In November 1915, Sir Ernest Shackleton watched horrified as the grinding floes of the Weddell Sea squeezed the life from his ship, Endurance, before letting her slip silently down to her last resting place. Caught in the chaos of splintered wood, buckled metalwork and tangled rigging lay Shackleton’s dream of being the first man to complete the crossing of Antarctica. Shackleton would not live to make a second attempt – but his dream lived on. Shackleton’s Dream tells for the first time the story of the British Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition, led by Vivian Fuchs and Sir Edmund Hillary, the conqueror of Everest. Forty years after the loss of Endurance, they set out to succeed where Shackleton had so heroically failed. Using motor-sledges and converted farm tractors in place of Shackleton’s man-hauled sledges, they faced a colossal challenge: a perilous 2,000-mile journey across the most demanding landscape on the the planet, where temperatures can plunge to a staggering -129°F and bitter katabatic winds rush down from the high Polar Plateau carrying dense clouds of drift snow, which blind and disorientate. This epic adventure saw two giants of twentieth century exploration pitted not only against Nature at her most hostile, but also against each other. From their coastal bases on opposite sides of Antarctica, the two leaders pushed south relentlessly, dodging bottomless crevasses and traversing vast, unexplored tracts of wind-sculpted ice. Planned as an historic (and scientific) continental crossing, the expedition would eventually develop into a dramatic ‘Race to the South Pole’ – a contest as controversial as that of Scott and Amundsen more than four decades earlier.
If there is a common theme to my books, it is that all address a subject which has been 'overlooked' or consigned to oblivion - in my view unjustly.
In my first book, Charles Lever: The Lost Victorian (2000), I sought to bring back to public notice a highly gifted but much-maligned Anglo-Irish novelist who, in his early career, vied with Charles Dickens in terms of popularity and earning-power but who fell foul of Nationalist critics who effectively erased him from the canon of Irish literature.
My second book, Born Adventurer: The Life of Frank Bickerton (2005), dealt with another 'lost' figure - but one from an altogether different world. Frank Bickerton led an extraordinary life of adventure, playing a leading role in one of the key expeditions of the Heroic Age of polar exploration. He also hunted for pirate gold on R.L. Stevenson's Treasure Island; fought with one of the elite squadrons of the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War; travelled by train, plane and automobile the entire length of Africa during the golden age of the safari; and ultimately worked as a screenplay writer in the British film industry. His incredibly varied career was a delight to research and write about.
Ice Captain: The Life of J.R. Stenhouse (2008) tells the story of one of Frank Bickerton's closest friends: another adventurer - but one whose almost miraculous tale of hardship and survival aboard the Aurora on Ernest Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-17 has been overshadowed by the much better-known story of the fate of the Endurance and Shackleton's boat journey from Elephant Island to South Georgia. Like Bickerton, Stenhouse went on to an astonishing array of adventures, ranging from fighting the Bolsheviks in North Russia in 1918-19, to command of Captain Scott's Discovery during the National Oceanographic Expedition of 1925-27, to heroic service with the Royal Navy in the Second World War.
Most recently, in Shackleton's Dream: Fuchs, Hillary & The Crossing of Antarctica (February 2012), I have written the biography not of an individual but of an entire Antarctic expedition - but one which, like Lever, Bickerton and Stenhouse, has slipped into an undeserved obscurity. As I hope the book proves, 'Modern Age' expeditions such as the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition (CTAE) of 1955-58, were as dangerous, demanding, heroic and, ultimately, as contentious as those of the 'Heroic Age'.
In choosing to champion subjects which might well be described as 'lost causes' it might seem that I am tilting at windmills - but in each case, it appears to me that an injustice has been committed, sometimes deliberately as in the case of Charles Lever, but more often by accident, as in the cases of Bickerton, Stenhouse and the CTAE. Each of these stories deserves to be heard by a much wider audience than has hitherto been the case. And, of equal importance, each story needed to be recorded and preserved before it was lost forever.
Stephen Haddelsey lives and works in Nottinghamshire. He is married with one son.