Forged in Crisis
CHAPTER ONE No Hope of Rescue
In late October 1915, Ernest Shackleton, leader of the celebrated British expedition to Antarctica, surveyed the crisis unfolding around him. Shackleton had originally planned to sail his ship, the Endurance, through the Weddell Sea to the South American side of the continent, land on the coast, and then march a team of five men, supported by dogs and sledges, to the South Pole and then onto the Ross Sea on the side closest to Australia. Completing this mission would make the explorer the first to cross the entire continent. In the context of other Antarctic expeditions, this achievement held out the promise of enduring fame for Shackleton and glory for Great Britain.
But in late January 1915, pack ice had locked the Endurance about eighty miles from land, holding the ship and her crew hostage to the drifting floes; by October, the currents had carried the boat almost seven hundred miles
north and west. The floes—large masses of floating ice, some weighing several tons—alternately broke apart and came back together in the ocean’s mighty swells. Caught in this shifting mosaic, the wooden ship creaked and groaned under the immense pressure. It seemed only a matter of time before the Endurance would succumb and sink.
Toward the end of October, the ice suddenly rose and fell, driving the vessel starboard (rightward) to a thirty-degree tilt. The ship righted itself when the ice loosened some. But in the ensuing days, the floes continued to press on the hull, opening planks on the ship’s sides.
Crew members manned the pumps round the clock as they tried to stanch the inflowing water. The captain, Frank Worsley, still hoped the Endurance might break free of the moving pack and sail into open water. But Shackleton was less optimistic and made plans to move the men and supplies onto the ice. “A strange occurrence was the appearance of eight Emperor [penguins],” Worsley noted in his diary on October 26. After issuing a few ordinary cries, he wrote, the birds “proceeded to sing what sounded like a dirge
for the ship.”
The next day, the ice intensified its assault on the Endurance, squeezing her like a vise. The vessel was “in her death agony,” wrote the expedition’s surgeon, Alexander Macklin, in his diary. “It was a pitiful sight. To all of us she seemed like a living thing—we had sworn at her and cursed her antics in a seaway, but we had learned to love her as we now realised, and it was awful to
witness her torture.” Late that afternoon, Shackleton ordered his men to abandon ship and take refuge in tents on the shifting ice floe. That night, the temperature fell to -15° Fahrenheit (-26° Celsius).
While the men tried to sleep amid the vessel’s cracking timbers, Shackleton paced the ice. He thought about
the dying ship. He took stock of his men and options for getting them all home alive. Like other leaders in a crisis, Shackleton understood that achieving his mission depended critically on how he managed himself—mentally, emotionally, and physically. He realized that the path ahead was likely to be long and arduous, and as he later remembered, “an ordered mind and a clear programme were essential if we were to come through without
loss of life.”
Early the next morning, Shackleton, his second-in-command, Frank Wild, and expedition photographer Frank Hurley prepared hot powdered milk for breakfast. As the men emerged from their tents, Shackleton gathered them round and announced a new goal: “ship and stores have gone—so now we’ll go home.” He did so “without emotion, melodrama or excitement,” Macklin remembered, even though “it must have been a moment of bitter disappointment” for the leader. He’d “lost his ship, and with her any chance of crossing the Antarctic Continent.” As always with him, Macklin added, “what had happened had happened: it was in the past and he looked
future.” A day later, in the privacy of his own diary, Shackleton was more candid about the challenge ahead. He knew that circumstances had altered his mission from one of exploration to one of survival. “A man must shape himself to a new mark directly the old one goes to ground,” he wrote. “I pray God, I can manage to get the whole
party to civilization.”
From his Antarctic experience, Shackleton knew that one of the most important tools he had in accomplishing his mission was his presence. How he showed up each day in front of his men—what kind of energy he gave off, how determined he looked, even how he carried his body—had a huge impact on the team. He used what we would today call his emotional intelligence to maintain his determination and bravery; when these flagged, he never let his men know.
This is an important lesson for our time. Leaders often forget that all eyes are on them—as they give a speech, sit in a meeting, walk down a hallway, or glance furtively at their smartphone during dinner. This is especially true when the volatility of a situation increases. In these moments, people instinctively look to leaders, searching their words, actions, and body language for guidance. This means that individuals in positions of authority must learn to embody their mission not only in what they say and do, but also in how they show up. When a leader appears assured and levelheaded, others are more likely to respond to the call.
As the forty-one-year-old commander worked to exude confidence, he kept his men’s focus trained on the task ahead. It was no use considering what had been lost or what might have been; the new goal was to get everyone home safely. The morning after abandoning ship, Shackleton announced the team would march across the pack ice toward a former explorer’s base on Snow Hill Island, some three hundred miles northwest. He estimated the men could walk five to seven miles a day. He was sure that when they arrived there, they would find emergency stores cached by past expeditions. From Snow Hill Island, the commander and a smaller party would travel an additional 130 miles west to Deception Island, where whaling ships were known to dock.
The trek across the broken ice would be difficult for a group
hauling two of the ship’s three lifeboats, food supplies, and other stores. But Shackleton was in a hurry to get his team moving, partly to improve the men’s morale. “It will be much better for the men in general to feel that even though progress was slow,” he noted privately, “they are on their way to land, than it will be simply to sit down and wait for the tardy north-westerly drift to take us out of this cruel
waste of ice.” A second reason of Shackleton’s for taking action now was to avoid damage to the lifeboats; this might occur if the men waited for open water and ended up sailing in choppy seas amid shifting icebergs.
On October 30, 1915, three days after evacuating the Endurance, the men set out for Snow Hill Island. Some hauled the lifeboats, others drove dog teams pulling supplies. The long, plodding caravan headed away from the ship and the site the men called Dump Camp. The team moved at a crawl, owing to their heavy loads and the difficulty of moving across uneven ice—a landscape defined by jagged ridges and huge blocks as far as the eye could see. After two tedious hours, the men had traveled only a mile. They were exhausted. The next two days were worse, and on the third day, November 1, Shackleton called off the march.
The twenty-eight men had traveled less than four miles toward their destination. The commander knew that at the current pace, their supplies would give out long before they reached Snow Hill Island. He ordered the men to move their gear to a solid ice floe not far from the battered ship. Shackleton planned to have the men camp there while he considered his next move.
On November 21, 1915, the commander saw what remained of the Endurance sinking through the ice. “She’s going, boys!” he shouted, and the men quickly clambered out of their tents to watch. “There was our poor ship a mile and a half away struggling in her death-agony,” a crew member recorded in his diary. “She went down bows first, her stern raised in the air. She then gave one quick dive and the ice closed over
her forever.” A strange silence fell over the camp. With the ship gone, the men could see nothing but ice, extending endlessly in all directions. There was no line on the horizon, no sign whatsoever of the outside world. Without the Endurance, one man wrote, “our destitution seems more emphasized, our
desolation more complete.” Shackleton himself was stunned by the ship’s sinking. He recorded the event only briefly in his diary, adding, “I cannot
write about it.”
The leader knew there was no hope of rescue. Not only were the men seven hundred miles northwest of where he’d originally planned to build base camp, but he’d also told family and colleagues not to expect any communication from him before early 1916. The leader understood that he’d have to get the crew to safety on his own, and he knew how difficult this would be.
Shackleton had been to Antarctica twice before. The first time, as a member of the British National Antarctic Expedition (1901–4), he’d come close to death—a result he attributed as much to the team’s weak commander as to the continent’s harsh conditions. The second time, he’d led his own expedition (1907–9). His crew hadn’t achieved its objective of discovering the South Pole, but he’d learned a great deal about himself and his authority. He knew that cohesion, including the men’s faith in themselves and their leader, was as important to survival as adequate nutrition. Shackleton also understood that as the head of the expedition, he was responsible for these elements. Now, in 1915, against extraordinary odds, he had to advance his mission and keep his men believing they could achieve it with him.
How exactly was the explorer going to accomplish his goal? How was he to keep his own courage and confidence levels high to feed those of his men? In November 1915, as the Endurance sank and the ice closed over her, the answers to these questions were anything but clear. What Shackleton did know was that he was committed to bringing all his men home alive, and he was willing to do whatever it took to accomplish this. In the midst of disaster, he’d made a conscious choice to lead. He was all-in, and his story offers up key leadership lessons for moments when disaster strikes.