In late 1914, celebrated polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, leader of the British Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, set sail with a 27-man crew, many of whom, it is said, had responded to the following recruitment notice: "Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.
Shackleton considered the expedition's goalcrossing the Antarctic continentthe last great polar journey of the "Heroic Age of Exploration." Departing from South Georgia Island in the subantarctic, Shackleton and his crew were to sail across the Weddell Sea to reach Vahsel Bay, from which Shackleton and a small team would cross the continent to the Ross Sea.
But just three days into the journey, the wooden ship, Endurance, encountered unexpected patches of sea ice and enormous icebergs. For six weeks, the Endurance, which Shackleton had renamed after his family motto, Fortitudine Vincimus"by endurance we conquer," dodged floes or smashed through them. Then, one fateful night, Shackleton ordered the crew to stop the engines to save fuel, and, in the morning, the ship was trapped in a sea of ice, leaving the 28 members of the expedition stranded, with no means of contacting the outside world for help.
Unable to break out of the jaws of the pack ice, the crew had no recourse but to spend the winter on the Endurance, waiting for the ice to break up in the spring, so they could sail on. Well-supplied for the Antarctic crossing, they had sufficient food and warm clothing, and the carpenter, Chippy McNeish, built comfortable living quarters they called "The Ritz."
To sustain morale, Shackleton kept everyone busyand everyone equal. University professors ate beside Yorkshire fishermen. In "The Ritz," they participated in group sing-alongs and toasts to loved ones back home. The nearly 70 sled dogs on the ship became their companions and a source of unending entertainment. Through all of these distractions, Shackleton inspired a sense of camaraderie, telling his crew that strength lies in unity.
But this unity was tested by catastrophe. As the ice began to move in the spring, it did not free the Endurance, but instead crushed her. The ship that had been the crew's homeand hopefor 326 days was now gone. In this darkest hour, his dream now dashed, Shackleton set a new goal: to save every life.
Twice the men made exhausting efforts to march to safety, hauling their lifeboats should they reach open water. But the ice proved impassable. Their only course was to camp on the ice and hope the floe beneath them drifted closer to land. They called their new home on the ice "Patience Camp," for all they could do was wait.
Days turned to months. Food was rationed: one pound per man per day. The crew members' hunger was never satisfied, their clothing was always wet. But all the while, Shackleton's every waking hour was devoted to holding his men together.
After five long months on a drifting ice floe, the men detected the swell of the ocean beneath them. The ice was breaking up. When they launched their three lifeboats in search of land, the men had been trapped in the ice for 15 months, but their real struggle was just beginning.
The first night on the water, the men were able to camp on an ice floe, but ever after they were confined to the boats, sitting in icy water, shivering in each other's arms. Day and night, they were hammered by wind and snow that turned to sleet and then rain. The situation was dire: After four days of battling the elements in open boats, they had not gained a single mile, but instead been carried by currents 30 miles farther from land.
Shackleton, standing tall at the tiller hour after hour in an attempt to hearten his men, realized that they must race to nearby Elephant Island to save the lives of his men. Guided by Captain Frank Worsley's navigational expertise, they landed at Elephant Island after seven fearful days on the open sea.
While they were on land for the first time in 497 days, this isolated island offered no hope of rescue, so Shackleton decided on a desperate gamble. He and five of the men would sail in the largest of the three lifeboatsthe 22-foot James Caird800 miles across the roughest seas on Earth to the whaling stations of South Georgia Island, where they would get help.
Shackleton and his five-man crew faced overcast skies, heaving seas, towering waves, gale-force windsand even a hurricanethat made it almost impossible to keep the small lifeboat upright, much less for Worsley to navigate precisely with a sextant. If Worsley were off by even half a degree, they could miss South Georgia completely and disappear in the open ocean.
Soaked to the bone and frostbitten, tortured by thirst, and pumping water out of the boat almost continuously so it wouldn't sink, the men were at sea for 17 days before landing on South Georgia Island. But the James Caird was too damaged to go further, and the nearest whaling station was on the opposite coast, across treacherous glaciers and mountains. Shackleton had no choice but to attempt a crossing on the uncharted island on foot. He, after all, had the 22 men on Elephant Island depending on him.
Wearing threadbare clothing, with wood screws from the lifeboat fastened to their boot soles for traction, Shackleton, Worsley and Second Officer Tom Crean set out to march across South Georgia. With just three days' provisions, two compasses, a rope and a carpenter's adze to be used as an ice axe, the three men trudged nearly 30 miles over rugged crevasses and peaks, riskily sliding down a steep slope at one point, for they would have frozen to death at that altitude as night fell. After 36 hours of traversing the unmapped island, they arrived at Stromness whaling station, the first civilization they'd encountered in 17 months.
Nearly a century after Shackleton and his men landed on South Georgia Island in the James Caird, three of the world's most accomplished modern-day mountaineersReinhold Messner, Stephen Venables and Conrad Ankerlanded on South Georgia to retrace Shackleton's route across the island to see what he, their hero, faced. Crossing South Georgia in three days as fit, well-fed climbers, the three were amazed that Shackleton, Worsley and Crean were able to accomplish the same crossing in 36 hours, without rest, with feet still numb from the frigid James Caird journey.
Returning to the Shackleton story, immediately after Shackleton, Worsley and Crean arrived at Stromness, a boat was sent to rescue the three crew members on the opposite side of South Georgia. Then Shackleton set out in a borrowed ship to save the 22 men on Elephant Island, but ice blocked his path again and again. Meanwhile, the men on Elephant Island assumed the worstthat Shackleton and the others had been lost at sea.
Finally, on August 30, 1916, Shackleton was able to reach Elephant Island. As he neared land, he anxiously counted the figures on the beach, exclaiming to Worsley, "They're all there, Skipper. They are all safe...Not a life lost."
Photo Credits: Frank Hurley, Courtesy of The Macklin Collection
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