Since 2001 we have celebrated the life of the County Kildare born polar explorer, Ernest Shackleton, in the Autumn School which is held in Athy every October. The School and the Athy Heritage Centre Museum have been instrumental in bringing to the county a wide variety of visitors from all over the world who are interested in polar exploration and particularly the exploits of Ernest Shackleton, the world’s greatest Polar explorer.
One hundred years on from the extraordinary feats of endurance and survival which marked Shackleton’s third trip to the Antarctic it is sometimes difficult to appreciate the harshness of the Antarctic environment and the rigours undergone by Shackleton and his men. Although the Antarctic is now mapped and is home to a variety of permanent research stations it still has an irresistible lure for explorers. This was brought home to me by the shocking news of the death of the British polar explorer, Henry Worsley, last week. He died within days of almost completing his goal to become the first person to cross the Antarctic on foot. For more than 70 days he walked over 900 miles pulling a man sledge across the snow clad Antarctic in an attempt to emulate the feat of his hero Ernest Shackleton. The sledge weighing 150k, twice Worsley's own weight, carried his food, fuel and survival equipment. Over the course of his epic journey he lost 50 pounds in weight. Towards the end of his trek adverse weather conditions pinned him down in his tent for two days just 30 miles short of his ultimate goal. In a poignant final message by satellite phone Worsley, echoing his hero Shackleton's own diary entry of 1909 when Shackleton was 97 miles from the pole, said 'I too have shot my bolt. My journey is at an end. I have run out of time and physical endurance'
Of his own decision made on 9th January 1909 to abandon the attempt to reach the South Pole Shackleton wrote:
'Our last day outwards. We have shot our bolt, and the tale is latitude 88° 23' South, longitude 162° East. The wind eased down at 1 a.m., and at 2 a.m. we were up and had breakfast. At 4 a.m. started south ..... at 9 a.m. we were in 88° 23' South, half running and half walking over a surface much hardened by the recent blizzard. It was strange for us to go along without the nightmare of a sledge dragging behind us ..... we looked south with our powerful glasses, but could see nothing but the dead white snow plain. There was no break in the plateau as it extended towards the Pole, and we feel sure that the goal we have failed to reach lies on this plain. We stayed only a few minutes, and then we hurried back and reached our camp about 3 p.m. We were so dead tired that we only did two hours' march in the afternoon and camped at 5.30 p.m. The temperature was minus 19° Fahr. Fortunately for us, our tracks were not obliterated by the blizzard; indeed, they stood up, making a trail easily followed. Homeward bound at last. Whatever regrets may be, we have done our best.'
Shackleton’s experience and now Worsley’s tragic death is a reminder to us that the Antarctic remains a challenging environment even for the most experienced explorer. Worsley was an experienced adventurer and explorer who with a number of descendents of Shackleton’s original team walked to the South Pole in 2008. On that occasion he carried Shackleton’s old compass in his pocket. Henry Worsley was planned to be a speaker at next October’s Shackleton Autumn School and his death is a sad loss to the world of Polar exploration.
There is obvious sadness at the loss of a brave man on such a momentous journey. It is a poignant reminder that in many ways the Antarctic remains as forbidding a place today as it was 100 years ago. It also reminds us of the extraordinary determination, courage and fortitude of Ernest Shackleton and his men, including his fellow Irishmen Tom Crean and Timothy McCarthy, in surviving the harsh punishing environment of the Antarctic.
In February of 1916 Shackleton and his men were trapped on an ice floe after their ship, aptly named ‘Endurance’, was crushed in the ice waiting for an opportunity to launch their boats into the open sea. Less than two months later in April 1916 they began the epic journey which would result in the rescue of the entire crew of the Endurance. This extraordinary feat will be remembered later this year in Shackleton’s home town of Athy.