A live donkey is better than a dead lion,” Ernest Shackleton, the renowned British explorer, once said. He was referring to his 1907 to 1909 Nimrod expedition, and the difficult decision to turn back with just 180 kilometres left to the South Pole.
“He could’ve been the first, but because of that decision, Roald Amundsen did it in 1911,” says Alexandra Shackleton, the explorer’s granddaughter. “But his priorities were his men. They were in bad physical condition, and might have died there.”
When Shackleton (whose father, Lord Edward Shackleton, was a Royal Canadian Geographical Society Fellow) enthuses about her grandfather’s achievements and leadership, her pride is palpable. Fittingly, she’s life-president of the James Caird Society, which preserves the memory of Ernest Shackleton and honours his feats.
Since taking the society’s helm in 1994, Shackleton has seen public enthusiasm for her grandfather’s exploits surge. She has named no fewer than three ships, including the Antarctic research vessel Ernest Shackleton, and frequently represents the James Caird Society at polar research- and exploration-related events. She has contributed forewards to books on Antarctic exploration and leadership, and consults on films.
In 2008, Shackleton sought out British-Australian adventurer Tim Jarvis, to recreate her grandfather’s 1916 mission to save his stranded men — the end of the 1914 to 1916 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. In February 2013, she met Jarvis and the “Shackleton Epic” crew on South Georgia Island, in the South Atlantic, after they sailed nearly 1,500 kilometres from Antarctica’s Elephant Island and scaled the mountains of South Georgia.
Even as the James Caird Society prepares for the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition’s 2014 centennial, Shackleton is still astonished by her grandfather’s legacy. “The more I learn about him, the more I wish I’d known him,” she says.