Shackleton’s Fourth Man
Ernest Shackleton and 27 explorers sailed to Antarctica in 1914. They brought a team of dogs and plenty of supplies.
They planned to traverse the entire continent in the summer, crossing the South Pole in the middle. This would be done after preparing and exercising the dogs while stationed at the edge of the continent during the winter.
The winter went well but in the spring, as the ice melted, shifting plates of ice ground their ship into toothpicks and it sank.
What happens next is one of the greatest adventure stories of all time.
Suddenly 28 men were stranded in Antarctica, nearly a thousand miles from the tip of South America, with nothing but their wits and courage.
No radio. No satellite telephone. No GPS. Only a sextant and three lifeboats.
Shackleton and two of his men took one of those lifeboats sailed 800 miles in freezing water through a hurricane that sank a large steam ship and finally arrived on South Georgia Island, where there was a whaling station.
But the station was on the far side of the island from where they landed. They had to hike 36 hours straight over 5,000 foot peaks, to get to the whaling station, in order to not freeze to death.
When they finally greeted civilization for the first time, they looked so hideous that children shrieked and ran away in terror. Norwegian whalers greeted them, offering them their first warm baths in 2 years. They consumed all the biscuits their hosts could give them.
Shackleton concludes in his account of crossing South Georgia Island with this reflection:
When I look back at those days I have no doubt that Providence guided us, not only across those snowfields, but across the storm-white sea that separated Elephant Island from our landing-place on South Georgia.
I know that during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia it seemed to me often that we were four, not three.
I said nothing to my companions on the point, but afterwards Worsley said to me, “Boss, I had a curious feeling on the march that there was another person with us.” Crean confessed to the same idea.
One feels “the dearth of human words, the roughness of mortal speech” in trying to describe things intangible, but a record of our journeys would be incomplete without a reference to a subject very near to our hearts.
Even the ruddy, legendary Earnest Shackleton has his own “Footprints in the sand” story. Every epic story has this element somewhere. When all seems lost, Providence moves.
You see this at the end of The Two Towers in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Helms Deep is about to fall, hope no longer even seems possible, as the Orcs are splintering through the final gate on their way to plunder and destroy all.
Suddenly from the horizon, Gandalf rides, with a long lost army in his wake. They obliterate Sauron’s attempt to destroy all mankind.
This is the signature of an epic story. You can engineer it in fiction, but this is not fiction. This is real life and in real life you can’t make that happen. Providence simply has to move.
If you want to be an Influential Writer, you must not only tell the epic story, you must live the epic story. That story includes the times when Providence comes in to assist your otherwise hopeless mission.
When it does, that will be a moment you never forget. Your readers won’t either. And that’s what makes your epic story, epic.