The Greatest Survival Story Ever Told

Ernest Shackleton

Humans are pre-programmed to survive as a species; there is an inbuilt survival mode known as fight or flight, which causes our bodies to release noradrenaline (also known as norepinephrine) in response to a threat, readying the body to run from, or fight off the threat. This was particularly important in pre-historic times when predators were everywhere, and humans were pretty close to the bottom of the food chain. In modern times we face different threats, and we are unlikely to be eaten by a tyrannosaurus rex if we let our guard down. Some people also find it difficult to perceive what is and what isn’t a threat, often rendering the fight or flight response fairly unhelpful, causing anxiety at times when what is really needed is a calm and considered response.

The other enemy of survival is negative thinking. If you tell yourself you can’t do something, you are setting yourself up to fail, and inevitably you will. It is known as the self-fulfilling prophecy, in which you visualise something bad happening and it does. Combine this with fight or flight and you have a recipe for disaster. Both are equally difficult to control though, some of us are pre-disposed to negative thinking and anxiety, and this leads us to dismiss some of the possible solutions as our minds convince us that they will not work, and we resign ourselves to a life of bad things and a negative outlook.

The story that I think personifies the power of positive thinking and a calm and considered approach is possibly the greatest survival story ever told, a feat which will probably never be matched. Try to imagine for a moment, that you are stranded nearly 9,000 miles from home and 1,200 miles from the nearest inhabited island; you have no means of communicating with the outside world; limited food supplies; small basic tents, and three open boats without engines. You are sitting on an ice floe being lashed by winds and snow, and temperatures are well below freezing day and night. That is exactly what happened to Sir Ernest Shackleton and the Crew of the Endurance.  

When disaster struck the Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition in 1915, nobody could have foreseen what happened next, so improbable did it seem. Stranded over a thousand miles from the nearest inhabited island, with no means of contacting the outside world, on pack ice in the Weddell Sea, survival and rescue should have been impossible. Waiting for rescue wasn’t an option. Well away from the shipping routes and whaling territories, the chance of being found was practically nought. If they were going to get out of the situation they would have to do it themselves.

What happened next has arguably never been equalled. With limited food and water, using three open boats the crew of the Endurance managed to make their way from their frozen camp on ice in the Weddell Sea, to Elephant Island, an uninhabited, mountainous and ice covered Island at the southern tip of the South Shetland archipelago; then Shackleton along with Frank Worsley, captain of the Endurance, Henry ‘Chippy’ McNish, Thomas Crean, John Vincent and Timothy McCarthy managed to sail a 30ft open boat just over 800 miles across seas notorious for 60ft waves and hurricane force winds, to an island just over 100 miles long and a little over 20 miles wide at its widest point, a relative needle in a haystack. The achievement was made all the more remarkable by the fact that Worsley navigated by direct reckoning and only four sights of the sun. With several days of sailing ahead of them they discovered that their remaining water had been contaminated by seawater, making it barely drinkable; the salt content of the water made the men sick, but on they went, undeterred by yet another setback.

Grytviken, South Georgia

The story doesn’t end there though; the boat landed on the south side of the island, and conditions made it impossible to sail around it to one of the settlements on the other side. At this point in time, South Georgia’s mountainous interior lay uncharted and unexplored. With no mountaineering equipment, just a short length of rope and a carpenter’s adze, Shackleton and two of his party set off on the impossible journey across the frozen interior of the island, something that nobody had ever done before.

The crew left behind survived by building a shelter using an upturned boat and the few suitable rocks they could find on the isolated outcrop they now called home. All they had to eat was what they could catch, including seabirds and seals; the ships surgeon had to carry out amputations and dental procedures with no anaesthetic and only basic tools, and yet still they all survived.

Elephant Island

Many months later, following several unsuccessful attempts, as promised, Shackleton sailed south on a chartered ship, not knowing what he would find on his return to that isolated spit of land on Elephant Island. As they approached, unaware that it had stuck halfway up the improvised flag pole, Shackleton spotted the makeshift flag at half mast, assuming this meant that not all of the crew had survived his heart sank, yet as they approached the shore he discovered that by some miracle, and despite their horrific conditions, the entire crew had survived, without outside assistance for more than a year. Every single member of the Transantarctic Expedition had survived the ordeal.  

Throughout the ordeal, as expedition master, Shackleton was responsible for the lives of 27 men. In order for them to escape their frozen prison, he had to maintain discipline and morale, and this required him to make some extremely difficult decisions. Shackleton managed to fend off negativity and continued to convince himself that survival was possible. He took a calm and considered approach to planning how they would escape their frozen prison and never panicked.

This story shows what human beings can achieve when they tell themselves that something can be done and approach the situation in a calm and considered manner.