My original plan for this month was to continue with my series on our physical senses; the inner ear and balance were the topics I had in mind.  

The theme has been how we use our senses to understand the world around us and how sometimes, that can lead to misperceptions and illusions. But...(there’s always a “but,” isn’t there) wife and I got to do something really cool last month and that’s changed my plans a little. It’s going to be a stretch to make this article fit into my original idea but it’s still going to be an awesome story so hang in there.

We spent last month on a National Geographic Society expedition to Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego, and Antarctica. I’ve always wanted to see these places, partly because I’m really into the wildlife and geography, but mostly because I have a fascination with the explorers who braved incredible odds to discover what there was down there. In general, I’m intrigued by stories of people who have conquered and survived challenges that, by all reason, should have been unsurvivable. I’ve quoted Lawrence Gonzales’ book, Deep Survivor, in this space before based on my fascination with this topic. The subtitle of his book is “Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why,” and it’s a totally fitting subject for us in our lives as pilots and for the adventurers who pioneered discoveries in Antarctica. The challenges of beating seemingly insurmountable and unsurvivable odds to reach one of the most distant and inhospitable place on the earth, the South Pole, were simply irresistible to the early explorers.

The target for the early 20th century explorers was the geographic South Pole (90°S 0°E). That’s because the magnetic South Pole and the geographic Pole are two totally different places and just finding the magnetic poles is a huge challenge. Both the magnetic north and south poles wander all over the place. Right now the magnetic south pole isn’t even within the Antarctic Circle that extends around the continent at Latitude 66°30′ South and the magnetic north pole has spent most of the last century in Canada and Greenland. The poles drift around because of shifts in the mass and magnetic fields of the earth’s core. There’s a cool map linked here that shows the wandering of the two magnetic poles over the years. It’s almost hard to imagine what the early polar explorers experienced trying to find the elusive magnetic poles. There are some fascinating stories about the challenges of polar navigation by GA pilots Adrian Eichhorn and his flight over the North Pole and Robert DeLaurentis’ flight over the South Pole that you can read about right here in the AOPA pages.

Going on this trip, I got to see for myself some of what the ‘poster child’ for survivorship against insurmountable odds, Sir Ernest Shackleton, had endured making three voyages there. Shackleton’s first attempt to reach the pole was in 1904 on the ship Discovery, which was captained by Robert Scott of the Royal Navy and sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society, the British government, and a few wealthy British businessmen, Llewellyn Longstaff, in particular. The ship ended up frozen in ice in the Weddell Sea for two years. I was there and I can testify the ice is brutal. It was finally blasted out of the ice by the crew with dynamite and made an escape. While the ship was stuck frozen in the sea, a group headed by Scott with Shackleton and Dr. Edward Wilson struggled for months to try to reach the geographic South Pole. They had to turn around about 500 miles from the Pole (their furthest point south was 82° S latitude) after the explorers became “paralyzed by snow blindness, starvation, frostbite and scurvy.” I know what they mean about the brilliant landscape when the sun shines, and one of the most amazing things we experienced in Antarctic is the light. It’s so intense white and pale shades of blue it’s really blinding and with no trees and few rocks exposed it’s hard to orient yourself. Shackleton wrote 120 years ago, “At times you can’t distinguish the horizon; the sky and the ice blended into a single blinding mass.” We talked about these kinds of false horizon illusions in the last article and it was fascinating to read about Shackleton’s problems with the same thing over one hundred years ago. 

In 1908, Shackleton tried again to reach the South Pole, this time using Manchurian ponies instead of sled dogs to haul their supplies. Although the crew managed to climb the highest peak on the continent, Mount Erebus (13,000 feet), with no climbing gear, he again failed to reach his goal. It broke his heart, but not his spirit, to have to turn around only 95 miles from the Pole. The race to the Pole was eventually won three years later by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who got there on December 14, 1911. Amundsen beat Scott, who was back out there on his second attempt to reach the Pole, by five weeks. That left Shackleton to find another challenge. He came up with an ambitious plan to be the first one to walk totally across the Antarctic continent crossing the Pole that would only be the halfway mark. This was his most famous expedition and the one that holds the most fascination for me. Shackleton commissioned and outfitted the HMS Endurance that was the sturdiest wooden icebreaker ever constructed to date. I had read all the stories, but I had to see all this for myself since the story of Shackleton and the Endurance is unbelievable, even had it been a fictional novel let alone historical fact. His journey is detailed in one of the best adventure books I have ever read, titled Endurance, and written by Alfred Lansing.

Shackleton left England on August 8, 1914, only days after the start of WWI, after he offered his ship and his services to King George V for the war effort. The king told him to go explore; that he said, was equally important to England. The Endurance put into a whaling station to restock in the South Georgia Islands and then headed south. On January 18, 1915, five months and 10 days after their departure from the UK, the ship was stuck in the ice, also in the Weddell Sea, never to sail again. The men lived on the ship for almost a year through the Antarctic winter but it was finally crushed by the ice and sank on November 21, 1915. Shackleton and his party camped on a large, flat ice floe for five months until April of 1916. They were hoping that the wind and sea currents would push their ice chunk toward Paulet Island, about 250 miles away, where it was known that food stores had been placed. By March 17, their ice camp was within 60 miles of Paulet Island but it was separated by impassable ice and they couldn’t reach it. A month later, on April 9, 1916, their ice floe broke up into little pieces and Shackleton ordered the crew to get into three 20-foot lifeboats they had scavenged from the Endurance to try and reach the nearest land on the north end of the Antarctic Peninsula.

After five brutally tough days at sea, the exhausted men landed their three lifeboats on Elephant Island, 350 miles from where the Endurance sank. This was the first time the men had stood on solid ground in 497 days. Shackleton knew nobody would ever find them on their little beachhead camp so he made an incredibly bold decision to take five of his best crewmen and attempt to cross the Drake Passage to get back to South Georgia Island, 750 miles away. He had to go northwest since the winds and current in the Southern Ocean were way too powerful for them to aim at closer landmasses in Tierra del Fuego, which was off to the northeast.

All this brings me back to the original topic I was planning to write about – balance, motion sickness, and inner ear function. I crossed the width of the Drake Passage twice and I can testify to its reputation as the worst weather and waves anywhere in the world. The reason is that there is a perpetual low pressure system that covers the continent of Antarctica and it pulls a low level jet stream from the entire southern hemisphere and whips it clockwise around the continent, affectionately known as the Antarctic Circumpolar Current. There are no landmasses in the Southern Ocean to break up the wind and current so it routinely generates winds at hurricane velocities of 40-100 miles/hour and the current is the strongest in the world. The Southern Ocean transports about 150 billion liters of water per second (no misprint – per second!) and reaches speeds in narrow channels of about 1 meter per second. This is equivalent to 150 times the volume of water contained in all the rivers in the world. Waves in the passage routinely range from 40-80 feet from peak to trough.

So – back to that motion sickness thing I was going to talk about; we were on an ice-class expedition ship with a length of 365 feet and weighing in at 6,475 gross tons and a draft of 15 feet. We were tossed around like a cork. Just today as I’m writing this there’s a sad story in the headlines of a ship where we were only a week before in the Drake Passage that’s twice the size of the one we were on that got tossed around so violently one unfortunate woman was killed and four others were seriously injured. It’s unimaginable to realize that Shackleton and his crew traversed this open water in a 20-foot wooden rowboat. It took us 60 hours to make the crossings; it took Shackleton 16 days. Lansing’s book I mentioned above details their dreadful voyage. They were in an open boat with 60-foot waves crashing on them every 30 seconds the whole way. The water temperature was -2o to 0o C and winds were 40-60 MPH. There was only a view of the sky three times in three weeks for them to take a sextant bearing and heading, but his navigator, Frank Worsley, managed to steer them to their target, a 20-mile-long speck of rock in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean, South Georgia Island. They made landfall on May 10, 1916, 21 months and 13 days after leaving the UK. When they finally reached the beach, Shackleton wrote in his diary, “It was a curiously quiet moment, devoid of rejoicing. We were too exhausted to savor much but we shook hands all around. It seemed somehow the thing to do.” We were at a museum in Punta Arenas, Chile, on the Strait of Magellan and saw a replica of both the Endurance and the 20-foot rowboat Shackleton used that he had named the James Caird after a donor to his voyage. In real life these are tiny, wooden boats and honestly, there’s just no way they should have survived this. But they did.

Unfortunately, they weren’t quite back to civilization yet since they had landed on the deserted west side of the island in King Haakon Bay. After nine days of rest and eating what they could catch, albatross and seals (“good eating but rather tough”) Shackleton again split up his crew and took Frank Worsley and Tom Crean along with an ice axe and 50 feet of rope they tied together from scraps and set out to walk across the 10,000 mountain peaks to the east side of the island to reach Stromness whaling station, where they had restocked and departed from almost two years earlier. To this day this feat was only achieved one other time, by an expert mountaineering team using high-tech modern climbing gear. These three starving survivors did it in three days, a testimony to Shackleton’s determination not to abandon his crew, his bravery, and his strength. They stumbled into the whaling station and were met by the manager, Thoralf Sorlle, whom Shackleton had spent almost a month with in the fall of 1914 restocking the Endurance before departing for the continent. Sorlle looked at Shackleton and the other two ragged strangers and asked, “Who the hell are you?” “My name is Shackleton,” he whispered in reply. After a few long moments of silence, “Sorlle turned away and wept.”

Shackleton immediately started trying to find a ship to take back to Elephant Island to rescue his remaining crew camped on Elephant Island. His first three attempts were blocked by ice that made it impossible to approach the island. He appealed to the Chilean government and was finally offered the use of the Yelcho a small seagoing tug from its navy under the command of Captain Luis Pardo. On August 30, 1916, four and a half months after they first made camp on Elephant Island, Shackleton returned and rescued the remaining crew. Their saga was finally over, 24 months, 22 days after it started. Shackleton’s diary talks about endless sleepless nights agonizing over thousands of decisions he had to make and agonizing over his crew, how he had gotten his men into this mess and how he was going to get them all out of it. He did; his entire crew survived. The question posed by Gonzales’ book, “who lives, who dies, and why,” is hard to answer even after spending a month in the region and seeing what they had endured, except to say that Shackleton refused to give up and die, even against insurmountable odds; his “endurance” was simply epic. This is the most inspirational story I’ve ever heard.

By coincidence the HMS Endurance was just found a few months ago two miles under the ice at the bottom of the Weddell Sea by a group of explorers from the Falkland Islands. Since there are no wood-consuming parasites in that frigid environment the ship was totally intact and undamaged. The pictures are totally mind-blowing. So this sets up the topic of motion sickness for next month. Another amazing fact is that Shackleton and his crew were apparently totally immune to it in spite of traversing the Drake Passage in a little rowboat, but not everyone is so fortunate. It’s not anything as exciting as Shackleton’s epic adventure, but it’s important for us to understand, deal with it, and stay safe in the sky.

Kenneth Stahl, MD, FACS
Kenneth Stahl, MD, FACS is an expert in principles of aviation safety and has adapted those lessons to healthcare and industry for maximizing patient safety and minimizing human error. He also writes and teaches pilot and patient safety principles and error avoidance. He is triple board-certified in cardiac surgery, trauma surgery/surgical critical care and general surgery. Dr. Stahl holds an active ATP certification and a 25-year member of the AOPA with thousands of hours as pilot in command in multiple airframes. He serves on the AOPA Board of Aviation Medical Advisors and is a published author with numerous peer reviewed journal and medical textbook contributions. Dr. Stahl practices surgery and is active in writing and industry consulting. He can be reached at [email protected].
Topics: Travel, Pilot Health and Medical Certification, Pilot Health and Medical Certification

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