Already a celebrated polar explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton coordinated the British Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition with the goal of accomplishing the first crossing of the Antarctic continent, a feat he considered to be the last great polar journey of the "Heroic Age of Exploration."
In December 1914, Shackleton set sail with his 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. Ernest Shackleton."
Ice conditions were unusually harsh, and the wooden ship, which Shackleton had renamed Endurance after his family motto, Fortitudine Vincimus"by endurance we conquer," became trapped in the pack ice of the Weddell Sea. For 10 months, the Endurance drifted, locked within the ice, until the pressure crushed the ship. With meager food, clothing and shelter, Shackleton and his men were stranded on the ice floes, where they camped for five months.
When they had drifted to the northern edge of the pack, encountering open leads of water, the men sailed the three small lifeboats they'd salvaged to a bleak crag called Elephant Island. They were on land for the first time in 497 days; however, it was uninhabited and, due to its distance from shipping lanes, provided no hope for rescue.
Recognizing the severity of the physical and mental strains on his men, Shackleton and five others immediately set out to take the crew's rescue into their own hands. In a 22-foot lifeboat named the James Caird, they accomplished the impossible, surviving a 17-day, 800-mile journey through the world's worst seas to South Georgia Island, where a whaling station was located.
The six men landed on an uninhabited part of the island, however, so their last hope was to cross 26 miles of mountains and glaciers, considered impassable, to reach the whaling station on the other side. Starved, frostbitten and wearing rags, Shackleton and two others made the trek and, in August 1916, 21 months after the initial departure of the Endurance, Shackleton himself returned to rescue the men on Elephant Island. Although they'd withstood the most incredible hardship and privation, not one member of the 28-man crew was lost.
To learn more about the Endurance expedition, visit the NOVA/PBS Online Adventure site by clicking the logo below.
Photo Credits: Frank Hurley, Courtesy of The Macklin Collection
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