Leeds explorer follows in Ernest Shackleton's footsteps

Explorer Stephen Venables is bringing his tales of following in Sir Ernest Shackleton's footsteps to West Yorkshire

As great escapes go, Sir Ernest Shackelton's takes some beating. His ship trapped in Antarctic ice, he and his stranded team of explorers faced certain death.

Taking it upon himself to save his men, Shackleton travelled 800 miles over icy seas and glacial mountains to summon help in what remains one of history's most remarkable stories of leadership and survival.

It's not the sort of trek most people would embark on unless lives were at stake. And yet for reasons best known to himself, explorer Stephen Venables has repeated it twice.

The first Briton to climb Everest without supplementary oxygen, he is one of the UK's best-known mountaineers.

His impressive career spanning more than 40 years has taken him all over the world, from the Himalayas in Asia to the European Alps, the South American Andes and the mountains of East and Southern Africa.

Now Stephen is visiting West Yorkshire to relate his adventures following in Shackleton's footsteps on the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia.

"It's my bread and butter, my joy," he says of the tour. "People can expect a great story illustrated by stunning pictures bringing alive one of the greatest survival stories of all time."

Having formerly taught at a school in York and with a sister, professional photographer Lizzie Shepherd, living in Bramham, Stephen is no stranger to this region, but it is the far wilder terrain of Antarctica that inspires his adventures.

"I had been aware of Shackleton's extraordinary story most of my life and I'd always been interested in the idea of Antarctica and the amazing islands that lie around it," he says.

In 1989 he travelled to South Georgia for the first time and in 2000 was invited to go back, specifically to follow the steps of Shackleton across the glaciers, the actual route he and his two companions had made in 1916.

Then he returned for a third time in 2008 leading a group called the Beyond Endurance expedition.

So what is it that keeps taking him back to one of the planet's most inhospitable environments?

"It's the lure of big mountains that rise to nearly 10,000 feet straight out of the ocean, you're 750 miles from the nearest land and it's one of the most remote places on earth," he says.

"It's a place of incredible beauty, quite stark weather at times, one of the greatest concentrations of wildlife on earth and it's special because you can't get there by easyJet, you can only get there by boat."

The exploration bug first bit him on family holidays to North Wales and the Alps, his imagination later stirred by reading Shackleton's book South, which detailed his amazing escape.

In 1914, having seen arch rival Captain Scott perish on his ill-fated attempt to lead the first expedition to the South Pole, Shackleton had set his sights on making the first crossing of the Antarctic continent, from sea to sea via the Pole, a journey of around 1,800 miles.

But disaster struck when his ship the Endurance was crushed and then sunk by the ice off Antarctica, causing him to embark on his rescue mission.

He set out in a tiny lifeboat in search of help and, after a 16-day, 800-mile voyage across the Southern Ocean, landed on South Georgia's deserted south coast.

Here Shackleton continued on foot with two of his men, crossing 30 miles of unknown, unmapped glacial mountains with no mountaineering equipment.

They finally reached the whaling station of Stromness on the north coast where they were able to summon a successful rescue for their remaining 22 companions.

Although a failure because not a single man set foot on Antarctica, the expedition has since become a legend of bravery and endurance.

"Obviously it's easier for us than Shackleton because we're going as tourists whereas he was doing it to save lives," says Stephen, who has survived breaking both his legs on one adventure.

"We go with excellent equipment and maps to show us where to go which he didn't have, so we know roughly where the route is, and we try to do it in spring so we can travel on skis.

"So I can't pretend it's remotely comparable to what he and his companions experienced, but it does give you a glimpse into history.

"You're going somewhere where extraordinary events happened, and that's very moving."

Last November he went back to South Georgia to explore the southern end of the island and is set to return in October with another group.

Despite his own exploits, Stephen remains in thrall to the achievements of Shackleton and his team.

"What impresses me is their extraordinary stoicism, ability to remain cheerful under the most appalling circumstances and to make do with virtually nothing.

"They were brilliant sailors and mountaineers and, above all, great survivors.

"Shackleton was an extraordinary gambler, his expeditions never quite had enough money and he took the kind of risks very few people would contemplate taking nowadays.

"But he did seem to have this amazing ability to get people into a fix and then get them out again."

l Stephen Venables' In the Steps of Shackleton will be showing at the Theatre Royal, Wakefield, on Friday, January 28. His book Island at the Edge of the World is out now.

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