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Backpacker Magazine – Online Exclusive

Recreating Shackleton's Journey: A Q&A with Adventurer Tim Jarvis

The polar explorer successfully recreated Sir Ernest Shackleton's incredible Antarctic survival journey.

by: Trent Knoss

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courtesy PBS
courtesy PBS

BP:  How did you keep tedium at bay and stay mentally focused?

TJ: That’s something I’ve become very adept at doing during treks on the polar plateau.  It’s lot a like a frozen ocean, and you’re staring at an endless white horizon.  When suffering, you need to still be able to zone out and think of things.  I think the key is to impose your own structure on the world through which you’re traveling.  You have 24 hours of light, no greenery, there’s no one there, and no support, so you have to impose your own mental framework on the environment.  Lots of little things to think about, lots of positive mental images to keep yourself motivated.  Mind games to push you, and positives to draw you onward.  Work through math problems, redesign your house, think about friendships you’ve lost over the years and why that happened—whatever it takes.

In the boat, we were exchanging—where possible, anyway—tips on how to improve the running of the boat.  That’s another thing, you know: just trying to stay mentally engaged all the time.  And believe me, even in that environment where you think there would be boredom, you’re focused on constantly micro-managing your living space and things like that.  Trying to keep equipment going, trying to keep your toes alive…you can find lots of things to occupy your time.

BP:  Can you talk a bit about the camaraderie that developed during the journey?

TJ: Definitely, I think we’re all very close.  Post-expedition, we all get on extremely well and I’m sure some of us will, when the opportunity arises, do things with one another again depending on the skill sets required.  I personally don’t intend to get into a small boat again for a while, that’s one thing I’ve decided I don’t want to do.  The next expedition might involve mountaineering, not sailing.

But no, we got on extremely well and there that bond, and we’re a year to date from when we set out from Ushuaia in South America to head south to King George Island.  We’ve all kept in touch since that time and I’m sure we’ll continue to do so.

BP:  Shackleton made the bold decision to strike out from the island when another expedition leader might have stayed put.  What kinds of factors went into his thinking there?

TJ: I think he knew that no one would come.  I think that the initial euphoria of getting off the pack ice, making it to Elephant Island and dry land, was immediately replaced by a realization that no one would find them.  Elephant Island, to this day, doesn’t have any kind of human population.  Even the whalers and the sealers back in those days were unable to establish a toehold there.  It’s just too inhospitable.  It’s either cliffs and vertical rocks or the snouts of glaciers.  There’s no easy place to get a toehold with the exception of the two places he found, Cape Valentine and Point Wild.  He knew no one would come.

So, in characteristic decisive fashion, he just basically decided he needed to keep the momentum of things going.  He kept everyone motivated after the loss of Endurance by playing sport, caching additional food, and thinking very positively about their chance of success.  It was all about keeping people engaged and busy so they didn’t have too much time to consider the dire straits that they were actually in.  At the same time, we can all just sit here and wait, or someone can actually go and try to get a rescue.  It was the only chance they had.

BP:  And your expedition experienced a moment like that too, when you had to risk a narrow weather window in order to traverse the South Georgia mountains.

TJ: I think so, I think we were in exactly the same situation.  We’d survived the small boat journey, we’d reached King Haakon Bay, there was obviously incredible euphoria about reaching that point.  Then, suddenly, you’re now in a position of relative safety and you’re looking at the danger that was ahead: the crossing of the mountains.  And subtly, your mindset changes from ‘if we can just make landfall on South Georgia, we can handle whatever the mountains throw at us, but just let us make it to the bay.’  Suddenly, that gets replaced by sitting in the bay looking at swirling mists and katabatic winds up on the heavily glaciated terrain and thinking “I’m not so sure I want to be up there.”  You’re looking at danger from the position of safety.

There were injuries, obviously, that prevented a couple of the guys from going on, but then uncertainty started to set in.  In those situations, the key thing is to make a proactive decision rather than sit there and allow morale to drop and for opinions to start becoming divided.  In that case, it’s best to be decisive and go for it and that’s what we did.

BP:   Any final thoughts on Sir Ernest Shackleton’s legacy?

TJ:  We’ve only served to honor what he achieved.  Some people ask me if, having done this journey effectively for a second time, you’ve proved that it’s something that mortal men can achieve, and although I’m very pleased with what we’ve done, I would never claim to have done all that he did.   We didn’t lose the Endurance, we didn’t leave 22 men behind on Elephant Island, and at least people knew we were there.  And of course, we didn’t have to survive on the shifting pack ice of the Weddell Sea before attempting the boat journey.  All we’ve served to do is heighten the legend rather than diminish it.  I hope that by doing what we’ve done, we bring this story to a whole new audience as we approach the 100th anniversary of the voyage.

Chasing Shackleton airs Wednesdays, January 8 – 22, on PBS at 10 PM EST.  The companion book, Chasing Shackleton: Re-creating the World’s Greatest Journey of Survival, by Tim Jarvis, is available now (William Morrow; 2014).

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