To write about Hell, it helps if you have been there —Ranulf Fiennes

By Roger Childs

Fiennes has the ideal credentials to write about polar exploration. He and his friend Mike Stroud crossed Antarctica unaided in 2009 and, as well as exploring the great southern continent, Ranulf Fiennes has led expeditions on the White Nile and through the Northwest Passage. He has climbed the North Face of the Eiger, and, at the age of 65, Mt Everest. He is regarded by many as the world’s greatest living explorer. 

He is also a very fine writer and among his work is a biography of Shackleton’s great rival Captain Scott. As someone who had endured the extremes of temperature, weather and icy landscapes he was well qualified to write about the enigmatic explorer Ernest Shackleton.

Ernest Shackleton story-teller, sailor, explorer and hero

Shackleton was born in Ireland but the family later moved to England. He had eight sisters and a younger brother.  From a young age he enjoyed regaling his sisters with stories, and, he used this skill and his natural gregariousness in later life to raise money from the rich and famous for expeditions, and to maintain the morale in the teams he led to Antarctica. 

As a young man Shackleton was keen to go to sea and become a member of Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition to be the first in the world to reach the South Pole. His experience in the merchant navy, self-promotion and general enthusiasm gained him a place on the Discovery which headed for Antarctica is 1901. Along with Scott and Edward Wilson he reached over 82º latitude south before the party realized they didn’t have the time, energy and supplies to push on to the Pole. Shackleton had health problems on the very difficult return journey and ended up being dragged to safety on a sled.

One of his motives for seeking fame with Scott’s expedition was to convince Emily Dorman that he was worth marrying. He succeeded in this aim and the couple subsequently wed and had three children. But domestic bliss with the family in England was not for Shackleton, and he yearned to lead his own expedition to the white continent and beat Scott in being the first to get to the South Pole. 

However, as with so many of his ventures, he never had enough money to adequately finance his 1907-1909 Nimrod expedition. With better planning and more supplies, this venture might have succeeded. Nevertheless his party did create a record for getting closest to the elusive Pole – over 88º latitude south.

Shackleton’s greatest claim to fame was his 1915 Endurance expedition which never landed on the continent as the ship became the stuck in the ice and was destroyed. It was the escape under Shackleton’s inspired leadership, without loss of life, to Elephant Island and South Georgia that made him a hero.

Fiennes – the master story teller

The story of the amazing Ernest Shackleton is told with great skill and enthusiasm by Ranulf Fiennes. The author is perceptive and honest about the great man’s strengths and weaknesses, and makes appropriate references to his own experiences in battling the extreme elements and unimaginable challenges of polar exploration.

The book is well illustrated with photos and maps, and has been thoroughly researched from a wide range of sources. One of its strengths is the detailed analysis of some of the myths surrounding Shackleton’s relationship with Scott, and some of the dubious stories told by crew members about various incidents in the three expeditions.

I can thoroughly recommend this outstanding account of the life of a very complex character who never made it to the South Pole, but became a hero because of his outstanding leadership and determination never to give in despite the huge challenges he faced.