When it came time to interview prospective sailors for his expedition across Antarctica, Ernest Shackleton had clear-cut criteria. He had to pick the right men for his journey to the bottom of the world, a news-making attempt to be the first to cross the continent via the coldest place on Earth: the South Pole.
It was 1914, the heroic age of Antarctic exploration, and the famed British explorer had received hundreds of applications. In interviews, recalled one applicant, Shackleton “asked me if my teeth were good, if I suffered from varicose veins, if I had a good temper and if I could sing.”
This final question surprised the young man, and Shackleton clarified: “Oh, I don’t mean any [opera singer Enrico] Caruso stuff, but I suppose you can shout a bit with the boys?”
Singing and what it screened for in shorthand — the ability to fraternize and maintain high spirits — would prove even more vital than the long underwear, Burberry coats and finnesko boots they would pack. It would be just as imperative as the food they meticulously prepared, including a “composition cake” the explorer formulated with a chemist, a precursor to today’s energy bars.
Shackleton knew this.
He had just turned 40, and the advent of middle age made him antsy. It was etched on his face: a prominent lower lip and restless blue eyes framed by black hair. He was poring over maps, seeking a bold adventure to make him young again.
Endurance set sail for Antarctica on Dec. 5, 1914, and the 28 men aboard soon encountered unusually heavy ice, traveling more than 1,000 miles from the remote island of South Georgia, the gateway to the Antarctic Circle. Then one ominous January day, the wooden ship became trapped in pack ice. It groaned under the pressure of millions of tons of ice.
Eventually the ship sunk, stranding the men on the ice and beginning the long wait, what one sailor described as a “white interminable prison.”
Shackleton was vigilant in his effort to keep up morale, veiling his private worry. He visited every tent after dinner to recite poetry or play cards. He led sing-alongs and waltzed on ice. He greenlighted an “Antarctic Derby,” with dog races and cigarette wagers.
He ordered everyone to cut one another’s hair, stepping up for the first shearing and causing fits of laughter as amateur barbers vied to produce the most hideous cut. As the months dragged on, he made a point to celebrate holidays with extra food and hot drinks.
Finally the men boarded their life boats and made their way to the nearest island, the uninhabited Elephant Island. They arrived on April 15, 1916 — 16 months since they’d last touched land.
Still, a smaller band had to press on in search of civilization, beginning an improbable 800-mile journey back to South Georgia Island in a 22-foot open boat. They endured the roughest waters, somehow surviving a hurricane that sunk a 500-ton steamer in the vicinity.
Shackleton returned every shipmate back to England — frostbitten, weary but alive.
For all our modern-day creature comforts, each of us will experience our own sense of abandonment, our own long Lent — be it a family crisis, a medical crisis, a financial crisis or a spiritual one.
But like Jesus in the desert, we will not be alone: “He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him” (Mark 1:13).
We will emerge stronger and wiser, able to appreciate life’s little pleasures anew.
The opportunity in crisis is to lead like Shackleton, to knit people together on the coldest days, to waltz on ice. That’s how you all make it home together.
Christina Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota.