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Shackleton's Endurance

‘In December 1913, when Sir Ernest Shackleton publicly announced his plans for the Endurance expedition to the Antarctic, he received nearly five thousand letters from hopeful applicants. Shortly afterwards, a friend noticed that these letters had been sorted into three large drawers in his desk, which he had labelled Mad, Hopeless and Possible.’ So opens Jo Woolf’s The Great Horizon, a collection of pieces about some of the greatest explorers in history, which tells often familiar stories with new details: Shackleton, she tells us, was ‘jovial, expansive, spontaneous.’ He joined the Royal Scottish Geographical Society in 1904 and disrupted the serene, studious atmosphere by the installation of new and loud technology such as a typewriter and – worse – a telephone! ‘You should have seen the faces of some of the old chaps when it started to ring today,’ he wrote to one of his friends.

Shackleton (far right) showing Queen Alexandra (wife of Edward VII) around Endurance in South-west India Dock, London, 16th July 1914

Shackleton was, however, a compulsive explorer first and foremost, making four separate expeditions to the Antarctic and coming extremely close to being first to the South Pole in 1909. The Endurance was his third such expedition.

In December 1915, the ship he had taken into the Antarctic crumpled in the pack ice leaving her crew camping on floating ice before being forced to take to the sea in lifeboats. The crew made it to Elephant Island, 150 miles north-east of the Antarctic peninsula, but with no way to reach the outside world. Without help, they would starve and die there. Determined to save his men, Shackleton led a smaller crew out into the open sea in one of the lifeboats for a journey of two weeks and 800 miles. Its success is frankly nothing short of miraculous.

In retrospect, it seems Mad may have been a requirement to survive the Endurance expedition, and may well have applied to Shackleton himself.

The story of Shackleton’s desperate dash for rescue remains compelling more than a hundred years later – an inspiring tale of self-sufficiency, determination and courage in the face of impossible odds. And this week, the Endurance was found all but intact, 10,000 feet under the Antarctic waters.

With so many terrible things happening in the world – the continuation of the pandemic and the situation in Ukraine – the discovery of the Endurance is a testament to the human spirit, and how the spirit of adventure and desire for knowledge remains an essential part of who we are.

To mark this tremendous occasion, The Great Horizon by Jo Woolf will be available at the special price of £15.99 from our online shop for one week.

Jo Woolf

Jo Woolf