Shackleton's Legacy:
Three Time Failure or Great Man?


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Shackleton called himself an explorer. Yet a cynic might question how much of an explorer he really was. Did he reach any of his goals? No. He got sick on one attempt to reach the South Pole, and turned back the second time. And the Endurance expedition never even touched the continent he wanted to cross. Ann Bancroft, who turned back herself, halfway through the same journey Shackleton attempted, says that's not the point.

Bancroft: The exploration is really about the attempt. There are many explorers that didn't achieve all that they set out to do; some are dead as the result of their trying. I happen to be of the persuasion that believes that there is much more wisdom in knowing when to turn back. And that there will be more to explore if we have that wisdom because we'll be able to go on and on and on.

If this is the first time you're hearing the story of the Endurance, I think you're going to find yourself telling it to someone else pretty soon. It seems to be a universal experience, one scholar Caroline Alexander thinks she can explain. By retelling it, you can be the bearer of good news.

Alexander: Well I think it is the real thing, and that sounds a very glib thing to say, but I think it is the heroic venture par excellence in the annals of all expeditionary literature. It isn't just about guys toughing it out. There's something in there that is ennobling somehow. It' s man at the limit of his endurance and he comes through not just alive but somehow unsullied, unmangled. There's nothing here to drag this down. It's 28 men in the fight of their life, against only nature, who win and somehow come out of it, and it somehow makes you feel bigger for being part of it.

Shackleton died of a heart attack January 4, 1922. He was only 47. He died on South Georgia, at the start of yet another expedition. His wife Emily asked that he be buried on the island. His grave is still there. Frank Worsley, his loyal follower and friend, helped bury him.

Worsley: Six years later when looking at Shackleton's grave and the cairn which we, his comrades, erected to his memory on a wind-swept hill of South Georgia, I meditated on his great deeds. It seemed to me that among all his achievements and triumphs, great as they were, his one failure was the most glorious. By self-sacrifice and throwing his own life into the bal-ance he saved every one of his men - not a life was lost - although at times it had looked unlikely that one could be saved.
Shackleton's grave on South Georgia Island.
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Photo courtesy Galen R. Frysinger.

One footnote to our story: If Shackleton himself was never to successfully cross what he called "the last continent," his desire that it should be accomplished by a British expedition was realized. But it wouldn't be until the late 1950s, when British scientist Vivian Fuchs needed motorized vehicles to make the trek.

All photographs by Frank Hurley unless otherwise noted