Ernest Shackleton, Antarctic Explorer, feels presence of “Fourth Man” at Key Time

From "Shackleton" by Roland Huntford (Halliday Litograph Corp, West Hannover and Plympton, MS, 1985)
Ernest Shackleton had been on two previous Antarctic Expeditions before he began plans for a new expedition he would lead to cross overland going from one side of the Antarctic to the other. Robert Scott from England had failed just two years earlier to beat Amundsen of Norway to the South Pole (Scott and 4 others died on the way back from the pole) and this was Shackleton's way of achieving some other kind of "first" in the Antarctic. After struggling to obtain finances for the trip (his finances were still muddled when he departed), he was on his way with ship ("Endurance") and crew shortly before Great Britain entered World War I in 1914. The story of how his ship became stuck in the ice, how he and his 29 crew members lived through the long dark winter with the ship as their only refuge, and finally how his party were forced to leave behind a ship being crushed while he and his men floated on the gigantic iceberg for several months is the subject of several books. The story below is just one of many fascinating episodes that demonstrated that Shackleton and his men also deserved the title “Endurance”.


Getting off the large floating iceberg was a major challenge for Shakleton and his men as the ice floe moved slowly north toward the open ocean. They had to drag their three large boats over the gradually melting snow until the careful balance between water and ice was reached where they launch the boats. They encountered three days of difficult rowing with constant threat of losing sight of each other, before the men finally arrived at their destination: Elephant Island, a cold, dreary rock sticking up high enough to be elevated above the forlorn ocean around it. There, Shackleton left most of his men, then headed out in the one boat that could be rigged as a sailboat along with five other crew members. Their destination was the only source of civilization they could possibly reach: a whaling station on South Georgia Island 800 miles away.

Taking precise navigation readings while in a small ship traversing a rough sea and encountering mostly cloudy skies was an almost impossible task, but somehow Shackleton’s navigator, Frank Worsley, was able to get them within sighting distance of the island after 17 days’ at sea. They were approaching from the south, though, and the whaling station was on the north side of this long pencil-like island. They felt the risk too great to attempt sailing around the island, given their fatigue, the difficulty of night travel, and the unforgiving waves of the ocean beyond the island. Thus, they landed at a small cove and Shackleton made plans for him and two of the other five to hike over the mountainous glacier to the other side of the island.

To appreciate the difficulty of the trek he made, it helps to be reminded that no human had ever hiked over that mountain and then down to the whaling station in all the years previous. It was considered too treacherous and demanding. The hourly exhaustion and difficult path they encountered could have doomed their effort again and again throughout the 36 hours of trudging along with one ice ax and shoes barely qualifying with their few nails driven through for spikes. As they approached evening of the second day while reaching the top of a ridge, Shackleton knew their only hope to escape freezing at that altitude was to use their mangy rope as a make-shift toboggan and slide down the steep and fogged-in slope. They descended almost 1000 feet in a few minutes and luckily did so with falling through any crevices. Their long, difficult mission finally brought them to the doors of the whaling station and ultimate rescue for his 3 men on the other side of the island and, ultimately, the 23 men left at Elephant Island.

Years later, when writing his memoirs of the trip in his book, "South", Shackleton noted that:
“I have no doubt that Providence guided us, not only across the snowfields, but across the storm-white sea that separated Elephant island from our landing-place on South Georgia. I know that during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia it seemed to me often that we were four, not three.”

In Caroline Alexander’s book (T"he Endurance"; Alfred A Knopf, NY, 1998) she quotes TS Eliot who wrote in "The Waste Land" the following:
“Who is the third who walks always beside you
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you.”