I recently returned from a trip to Antarctica. I always wanted to travel to all seven continents. Now I’ve finally accomplished my goal. There is a wonderful story about an Antarctic explorer named Sir Ernest Shackleton, who made one of the most incredible journeys in exploration history. In brief, Shackleton and his men became icebound in their ship, the Endurance, in the Weddell Sea. It was a frozen prison which lasted for months, including the Antarctic winter, when the sun does not rise for months. During this time they floated in a circular motion towards the Antarctic Peninsula until the ice finally crushed the ship. They spent another period of months on large ice floes, stranded over thousands of feet of ocean water. As the ice floes melted and they reached open water, the crew abandoned the ice for three small lifeboats, spending days in freezing, harrowing conditions until they landed on an isolated outcropping of land named Elephant Island.
During their ordeal they lived off stores from the abandoned ship as well as seal and penguin meat. Because Elephant Island is far from the route of the seal and whaling ships, Shackleton knew that he couldn’t expect rescue from a passing ship. So, in the most incredible open-boat journey I know of in man’s history, in a 22-foot boat covered with a makeshift canvas top, he and five other men went for help across 850 miles of the most treacherous seas on the planet, known as the Drake Passage. They were trying to reach a tiny pinpoint of land named South George Island, where they could obtain help.
After days of battling storms, ice, and a towering rogue wave they miraculously found that small point of land. Unfortunately, they landed on the wrong side of the island from the whaling station and the help they needed. Their boat was no longer seaworthy. Three of them were so weak they could hardly walk. Shackleton and two others made a crossing over the glaciers and high mountains of South Georgia—thirty-six hours of incredible endurance—to drop into a whaling station on the other side. Shackleton was determined he would not lose a man of the twenty-eight men who trusted his leadership. And he succeeded!
Why recount that story? After Shackleton made that unbelievable final climb over the wilderness of South Georgia, Frank Worsley, his close friend and one of the other two men with him, made an interesting observation. Here is the account in Shackleton’s own words:
“When I look back at those days I have no doubt that Providence guided us, not only across those 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. I said nothing to my companions on the point, but afterwards Worsley said to me, ‘Boss, I had a curious feeling on the march that there was another person with us.’ Crean confessed to the same idea. 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 a reference to a subject very near to our hearts” (Sir Ernest Shackleton, South: The Endurance Expedition [New York: Penguin Classics, 2002], 204). They were four!
There will be times that, if we will look beside us, we will realize we are “four.” That third man who walked with the disciples on the road to Emmaus will walk with us. Let us look beside us to find hope.