A Shackleton Moment

I came across this phrase a few years ago, and it really stuck in my consciousness. It even played a role in my science fiction novel, MisStep, due out later this year.

What is a Shackleton Moment? To answer that, we just need to back up a little. Ernest Shackleton was one of the great explorers of the early twentieth century. Back then, the goal was the exploration of the vast icy expanses of our polar regions. They were, literally, terra incognita, unknown lands. They were blank spots on the map of the earth. Expeditions set out to map them, to study them, or to conquer them.

Most recall the Endurance Expedition of 1914-16 when thinking of Shackleton. That is an amazing story of leadership, determination, and survival. With their ship stuck, and then crushed, in the ice, Shackleton and his party of 27 men were stranded. Shackleton held them together, sailed 800 in a small life boat with five others, climbed over uncharted mountains of South Georgia, finally acquired a ship and rescued every one of his men left behind in Antarctica. Staggering hardship. A real tale of heroism.

But I’m not talking about that experience. To find Shackleton’s Moment, we have to go back further.

Shackleton was an adventurer, never happy with homelife. After years working in the merchant fleet, he wrangled a way onto the Discovery Expedition led by Robert Falcon Scott. That name might ring a bell. Scott eventually made it to the south pole. But not on the Discovery expedition. Discovery was Scott’s first stab at it, in 1902. They established a base at McMurdo Sound, laid out stores and made their dash. On the long march south, Scott took two others: Edward Wilson, and a man who proved himself on the voyage and the preparations for the march, Ernest Shackleton.

They didn’t make it. The Ross Ice Shelf proved too much of a challenge. They made it to 82 degrees south, the farthest of any man to date, but still 490 miles form the pole. The three turned around and struggled back to base. Shackleton was so wrecked by the march, he had to be sledged by the other two men for the final miles. Ten years later, Scott returned with Wilson and achieved his goal of reaching the pole.

But after the Discovery expedition, Shackleton was determined to go south again, to become a national hero by being the first to reach the south pole, to become immortalized. There are no spoilers here, because this is history.  Roald Amundson was the first to the pole in 1912. But in 1907 Shackleton was leading his own campaign, the Nimrod Expedition. After all the preparations were laid, Shackleton and four others set out on their gruelling trek, passed the previous far south record set by Scott in 1902, and kept going. They reached 88 degrees south, an astounding achievement, and a mere 100 miles from their goal.

By this time, however, the men were spent. And Shackleton had a decision to make. It was his moment. He could have continued. If he had done so, he would be remembered to this day as the man who reached the pole first. He knew that. Not just the fame, but the immortality he craved. He also knew that he would never make it back alive, nor would the four with him.

So, he turned around. That was his Shackleton Moment. Knowing when to stop, when to call it quits, when to go back and try again later.

In doing so, he showed Amundson, and Scott, how to reach their goal. In 1912, Amundson travelled quick and light and got there first. Scott had no way of knowing that Amundson had beaten him to the prize and carried on. Scott felt pride at passing Shackleton’s farthest point. But he didn’t turn around when he could have. The goal was too great. And he, as well as those with him, died on the ice.

It takes wisdom to recognize a Shackleton Moment, and courage to act on it.

In my science fiction novel, I write about when earth faced its Shackleton Moment, and rather than chase after a Planet B, we chose to clean up our home and take better care of it.

Here is a little snippet from that book, a short scene where the moment is discussed, the First Mate of the interstellar freighter Cirrus and the novel’s protagonist sharing a watch as they orbit the mining colony that started it all, HAT-P 5, otherwise known as The Shack, the place where humanity decided to turn back. Read it here: The Shackleton Moment

MisStep is due for release June 1, 2022