Shackleton – Ranulph Fiennes

This fascinating biography of Sir Ernest Shackleton is written by Sir Ranulph Fiennes both knighted for their services to exploration and it is particularly interesting that Fiennes is able to add his own experiences of polar expeditions to accounts of Shackleton’s. He has previously written a biography of Sir Robert Scott, Shackleton’s original polar commander and then major rival in attempts to reach the South Pole and he treats each man fairly unlike the earlier biographies of Scott and Shackleton by Roland Huntford who was very much against Scott and pro Shackleton.

At 375 pages plus extensive index, appendix and bibliography this book could well be seen as the definitive biography of one of the foremost polar explorers of the so called ‘Heroic Age’, i.e. the early 20th century even though he never actually made it to the South Pole. The closest he got was one hundred miles away from it, setting at the time the record for furthest south on 6th January 1909 along with Jameson Boyd Adams, Eric Marshall and Frank Wild. This record would not be beaten until Roald Amundsen actually reached the pole on 14th December 1911. Fiennes makes the point that if he had been on his own Shackleton would probably have risked another 6 to 10 days march to the actual pole but concern for his men made him turn back due to the low level of rations still available to them. This for me is one of the defining differences between Scott and Shackleton, the disappointment on not achieving his goal was considerably offset by the fact that they all made it home safely, unlike Scott who two years later chose to press on and ultimately this cost not only his own life but that of his team members. Fiennes at this point is able, through his own experiences, to give an excellent account of just what happens to the body in the extreme cold pulling sledges as the daily rations have to be reduced in order to complete a goal. He never got as extreme as Shackleton but the explanations as to just how tough the going must have been are given extra colour by having this happen to himself and his team mate Mike Stroud.

Shackleton is however probably most famous for his third expedition, which turned into his biggest disaster as his ship, Endurance, was torn apart by the ice and he was forced to lead a completely different expedition to that intended as he rescued all his men from what seemed like certain death including the amazing crossing of the Weddell Sea in a tiny boat, less than 23 feet long. Here Fiennes’s descriptive powers really come into their own giving a fuller understanding of just what Shackleton and his five compatriots went through, including Tom Crean who I wrote about back in March 2019. Fiennes has also crossed the ocean in a small boat as part of his five year Trans Globe expedition which visited both poles travelling over land and sea although not the extremely hazardous 800 mile trip from Elephant Island to South Georgia undertaken by Shackleton and his men to get help for those left behind.

Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, to give him his full name, has written twenty five books mainly about his expeditions or biographies of fellow explorers and is an excellent story teller, really involving the reader in the hardships and triumphs of global exploration whilst seeking to rediscover the men behind the stories. He is frank about Shackleton’s appalling business sense which left him always short of funds and never as fully equipped as he should have been for any of his expeditions whilst making the point that the Royal Geographic Society, which could have been a potential major backer was very much committed to Scott so were positively against any support for Shackleton. His dalliances with other women outside of his marriage are also conjectured, along with the never ending support of his long suffering wife with a husband who was rarely even in the same country never mind at home. This is not a painted over all goody goody biography and is all the better for show all aspects of Shackleton’s character. The book was published by Michael Joseph at the beginning of the month and I have a signed copy.

I’d like to finish this review exactly as Fiennes does with a quote from another polar explorer and geologist from the ‘heroic age’ Sir Raymond Priestley who was part of expeditions by both Shackleton and Scott which I think perfectly sums up why I have a lifelong admiration for Shackleton.

For scientific leadership, give me Scott. For swift and efficient travel, Amundsen. But when you are in a hopeless situation, when there seems to be no way out, get on your knees and pray for Shackleton.

An Unsung Hero: the remarkable story of Tom Crean: Antarctic Explorer – Michael Smith

20190312 Tom Crean 1

Roald Amundsen, Robert Scott, Ernest Shackleton, Tom Crean. The first three Antarctic explorers listed are household names but Tom Crean is, as the title of the book implies, largely unknown. But he should be celebrated, as he took part in three of the main British Antarctic expeditions during what became known as The Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration during the first two decades of the 20th century.  He  was with Scott and Shackleton on the Discovery Expedition from 1901 to 1904 which at the time set the record for furthest south at 82° 17′. He was then with Scott on his ill-fated Terra Nova expedition from 1910 to 1913 and Scott’s attempt on the South Pole, where he was beaten to it by Amundson and died on his way back to the ship. Crean was later with Shackleton on his failed Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition on the Endurance from 1914 to 1917 where the Endurance sank early in the venture. Shackleton walked his men to Elephant island and then chose four to go with him for help in an open boat across over eight hundred miles of the South Atlantic to South Georgia and Crean was one of those who was part of possibly the greatest feat of seamanship seen in the last hundred years.

So why is he so barely known, apart from those of us with a fascination with Polar exploration? Well part of the reason is that Crean was really only semi-literate, so he left no diaries or any other documentation for posterity; he also never gave any interviews and the four medals he earned in the Antarctic weren’t displayed. Apparently he never even told his daughters about his exploits in Antarctica. The sole hint that here was a man with his background in exploration was that when he left the navy in 1920 he opened a pub in his home town of Annascaul in Southern Ireland which he called The South Pole Inn. The pub is still called that and in 2003 a statue of Crean was erected in the town, so maybe wider recognition is finally happening for this quiet and self-assuming man and it may well have been helped by this excellent book which was originally printed in 2001, my copy is the first paperback edition from 2002 also published by Headline.

Despite the lack of much documentary evidence from Crean himself Michael Smith has done an excellent job of research to piece together his life from lots of sources. Sixty six books are listed in the bibliography, quite a few I already have in my small Polar library and this list has pointed me to others that sound worth adding to my collection. There are also numerous letters, unpublished diaries and other documents that have been consulted. All this has made a beautifully illustrated book of over three hundred pages which tells not only the story of Tom Crean but also the expeditions that he took part in.  He was in the group of the last eight men on the Beardmore with Scott when he chose the last five to make the final push for the pole. That Scott decided not to chose him may well have been an error as Crean was still fit and strong unlike Oates who had an injured leg and Taffy Evans’ badly cut hand, both of which for reasons of his own Scott decided to take with him. That this undoubtedly saved Crean’s life and allowed him to continue his polar explorations with Shackleton a few years later. What can only be wondered is if Scott had taken the fitter Crean then would his party made it back to the food depot they were aiming for when they died on the ice. We will never know, Michael Smith makes it quite clear where his opinion lies:

Scott, it must be said, made two basic mistakes in selecting his final party to reach the pole. First, he chose the men at the wrong time and second he chose the wrong men.

Shackleton on the other hand greatly valued the taciturn and powerful Irishman, not only selecting him for the crew of the Endurance but picking him as one of the four to go for help with him in that open boat when the expedition became a rescue mission. I’ll cover this in a later blog as I have been in awe of that journey since first reading about it as a child. After returning from the expedition Crean joined the war effort and Shackleton encouraged him to get promotion, along with writing to the First Lord of the Admiralty personally recommending his promotion. This he duly got and after the war ended up with a reasonable pension, which along with money sent to him by Shackleton enabled him to open the South Pole Inn. Shackleton tried to convince Crean to join him again on a trip south but by this time he was a family man with two daughters and declined, his exploring days were behind him.

Michael Smith has written a hugely enjoyable book about one of the lesser known great Polar explorers and even if you know nothing about the history of the time it is well worth reading.