Those first photographs to emerge from the seabed, some two miles beneath the ice floes of Antarctica, were simply stunning, and put us all in touch with a lost world.
What am I talking about? The first glimpse of Endurance for more than 100 years – the ship that polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton abandoned when it became stuck in ice. The ship eventually sank beneath the ice and became literally frozen in time until it was recently discovered by a group of divers, its brass nameplate as clear and proud as the day it went down.
Endurance has become a symbol of many things but particularly the human ability to overcome disaster and show resilience in the face of seemingly impossible odds. For Shackleton, that meant getting his men back home safe and sound with meagre provisions and equipment. But he did, rowing the 800 miles from desolate Elephant Island to a whaling station to get help.
But when the small party of five landed 16 days later, there was another mountain to climb, literally. The whaling station was on the other side of the island with a mountain range in between. Leaving the weakest crew members on the shore, Shackleton and two others made their way through the uncharted territory, scaling heights of up to 3,000ft. Eventually they stumbled into the whaling station, exhausted and famished to summon the help that would eventually see all of his crew members rescued. Several attempts to get to his men left on Elephant Island failed, but Shackleton would not give up, and they were eventually re-united four months later, just as their last rations were running out.
It is an example of heroic leadership that is an inspiration to us all and tells us to never give up hope, no matter how high the odds are stacked against us. It also tells us the importance of working together as a team to achieve an end goal.
Sadly, not every polar expedition had a happy ending. A few years ago, I was privileged to see one of the last letters written by Captain Robert Falcon Scott, the second man to reach the pole, and one found by his frozen body in the tent where he died.
A few days earlier, fellow explorer Lawrence Oates had famously left the tent and crawled into the blizzard, sacrificing himself so as not to be a burden on others, his oft-repeated last words: “I am just going outside and may be some time.” His body was never found.
However, it is the final words of Scott, written in pencil on flimsy paper to Sir Edgar Speyer, that bring a lump to my throat. Knowing death was near, he wrote:
“I hope this may reach you – I fear we must go and that leaves the expedition in a bad muddle But we have been to the pole and we shall die like gentlemen – I regret only for the women we leave behind… If this diary is found it will show how we stuck by dying companions and fought this thing out to the end. I think this will show the spirit of pluck and the power to endure has not passed out of the race.”