Heroes Born of Failure

At first sight, the story of Shackleton and his men appears to be an endless succession of failures and sufferings. But considered in the light of faith, it has many important lessons to offer for our spiritual life.

In August of 1914, after seven months of exhausting preparation, a beautiful and solid boat set sail from the Port of Plymouth, equipped for one of the greatest expeditions of the age. Her name was Endurance.1

She was headed for one of the most inhospitable regions of the planet – Antarctica. Thousands of kilometres of dangerous navigating separated the vessel from this distant and permanently snow-bound land that lies in the clutches of a climate that is aggressively hostile to human nature. There, explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, accompanied by a mixed group of officers, scientists and even a photographer, would attempt to cross the unknown continent from side to side, passing through the South Pole.

What impelled this valiant British explorer, in the vigour of his fortieth year, to undertake such a dangerous adventure?

Sights trained beyond the horizon

In every age, there arise individuals who challenge the banality of daily life and who aspire to achieve grandiose feats. One could say that the voice of the Spirit stirs in the depths of these hearts, repeating the words of the Apostle John: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. […] The world passes away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides for ever” (1 Jn 2:15, 17).

Sir Ernest Shackleton was one such man. He lived between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, an age of great expeditions to the far reaches of the earth, and belonged to that caste of heroes who keep their sights trained beyond the horizon. At sixteen years of age, he quit his studies at Dulwich College, London, and embarked as a cabin boy on a sailing ship. After obtaining the rank of captain in the merchant marine, he was nominated third officer on the Discovery, commanded by Robert Falcon Scott, which set sail with the goal of reaching the South Pole.

The serious problems that arose on this unsuccessful expedition did not dissuade him. In August of 1907, he set sail once again for the southernmost point of the earth, this time captaining his own ship: the Nimrod. Once again, he failed to attain his goal. A mere hundred and fifty kilometres from their destination, at latitude 88°23’, they had to turn back, leaving the glory of the conquest of the South Pole to the Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who arrived there in December of 1911.

However, Shackleton was not a man to sit idly by the fireside… Before long, he was at work again organizing a new expedition that would begin with the departure of the Endurance.

A newspaper ad with a call to suffering

An Antarctic crossing implied a journey of two thousand and nine hundred kilometres under extreme conditions, using sledges pulled by dogs. This called for thorough planning and preparation.

Shackleton would depart from South Georgia Island aboard the Endurance crossing the Weddell Sea, and disembark in Vahsel Bay. There they would begin their trek. Meanwhile, the other ship of the expedition, the Aurora, would take a contingent of six to Ross Sea, located on the opposite side of the continent, in order to deposit provisions there for the final leg of the journey, thus increasing viability that the explorers would complete their mission.

How could men be found willing for such an undertaking? In that era, any person of good sense would easily see the danger involved of navigating the most dangerous seas of the world and of trekking across regions where wind speeds reached three hundred kilometres per hour, with temperatures as low as -75°C.

The boat Endurance set sail from the Port of Plymouth, for one of the greatest expeditions of the age.

It is said that a newspaper ad solved the problem: “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.” Does not this brief summons to suffering bring to mind the sublime invitation spoken by the Divine Redeemer? “If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me” (Mt 16:24).

Contrary to what might be expected, approximately five thousand candidates heeded the call of Shackleton. From this number, only twenty-seven were culled for the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition under his direct command; others would follow in a second ship that was headed for Ross Sea.

When the Endurance set sail from England, it left behind the initial clashes of the First World War, recently declared in Europe. On November 5 it arrived at Grytviken whaling station, in the South Georgia archipelago, the final point of contact with civilization before reaching Antarctica. The crew had to stay there for one month awaiting favourable conditions for departure.

The Endurance trapped in ice

On the morning of December 5, 1914, the ship once again weighed anchor, embarking on a voyage that would deprive the explorers of contact with society for almost two years. At a time when radio communications were in their early years, they were left to their own devices.

From that moment forward, sky, ice and sea would be the sole witnesses to what would play out. Providence had dire suffering in store for these men, griefs that would be registered for posterity in personal diaries and immortalized by the camera of Frank Hurley, the expedition’s photographer.

After five weeks of navigation in a south-westerly direction, the icy slopes of Coats Land came into sight. The crew of the Endurance was commanded by Frank Worsley, a hardened New Zealand captain, who applied all of his experience to circumvent or break through the ice floes that lay along their path. Nevertheless, the icebergs became increasingly larger; Hurley photographed some that were close to fifty metres in height.

That austral summer was much colder than anticipated. The ice continued to form around the ship, hedging it in on all sides. In January of 1915, after traversing one thousand five-hundred kilometres through iceberg strewn waters, the Endurance became immobilized in Weddell Sea, just a day’s short of its destination.

Shackleton and his men made valiant efforts to free it. They toiled relentlessly, but in vain. All their attempts ended in abysmal failure!

“Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal”

On February 24, the commander gave orders to transform the ship into a winter camp. They would have to wait there for seven months until the ice melted in September with the arrival of spring.

Alexander Macklin, one of the surgeons on board, wrote in his diary: “Shackleton at this time showed one of his sparks of real greatness. He did not rage at all, or show outwardly the slightest sign of disappointment. He told us simply and calmly that we must winter in the pack, explained its dangers and possibilities, never lost his optimism and prepared for the winter.”2

This admirable attitude of a true leader, capable of keeping his subordinates united and motivated despite calamity, recalls the words of St. Peter in his letter to the elect: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when His glory is revealed” (1 Pt 4:12-13).

Amid the perpetual darkness of the southern winter, the men spent their time maintaining the various parts of the ship, staging theatre skits, putting on musical performances and lectures illustrated with slides, and playing chess, while each crewmember also kept up his specific area of expertise. To buoy the men’s spirits, Shackleton fostered a true formation course, lessening the tedium of that interval that could have driven them to insanity.

Overcome by the power of nature

In June, the temperature hovered around -30°C. The ice surrounding the Endurance seemed suffused with ominous quietude. Suddenly, sounds similar to artillery volleys were heard and everyone snapped to attention. Five hundred yards from the ship, blocks of ice each weighing several tons started piling up, one on top of the other, due to pressure from the sea. But the worst was yet to come.

With the coming of spring, before it was possible to free the ship, large blocks of ice overwhelmed and demolished it. After months of struggling to keep it in good navigational condition, they reaped yet another failure. On October 27, Shackleton ordered the ship to be abandoned.

An episode that occurred the night before quitting the ship proved to the brave and exhausted crew that their human strength was not enough to confront the situation. A group of eight emperor penguins solemnly approached the ship and, tossing back their heads, emitted a type of funeral dirge that none of those seasoned explorers had ever heard before.

Fear gripped their hearts as they watched this scene so filled with symbolism that seemed to foreshadow the death of the mighty ship that had been their shelter during the Antarctic winter. In less than a month it would lie on the bottom of the Weddell Sea.

These men, so confident in themselves, were left without shelter on the frozen sea, unsure as to which course to take, equipped only with the apparatus and dogs removed from the vessel before it sank. To survive in such extreme conditions, it was necessary that they unite more than ever around their commander. They had to be willing to obey his orders without question or fears, and to suffer for each other.

Shackleton leaving Elephant Island en route to South Georgia…

Patience Camp

With the ship rendered useless, but still buoyed up by the ice, Shackleton set up Abandonment Camp, where they spent the first three nights. Next, they identified a nearby ice floe that seemed safer and erected Ocean Camp.

The expeditioners had retrieved three lifeboats from the Endurance, the sledges and tents they intended to use during the crossing of the continent, and all of the supplies they could carry. This would ensure their survival for some time, but what direction were they to take in the middle of that frozen plain?

They tried to march toward the continent, but without success: the condition of the terrain around them was such that they were only able to travel twelve kilometres in a week. Faced with the impossibility of advancing, Shackleton set up Patience Camp. The sacrifice of the dogs began.

On one or another occasion, the drifting of the pack ice on which they stood brought them relatively close to terra firma. On January 21, 1916, they were two hundred and fifty kilometres from Snow Hill Island, and at the beginning of March, only a hundred kilometres from Paulet Island, but in order to reach them it was necessary to get the lifeboats to open water…

The ice opens, hope is kindled

After being ice-bound for fifteen months, on April 9, at one-thirty in the afternoon, a fissure in the ice finally allowed them to launch the boats into the sea. One of the more plausible destinies was Deception Island, to the west, where they knew they had a deposit of supplies.

The conditions of the trip were extremely harsh from the outset. On April 10, the photographer wrote in his diary: “Last night, a night of tension & anxiety – on a par with the night of the ship’s destruction…, Sea & wind increase & have to draw up onto an old isolated floe and pray to God it will remain entire through the night. No sleep for 48 hours, all wet Cold & miserable, with a N.E. Blizzard raging…. No sight of land & Pray for cessation of these wild conditions.”3

Nevertheless, nothing riveted their attention quite as much as a pod of killer whales that accompanied the small boats all night long, circling them, as Shackleton himself describes: “Constant rain and snow squalls blotted out the stars and soaked us through. Occasionally the ghostly shadows of silver, snow, and fulmar petrels flashed close to us, and all around we could hear the killers blowing, their short, sharp hisses sounding like sudden escapes of steam.”4

After three days of sailing and rowing with all their strength against the current, they had not advanced even one kilometre! Worse yet, the currents had pushed them in the opposite direction. Yet another failure.

Finally, on terra firma!

It was urgent to make a decision. Shackleton gave up on moving toward the west and opted to head north toward Elephant Island. This meant moving away from the mainland and facing the turbulent waters of the South Atlantic, at a time when almost everyone was suffering from some ailment and half of the men were already disabled.

After another three days of stressful navigation on the high seas, the expeditioners reached their goal. After spending 497 days floating on ice or in boats over the waters they finally stepped onto dry land.

But the island was an inhospitable and grim place, removed from any sea route. The common run of individuals would have already lost hope of saving the lives of those men, but magnanimous souls do not bow to misfortune. This is what the Apostle teaches, as he praises the great heroes of the Old Testament: “Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that you may do the will of God and receive what is promised. For yet a little while, and the coming one shall come and shall not tarry” (Heb 10:35-37).

Shackleton’s epic was not over. He would yet return to his subordinates – then reduced to poor human vestiges – to civilization. To do so, five days after his arrival on the island, he announced a new plan: they would adapt and equip one of three lifeboats, just six metres long, fitting it to sail to Stromness whaling station.

The commander himself and five other members of the expedition would undertake the risky return to the point of origin. Meanwhile, Frank Wild, the lieutenant, would command the twenty-one other men who would wait on Elephant Island. But more than thirteen hundred kilometres separated them from the archipelago of South Georgia… The mission seemed impossible! Everything pointed to a new and even more resounding failure.

Seventeen tortuous days on the high seas

The seventeen days that Shackleton and his men spent aboard that flimsy vessel tossed about by the raging waters of the South Atlantic were a relentless succession of torments: cold, biting winds whipping wet clothes, frugal meals taken amid huge ocean swells, four-hour shifts to watch the helm and the sails, as well as monumental waves and squalls. But, despite the odds, the seasoned sailors were able make that tiny sailing craft follow the course that had been marked out with precision.

On May 2, thinking perhaps that the hardships had reached their apex, Shackleton took the helm of the boat around midnight. At a certain moment, he was pleased to note a narrow clearing in the sky. But a second later he realized, as he himself narrates, that what he had seen “was not a rift in the clouds, but the white crest of an enormous wave.”5

And he adds: “During twenty-six years’ experience of the ocean in all its moods, I had not encountered a wave so gigantic. It was a mighty upheaval of the ocean, a thing quite apart from the big white capped seas that had been our tireless enemies for so many days. I shouted: ‘For God’s sake, hold on! It’s got us!’” This storm would last forty-eight hours, during which God would not abandon them.

On May 8, the fresh water supply on the boat ran out. However, on the following day, those six exhausted men spotted South Georgia Island. They had miraculously reached their destiny! However, they had approached from the coast opposite the whaling station; that side of the island was completely uninhabited.

While they were looking for a place to land in order to recover their strength, a blizzard began to form and soon became a powerful hurricane. For the next nine hours a storm raged which threatened to destroy them, throwing them against the rocks. Later they would find out that the storm had provoked the shipwreck of a nearby five-hundred-ton steamer!

A fourth man walked with them

On May 10, they finally came ashore. They were on solid ground and only thirty kilometres in a straight line separated them from their goal. Neither the boat nor the crew were in any condition to navigate the two hundred and fifty kilometres that would have been required go around the island. There was only one option – to scale the steep cliffs at whose feet they stood and, traversing unexplored mountains and precipices, make their way by foot to the whaling station of Stromness…

Shackleton announced his new plan the next day. He would go accompanied by Captain Worsley and Tom Crean, a giant Irishman, while the other three crew members would wait by the cove. He calculated that the expedition, for which they had only thirty yards of rope and a carpenter’s adze, would take thirty-six hours.

Soon Shackleton and his two companions found themselves once again surrounded by cold, uncertainty and darkness, this time not in the waves of the ocean, but amid ragged peaks and valleys. Nightfall came upon them when they had reached a mountain peak. Due to the low temperatures and lack of suitable clothing, there was risk of freezing to death. A decision had to be made quickly.

As on previous occasions, Shackleton opted to take a risk. Seating themselves on the steep icy slope, they slid vertiginously toward the valley, hidden in darkness, without knowing where they would end up… In a few minutes they had descended more than five hundred metres, but God’s hand sustained them.

Shackleton himself later wrote that he felt a fourth man walking with them during this journey, and his two companions confirmed his presence. How can we not but recall here the famous passage from the Book of Daniel on the three youths cast into the furnace? There we read: “Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up in haste. He said to his counsellors, ‘Did we not cast three men bound into the fire?’ They answered the king, ‘True, O king.’ He answered, ‘But I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods’” (Dn 3:24-25).

…returning from the same island in search of the last survivors.

“None of them is lost”

After still a few more adventures, they reached their destination – Stromness whaling station. There they were warmly received by its residents, whalers accustomed to tragedies at sea. Shackleton recovered quickly and began making plans for the rescue of the crew.

It was easy to send a boat to retrieve the three men who were on the other side of the island, but the remaining survivors would still have to wait almost four months, until weather conditions allowed access to Elephant Island. Meanwhile, the faithful Lieutenant Wild, unaware of the proximity of the rescue, sought to keep alive the hope of the men and their fidelity to the captain. Every day, at the wake-up, he urged them to roll up and stow their sleeping bags as soon as possible, for that might be the day of the commander’s return.

Only on the fourth attempt did Shackleton manage to reencounter them. As soon as he set eyes on them, he counted them one by one; they were all alive! It was a miracle that no one had died after twenty-two months under those conditions. Well might these have been his words to God: “[Those] which Thou hast given me; I have guarded them, and none of them is lost” (Jn 17:12).

After their return to England, many members of Shackleton’s crew, starting with him, experienced nostalgia for these sufferings: “In memories we were rich. We had pierced the veneer of outside things. We had ‘suffered, starved and triumphed, grovelled down, yet grasped at glory, grown bigger in the bigness of the whole.’ We had seen God in His splendours, heard the text that nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of man.”6

A faithful Catholic never fails!

The story of Shackleton’s journey is not just a beautiful adventure composed of a series of failures. It has much to teach us, because it reflects the course of those who continue to believe even when all reasons to do so seem to have vanished.

A faithful Catholic encounters along his path grave risks to his salvation. There is no shortage of failures and deceptions; he might even feel abandoned by Providence at certain moments of his life. But if he asks for the intercession of the Blessed Virgin and cherishes in the depths of his soul the certainty of her love, God will use these misfortunes to make him a hero of faith.

As Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira teaches, “At times, Our Lady permits the direst sufferings and the direst trials for those whom She loves. She permits the appearance of complete defeat for those whom She wishes to triumph. She requires that those whom She calls to this take the fragments of the victories, of the previous structure that remains in their hands, carefully safeguard them, and turn them into seeds.”7 



1 Built in Norway from oak and Baltic pine, the Endurance was a brigantine sailboat that also had a coal-powered engine. Its hull, almost forty-four metres long, had been carefully planned to withstand the Arctic ice and to break it.

2 ALEXANDER, Caroline. The Endurance – Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1988, p.61.

3 Idem, p.141.

4 Idem, p.143.

5 Idem, p.172.

6 SHACKLETON, Ernest Henry. South! The Story of Shackleton’s Last Expedition 1914-1917. Bremen: Salzwasser, 2010, p.173.

7 CORRÊA DE OLIVEIRA, Plinio. Conference. São Paulo, July 7, 1973.



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