Thursday 9 January 2014

Nimrod South Station

Ernest Shackleton was born outside Athy in Co Kildare, within the catchment area of The Institute although a while before the latter was founded.  He is a giant among the polar explorers of 100 years ago, always good for copy and always up for an awfully big adventure.  I am consciously channelling the Peter Pan quote “To die would be an awfully big adventure.” here because there is a suspicion that these Polar explorer chappies never properly grew up and/or had a death-wish.

Shackleton went at it harder than most and set off for the South Pole in 1907 aboard the good ship Nimrod.  He was bullied (gentleman's agreement) by Captain Scott who exacted a promise from Shackleton not to use the same base in McMurdo Sound as had been used on the 1901-1903 Discovery expedition, on which both chaps had served.  Scott seemed to have the idea that he had exclusive rights to a whole chunk of Antarctica because he'd led a previous expedition there.  Shackleton caved into the pressure but on arrival off the coast in early Summer 1908, found that McMurdo was really the only place he could safely disembark.
Furthest South
In those days, nutritionists hadn't been invented, so polar explorers didn't really have sufficient information about the enormous quantity of calories that were required to do manual labour well below freezing point.  They were also limited by technology - no carbon fibre, no gortex, no kevlar, no freeze-dry, no vacuum pack.  The assault on the Pole team (four men led by Shackleton himself), set off late.  Delays had prevented them from setting up a proper system of depots with caches of food and fuel for any return journey.  They decided to use Siberian ponies as their main source of traction, killing and eating them as they wore out.  Almost immediately Shackleton reduced rations in order to extend the available time for the trek South and back.  The last pony disappeared down a crevasse rather down the throats of the hungry explorers, but Shackleton pushed on South. On 9th January 1909, quixotically staggering a few miles more without sledge or equipment = but with a flag! = to establish a furthest South record just under 100 nautical miles from the Pole.  A measure of the disconnect between harsh reality and Edwardian gung-ho is that they carried a bottle of creme-de-menthe and some cigars with which they celebrated Christmas 1908.

They then turned home, starving, beset with dysentery from old horse, with a ludicrously short time available so that they wouldn't literally miss the boat which was by prior agreement scheduled wrap up the expedition and depart on 1st March.  But make it they did, boosted by discovering "Carlsbad plums, eggs, cakes, plum pudding, gingerbread and crystallised fruit"  - no mere oatmeal for them - in Bluff Depot one week out.

Qualified, tentative huzzah?

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