Retracing a Legendary Antarctic Expedition, Even Down to the Whisky
In 1907, explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton set out on the Nimrod expedition: one attempt at becoming the first to trek across Antarctica and reach the South Pole. The journey was stocked with, among other rations, 25 cases of Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt Whisky.
But Shackleton and his crew never made it to the South Pole – he turned around just 100 miles shy of the South Pole. And in his next attempt in 1914, perhaps even more harrowing, the explorer saved the lives of his men after their ship froze in the ice — along with the whisky, which was found a century later still frozen under ice, excavated and faithfully recreated. Both of Shackleton’s Arctic expeditions left his name legendary as a leader, explorer and survivor.
Lifelong adventurer and environmental scientist, Tim Jarvis, set out in 2013 to retrace Shackleton’s journey in the James Caird. Jarvis sailed a replica of Shackleton’s James Caird boat 1500kms across the Southern Ocean from Elephant Island, Antarctica to South Georgia and climbed over South Georgia’s mountainous interior all while using the same rudimentary equipment, authentically replicated period clothing and technology just as Shackleton and his team did.
In preparation for National Adventure Day, we were on the arctic ground side-by-side with Jarvis and Shackleton Whisky in Finse, Norway, which once hosted Shackleton as he trained for his 1914 expedition. Our own team set out to experience the wild there first hand. We spoke with Jarvis about his adventures, and specifically, what drew him to recreate this epic feat.
Left: Tim Jarvis recreating Earnest Shackleton’s 1914 Endurance Expedition (shot on a period-correct 1912 Kodak Vest Pocket Camera). Right: The man himself, Sir Ernest Shackleton (center)
Q: What inspired you to recreate Shackleton’s journey?
A: Sir Edmund Hillary actually described Shackleton’s journey as the greatest survival journey of all time. Without a doubt, the rescue mission he undertook after his ship sank ended up being a far greater achievement than his original goal of trying to cross Antarctica. I wanted to try and emulate what he had done in the manner in which he had done it, in part to honor his memory on the centenary of his original journey and in part because it represented an incredible personal challenge for me. It was such an audacious trip that it is difficult not to be inspired by it.
I also wanted our retracing his journey to be about several things over and above the adventure and honoring his achievement. One of the key things was showing how Shackleton’s leadership and teamwork ethic could be applied to some of the challenges we’re faced with today. Central to this was the ability he had to get his teams to put aside their differences to pull together as one to achieve difficult goals.
Q: Rather than just retracing Shackleton’s steps, you also used rudimentary gear, a replica of his boat and the same style of clothing. Why did you choose to do it that way? It certainly wasn’t the easy route.
A: It was very important to do it as he had done it to both honor his original achievement as well as get a sense of what it would have been like for him on his original journey. That meant using period clothing, including nails through the soles of our boots for grip in the mountains of South Georgia, building a replica of his boat the James Caird, traditionally navigating using a compass, sextant and chronometer and eating the same, frankly, miserable expedition rations as he did. About the only positive was that his original expedition manifest included several bottles of today’s Shackleton Whisky, which was faithfully reproduced from the original and given to us. This provided such much-needed fortitude on more than one occasion.
Q: How did you convince your crew to join and how did you choose them? What went into the planning and preparation overall?
A: The planning and preparation took about 5 years from start to finish and of course the risks start long before the physical challenge of trying to sail a small keel-less, capsize-prone (and frankly unseaworthy) wooden boat across the Southern Ocean, or climb a mountain without any climbing gear begins. These include reputational risks, financial risks and the risks associated with putting 5 years of your life into something that may ultimately fail spectacularly. There are also many hard, lonely moments you face in planning and bringing together major expeditions, one of the biggest of which is finding the right people.
In the end, it didn’t take that long to find the right people. Shackleton allegedly ran an advert saying “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success” and got 3,000 applicants for 27 places). I got 200 applicants for 5 places so obviously, there’s an ongoing appeal in pitting yourself against the forces of nature like this!
Q: Shackleton’s crew had 25 cases of whisky, 12 of brandy and 6 cases of port — I imagine your provisions were different. Can you tell us what you packed?
A: We sailed in a replica of the James Caird, and wore the same gabardine (cotton) external layers with woolens and animal pelts for insulation. The cotton smocks were not waterproof as they had been designed for a crossing of the driest, windiest continent by Shackleton. Six of us forced ourselves into a tiny space below deck no bigger than a single bed and slept in a seated position on top of rocks and camera batteries in a boat that was constantly threatening to capsize. We used a sextant, compass and chronometer for navigation and ate the same miserable rations as Shackleton did including pemmican (congealed animal fat), nougat, sledge biscuits, sugary tea, and reindeer jerky as a substitute for the seals and albatross eggs his men ate that we, of course, couldn’t. A saving grace on the whole expedition was the fact that we were given 6 bottles of the Mackinlays rare old Highland malt by Whyte & Mackay and consumed these whenever there was either cause for concern or celebration which was most of the time (e.g. surviving a storm or having made a successful sunsight as part of our celestial navigation)!
Q: What insights did you get from the journey, particularly into what his crew experienced?
A: There were many insights I got from retracing his journey as closely as possible to the way he did it. The first is an overwhelming sense of just how incredible his achievement was and how thin the line was that separated success and failure. One miscalculation and our boat could easily have capsized at sea, just as one misstep in the mountains and we would have fallen to our deaths into a crevasse or down the face of the mountain. It was the same if not worse for him. Beyond this, there were two main take homes for me:
The first is how relevant his leadership style is too many of the global issues we’re faced with today. Whether it is climate change or the state of disarray in the credit markets, Shackleton’s message of individuals putting differences aside and working to their strengths to collectively overcome seemingly insurmountable problems has continuing resonance 100 years on.
The second insight is the amount of environmental change there has been since Shackleton’s day. He had to cross 3 glaciers on his crossing of South Georgia. For us it was only two, as the 3rd, the Konig Glacier is now a lake. We started from Elephant Island off the Antarctic Peninsula, adjacent to where much of Antarctica’s ice cap melt has occurred, several hundred kilometers from the infamous Larsen B Ice Shelf. The expedition shot footage and took stills showing the status of Antarctic ice melt in the region as part of my ongoing interest in using my expeditions to show environmental change. Shackleton’s goal was to save his men from Antarctica, we are trying to save Antarctica from man — an unfortunate irony.
We had a chance to visit Finse, Norway — a small town only accessed by train in central Norway that was a favored training ground for both Shackleton and Jarvis — to get a small taste of what it’s like to explore the Antarctic.
Q: Finally, on a personal note, what is it that has made you a lifelong explorer and environmental ambassador?
A: I think the reasons I explore are essentially the same as they were in Shackleton’s day – the challenge of seeing whether or not something can be achieved, the thrill of trying, and the process of learning more about yourself and your surroundings that going on a journey to find out teaches you. That is what exploration is all about – the thrill of personal discovery as well as a more literal journey of exploration. This in turn is driven by a very human need to challenge ourselves to find out more about the world and our place in it and I believe this is as relevant a concept now as ever it was. As Helen Keller famously said at the end of her incredible life “Life is a daring adventure or it is nothing at all.”
Some 100 years after Shackleton’s journey, three cases of his stash of Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt Whisky were found, buried and perfectly preserved beneath the ice at his Antarctic base camp. Excavated and flown first to New Zealand, one bottle was then carefully transported to Scotland where Master Blender Richard Paterson and Whyte & Mackay’s chief chemist James Pryde tasted, analyzed and ultimately, recreated the style of the lightly-hued spirit. The result — a blended malt whisky — has tasting notes of caramel and dried fruit with a praline-smoky finish and sweet cinnamon-apple on the nose. Excluding time travel, it’s probably as close as you can get to the action of a 19th-Century Arctic expedition and a very worthy takeaway. Purchase Shackleton Whisky for your next adventure.