Shakleton’s Fourth Man

What exactly, Sir Edward Shackleton and his men
encountered on their harrowing crossing of the south polar island
of South Georgia is a question that has confounded historians and
inspired Sunday sermons ever since. The apparition impressed
Shackleton as being not of this world, a manifestation of some
greater power. It made its appearance near the end of the explorer’s
grandly named Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 7914-76,
at the very point when Shackleton stood to ensure his survival and
that of his men-or to lose everything in the attempt.
In August 1914, only days before the First World War
unleashed its fury on Europe, Shackleton had set sail to claim for
Britain a polar prize by crossing the Antarctic continent on

foot. The expedition came perilously close to ending in mass
disaster; the fact that it did not is the foundation of Shackleton’s
legend. He was the right man for the job. A self-made explorer,
Shackleton was possessed of resilience, will, and good humor. He
was also an unabashed romantic, and said he had not thought of
becoming an explorer until, as a twenty-two-year-old sailor in the
merchant marine, it came to him in a dream: “I seemed to vow to
myself that some day I would go to the region of ice and snow and
go on and on til I came to one of the poles of the earth.” But this,
his third aftempt at the South Pole, ended prematurely. The
expedition’s ship Endurance had threaded its way through the
freezing Weddell Sea, becoming trapped by ice even before
Shackleton could disembark for his attempt to traverse the
Antarctic continent.

After being carried in the ice for nearly ten months, the ship
was abandoned on October 27 , 1915. Shackleton wrote: “She was
doomed: no ship built by human hands could have withstood the
strain. I ordered all hands out on the floe.” The noise of the
pressure against the hull sounded “like the cries of a living
creature.” With time, the ship was reduced to a wreck. The
twenty-eight men stood a hundred yards off provisions and
supplies piled around them, the ice cracking beneath their feet.
They were a thousand miles and a vast ocean from the nearest
human settlement. Shackleton gathered the crew together and
said, quietly and without emotion: “Ship and stores have gone-
so now we’ll go home.” It was a desperate situation. As the
retreating crew picked their way for five months across the rotting
ice, dragging the Endurance’s small boats, some were overwhelmed

by their predicament: “The men were not normal; some of them
wanted to commit suicide and Shackleton had to force them to
live .”

On April 9, 1916, fifteen months after the ship first became
trapped, the men made an escape from the ice, launching the small
boats on the open sea. They were already greatly reduced in health
and spirit. Huddled in the boats, they were now tormented by the
surging seas. Salt from the sea spray reddened their eyes, bloodied
their lips, and gave their faces the pallor of death. Some were
suffering from dysentery from eating uncooked dog pemmican. At
night, temperatures dipped well below freezing. They faced
constant rain and snow squalls. Having spent three nights in the
boats, Shackleton doubted all the men would survive a fourth.
Then they saw the rugged cliffs of Elephant Island, a desolate
outcrop off the Antarctic Peninsula, and landed, staggering to
shore like a band of drunkards. However, their faces were sullen
and haunted. Frank Hurley the expedition photographer, wrote:
“Many suffered from temporary aberration, walking aimlessly
about; others shivering as with palsy.”
Knowing there was no chance a relief expedition would find
them, Shackleton decided to leave the majority of his crew behind
on Elephant Island and take five men with him in one of the small
boats, a whaler he named the James Cøird, to risk the extreme perils
of the ocean south of Cape Horn, “the most tempestuous area of
water in the world.” His goal was a whaling station on the British
possession of South Georgia, more than 680 miles away, yet still
within the Antarctic Convergence, and so in the thrall of deep
atmospheric depressions coming through the Drake Passage, which

produce extreme and unpredictable weather. He announced his
decision on April 19. Shackleton wrote: ‘A boat journey in search
of relief was necessary and must not be delayed. That conclusion
was forced upon me. . . . The hazards . . . were obvious.”

The six men endured gales, snow squalls, and heavy seas for
seventeen days. Their existence was miserable. Most were seasick,
soaked, and chilled to the marrow. After the third day they were
aheady showing signs of superficial frostbite; their feet and legs
assumed a “dead-white colour and lost surface feeling.” The only
respite from the cold came when they crawled into their sleeping
compartment, a “dungeon cell” roughly two yards long by one and
a half yards wide, into which three men would cram at a time,
bundled in damp reindeer-hide sleeping bags. They lay atop cases
of supplies and bags of stone shingles used as ballast, sleeping
fitfull¡ as their “unfortunate bodies” were “swung up and banged
down on mountainous seas.” Commander Frank Worsley who
had captained the Endurance, once awoke in the compartment
gasping in fear that he had been buried alive.

To cap it all, one keg of drinking water was lost, and the
absence of adequate fluid left them severely dehydrated. As their
journey continued, they each were reduced to a small amount of
brackish water per day. On the sixth day Worsley noted, “Our poor
fellows lit their pipes-their only solace-for raging thirst
prevented us from eating.” Shackleton wrote: “Thirst took posses-
sion of us. . . . Lack of water is always the most severe privation that
men can be condemned to endure.” He was right; while people can
survive for weeks without food, it is estimated that about four days
is the maximum anyone can survive without water. “All very thirsty

and badly in need of sleep,” ‘Worsley wrote in his navigation book.
“Some of our people, in fact, seem just about played out.”
Outside the conditions were even worse: the ice grew so thick
on the boat that they were in danger of capsizing and had to take
turns chopping it off with a carpenter’s adze. Once, when it
appeared there was a break in the weather, Shackleton shouted,
“It’s clearing, boys!” Then immediately after, “For God’s sake, hold
on! It’s got us!” What Shackleton took to be a line of white sky
signaling improved weather, was, in fact, the foaming crest of an
enormous wave, possibly caused by the overturning of an iceberg.
They were very nearly swamped and had to bail for their lives.
They not only overcame the immediate crisis, but also, in an
astounding feat of navigation by Worsley succeeded in reaching
South Georgia in the midst of a hurricane that threatened to drive
them onto the rocks. They fought the storm for nine hours before
finally making landfall. “We were about done,” said Henry
McNeish, the carpenter. Sleep deprived, their mouths dry and
tongues swollen from thirst, they were also in a state approaching
starvation. As soon as they beached the boat, they fell down into
pools of fresh running water and lapped it up like wild beasts. They
had to unload their sleeping bags and could barely even accom-
plish that task, having pertly lost control of their extremities,
which were numb from having been soaked in cold seawater for
more than two weeks.
Their ordeal was still not over. They were on the opposite
end of the island from their destination, the whaling station at
Stromness. However, the severe weather and treacherous conditions
made a further boat journey out of the question. So Shackleton

opted to cross overland, a distance of about twenty-four miles as
the crow flies, thereby attempting to become the first to penetrate
South Georgia’s mountainous interior. The island’s backbone is
formed by two ranges with more than a dozen peaks exceeding
sixry-five hundred feet, all surrounded by ice fields and vast
glaciers. For several days they did not move, however, the severe
weather forcing them to sit and wait. They used the time to recover
from the boat journey. They drank fresh water and ate the tender
meat of albatross chicks.
Finally at 3 A.M. on May 19,1916, Shackleton, Worsly and
Tom Crean, second officer, left McNeish in charge of the others
and the boat, and began their arduous crossing of the ranges and
glaciers of the island. Duncan Carse, an explorer who retraced their
crossing in the 1950s, was in awe of their courage: “They travelled
under headlong duress, reduced by long privation to exhausted
starvelings destitute of all but their own worn out clothing.” They
had virtually none of the equipment needed for climbing, except
fifteen yards of rope and the carpenter’s adze substituting for an
ice ax. Said Carse: “Their only safety lay in speed and the short-cut
regardless of danger; they could not fail because ’22 men were
waiting for the relief that we alone could secure for them.”‘

They marched in moonlight and in fog. They ascended
carefully, roped together, stepping around crevasses and crossing
snowfields. They had slender rations and went virtually without
sleep. They confronted the Trident, a giant ridge, and twice were
rebuffed when they found the descent impossible. Finally they
stood on an ice ridge, uncertain of what was over the other side
because of a sharp incline. When a heavy bank of fog threatened to

overtake them, they opted to jump into the unknown. As
Shackleton wrote, “there could be no turning back now.” Worsley
later said: “I was never more scared in my life than for the first
thirty seconds. The speed was terrific. I think we all gasped at that
hair-raising shoot into darkness.” At that point, only they knew the
whereabouts of all the other expedition members. Had they
dropped to their deaths, the entire expedition might have been
doomed. Instead, they tested fate and survived, shooting down
three hundred yards in a couple of minutes. At the end, they dusted
the snow off themselves and shook hands. Looking back, they saw
gray fingers of fog appearing on the ridge, “as though reaching after
the intruders into untrodden wilds. But we had escaped.”

They had walked all day, and they continued through the
night, for a time in near absolute darkness, until a full moon
rose and a silver pathway lay before them. They reached Fortuna
Bay, at first believing it to be their destination, Stromness, but
soon realized their mistake. At five o’clock in the morning on
May 20, exhausted and cold-one of the men now suffering
from frostbite-they stopped to rest. They had no tent, and
their clothes were in tatters, so they put their arms around each
other for warmth. Within minutes, Worsley and Crean were
asleep.  Wrote Shackleton: “I realized that it would be disastrous
if we all slumbered together, for sleep under such conditions
merges into death.” He waited five minutes then shook the
others awake, telling them they had slept for half an hour. He
then ordered a fresh start. As they trekked on, Shackleton later
reflected: “We three fellows drew very close to each other, mostly
in silence.”

At 6:30 A.M., Shackleton thought he heard the sound of a steam-
whistle, and half an hour later, they all heard it. Wrote Shackleton:
“Never had any one of us heard sweeter music.” They marched on,
eventually reaching a final ridge, before, at last, they had a view of
Stromness Bay. A whaling boat hove into view in the distance, and
tiny figures could be seen moving around the buildings. They
stopped and shook each other’s hands. They eventually shambled
into the whaling station, barely recognizable as civilized men. Their
beards were long and their hair was matted. Their faces were black
and their clothes, filthy rags. The first three people they encountered
recoiled in fear. Finally, a foreman took them to the house of the
manager, whom Shackleton knew. “Well?” the manager said. “Don’t
you know me?” Shackleton asked. The manager replied doubtfully
that he recognized the voice, but guessed wrongly at the identity of
the hirsute and malodorous visitor standing on his doorstep. “I am
Shackleton,” the stranger said at last.

Rescuers were dispatched to collect the others across the island,
and eventually to Elephant Island. All of the Endurance’s crew
survived the ordeal. One of the men left behind on Elephant
Island, Thomas Hans Orde-Lees, an experienced climber, later
wrote: “Shackleton admitted frequently that he was no
mountaineer. How later, he, Worsley, and Crean managed to cross
South Georgia is an everlasting puzzle to me.” They were not
untouched by the experience. Shackleton, paraphrasing a passage
from a poem by Robert Service, wrote in his narrative South,
published in 1919: “‘We had pierced the veneer of outside things.
We had ‘suffered, starved and triumphed, grovelled down yet
grasped at glory, grown bigger in the bigness of the whole. We had

seen God in His splendours, heard the text that Nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of man.”
Shackleton came to regard the desperate journey from Elephant
Island to the whaling station on South Georgia as the supreme event
of his life, surpassing even his greatest geographic achievement, the
1909 record for Farthest South. On that earlier expedition, he got to
within ninety-seven miles of the South Pole and earned a knight-
hood for his efforts. In the case of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic
Expedition, Shackleton failed to achieve any polar prize, but he had
attained something greater: he had led others to overcome seemingly
insurmountable obstacles in order to survive. The crossing of South
Georgia was the final act of the expedition’s deliverance.

Shackleton took great pains to write his account of the journey,
all the while cautioning, “There is much that can never be told.”‘
In preparing his narrative, he struggled with something unspoken.
In the house of Leonard Tlipp, a friend and confidant, at
Heretaunga, near ‘Wellington, New Zealand, the explorer tried to
come to terms with it. Tripp listened as Shackleton dictated his
story to Edward Saunders, a journalist who acted as his amanu-
ensis, and was amazed by what he heard. Shackleton paced up and
down the room as he spoke, and he seldom hesitated, but every
now and then he would tell Saunders to make a mark because he
had not found the right word. Said Tripp of Shackleton:
“I watched him, and his whole face seemed to swell-you know
what a big face he had.” With tears in his eyes, Shackleton then
said, “Tripp you don’t know what l,ve been through, and I am
going through it all again, and I cant do it.” He walked out of the
room as if he intended to go away, and lit a cigarette, but then he

returned. This happened on several occasions. Tripp recalled, “You
could see that the man was suffering, and then he came to this
mention of the fourth man.”

Shackleton, reciting Keats explained his struggle in South:

One feels “the dearth of human words, the roughness of
mortal speech,” in trying to describe things intangible, but a
record of our journeys would be incomplete without refer-
ence to a subject very near to our hearts.”

He revealed in the narrative that he had a pervasive sense, during
that last and worst of his struggles, that something out of the
ordinary had accompanied them:

When I look back at those days I have no doubt that
Providence guided us, not only across whose snow-fields, but
across the storm-white sea that separated Elephant Island
from our landing-place on South Georgia. 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.”
He had said nothing to the others, but then, three weeks later,
Worsley offered without prompting, “Boss, I had a curious feeling
on the march that there was another person with us.” Crean later
confessed to the same strange sensation. Each of the three men had
come to the same conclusion independently of the others: that
they had been in company with another being.

Shackleton at first did not mention the fourth presence to
anyone else, and the passage alluding to it, which Tripp heard

Shackleton dictate to Saunders, was omitted in the original draft of
South, written in 1917. Because of this, and since it was not
mentioned in any original document, the possibility has been
raised that the encounter with the presence was a “fabrication in
order to add a dash of spirituality to the story before it went to
press.”uo Indeed, one Shackleton biography suggested the presence
represented nothing more than “an attempt on Shackleton’s part to
court publicity, at a time of national emotion, by producing his
own Angel of Mons.”‘

This is a reference to a First World War report that angels had
appeared to safeguard the British army during its retreat from
Mons in August 1914. The historian A.J. P Taylor wrote of Mons
being the only battlefield where “supernatural intervention was
observed, more or less reliably, on the British side.” Lance
Corporal A. Johnstone, who had served with the Royal Engineers,
wrote to the London Evening News on August  11, 1915, to affirm
that angelic horsemen had appeared to the retreating troops:

I remember turning to my chums in the ranks and saying:
“Thank God!  We are not far off Paris now. Look at the
French cavalry,” They, too, saw them quite plainly, but on
getting closer, to our surprise the horsemen vanished and
gave place to banks of white mist, with clumps of trees and
bushes dimly showing through them. . . .

Johnstone said that he and his fellow soldiers had marched all day
and night with only a half-hour break. They were in extreme
danger, imperiled by the enemy and exposed to hunger, sleep
deprivation, and exhaustion. As Johnstone wrote, they were all

“absolutely worn out with fatigue-both bodily and mental,
marching quite mechanically along the road and babbling all sorts
of nonsense in sheer delirium.” On the basis of this, it has been
argued that they were, consequently, “subject to a sensory illusion
due to extreme fatigue.”  The burden of stress and exhaustion
suffered by the British soldiers at Mons bears a strong similarity to
that endured by Shackleton’s party, suggesting that far from being
a fictional embellishment, South simply documents a similar
response to extreme conditions.

In fact, the unseen companion does appear on a separate sheet
of paper labeled “Note” in another typescript of Shackleton’s
original manuscript. Apparently he initially withheld the passage,
before deciding to include it in the final draft. Shackleton said,
“One couldn’t write this sort of thing . . . about the mystery of that
Fourth in our journey; but it was the heart of it, all the same.” He
may have regretted that he ever allowed so deeply personal a feeling
to be made public “On occasions he would speak of it lightly, or
with embarrassment.” He did, nevertheless, subsequently allude to
it during some of his public lectures, and always with tremendous
effect. One person who attended a banquet in Shackleton’s honor
recalled, “You could hear a pin drop when Sir Ernest spoke of his
consciousness of a Divine Companion in his journeyings.” This
caused a sensation on the pulpit at the time. Frank W. Boreham, a
Baptist minister and popular writer, v¡as one of many clergymen
who linked Shackleton’s fourth presence to a passage from the
Bible, Daniel 3:24-5:
And Nebuchadnezzar the king was astonished, and rose up in
haste, and spake, and said undo his counselors, Did we not

cast three men bound into the midst of the fire? They
answered and said unto the king, Tiue, O king.
He answered and said, Lo, I see four men loose,
walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt; and
the form of the fourth is like the Son of God.

Boreham’s views are unsurprising. “Flame or frost; it makes no
difference. A truth that, in one age, can hold its own in a burning
fiery furnace can, in another, vindicate itself just as readily amidst
fields of ice and snow,” wrote Boreham, adding, “The form of the
fourth is like the Son of God!”

Was the presence on South Georgia the guiding, protective
hand of the Divine Companion, or as Boreham declared, “the Son
of God”? Did the Almighty intervene to guide the ragged trio of
polar explorers to their rescue? Or was it something else?
Historians, in their accounts of Shackleton’s expedition, have
surmised that it was some form of shared hallucination, as one put
it, that the “toil [was] enough to cloud their consciousness.”  Or
that “this was probably a hallucination due to their common
dehydration.” Shackleton biographer Roland Huntford wrote:
“They were suffering from dehydration, and that was pushing
them over into the half world where physical and mental
phenomena meet. . . . Delusion hovered in the air. Shadows seemed
like ghosts. They imagined unseen companions by their side.”

A writer, Harold Begbie, recorded a conversation with
Shackleton in the London Daily Telegraph:

“In your book you speak of a Fourth Presence.”
He nodded his head.

“Do you care to speak about that?”
At once he was restless and ill at ease. “No,” he said,
“None of us cares to speak about that. There are some things
which never can be spoken of. Almost to hint about them
comes perilously near to sacrilege. This experience was
eminently one of those things.”



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