Humans do not so much travel to Antarctica as survive it. The coldest, driest, windiest continent on Earth does not suffer visitors kindly, a fact underscored dramatically last week when shifting ice floes stopped a Russian scientific vessel in its tracks, necessitating emergency assistance from both a Chinese ship (which got stuck too) and an American icebreaker. Eventually, after an unconventional New Year’s on ice, all of the stranded passengers were evacuated. But that an Antarctic rescue in the year 2014 should require the combined efforts of three superpowers serves as a strange and powerful reminder that while technology has come a long way, the jaws of the White Continent remain as fierce and unforgiving as ever.
No extreme is too outlandish for Antarctica. This is a place with 11 time zones—or perhaps none at all, depending on how you care to interpret this map. The sun beats down 24 hours a day during the summer months and fails to rise at all in the depths of winter. Standard-issue magnetic compasses cease to function close to the pole; you’ll have to use sastrugi grooves in the ice to navigate. Your satellite phone? Don’t count on getting a signal. And if you think the last few days of the “polar vortex” have been cold, well, the East Antarctic Plateau recently set a new planetary record for lowest temperature: a mind-numbing -135.8 degrees Fahrenheit. Breathing in air that frigid would sear human lungs and induce cardiac arrest within minutes.
Needless to say, there were no international helicopter rescues available in Sir Ernest Shackleton’s day, nor did the British explorer have the luxury of GPS or Gore-Tex. This year marks the 100th anniversary of Sir Ernest’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, the voyage that began with ambitions of reaching the South Pole via the Weddell Sea and ended in catastrophe. When his tall ship, the Endurance, got stuck in the pack ice, Shackleton had to lead his malnourished, under-equipped crew across the glaciers to nearby Elephant Island, a hunk of rock and ice so desolate that not even seal hunters or pirates would touch it.
Knowing that no rescue was coming, Shackleton left the majority of the crew behind on the beach and set out in small engineless wooden boat with five others, determined to make it 800 nautical miles across the roughest ocean in the world to seek help from a whaling outpost on South Georgia Island. After a perilous open seas voyage, Shackleton and co. then had to complete a 32-mile overland trek across heavily glaciated mountains without so much as crampons or dry socks. Exhausted and frostbitten after 36 hours of mountaineering, the men arrived at the whaling station, the first civilization they’d seen in over a year. It would take another four months, but Shackleton finally procured a Chilean freighter to return to Elephant Island to retrieve the rest of his crew. When it was all said and done, not a single man lost his life.
Shackleton’s story remains one of the greatest survival tales in recorded history. Starvation, frostbite, exhaustion, frigid seas, katabatic winds—he beat them all. But a century later, one question remains: what can science tell us about how he pulled it off?
Survival or, more specifically, “the will to live,” is a tricky alchemy. After all, what concrete factors can we isolate that allow certain people to push well beyond their supposed mental and physical limits while others utterly fail? Survival eludes the world of empirical evidence because of its sheer improbability, its reliance on extraordinary circumstances that defy laboratory replication. There’s not much good peer-reviewed data on human starvation or prolonged physical suffering because, well, that would be a pretty sadistic experiment. Nor can scientists really plop two hikers into a life-threatening wilderness situation and pit them against each other to “measure” why one survives and one does not. Ethics and logistics dictate that there is simply no way for a lab to feasibly simulate or replicate the case of the Australian hiker who survived 43 days on caterpillars on a Himalayan peak, or the Los Angeles man who crawled out a 40-foot chasm despite a broken back.
But we do know a few things. Biologically, we now know our bodies are built to endure intense starvation and nutrient depletion (hunger strikers prove this on a regular basis). Your muscles have as much as 20 miles worth of glycogen stored up at any given time, meaning that if the incentive were great enough, you could—could—walk or jog nearly a marathon’s worth of distance on a moment’s notice even if you’ve never done so before. Psychologically, we can point to optimism, decisiveness, and possibly even delusions of grandeur as personal qualities that any potential survivalist must have in spades. Military experts and survival entertainers such as Bear Grylls might differ on a lot of things, but they do seem to agree that an unwavering positive mental attitude is the most important tool you can have in your kit.
A sunny disposition will only get you so far, though. Learned skills come into play; Shackleton wouldn’t have made it far without a sextant and an extensive knowledge of ocean tides. Sociologists might chime in to add that imposing ordered structure in a group setting made all the difference for his crew (Shackleton ordered the men to hunt, fish, and play sports on the pack ice to keep morale up even as their prospects dimmed). Neurologically, there is some intriguing new research out suggesting that answers may lie in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a region of the brain that, when electrically stimulated, appears to produce an increased desire to persevere. And for what it’s worth, patients with an impaired amygdala have exhibited abnormal levels of fearlessness, suggesting that persistence could be a series of brain overrides.
All of these factors from different scientific disciplines might one day allow us to approach a unified theory of human survival instincts, but perhaps not. I’m certainly intrigued by what what we currently do and don’t know about survival, but suspect that much like love and identity, it will never be able to be defined fully or adequately by scientific literature alone. It’s an neat puzzle, though. A century later, we still talk about how Shackleton had to “dig deep” into his psyche in order to survive such a hellish ordeal. What was it, exactly, that he found?
Trent Knoss is the digital editor at Backpacker Magazine and lives in Boulder, Colorado.