In 1914, a small ship sailed into the icy Weddell Sea, on its way to the South Pole. It carried a crew of twenty-seven men, and their leader, Ernest Shackleton. But unseasonable gales shoved the floating ice together and the temperature sank below zero, freezing more than a million square miles of ice into a solid mass. And they were stuck in the middle of it. They had no radio transmitter. They were alone.
For ten months the pressure increased until it crushed the ship, stranding them in the middle of an icy wasteland which could, at any time, break up and become a sea of floating ice chunks. They had to get off this ice while it was still solid, so they headed for the nearest known land, 346 miles away, dragging their two lifeboats over the ice. But every few hundred yards they ran into a pressure ridge, sometimes two stories high, caused by the ice compacting. They had to chop through it. At the end of two backbreaking days in subzero weather, they were exhausted. After all their hacking and dragging, they had traveled only two miles.
They tried again. In five days they went a total of nine miles, but the ice was becoming softer and the pressure ridges were becoming larger. They could go no further. So they had to wait...for several months. Finally the ice opened up and they launched the boats into the churning mass of giant chunks of ice and made it out. But now they were sailing across a treacherous sea. They landed on a tiny, barren, ice-covered, lifeless island in the middle of nowhere.
To save themselves, they needed to reach the nearest outpost of civilization: South Georgia, 870 miles away! Shackleton and five men took the best lifeboat and sailed across the Drake Passage at the tip of South America, the most formidable piece of ocean in the world. Gales blow nonstop — up to 200 miles an hour (that’s as hard as a hurricane) — and waves get as high as ninety feet. Their chances of making it were very close to zero.
But determination can change the odds.
They made it. But they landed on the wrong side of the island, and their boat was pounded into the rocks and rendered useless. The whaling port they needed to reach was on the other side of the island, which has peaks 10,000 feet high and had never been crossed. They were the first. They didn’t have much choice.
When they staggered into the little whaling port on the other side of the island, everyone who saw them stopped dead in their tracks. The three men had coal-black skin from the seal oil they had been burning as fuel. They had long, black dreadlocks. Their clothing was shredded, filthy rags, and they had come from the direction of the mountains. Nobody in the history of the whaling port had ever been known to enter the town from that direction.
Although all the men at that whaling port had known about Shackleton’s expedition, his ship had been gone for seventeen months and was assumed to have sunk, and the crew with it. The whalers knew how deadly and unforgiving the ice could be.
The three ragged men made their way to the home of a man Shackleton knew, followed in silence by a growing crowd of people. When the man came to the door, he stepped back and stared in silence. Then he said, “Who the hell are you?”
The man in the center took a step forward and said, “My name is Shackleton.”
According to some witnesses, the hard-faced man at the door turned away and wept.
This story is incredible, and if it weren’t for the extensive verification and corroboration of the diaries and interviews with the men on the crew in Alfred Lansing’s account, Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage, it might easily be disbelieved. The story is true, and as incredible as what I’ve told you seems, I’ve only given you some highlights.
Shackleton went back and rescued his friends on the other side of the island first, and then after many attempts to get through the ice, on August 30th — almost two years since they’d embarked — he made it back to that barren island and rescued the rest of his men. Every man in Shackleton’s crew made it home alive.
Fifteen years earlier, a different ship got stuck in the ice in the Weddell Sea — the Belgica, led by Adrien de Gerlache — but they didn’t do so well. During the winter in the Antarctic, the sun completely disappears below the horizon for seventy-nine days. Shackleton’s crew endured it. But the crew of the Belgica grew depressed, gave up hope, and succumbed to negative thinking. Some of them couldn’t eat. Mental illness took over. One man had a heart attack from a terror of darkness. Paranoia and hysteria ran rampant.
None of this happened to Shackleton’s men because he insisted they keep a good attitude, and he did the same. He once said that the most important quality for an explorer was not courage or patience, but optimism. He said, “Optimism nullifies disappointment and makes one more ready than ever to go on.”
Shackleton also knew that attitudes are contagious. He was fully aware of the fact that if anyone lost hope they wouldn’t be able to put forth that last ounce of energy which may make the difference. And they did get pushed to the limits of human endurance. But he had convinced himself and his men they would make it out alive. His determination to remain optimistic ultimately saved their lives.
And it can achieve great things for you too. It comes down to what you say: Either you say it’s hopeless or you say it can be done. You can never look into the future to find the answer. It’s in your head.
This article was excerpted from the book, Principles For Personal Growth by Adam Khan. Buy it now here.