Not long after after starting my blog, I once wrote on The Angel of Mons an event dating back to WW1 which often captures the imagination of those who know if it. A very contemporary event to this happened to Ernest Shackleton who I have written about last week,
South Georgia might not seem a very angelic sort of place. Since it’s discovery by Captain Cook who named it in honour of his King, through a century or two of the accursed whale industry and more recently the site of the most southerly military battle in history in 1982, when occupying Argentine forces were compelled to surrender; it hardly has a kindle history or indeed kindly terrain.
Ernest Shackleton and his two companions Frank Worsley and Tom Crean survived one of the most improbable and toughest journeys in history in an epic story of survival that would defy belief were it not true. They had navigated an open lifeboat from Antarctica to South Georgia Island, across hundreds of miles of the worst seas on the planet. Then they walked over the uncharted saw-tooth spine of South Georgia to reach help at the Stromness whaling station on the east side of the island.
Their journey of heroics and suffering is well documented and one of the interesting aspects to it is that all three men felt that the presence of another being with them on the arduous trip.
South Georgia Island is a tortured upheaval of mountain and glacier that falls in chaos to the jagged coastline of the South Atlantic Ocean. From thirty miles of this wind-blasted sub-Antarctic wilderness came walking on the afternoon of the 20 May 1916 “a terrible-looking trio of scarecrows,” soaked to the skin, cold, and exhausted.Their leader, Ernest Shackleton, wrote in 1917, “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.”
Shackleton’s biographers suggested that some have interpreted the account as Shackleton’s attempt to court publicity but it seems unlikely that a man of science and exploration would want his incredible heroics to be brought into disrepute by the mention of an angel.
Shackleton’s experience of an mysterious travelling companion was clearly documented, and confirmed by the other two men in his group: “I said nothing to my companions (during the crossing), but afterwards Worsley said to me ‘Boss I had a curious feeling on the march that there was another person with me.’ Crean confessed to the same idea.”
Their expedition ship Endurance had left South Georgia for Antarctica in December 1914. They had sailed into the pack ice of the Weddell Sea, intending to land a party of men and achieve the first crossing of the continent. Instead, the Endurance was beset and finally crushed by the ice. The twenty-eight men of the expedition camped for months on the shifting ice until the pack broke up under them and thrust their three lifeboats into the open sea.
Surviving six days of exposure and hypothermia, they made land on Elephant Island, a desperately isolated rocky outcrop surrounded by treacherous reefs and ice. From here, Shackleton decided to take four men back to South Georgia to find rescue. Navigating an open 22-foot lifeboat by sextant and compass 800 miles across the brutal autumn South Atlantic, they made landfall on the storm-wracked west side of the island two weeks later.
Recovering from “trench foot” and exposure suffered during the two weeks of prolonged cold and damp, they were still exhausted by their sea voyage.
But deliverance lay with the whaling settlements on the more sheltered leeward side of the island. Their battered boat was now unseaworthy. With the lives of the men on Elephant Island hanging on a rescue, the only option was for some of the party to cross the inland on foot.
The weather was wet and ferociously cold, visibility was frequently poor, and the broken terrain was unexplored and unknown. Their clothes were threadbare, they had no portable shelter, and their climbing equipment amounted to little more than a length of rope, some brass screws driven through their boots, and a carpenter’s adze. Crossing the mountains in uncertain weather risked once again exposure, hypothermia, and inevitable death.
In his own expedition account, Frank Worsley wrote, “While writing this seven years after (almost), each step of the journey comes back clearly, and even now I again find myself counting our party – Shackleton, Crean and I and – who was the other? Of course, there were only three, but it is strange that in mentally reviewing the crossing we should always think of a fourth, and then correct ourselves . . . Three or four weeks after (arriving at Stromness) Sir Ernest and I, comparing notes, found that we each had a strange feeling that there had been a fourth in our party, and Crean afterwards confessed to the same feeling.”
As mountaineers began to explore other remote parts of the globe in the decades that followed, similar descriptions of sensed companions began to accumulate in expedition accounts of extreme high-altitude settings. Comparable experiences have also been reported or described in the context of a variety of situations such as religious experiences, sleep disorders, neurological conditions, therapeutic or recreational drug use, and various states of intense psychological or physiological stress.
While an early and famous example, the phenomenon Shackleton’s party reported is therefore not an isolated occurrence. The “feeling of a presence” or “sensed presence” can loosely be defined as the subjective experience of the presence of an external entity, being, or individual, despite no clear objective sensory or perceptual evidence.
A neurological model focuses the anatomical and physiological correlates of perceptual experience. The sense of the phantom presence of another being may be part of a spectrum of conceptual anomalies that include out-of-body experiences and altered perceptions of body proportions.
A scientific explanation might be the the three men walked across broken terrain for thirty-six hours, with no prolonged sleep or rest and that after the most intolerable boat journey and extended periods marooned in the ice of Antartica. They were exhausted and cold. Conceptualising the presence of a helpful or comforting person in a highly stressful context may be a helpful method of dealing with the challenge of the situation.
It is however rather unusual three men to independently experience and report similar sensations.
With the quiet help, perhaps, of the fourth companion in reaching Stromness, Shackleton’s efforts were ultimately successful. The men waiting through the winter on Elephant Island had variously survived frostbite, illness, cold, hunger, and even surgery. On the fourth attempt at navigating the winter ice, Shackleton reached Elephant Island, and all were rescued and returned home.
Shackleton, however, had a very clear view of where the person came from: “When I look back on those days I have no doubt that Providence guided us across not only across those snowfields, but across the storm-white sea that separated Elephant Island from our landing-place on South Georgia.
Ernest Shackleton made a further trip to Antartica but tragically, he suffered a sudden and unforeseen heart attack the day after his arrival at South Georgia and he was buried at the cemetery of Grytvken Church.