[South China Morning Post]
Tim Jarvis tells Joyee Chan about risking his life to re-enact Ernest Shackleton’ sperilous 1916 Antarctic rescue mission.
JUNGLE BOY I was born in Britain to a Scottish mother and an English father. When I was seven, my family relocated to Kuala Lumpur for five years, then Singapore (for seven years), until I returned to Britain to study geomorphology (the scientific study of landforms) at university. I was an independent child and liked solo adventure. In the 1970s, I loved camping in Malaysian jungles with my dog. I became very resourceful, resilient and better at problem-solving because nature throws up different challenges to (those posed by) a man-made environment, which offers very controlled experiences for children.
POLAR ATTRACTION I am drawn to Antarctica, one of the most remote and most challenging places in the world, because all societal structure is removed. I don’t see any sign of humanity there – not even an aircraft in the sky or any human infrastructure. I discover myself by stripping back to the bare minimum. My survival instincts kick in, my senses are sharpened and I feel at my maximum ability: empowered and alive.
THE INVITATION I became friends with Ernest Shackleton’s granddaughter, Alexandra, after meeting her at an exhibition in London in 2001, which commemorated the Antarctic explorer. I had been invited because (in 1999) I set the record for the fastest unsupported journey to the South Pole (47 days) and the longest unsupported journey in Antarctica (1,580km). About five years later, she asked if I would assemble a team to re-enact her grandfather’s famous 1916 rescue mission (during his trans-Antarctic expedition), in which he sailed 1,500km in an old-fashioned lifeboat from Elephant Island – where his 28-strong crew was stranded after his expedition ship sank – to seek help from a whaling station on South Georgia. I said yes immediately. Alexandra is a famous lady and a friend of the royal family. When she asks, you tend to comply. It was a rhetorical question. She didn’t say “Will you?”, she said, “You will, won’t you?” It was a great honour.
THE PREPARATION It took four years to prepare for the expedition. I received hundreds of applications for the five spots on the voyage. I looked for people with two types of intelligence: literal (they possess specific skills, such as mountaineering and sailing) and divergent (capable of finding solutions in a crisis). I also wanted my crew to have a good sense of humour.
DELIBERATELY DISADVANTAGED We had to leave modern technology behind and make do with century-old navigation tools, period clothing and an unseaworthy boat. We sailed 800 nautical miles over 12 days from Elephant Island to South Georgia (it took Shackleton 17). And the land crossing from one side of South Georgia to the whaling station took another week. We worked out our location and direction with a compass, a sextant and a chronometer watch, which proved hard on a boat rocking so violently that everyone was seasick. We were focusing on not capsizing. Shackleton never intended to cross the Southern Ocean in a lifeboat, so he only worried about his clothes being breathable and windproof, with thermal woollen layers underneath. The outer layers weren’t designed to be waterproof. We just copied what he had. When the first wave came, I got soaked and my clothes never dried properly. I lost 20lbs in 21 days as my body burned thousands of calories to keep warm in the sub-zero temperatures. That was not helped by the fact that my diet consisted of lard, high-protein sledging biscuits, sugary tea and jerky.
MORTAL FEAR We only saw the sun twice (during the crossing, due to bad weather). When the sun finally showed up, we were roughly where we expected ourselves to be. If we had missed the island completely, we’d agreed with our support boat that they would try to find us and tell us before we got ourselves killed. That was a back-up we had and Shackleton didn’t. But whether they could reach us, and if we could go against the current in our keel-less boat, was another story. We had to have a support vessel otherwise we couldn’t obtain our permit and insurance. But, in reality, the boat was never close and if anybody fell overboard in the rough open ocean, in water that was two degrees Celsius, and without a life jacket, their chance of survival was zero. So my worst fear was losing somebody. When South Georgia came into view, I quickly realised the wind and current were pushing us straight into cliffs. We couldn’t turn around. All we could do was fine-tune where we landed. It was a narrow escape.
ARE WE THERE YET? It took me 48 hours after we physically stopped to realise that we had made it. When I woke up the next morning, I thought, “I should be doing something to celebrate,” but I just felt knackered and overwhelmed. Even now I find myself recounting the story and forgetting that I am talking about it in the first person. I feel removed. It was surreal.
NO MAN LEFT BEHIND Whether or not Shackleton believed that his expedition was a success, I think the fact he eventually brought all his men to safety is a greater achievement than what he originally set out to do (become the first person to cross Antarctica via the South Pole). I admire his ability to get a disparate group of people with different motivations, strengths and weaknesses to achieve a common goal against seemingly impossible odds.
Tim Jarvis was in Hong Kong to share his story at the Royal Geographical Society.