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Snow is tough, but Shackleton's voyage shows we can endure

The ice that doomed the Endurance's Antarctic voyage makes the drifts around your car look like nothing. And its crew still got along.
The ice that doomed the Endurance's Antarctic voyage makes the drifts around your car look like nothing. And its crew still got along. (Frank Hurly/associated Press File Photo)
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By John Kelly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 18, 2010

At least I haven't had to skin any penguins.

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That's what I thought the other morning as I wrestled my trash cans and recycling to the curb -- well, not to the curb, exactly, since the curb was buried under five feet of plowed-up and iced-over snow, a gray and dismal frozen berm that will probably be part of the landscape till June. I was trying to get the cans and bins sort of curbish, accessible to the trash men but not blocking the narrowed street.

When we have as much snow as we've had, nothing is easy. But, I reflected, it could be worse.

The previous night I'd finished re-reading Caroline Alexander's wonderful book "The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition." In 1914, Sir Ernest Shackleton and a 27-man crew sailed from England with the aim of being the first team to trek across the Antarctic on foot. Once they reached the southern continent, their ship, the Endurance, became stuck in pack ice, was borne along for hundreds of miles by the shifting floe, then was crushed by the incredible pressure of the frozen sea. Salvaging what they could from the wreck and dragging three lifeboats behind them, the crew managed to hike to safety. When warming weather started to break up the ice beneath them, they took to the boats, picked their way among the icebergs and made a tentative landfall at a tiny, godforsaken speck of land called Elephant Island.

Realizing they would never be found there, Shackleton selected five crew members and set off in a 22-foot lifeboat to reach the whaling station at South Georgia Island and organize a rescue party. Their 17-day, 800-mile journey -- through 60-foot swells, hurricane-force winds and lashing sleet -- is widely considered the most amazing feat of seamanship in history.

And some of us complain about a little snow.

Okay, we can't really compare Washington in the winter of 2010 to Antarctica in the winter of 1916, when Shackleton made his epic open-boat journey. None of us signed up for this. And yet I couldn't help but discern a lesson in that tale of suffering and heroism. It's a simple one: Don't get on one another's nerves.

The Endurance's crew was marooned for 18 months, from the moment the ship was first trapped in the ice to when Shackleton returned to Elephant Island. In that time, they had to endure unimaginable hardships: temperatures that reached 20 below, frostbite, polar darkness and polar light, a diet of mainly seal blubber and penguin meat. (The dogs had already been shot.)

Shackleton showed amazing leadership, never more so than in his ability to diffuse tense situations. Seating arrangements on the icebound Endurance were rotated so everyone got an equal opportunity to sit near the warm stove. The 22 men left behind on Elephant Island slept like sardines underneath the overturned hulls of the two remaining boats. Whoever filled the chamber pot to within two inches of the top had to empty it. Trapped at the ends of the earth, with Death's icy breath always on their necks, they managed to get along.

And we have people running over good Samaritans who take a little too long to push a car out of the way? Assaulting one another over shoveled-out parking spaces?

This is not a normal winter. Make allowances for it. Chill.

Shackleton brought every single man back alive. Will we be able to say the same at the end of our snowbound winter?

Crutch play

Do you have a pair of crutches gathering dust in your attic or a wheelchair parked in the basement? The people of Haiti need them.

Christopher Horowicz, a physical therapist with Professional SportsCare & Rehab, said the recent earthquake there has resulted in thousands of amputations. His company is collecting assistive devices such as crutches, wheelchairs and walkers and, with the help of Project HOPE, sending them to Haiti.

The snow slowed down their collection efforts, which end March 1. There are 22 drop-off locations, including rehab offices in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and the District. For addresses, go to http://www.prosportscare.com and http://www.mdsportscare.com or e-mail asstdevices4haiti@yahoo.com.

No chat Friday

I won't be hosting my customary online discussion Friday. I'm speaking at the luncheon of the Association of the Oldest Inhabitants of D.C. What an interesting name. I anticipate a room full of centenarians sucking on oxygen.

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