Shackleton's Way | The Back Story
Since the publication of Shackleton's Way in 2001, the question I find myself asked most often is, how did you get so interested in this?
The story starts in 1984. At the time, I was going out with someone who was seriously involved in sailing. So I decided to learn about sailing. That winter, and into the spring, I read books, books and, more books about sailing. Then one day, I found myself staring at the shelves in the Boston Public Library thinking, well, that's the end of that. I've read them all.
But as I turned away, a small book on a shelf behind me caught my eye. It had a sailboat on the cover. The book was Shackleton's Boat Journey by the captain of Endurance, Frank Worsley.
I was so intrigued by this against-all-odds story of survival and triumph that I started reading everything I could find on the subject. I blew through the books at the Boston Public Library, moved on the books at the Boston Athenaeum and, scrounged through used bookstores in Boston and Cambridge. I bought every book I could find on Antarctic exploration so I could make notes in the margins.
One sunny day, I was browsing through one of the many used bookstores that used to surround Harvard Square. The owner asked if he could help. After hedging a bit, I admitted my interest was Antarctic exploration. "Oh," he exploded, "Polar exploration, Civil War, fly-fishing. Can't keep them in stock. They go out as fast as they come in." Who knew?
I wanted to know how Shackleton had led his team through a series of stomach-churning ordeals. What leadership strategies had he used? Was there a rhythm to how the group got along? Did their collective mood ebb and flow? Were there people he had hired as senior members of the expedition who had let him down? Were there people who had contributed more than he had expected? Armed with my dusty library science degree, I set off to find out.
In 1989, the owner of a used bookstore in downtown Boston blew open the door to the wonderful world of book collecting for me. As I paid for yet another book on Shackleton's Endurance expedition, we got to chatting about my hobby. He gave me the name and phone number of a rare book dealer.
At this point, I felt like a little kid diving into the deep end of the pool, but I screwed up my courage and made the call. He couldn't have been kinder or more generous. He introduced me to other polar book dealers, mostly based around Seattle. For the first time, I could get my hands on hard-to-find books written by members of Heroic-age Antarctic expeditions.
In early 1991, I went to London for the first time to pursue my somewhat eccentric hobby. A visit to the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, UK, was eye-opening.
I explained I was interested in seeing transcripts of the journals kept on Shackleton's Endurance expedition. The archivist replied, "There has been a lot more work done on the Scott expeditions." I shrugged and said, "Well, that's nice, but I'm interested in Shackleton." According to the archivist, there weren't any transcripts of the Endurance expedition journals. I was horrified. To my mind, these were important historical documents that were being undervalued. My mind churned with possibilities about how to right this wrong.
In 1995, I went to Antarctica for the first time. Since I would be passing through New Zealand and Australia, I wrote to libraries in Wellington and Sydney to schedule appointments to see the Endurance expedition journals in their collections.
The Mitchell Library responded that they would sell me a microfilm copy of Frank Hurley's Endurance journal. I leaped at the opportunity.
I didn't hear back from The Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington but, I managed to squeeze in a few hours there. I introduced myself at the reference desk and explained what I had come to see. The librarian whirled around and exclaimed, "You're here!"
He hadn't had a chance to respond to my letter, but he was spectacularly helpful while I was there. As he showed me Endurance carpenter Harry McNeish's journal, he uttered a life-changing sentence, "You can borrow this material, you know." In my befuddled, 40-hours of traveling, jet-lagged state, I didn't think to ask him to explain what he meant by that, but his remark stayed wedged firmly in my mind.
Back home in New Jersey, I asked a few local libraries about borrowing material from New Zealand. The librarians were flummoxed but, in making inquiries, one librarian stumbled across an astonishing bit of information. Dartmouth College's rare-book library held a large chunk of Thomas Orde-Lees' Endurance expedition journal. I wrote to the library at Dartmouth and offered to pay for a photocopy of the journal and said I would send them a copy of my eventual transcription of the material. In short order, I heard back that they were delighted that I was interested in transcribing the journal and would send me a photocopy at no cost.
As to the Orde-Lees' journal held in New Zealand, fortunately, on the cruise to Antarctica, I had made a friend who lived in Wellington. As we traded emails, I asked him to call the librarian. The next day he replied, "The microfilm travels."
The microfilm made its way to New Jersey. My initial plan was to take notes on what I deemed the "interesting parts." But, on the microfilm, the journal was in sections that were out of order. There were handwritten months of entries from 1915, followed by typed pages from 1914, followed by re-written pages from 1916, then more pages from 1915, etc. I decided to print the whole thing out so I could put the pages in order.
For weeks, I spent evenings at a library putting dime after dime into a microfilm machine thinking to myself, "Thank heavens no-one knows what I'm doing. They would think I was insane."
It took months to transcribe the entire journal, which eventually ran to almost 500 pages. In struggling to make out the almost-daily entries in Orde-Lees' handwriting, I came to a much deeper understanding of the lives, personalities, and day-to-day challenges of the expedition. Orde-Lees began his journal as an extended letter to his wife. In early entries, he talks about being seasick. Like everyone else, he has to pitch in and wash the floors. He writes that he wishes he had paid more attention to how it was done at home. In later years, he became a correspondent for The Times of London.
On August 29, 1915, he wrote, "I know that in reading all the other books on polar exploration nothing interests me more than the character of the leaders, but naturally one cannot always form a very concise opinion from the narrative written by the leader himself. I hope, therefore, that this impression of Sir Ernest by an intimate acquaintance will be of some interest to those who read it." As I read that, I was stunned. It felt like he was talking to me directly from Endurance.
So why was I so interested? For me, this powerful story has always been a parable for the challenges that we all face in life - difficult diagnoses with Alzheimer's and cancer, the death of a loved one, inevitable career ups and downs. In 1984, I was still reeling from the after-effects of a severe bout with depression.
Wrapping up a Shackleton leadership workshop in Sydney, Australia, for business executives, I asked each person to share something they would take away from the story. Each had a different answer. For me, though, the takeaway has always been the same. If Shackleton could do that - lead a team successfully through a grueling ordeal for months - then, for heaven's sake, what can't we accomplish with the many, many resources this world has to offer?