The Last Continent: Exploring Antarctica on the 100th Anniversary of Shackleton’s Endurance Voyage

by Jonathan Hal Reynolds | October 23, 2019

The ship’s horn blew. The anchors lifted. And we set sail from the southernmost tip of Argentina—the port town of Ushuaia, which explorers long ago deemed the end of the world.

“You think we’ll make it through the Drake?” I asked the Irishman standing next to me on the ship’s bow. We both eyed the dark tempest on the horizon.

“If the gods are in our favor,” he said with a teasing smile.

His name was Jonathan Shackleton, cousin to the renowned explorer Ernest Shackleton. We, along with a group of photographers and Oxford scientists, were headed to Antarctica to pay homage to the 28-man crew of the Endurance expedition on the 100th Anniversary of its ill-fated voyage, widely considered one of the greatest survival stories in the history of exploration.

“I heard that over 20,000 sailors have lost their lives in the Drake Passage,” I continued. “I also read in some of the crew’s journals that there are rogue waves that can get up to over fifty feet high.”

Jonathan Shackleton grunted. “A hundred feet is more like it. Ships get swallowed whole in the Drake, and crews are never seen again.”

A shiver shot down my spine.

As we sailed onward, Jonathan Shackleton gave vivid portraits of each crew member of the Endurance, as well as a detailed account of their shipwreck and how they survived on the ice for nearly two years, living off penguin blubber, trapped seals, and dog meat. He also shared insightful stories about Ernest that had been passed down through family members over the past century.

“I’ll see you down below,” he finally said, pulling his toboggan cap lower over his ears as the winds picked up. “Be sure not to miss the lecture on ‘Maritime Superstitions’ tonight after dinner.”

“I’ll be there,” I assured him.

As he disappeared into the belly of the ship, I glanced back at the shores of Ushuaia one final time. It would be the last I’d see of South America for several weeks. 

All the travels of my youth have come to this, I thought. In a few days, I’ll finish what I long ago began. I’ll set foot on the last continent. 

The storm pounded us for three days as we rocked our way through the Drake Passage, including close calls with icebergs near Neptune’s Bellows and Deception Island. Wardrobes and nightstands tipped over in our rooms, glasses and plates fell off tables in the dining hall, and passengers walked drunkenly at a slant down hallways while vomiting on the hardwood floors. It was the only time in my life I’ve ever been seasick. 

On the morning we finally arrived to Antarctica, the sky was clear.

As I took my first step onto the icy continent, I teared up, thinking back over all the travels of my youth that had led me to this moment. I experienced a small hint of what Neil Armstrong must have felt when he took his first step on the moon. It was the feeling of completion. I had embarked upon over 30 overseas expeditions on all Seven Continents, and God willing, I’d return home after this final journey to raise children, grandchildren, and perhaps live long enough to lay eyes upon at least one great-grandchild. 

Euphoric, I hiked across the ice, climbed through a massive penguin colony to the top of a tall hill, then looked out over the icy wilderness to the ocean below speckled with icebergs. The otherworldly scene took my breath away.

I asked a fellow adventurer to snap a photo me while wearing my expedition parka in that unforgettable spot, and I told myself I’d frame the picture to remember that moment when I’m an old man. When I posted the photo on Facebook later to let my loved ones know that I had fulfilled my quest, a dear family friend back home commented about how inspiring it was to get to see Antarctica through my eyes. She was bedridden with cancer at the time, and has since passed. But I felt in that moment she knew full well she would never have the chance to see this wild place with her own eyes. It made me relish the opportunity even more.

In the following days, the expedition members and I kayaked with humpback whales and Emperor penguins, cross-country skied during a blizzard, traversed a snow-covered glacier, polar plunged into frigid arctic waters, and camped out on the ice with Jonathan Shackleton, who shared more tales about the Endurance. It was magical.

After setting up my sleeping bag and bivy on a frosty mountainside, I took out my copy of the book, Endurance, by Alfred Lansing.

“Would you mind signing this?” I asked Jonathan Shackleton, sensing the spirit of his ancestor on the ice with us that night.

With a smile, he generously took the pen from my hand and wrote the following inscription:

To Jonathan with very best wishes,

From Jonathan Shackleton.

‘By endurance we conquer.’

On our final night in Antarctica, I stood on the bow of the ship once again and watched the sun hovering over the horizon, its light shimmering upon the wide open sea like firelit diamonds. I savored the moment, tasting the salty air on my lips, then returned to my cabin to record the days’ journal entry.

The ship rocked all night, causing the walls to groan like a haunted house. I laid in bed, looking around at my tiny cabin filled with books and gear. Part of me wished life was always this simple, on the way to some new adventure, with new knowledge, experiences, and beauty ever at my fingertips. This is how I had lived my youth. It’s when I felt most genuine. And free.

But I knew inside myself it was time to settle in one place for a while and introduce my own future children to the wonders of the world. That perhaps would be my greatest adventure of all.

As we sailed homeward, I recalled a story that Jonathan Shackleton had told me while we were camping on the ice a few nights before . . .

While Ernest Shackleton was in South America doing propaganda work around the time of World War I, he was quoting the poet Robert Browning, and someone who didn’t recognize Ernest but acknowledged his uniform said, “I’ve never known a soldier who had heard of Browning.”

Later, Ernest was quoting more poetry, and the same man asked, “And who is that one by?”

“A fellow named Shackleton,” Ernest replied. 

The man responded, “Oh, the explorer. I didn’t know he was a poet too.”

To which Ernest concluded, “Why the devil do you think he became an explorer?”

Jonathan Hal Reynolds is CEO of Elite Expeditions (www.eliteexpeditions.com)—an educational travel company that introduces student groups to various regions of the world. He also writes children’s books for HarperCollins Publishing in NYC (www.jhreynolds.com). He resides in Texas with his wife and kids.

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