On 18 March 1923, George Lee Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb Everest. His reply, printed in the New York Times, was simply, “because it is there.” As a boy, I was intrigued by adventurers and I read the stories of their exploits avidly. It has always struck me that no further justification of an adventure should be required than, “because it is there”. Twelve years before Mallory’s famous quote was uttered, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole, followed by Scott, who died on the return journey. Like Scott before him, Mallory was ultimately to die trying to achieve his objective, yet both of their stories endure to the point where, to an assembly of prep school pupils, an image of Scott is instantly recognisable and the details of his story known.
Without doubt though, my boyhood hero was Ernest Shackleton. A contemporary of Scott’s, Shackleton made his third trip to the Antarctic with the ship 'Endurance', planning to cross Antarctica via the South Pole. Early in 1915, his ship became trapped in the ice, and ten months later sank. Shackleton's crew had already abandoned the ship to live on the floating ice. In April 1916, they set off in three small boats, eventually reaching Elephant Island. Taking five crew members, Shackleton went to find help. In a small boat, the six men spent 16 days crossing 1,300 km of ocean to reach South Georgia and then trekked across the island to a whaling station. The remaining men from the 'Endurance' were rescued in August 1916. This journey has long been recognised as one of the greatest feats of human endurance and determination and not one member of the expedition died.
What has always impressed me about the story was that Shackleton’s expedition took place despite the onset of the First World War. Although there was a worsening political situation and the mobilisation of military forces throughout Europe had taken place, Shackleton’s expedition not only went ahead, but was encouraged and also partially funded by the Government. After the expedition’s departure, Shackleton cabled the Admiralty placing his men, ships and supplies at their disposal. The Admiralty responded with just one word: ‘proceed’. Clearly there was a mood amongst those in authority that, even with the threat of war, there was a place for adventure.
So this morning we discussed adventure in assembly. Indeed, one of our new school values is Adventure. Our hope is that we can acknowledge that life is a big adventure. There is a whole world out there to be explored and, between us, we need to help the young people in our care to build the courage and strength of character to face it. Part of that is stimulating their curiosity and a part of it is demonstrating, through our example and the stories that we tell, that anything is possible. It is essential too, that we help them to build the toolkit that every successful adventurer needs: resilience, resourcefulness, determination, stamina, courage and skills (plus, perhaps, a really good sleeping bag)!
I hope you have an adventurous weekend….
John F Gilmour