Explorers: Get Ready for Shackleton-Mania

When an experimental high school opened in Boston earlier this year, it took its name and philosophy from an Antarctic explorer whose feats went all but unnoticed for most of this century: Sir Ernest Shackleton.

It was just one sign of a surging tide of obsessive interest in the Anglo-Irishman, who in 1914 headed an ill-fated expedition to Antarctica. Shackleton led his 27-man crew through a harrowing two-year trip to safety after being stranded on ice floes when their ship, the Endurance, sank in the icy Weddell Sea 1,200 miles from the fringes of civilization.

They lived for months in temperatures that got so cold they could hear the water freeze. They were perpetually soaked and often on the lookout for predatory sea leopards. When the ice began to break up, they navigated hundreds of miles over treacherous seas to inhabited land, relying ultimately on a single lifeboat, partly patched with the ship’s artist’s paints.

Suddenly Shackleton is being honored in every conceivable venue: children’s books, biographies, an exhibit at New York’s American Museum of Natural History, a new wing of a Cambridge University library, and documentaries. The Exploration and Travel auction at Christie’s in London next Wednesday will feature several Shackleton items. Next year, Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Group expects to start shooting a big-budget feature about the Endurance journey, directed by Wolfgang Petersen, who made “Das Boot” and “In the Line of Fire.”

Margot Morrell, a financial representative at Fidelity Investments in New Jersey, is among the growing number of people who “speak Shackleton” and who are adopting Shackleton’s story as a model for leadership. Ms. Morrell has spent years hunting down and transcribing the diaries of two of the ship’s crew. She is culling these journals for examples of “the Shackleton way.”

Why is Shackleton’s fame growing now, more than 80 years after the Endurance voyage? And why honor as a great leader a man who failed to reach nearly every goal he set and whose greatest achievement was little appreciated in his lifetime?

Certainly, the end of the millennium has people harking back to a simpler time when exploration was still earthbound, as in Stephen E. Ambrose’s bestseller, “Undaunted Courage,” about the Lewis and Clark expedition. Readers are fascinated with survival stories pitting man against nature, such as “Into Thin Air,” Jon Krakauer’s account of a recent disastrous Mount Everest ascent. Even the movie “Titanic” has piqued curiosity about venturing toward the world’s icy regions.

Survival stories, however, were of scant interest to the war-torn world Shackleton and his men returned to in 1916. They were scorned for suffering for some foolhardy venture while millions were dying in battle. Then, the heroic model was “the Iliadic point of view: You die for your country,” says Caroline Alexander, an Anglo-American Homeric scholar and author of “Mrs. Chippy’s Last Expedition,” a novel published last year about the Endurance, written in the voice of the ship’s cat.

Shackleton is more suited to today’s zeitgeist, suggests Edward Burlingame, the former publisher and editor in chief of Harper & Row who now publishes the Adventure Library subscription-book series. “The public is hungry, not so much for the political values that separate people,” he says, “but for the core values that unite people: leadership, perserverance, moral or physical courage.”

In 1994, to launch the Adventure Library, based in North Salem, N.Y., Mr. Burlingame reprinted an elaborate hardcover edition of “Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage,” a 1959 work by Alfred Lansing. He later wowed a roomful of middle managers at a Chicago leadership conference with a lecture on the story, selling hundreds of books afterward.

This year, Carroll & Graf Publishers Inc., New York, expects to sell 50,000 copies of its own paperback reprint of the Lansing book. Up to now, it has typically sold about 9,000 copies annually, says Herman Graf, president. In May, the company is also reprinting the 1985 biography, “Shackleton,” by Roland Huntford.

There is also a surge in polar tourism. When the Soviet Union fell, Russian polar-research ships, and their well-trained crews, became available to tour groups, says Jeff Rubin, author of Lonely Planet Publications’ “Antarctica” guide book. South Polar tourism took off in the ’90s, and last season jumped to an estimated 9,400 visitors to the region, according to the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators in New York.

Tourists become fascinated with the literature and memorabilia of the region and feed the Shackleton craze. Since its founding four years ago, about 300 people worldwide have become paying members of the James Caird Society, a group in the United Kingdom named for the expedition’s main lifeboat. The group’s founder, 89-year-old Harding Dunnett, calls members “Shackletonians.” He first became aware of the explorer at the age of 70.

Shackleton set out at age 40 to make what he considered the last great exploration left: a 1,500-mile crossing of Antarctica. The ship set sail from England in August 1914, and by January got stuck “like an almond in a piece of toffee,” according to a crew member, in an ice pack one day’s sail from its destination on the Antarctic coast. It sank 11 months later. There was no radio contact, and no one knew where they were.

“In fact, there was no way they could survive, except they did,” says Ms. Alexander, who when interviewed last year on Boston public radio drew call-ins from dozens of ardent Shackleton fans.

Shackleton’s gift was to rally and maintain the morale of his crew, to a point where they even played soccer on the ice floe. He did it without losing a single man — to death or to the starvation, scurvy, madness and mutiny that plagued other ill-fated expeditions.

“Not a life lost and we have been through Hell,” Shackleton later wrote.

Above all, Shackleton was an astute psychologist. The ship’s photographer Frank Hurley was by many accounts a brilliant prima donna. To placate him and stop any possible spread of malcontent, Shackleton consistently asked Mr. Hurley for his advice, even when he wasn’t much interested in the reply. That kept the photographer in line — and producing.

The media-savvy Shackleton had sold rights to the still photographs and film footage taken on the expedition. Mr. Hurley had a darkroom aboard, and when the ship went down he dove in to save his glass-plate negatives. Through all the hardships, he continued shooting with a Kodak Vest Pocket camera. (One “Hurleyite,” Shane Murphy of Scottsdale, Ariz., is studying the photographer’s work and role in the expedition for a book — 700 pages so far.)

In November, the American Museum of Natural History will open a show of Mr. Hurley’s surviving pictures and film footage. The exhibit’s curator, Ms. Alexander, is writing a lavishly illustrated book on the Endurance expedition to accompany the show and working on a documentary.

Also in November, the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, England, will open a Shackleton wing of its library, named for the explorer, who died in 1922, and his son, Edward, who had explored the Arctic region.

Modern-day Shackletonians admire the explorer’s grit in the face of seemingly insurmountable adversity. Shackleton “defines what you’d like people to do in a crisis,” says James MacGregor, managing partner of Abernathy MacGregor Frank, a New York financial public-relations concern. Most of his firm’s work is in crisis communications, and he tells clients that “a lot of handling a crisis is showing that somebody is in charge and that person is really confident the crisis can be resolved.”

Mr. MacGregor, who has on the wall of his office a picture he took of Shackleton’s monument on the South Atlantic island of South Georgia, says the crew’s diaries show they never doubted that the “Boss” would get them through. He recites his own three-point distillation of Shackleton wisdom: “Don’t be afraid to change your plans. Don’t be afraid to do nothing when that’s the best thing to do. Prepare, prepare, prepare; plan, plan, plan.”

The benevolence that Shackleton displayed toward his crew was unusual for leaders of his day, says author and explorer Alvah Simon of Camden, Maine. “He was walking a fine line between being the Old Man and having the personal touch with each and every member of his crew,” he says.

Mr. Simon, 47, read about Shackleton in the 1980s, during a 13-year sail circumnavigating the globe. He was particularly struck by a photograph of the Endurance crew standing on the ice near their ship. “They stared the camera, and death, in the eye,” he recalls. “There was something in that photo that turned my life around.”

He took his admiration of Shackleton to an extreme. Mr. Simon and his wife sailed their 36-foot cutter into Arctic waters, where, according to plan, it became icebound in September 1994. Though his wife had to be helicoptered out the following month to tend to her dying father, Mr. Simon, with a pet cat, stayed on for the winter — and more danger than he had bargained for. His boat, which is also the couple’s home, is still undergoing repairs. He wrote a book about the ordeal, “North to the Night: A Year in the Arctic Ice” to be published by International Marine/McGraw-Hill in September.

Shackleton also had a roguish side that fans relish. Sara Wheeler of London, an Antarctic traveler and author of the justpublished “Terra Icognita,” says: “He smoked too much, he drank too much, he slept with other people’s wives. That’s why we like him; he’s like us.”

Shackleton was a master at creating his own myth. He told his men after their rescue not to change clothes or shave, “so that they could appear in their wild, romantic state,” writes Shackleton’s biographer, Mr. Huntford. He then called ahead to Punta Arenas, Chile, giving their time of arrival so that crowds might gather.

It is the explorer’s heroic side, however, that gave rise to the private, year-round Boston school. Its president is Luke O’Neill, a 38-year-old Harvard M.B.A. with a law degree who worked in juvenile and corporate law before turning to education. He hopes a mixture of academics and outdoor exploration — and the Shackleton model — will inspire his teenage students to learn from real-life challenges and to test their capabilities to the fullest. The school, which opened in January, has 10 students to date (toward a goal of 100) and a staff of 10.

For his part, Mr. O’Neill says he has learned this from Shackleton: “Never give up, don’t be afraid to lead, follow your gut, and remember, it’s about people.”

5,705 thoughts on “Explorers: Get Ready for Shackleton-Mania”

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