Ernest Shackleton was born in 1874, to a family of English descent that made its home in Ireland for four generations. At 16, he traded his youthful interest in adventure stories for a berth on a sailing ship, beginning a career in the merchant service. He was inspired by the early voyages of exploration, later writing: "I felt strangely drawn towards the mysterious South. I vow[ed] that someday I would go to the region of ice and snow and go on and on till I came to one of the poles of the Earth, the end of the axis upon which this great round ball turns."
His aspirations were fulfilled when he joined the British National Antarctic Expedition as Third Lieutenant and sailed to the Antarctic aboard the Discovery in 1901. Under the command of British Naval officer Robert Falcon Scott, the expedition was charged with geographical exploration from a base on Ross Island in the Ross Sea. Sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society, the expedition claimed the first aerial survey of Antarctica via balloon.
In 1902, Scott chose Shackleton, along with Dr. Edward Wilson, for his first attempt on the South Pole. The team reached the furthest south achieved to date, at 82°16.5'South, before starvation, exhaustion and frostbite forced a retreat. Shackleton was particularly stricken with scurvy, a debilitating deficiency of vitamin C. An antagonism between Scott and Shackleton also surfaced on the trip. Scott sent Shackleton home in 1903, ostensibly for health reasons, and the men parted ways as explorers.
Shackleton organized the British Antarctic Expedition and, in 1907, sailed south in the Nimrod, bound for the Ross Sea, again seeking the elusive South Pole. Using ponies instead of the traditional dogs, he pioneered a route along the Great Beardmore Glacier with fellow crew members Jameson Adams, Frank Wild and Eric Marshall. As they reached previously unexplored latitudes, the journey became an ordeal of suffering. The ponies were sadly ill-suited to the environment, and the southward trek threatened to become a death march. With supreme judgment, Shackleton made the agonizing decision to turn back within 97 miles of the Pole rather than risk the lives of his men. Writing to his wife Emily, he quipped, "I thought you'd rather have a live donkey than a dead lion." Along with setting a furthest south record of 88°23'South, the expedition claimed to be the first to reach the South Magnetic Pole, guided by crew member Douglas Mawson, and the first ascent of volcanic Mount Erebus. Shackleton was subsequently knighted for the expedition's achievements.
The race for the Pole intensified in 1911, when Norwegian and British expeditions sailed into the Ross Sea at once. Norwegian Roald Amundsen reached the Pole on December 15, 1911, and returned safely. Scott arrived at the Pole January 17, 1912, and died with his entire party on the return. Shackleton cheered Amundsen's achievement and cast about for a new polar prize, ultimately announcing he would be the first to cross the Antarctic continent from the Weddell Sea coast to the Ross Sea coast.
In 1914, the British Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition left England aboard the Endurance, named for the Shackleton family motto, "Fortitudine Vincimus," translated "by endurance we conquer." Not long after the ship entered the Weddell Sea, it became trapped in pack ice and later sank. Shackleton and his men embarked on an epic 635-day struggle for survival. Shackleton's leadership and the crew's astonishing braveryliving on ice floes, sailing 800 miles of open ocean in a lifeboat, and crossing previously unexplored mountains and glaciers on footbrought all 28 men through the ordeal alive.
After rescuing the crew of the Endurance, and the men of the Ross Sea side of the expedition aboard the Aurora, Shackleton returned home. He served as an officer in the war effort in Russia along with several companions from the Endurance expedition. His account of the expedition, South, was published in 1919, and he lectured frequently in Europe and abroad. None of these occupations seemed to suit his restless nature; he once wrote to his wife Emily, "I am just good as an explorer, and nothing else."
In September 1921 he embarked on another Antarctic expedition aboard the Quest. He was again joined by faithful companions from the Endurance, including Frank Worsley, Alexander Macklin, James McIlroy, Frank Wild, Charles Green, Leonard Hussey and Thomas McLeod. Shackleton was troubled by ill health on the journey south. On January 4, 1922, the Quest arrived at South Georgia, and Shackleton suffered a massive heart attack the next day with Dr. Macklin by his side. It has been presumed that his heart was weakened by the privations of the polar trek with Scott and subsequent ordeals. He was buried in the whaler's cemetery at Grytviken.
The Crew of the Endurance
Sir Ernest Shackleton, Leader
To learn more about the individual members of the Endurance expedition, visit the NOVA/PBS Online Adventure site by clicking the logo below.