that Shackleton knew they would encounter.1

He was a phenomenal leader, whose expeditions “failed” in the traditional sense. Aside from being “first” to get within 100 miles of the pole, he was never the one to set a definitive record. And yet, he was heroic in his determination to protect the lives and health of the men serving under him. He dedicated himself to a bizarre, dangerous, and ultimately futile “career” as an explorer. He’s a footnote in history, now; but, a man we could well look to as an example of real leadership.


  • Huntford, Roland. Shackleton. New York: Carroll & Graf. 1985.
  • Huntford, Roland. The Last Place on Earth: Scott and Amundsen and the Race to the South Pole. New York: Modern Library Exploration. 1999. ISBN 978-0-375-75474-6.
  • Worsley, F. A. Shackleton’s Boat Journey. London: Pimlico. 1940, repr. 1999. ISBN 0-7126-6574-9.
  • Alexander, Caroline. The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition. London: Bloomsbury Publishing. 1999. ISBN 0-7475-4670-3.


Chasing Shackleton. 3-part PBS documentary, in which an explorer attempts to recreate Shackleton’s boat journey. January 2014.

Shackleton. Biopic about Shackleton’s life, with Kenneth Branagh in the title role. 2002.

The Last Place on Earth. Mini-series about the Scott and Amundsen expeditions. Originally filmed in 1985, released on DVD in 2011.

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