Shackleton

(This column was first published in the February 8, 1999 Buffalo News.)

    At this time of year our thoughts often turn to such locales as the Florida Keys or Acapulco. Here we feel claustrophobic, beset by still deep snow drifts and wind chills that descend below zero. We feel sorry for ourselves and wish we could escape to more hospitable climes.

    That is, of course, one response to the depth of winter. I offer another.

    For a few moments turn back the clock to 1914 and join the team of Ernest Shackleton. In your mind you're off on an expedition: your team plans the first hike across Antarctica. Together with 27 men, 69 sled dogs and a cat, you barely set sail from England when World War I breaks out. Shackleton wires his offer to return but the Admiralty sends back a one word telegram -- "Proceed."

    You steam south, stopping briefly at South Georgia Island before heading into the ice-packed Weddell Sea. The Georgian whalers have warned you that the ice is the worst they have ever known. You skirt the clockwise moving ice jam until early January 1915 when you reach 77 degrees south latitude and can see the Antarctic Continent. But that's it. Your ship becomes stuck in the ice and you are carried along slowly, first west and then north for ten months. Finally the ice pressure is overwhelming. Your ship is crushed and sinks. You're stranded on the ice.

    It is summer now in the Southern Hemisphere and the temperature occasionally rises above freezing during the day, but that makes things worse. The snow and ice turn to slush and attempts to travel over it pulling the three lifeboats fail, forcing you back to your original camp. You are constantly wet and the temperature drops into the teens each night. At least there is enough to eat -- plenty of seals and penguins and other sea birds. But staples are depleted and the carbohydrate-less diet saps your strength.

    Finally after six months the ice begins to break up with frightening grinding noise. The dogs and cat are killed as humanely as possible and you take to the boats, following the narrow channels toward the open sea, constantly afraid that the ice will close and crush the small boats. You make it to sea again and after a terrible blizzard-beset week-long passage reach deserted Elephant Island where you establish a makeshift camp on the narrow shingle beach.

    Shackleton and five of the strongest sailors now leave you to attempt an 800 mile winter crossing of the South Atlantic in a single boat. You must pass that same winter minimally sheltered from winds that reach 80 miles per hour. One companion has to have frost-bitten, gangrenous toes amputated in a primitive operation. Your own merely turn black.

    Amazingly, Shackleton's team accomplishes the impossible. Their tiny whaleboat carries them through violent seas to the unsettled end of South Georgia Island. From there they hike over mountains and across glaciers to the whaling station. After several abortive attempts to return and rescue you and your companions, they finally are able to save you after your ordeal of almost two years. Despite these adversities, not a single crew member has been lost.

    Think about yourself under those conditions or better still read about them in Caroline Alexander's account of the expedition in her book, The Endurance (Knopf). That kind of mental trip might not lead you to join the local Polar Bear Club for a swim in Lake Erie, but at the very least it should make you more tolerant of our own far milder Niagara Frontier winters. -- Gerry Rising