South. An enduring obsession

cherryI’m reading this at the moment. It’s a beautifully written biography of Apsely Cherry-Garrard, the youngest member of Scott’s fatal Antarctic expedition to be the first to the South Pole in 1911. I love a good icy exploration story, and it reminds me of my long standing obsession with the Shackleton Endurance story.

I first read South, Shackleton’s account of the expedition, in the 90’s. It was a bit of a desperation Christmas present buy for my partner at the time – I had never heard of it, but thought it sounded right up his street. And mine, what a coincidence. It was an absolutely engrossing read and after finishing it I insisted on sharing the story with everyone I knew, as excitedly as possible. If you already know the story you might want to skip the next couple of paragraphs. If not, here’s a summary.

Shackleton had already been on two Antarctic adventures, one with Scott and one which he led. After the British failure to be the first to the South Pole, it was considered that the last remaining ‘big trip’ in Antarctica would be to cross the continent from sea to sea. Shackleton began the shaky process of raising funds for this trip and was ready to depart just as the First World War began in 1914. Despite offering the services of his crew and ship for the war effort he was told by the king to ‘proceed’ and his ship The Endurance sailed for Antarctica. They arrived in the Weddell Sea in December 1914, by January the ship was trapped in the ice, frozen in place and unable to move. As the dark Antarctic winter set in, the crew set up quarters on the ship and remained there until the ice began to shift and break up as the spring arrived. Although there was an initial hope that they would now be able to sail closer to land, this was dashed as the ship, caught in the immense force of the breaking ice, was crushed and sank leaving the crew stranded on the drifting pack.

crushed(Hurley’s photo)

As part of the crew on the expedition, Shackleton had taken Australian photographer Frank Hurley to document the trip – recognising that then, as now, a good visual record of the journey would make for an enthralling and better paid lecture trip once the journey was over. Hurley’s photographic record of the expedition is still one of the great documentary photography accounts of all time. The crew removed as much as they could carry from the ship and as it was crushed in the ice Hurley went back on board to dive beneath the icy water to bring out as many of his photographic plates as he could rescue. He and Shackleton went though these and chose the 120 best ones to keep and carry on the rescue journey they were about to undertake. Hurley smashed the rest, saying that if they were intact he knew he wouldn’t be able to stop himself trying to get back to them, potentially putting himself and any others at risk. It seems crazy, in those desperate circumstances, to keep so many heavy glass photographic plates, but really it was an act of optimism – Shackleton knew that if they made it back to the UK, he would be in a much better position to make money from his story if it was accompanied by Hurley’s photographs. Part of the money he had raised was publishers’ advances on the sale of the story.

The crew of the Endurance camped on a drifting ice flow for two months hoping it would take them near one of the islands off the coast of Antarctica, but had to move as the ice was threatening to break up. They dragged their three life boats to a bigger ice flow and once more set up camp, killing the sledge dogs and the carpenter’s cat, Mrs Chippy, before they left, much to everyone’s distress. On this flow again they drifted further away from land until eventually the break up of the ice and the possibility of floating past any conceivable land forced them to take to the lifeboats. They reached Elephant Island after 5 days stressful, difficult rowing in tiny boats on 14th April 1916. They had spent over a year and a half in the extreme isolation of the Antarctic waters with no hope of rescue. Elephant Island was not on any shipping routes and Shackleton knew that to stand any chance of rescue they would have to try and reach the whaling station at South Georgia Island, 800 nautical miles away.

They prepared the biggest of the lifeboats, the James Caird, to undertake the exceptionally dangerous journey across one of the most turbulent seas in the world and Shackleton chose 5 of the men to take with him. They left the rest of the crew on a sliver of land at the edge of the inhospitable island, camped in a set up created from the upturned lifeboats and a range of canvas bits and pieces. Amazingly, the James Caird made it, in a misery of freezing saltwater and moulting reindeer skin, landing on the wrong side of South Georgia Island on the 9th May 1916. Shackleton, Crean and Worsley then made a 36 hour crossing of the mountainous interior of the island to arrive like some terrifying yetties at the South Georgia whaling station. It took him three more months to find a ship capable of getting through the ice surrounding Elephant Island to rescue the men. No one had died and only one member of the 28 strong party had lost any extremities to frost bite. It is really an astounding story, even by the standards of those times of ‘heroic’ exploration.


So, I have been embroiled in this story for a long time. Caroline Alexander’s beautiful book The Endurance came out in 1998, illustrated throughout by Hurley’s photographs. I bought it and the story became a little more well known again. My brother rang me up in the late 90s telling me he had been asked to make a soundtrack to an exhibition about Shackleton to be held at his old school, Dulwich College, did I know anything about him? We got off the phone an hour later and I cycled over to his work place to drop him off a copy of South. He was gripped too. The exhibition was excellent and the story was revived a little more. Alongside the James Caird, which was permanently now on display in the College, the exhibition also had a number of prints of Hurley’s photos. Now you can look up the photos on Google and can see them easily, but then, at the end of the 90s they were not so readily available for viewing and it was exciting to see them. I found out that a limited edition of some of these prints were on sale through a fine art gallery and when I received some London allowance work related back pay bonus I spent it on a print (it wasn’t a huge amount of money, just more than I would normally spend on something so ephemeral). So I have, hanging in my living room, an actual print taken from those original plates which Hurley rescued from the ship and carried on that long and dangerous journey. To a documentary photography fan and Endurance expedition devotee, this is mind blowing.

I decided to use this story in my previous job as a unit of work with year 8, thinking that they would be interested in the real life adventurous nature of it. Although I haven’t got a proper worked out unit to hand (it was a while ago and annoyingly I can’t find any of the resources) here are some of the things I did with it. To start I chose 6 of Hurley’s photos which roughly told the story and asked them to sequence them into a narrative, then write the story. I ran it on the board as a slideshow with a soundtrack of cracking ice which I had made for something else and can’t now find. We made a timeline of events – there’s a very good account of the story here,  with a timeline and map here.

I made biographies of some of the crew, using the information on this very useful site here. Students then had to embellish these and write a diary entry at the point when the ship sank , from the point of view of their chosen crew member. This PBS Nova site has extracts of Shackleton’s ski and motor-sledge expert, Thomas Orde-Lees’s diary in it’s original form which we didn’t use but would if I did this again. Because my students were all big dog fans, we also read about the Endurance dogs here. We created a wordwall of words to describe the Antarctic based on slideshow I put together of modern photos. The class had also read the play version of Frankenstein before we started this unit and were very taken with the image at the beginning and the end of Frankenstein chasing his monster across the ice – iciness was already in their heads.

wordfotoWe used the words to make Wordfotos using the I Pad app and some of Hurley’s original photos. They then had to use the words to write a final letter home which their crew member would keep on them in case of death, describing where they were and how they were feeling. And of course, we aged these with authentic looking tea for display. We also spent a bit of time measuring the room to see just how big the 23ft James Caird was. Not very big! Because of the nature of that job and my disorganisation, it wasn’t a very carefully worked out unit, however I really enjoyed teaching it and the most of the students produced some independent work which they were proud of.

The stories which mean something to us are important, I’m not sure what it says about me that many of mine are stories of survival in very extreme circumstances, but they’re worth sharing.

NB – there is a whole website of materials and lesson plans from Shackleton in Schools here, and the Shackleton 100 site here celebrating 100 years since the launch of the expedition – haven’t had a good look at this yet.