His beloved ship Endurance, moored in pack ice, was crushed by the pressure of shifting floes. His men were marooned on islands of ice. For months they floated, praying, hoping, first for rescue, then simply for survival. In a desperate gamble, he led a clutch of sailors in a tiny lifeboat on an 850-mile journey into the foggy horizon. In the end, while war raged in Europe and the world's attention wandered, he assured that all 27 of his crew lived to tell of their ordeal. The tale they told was perhaps the adventure of the last century.
The hero at the center of this tale, Ernest Shackelton, was a dreamer, an explorer and a failure. He hoped for glory and won it only after his big dream of exploration -- his audacious plan known as the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, a journey to cross an unexplored, ice-bound continent by foot -- failed. It is fitting that the new century begin with a salute to Shackelton, hero on ice -- and subject of perhaps the most unlikely revival of any figure of the age.
Tucked away in an exhibition hall in the headquarters of the National Geographic Society in Washington, there sits a small white whaleboat, sleek and shiny, only 22 feet 6 inches long, constructed of American elm and English oak and Baltic pine, unremarkable in every way, except, of course, for the heroism that occurred inside it.
That boat is the James Caird, and after desperate men stuffed 1,500 pounds of shale rocks into its hull for ballast, it left a precarious outpost on Elephant Island for a 17-day journey to South Georgia and a rendezvous with rescue.
Simply reaching Elephant Island, after 497 days on ice and sea, had been an achievement that strained men and credulity itself. But Elephant Island was more hell than haven; it was nowhere -- check the map and you will see -- and it provided no hope for rescue. So Shackelton was forced to split the party, taking five men across the angry sea and leaving 22 on shore to endure gales of 100 miles an hour, waiting for the small band on the lifeboat to reach civilization and safety. Or not.
"The men who were staying behind made a pathetic little group on the beach," Shackelton recalled later, "with the grim heights of the island behind them and the sea seething at their feet, but they waved to us and gave us their hearty cheers."
The shore party transformed the two remaining lifeboats into a hut with blubber lamps for light. They waited while the others pressed on, and then, after a miraculous landfall and a trek across snowy peaks and forbidding fields, finally reached a whaling station.
It is a story for all time, but it has, curiously, become a story for our time, with two new books on the market and a third, Alfred Lansing's 1959 classic, "Endurance," selling briskly in a $12.95 paperback and emerging as a favorite for book clubs everywhere. And the drama of the episode is only reinforced for modern admirers by a photographic exhibit at the National Geographic Society, where it remains until Feb. 6.
The photographs are the work of the Australian photographer James Francis Hurley, who joined the Shackelton expedition and whose images are crisp, cold and powerful as ice itself. They capture the grit of the men who endured the unendurable, the hopelessness of their predicament amid towers of ice and sprays of salt water, and, of course, the heartbreak of the destruction of their ship.
No one knows why Shackelton has suddenly become the man of the moment, but the answer might have something to do with the beginnings of the journey itself. It started in the fateful month of August 1914, a time that historians, citing the beginning of World War I, often use as a shorthand for the beginning of the 20th century. Now, as a new century begins, we are thirsty for heroes.
John F. Kennedy once said that becoming a hero was easy. His boat, PT-109, was destroyed. The same might be said for Shackelton. But it is not mere challenge that makes character, but the way a character responds to challenge.
Shackelton's family motto was "Fortitudine vincimus," by endurance we conquer. So he named his ship Endurance, which we now recognize as a deft, prescient metaphor. We remember his story now, at the turning point of two millenniums, because it is, above all, the story of the human spirit. By endurance we conquer.