Shackleton’s journey to Penrith

 

Whilst I creep at 40 mph over the Shap road which is, for the first time this winter, covered in slushy snow, Shackleton and the Endurance are trapped in the pack ice in the Weddell Sea in the long nights of the Antarctic winter.

 

On my previous commutes, he had still been in good spirits, telling humorous anecdotes about the Emperor Penguins, which were their companions (and food supply) on the ice. Now, disaster is impending and the Endurance, after a long struggle, is about to be crushed by the ice.

It would be easy to just wait with morbid curiosity for that moment, but I was more intrigued by Shackleton’s depiction of his surroundings, which he had plenty of time to study. Study – both in a descriptive/aesthetic and in a physical sense: Shackleton’s crew spends a lot of time taking probes of the ocean floor and scientifically surveying the ice and bergs around them. In his diaries Shackleton observes, plenty of times, the weird and wondrous effects of mirage and refraction, which occur almost every day and create distortions of perspectives, sense of scale and distance, and cause the sun to rise and sink several times in a row: ‘Everything wears an aspect of unreality. Icebergs hang upside down in the sky; the land appears as layers of silvery or golden cloud. Cloud-banks look like land, icebergs masquerade as islands or nunataks, and the distant barrier to the south is thrown into view, although it really is outside our range of vision.’

The ice is everywhere. Daily, Shackleton and his crew observe the pressure ridges thrown up by the moving plates; ‘Standing on the stirring ice one can imagine it is disturbed by the breathing and tossing of a mighty giant below’.

Driving to work every morning and listening to the story of Shackleton’s last expedition to the South Pole, I’m dreaming of seeing this unreal world myself. Getting back out there where nothing comes easy, as the days are short, the temperatures low and the sledge heavy. But simple. Life on the icy plateaus is reduced to the bare essentials of survival. Eat. Pull. Eat. Sleep. The tent routines are satisfying. All you need to survive fits into one pulk.

Not long now. At the end of February we will head out to Iceland to recce a north-south crossing of the Island. This will be a lonely undertaking as we will be as far away from the ring road as possible, on unmarked trails. A stack of six tyres is waiting behind my house to be pulled up and down the back roads for training and most of my evenings are filled with gym time.

The attraction to go to these inhospitable places is a strange one. If you’re like me and you want to stop reading about other people’s adventures and get out there yourself – go for it! There is still time to get in shape for our winter trips next year: Hardangervidda (18-25 March) and Svalbard (13-26 April). You are sure to find out what it is all about! 

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