The power of mindset

By Bain News Service, publisher [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Sir Ernest Shackleton. By Bain News Service, publisher [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
100 years ago today, something very special happened, the ending of a story both staggering and harrowing. I like stories, the more moving and thought-provoking the better. This story is one of the most powerful and enduring stories in human history, and it taught me a very valuable lesson about myself.

The story began in the August of 1914, one week after the outbreak of World War I. On August the 8th, the ship Endurance set sail from Plymouth, England, to Buenos Aires. Officially known as The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, the Endurance, under the command of Sir Ernest Shackleton, planned to sail to the Antarctic, and from there, make the first overland crossing of the entire continent. After resupplying in Buenos Aires, Endurance sailed to South Georgia, harbouring at the whaling station in Grytviken, and finally setting sail from there on December 5th, bound for the Antarctic. They met with pack ice much farther north than they had hoped, and this was an alarming sign of things to come. After battling through the ice for several weeks, it finally became too thick for the ship to break through, and on 18th January 1915 the Endurance and her crew became stuck in the pack ice.  

A dire situation

Despite various massive efforts over the next weeks, on 24th February Shackleton finally ordered the crew to begin converting the ship into a kind of winter shore station. The hope was that when the spring came, the ice would break up and free Endurance from its grip. With much luck, the ship would be sea worthy.

Now that the men had less work to do, Shackleton was concerned that their motivation, fitness and moral would suffer. His efforts at this point to keep the men positive were to prove vital. Exercising the dogs and racing them became a task that all of the men were enthusiastic about. Evening theatricals ensured much laughter, despite the dire nature of their situation. Moral stayed high, despite the situation, and this mindset was to prove crucial to their attempt at survival.

In late July 1915, as the Antarctic winter began its slow wane, the ice began to show signs of breaking up. But with it, came massive ice pressure, as the huge floes of ice bumped and ground against both each other, and the Endurance itself. This went on for two months, getting worse towards the end of September, the pressure causing massive splintering of the ship, and despite the best efforts of all the crew, who manned the pumps for up to 10 hours at a time to bail the freezing water, Shackleton finally made the order to abandon ship on 27th October 1915. The men took to the ice in temperatures of -25C.

As I read this story, it was now that I realised how Shackleton’s handling of the situation was so crucial in the events which were to unfold from this point. The ship, although not yet sunk, is just wreckage sticking out of the ice, still held by its fierce grip. Once the ice melts, the men know the remains of her will sink out of sight to rest at the bottom of the Weddell Sea. The 28 men had three lifeboats and all of the provisions they could salvage from the ship, and yet, as Alfred Lansang wrote in his excellent book Endurance, “…there was a remarkable absence of discouragement. All the men were in a state of dazed fatigue and nobody paused to reflect on the terrible consequences of losing their ship. Nor were they upset by the fact that they were now camped on a piece of ice perhaps 6 feet thick. It was a haven compared with the nightmare of labour and uncertainty of the last few days on the Endurance. It was quite enough to be alive – and they were merely doing what they had to do to stay that way. There was even a trace of mild exhilaration in their attitude. At least they had a clear-cut task ahead of them.”

Time for action

A plan had already been formed – the lifeboats had been rigged with sledge runners in order to both protect the boats themselves from damage, and to make them easier to haul along the ice. The men would split into teams and haul two of the three boats along the ice (they planned to leave the third one behind, as there were not enough men for three teams), knowing that they must soon encounter open water, through which they intended to sail Paulet Island, 346 miles to the northwest. From this point Shackleton had entirely one focus. The day before they set off, he wrote I pray God that I can manage to get the whole parry safe to civilisation.

On 30th October 1915 the crew began their attempt to reach Paulet Island. They very quickly realised that the terrain was too difficult to haul the 1-ton boats over, the surface ridged and piled so badly that they only covered two miles in three days. Shackleton changed tack in the face of the situation, ordering the crew to make camp and wait for conditions to improve. The ice was drifting slowly in a northerly direction, and so the hope was that the floe would continue to take them closer to their destination and that the ice would break up before they overshot their target, enabling them to row to land. They stayed in this camp, named Ocean Camp, until 23rd December, when Shackleton, concerned with the direction of the drift, ordered them to try to march again. They covered seven and a half miles in seven back-breaking days. Shackleton called for them to make camp again, and they stayed in Patience Camp for the next three months.

Supplies were now running low. There were less seals to shoot, and the dogs required large amounts of seal meat to stay alive. So the dogs were shot and eaten, to supplement the seal rations which the men were also eating. They had packaged rations, but Shackleton wanted to keep these for when there really was no other food source, a crucial decision.

The ice had by now changed direction enough to mean that getting to Paulet Island was an impossibility. Although they drifted level with it at one point, there were 60 miles of sea ice between them and it – Shackleton remarked that it “might as well have been 600 miles”. They had no chance of getting over it alive. So their destination was changed again – they now aimed for Deception Island. Sometimes visited by the whaling boats, Deception Island also had a church. Shackelton hoped that if there were no whalers in the area, they could at least use the church’s timber to build a more sea worthy boat than the lifeboats they had to get them across some of the roughest seas on earth. On 9 April the three boats (the third one was not left behind in the end) were launched from their now rapidly breaking ice floe into the Weddell Sea.

The ice, although now breaking up rapidly, was still a danger, and often the men would have to drag the boats up onto a floe to escape being crushed. Temperatures were down as low as -30C, and the men were wet and cold, with moral dropping daily. Shackleton saw all of this and changed the plan again –the sooner they were out of the boats and on land, the better. As such, he ordered they make for the nearest land, the unvisited Elephant Island.

Land!

On the 15th April, the crew landed on Elephant Island, and felt solid land beneath their feet for the first time in 497 days. They were exhausted, cold and hungry, but relieved beyond the power of words to be on land again.

After a death-like sleep, the men awoke the next day and Shackleton broke the bad news that they had to move camp. The spit of land they had fortuitously landed upon bore marks of high tides on the cliffs behind. If they stayed they would be swept into the sea. A boat was launched with 5 men to source a new site, a spot found and camp moved the seven miles to their new home, later named Cape Wild.

Shackleton again showed his strength of mind and purpose. He knew that the island was not visited by anyone, and help was unlikely to come. They would need to engineer their own salvation. As such, he asked the ship’s carpenter McNish to make one of the lifeboats, named the James Caird, more seaworthy in order to give it and its crew a better chance on the 800-mile voyage back to South Georgia. From there, Shackleton would get help and rescue the men.

A suicide mission

On 24 April 1916, the James Caird was launched from Elephant Island. As well as Shackleton, the crew consisted of navigator Frank Worsley, Tom Crean, John Vincent, Harry McNish and Timothy McCarthy. On 8th May, after two weeks battling gale force winds and the largest waves Shackelton had seen in twenty-six years at sea, the James Caird put ashore on South Georgia. Alas for them, they were on the opposite side to the whaling stations – the men now had the task of crossing the interior mountain range of the island to get the help they so desperately needed. The men rested for a few days to recover from the ordeal of the boat journey, before three of them – Shackleton, Crean and Worsley, set out for the whaling stations. After two weeks of stumbling, shuffling and at times crawling, at 7am on 20 May 1916, the three men finally reached civilisation, walking into Stromness Station. A boat party was sent out from here to pick up the three members of the James Caird party on the other side of the island. Shackelton then set about getting a rescue mission organised for the rest of the Endurance crew on Elephant Island. He finally managed to borrow a steam tug boat – Yelcho– from the Chilean government, and 4 months after he had left the bulk of his men sheltering under two upturned lifeboats, on 30th August 1916, Ernest Shackelton returned to Elephant Island. The cast-aways had spotted the boat straight away, and all who could ran to the shore to shout and scream. There was no need, this boat already knew they were there. A rowing boat was lowered from Yelcho, Shackleton stood at its fore as it got closer to the island. “Are you all well?” he shouted. “We are all well!” came the reply. “We are all well!”

Sir Raymond Priestly, Antarctic Explorer and Geologist, put it so eloquently when he said: “For scientific discovery give me Scott; for speed and efficiency of travel give me Amundsen; but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”

My lesson

And the lesson this story taught me? I’m an ultra runner, an endurance athlete. But the endurance I have to muster to get through the longer races is of absolute nothingness compared to the endurance these brave men had to live their lives by for 10 months solid, with very little food, very little warmth and very little hope of surviving. How could going for a long run ever compare to that? This thought is a very powerful one for me. Running ultras is hard, but when I’m struggling, my thoughts filter back to the stories of these men, the Endurance they sailed in and the endurance they exhibited. Shackleton’s mindset in this cannot be underestimated. His focus was precise, his aim clear – through all the enforced changes in plan, he stuck to the his overriding principle – to get his men home safe. I tell myself at the start of long races, that all I have to do is keep moving until I finish. If that means moving slowly, then so be it. But, unless an injury happens which physically stops me from moving (and I mean ‘stops’), I will carry on. I carry on in memory of people like those of The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. ‘Keep moving’ is my simple, precise and clear aim, and if Shackleton and his men can do what they did, surely I can just keep moving? I thought about this story a lot during my first 100-mile race and I’ve never had to lean on its power so much as then.

5 thoughts on “The power of mindset

  1. Shackleton’s 1914 exposition is one of the most harrowing books I have ever read and I can see how inspiring it can be to your passion. Human insurance is a powerful thing.

    1. If you’ve not read Mawson’s Will by Lennard Bickel, I’d strongly recommend it. Just as harrowing, but in a different kind of way…

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