The pages of history are dotted with the exploits and writings of British travel junkies. Although imperialism was undoubtedly an incentive for many, polar expeditions between the late 1800s and early 1900s had a more admirable goal: scientific and geographic exploration in the South Pole. This era is commonly referred to as the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.
Many of the trips undertaken by British adventurers who were drawn southward started off with the best of intentions. At worst, such excursions might have glimmered with the hope of personal glory for their survivors. More often than not, however, these ventures were characterized by technological and navigational hiccups, tragedy, and failure. Some early explorers led notable parties into the south only to meet their doom in the harsh climate that bombarded them amid the journey.
A man with just such a fate was Robert Falcon Scott, who spearheaded a number of Antarctic missions. In his last, he bit off more than he could chew. From 1911 to 1912, Scott and his team trudged on through terrific blizzards, hoping to be the first to reach the geographic South Pole. But when they ultimately arrived, they discovered that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and company had beaten them to it by 34 days. Amundsen would return to Europe to tell of his success, but Scott never made it that far. The frozen bodies of Scott and his companions were discovered in November 1912.
The writings of these explorers always offer vivid insights into the joys and hardships they experienced. Before his death, Scott penned a letter to his wife discussing their son. One line stands out, a mingling of hope and despair: “Try to make him believe in a God, it is comforting...”
As we can see, the Antarctic was and is a brutal force to be reckoned with. Ernest Shackleton knew this well. In fact, Shackleton was a well-seasoned British explorer of the Antarctic, having joined Robert Falcon Scott on the successful British National Antarctic Expedition (1901-1904). This is the story of one of Shackleton's most revered, albeit also one of the least successful, voyages into the southern polar region.
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The objective of Shackleton's trek into the pitiless conditions of the southern pole was to achieve the first land crossing of the mysterious snow-laden continent. Officially called the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, this mission—like many of its predecessors—would be subject to catastrophe.
As with any polar outing, the tale begins with a ship. To Ernest Shackleton, the Endurance was a fine work of durable craftsmanship. She was an impressive steamer specifically designed for the rigors of polar travels. Built under the supervision of master wood shipbuilder Christian Jacobsen, the Endurance was made of selected pine, oak, and greenheart. Weighing in at some 350 tons, she also had a hefty price tag of £14,000.
Money to cover the finances came from numerous sources, including some government funding. Prior to the Endurance's send-off, King George V bestowed on Shackleton the British flag and a pair of Bibles that belonged to his mother, Alexandra of Denmark. With the blessing of his country, Shackleton took his leave.
After about a year or so of preparations, the Endurance was headed for Vahsel Bay in the summer of 1914, leaving the outbreak of the first World War behind her. The plan was for Shackleton and his men to make their way from the bay to the Ross Sea. Meanwhile, the Ross Sea Party was expected to reach the other end of Antarctica and begin establishing supply outposts between the sea and Mount Hope. These would provide much-needed reinforcements to Shackleton's party as they proceeded across the continent.
The expedition certainly had its enjoyable moments. The celebration of Christmas was accompanied by drinking and singing, and the quiet scenery included the occasional party of emperor penguins. Even the deadly ice moved majestically as Shackleton recalled. But hopes plummeted when disaster struck.
As high as expectations were for the Endurance, this man-made marvel could not equal the powers of nature. She was on course when her progress got stunted by thickening, converging ice floes. This was the Endurance's undoing. She ultimately didn't live up to her name and never made it to Vahsel Bay, leaving the crew of 28 stranded on a thick sheet of ice.
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The Endurance was crushed—and with it, Shackleton's loftiest aspirations. Over the next few days, the crew had to part with many items. Several puppies and the carpenter's cat, Mrs. Chippy, even had to be put down. For Shackleton, the reasoning was clear: they could not provide adequate care for vulnerable animals given the new set of circumstances.
Likewise, he chose to let go of material treasures such as the Bibles he was gifted by the former queen. In his book South, Shackleton's account of the intrepid and daunting voyage, the expedition leader records: "I tore the fly-leaf out of the Bible that Queen Alexandra had given to the ship, with her own writing in it, and also the wonderful page of Job containing the verse:
Out of whose womb came the ice?
And the hoary frost of Heaven, who hath gendered it?
The waters are hid as with a stone,
And the face of the deep is frozen. [Job 38:29-30]"
Undoubtedly, the passage about ice and hidden waters resonated with Shackleton given the situation he had just been plunged into. So one Bible was abandoned in the snow. The other was left in the lower hold onboard the Endurance.
A few months later, with light supplies and heavy hearts, the men loaded up onto the three available lifeboats: the James Caird, Dudley Docker, and Stancomb Wills. Over the spring of 1916, the troop headed in a northerly direction. The decision was made to aim for either Clarence Island or the neighboring Elephant Island. The mood aboard the three boats was sometimes hopeful, sometimes melancholic. Shackleton described a segment of this voyage thus: "Dark blue and sapphire green ran the seas. Our sails were soon up, and with a fair wind we moved over the waves like three Viking ships on the quest of a lost Atlantis."
The scenery might've been beautiful at times. But it also did not take much to get well under 20 degrees Fahrenheit below zero. Frigid temperatures made for difficult living conditions. Still they carried on.
Their sacrifices weren't in vain. In mid-April, they arrived on the unoccupied Elephant Island. The joy that rushed over the crew at coming onto solid land was clear from the widespread laughter which, Shackleton wrote, “caused cracked lips to bleed afresh.”
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Though the makeshift settlement on Elephant Island was bearable, it was clear that no aid would penetrate the surrounding vicinity and happen upon their presence. Nor could any radio signals be effectively transmitted. Shackleton knew there was only one useful move to be made: take one of the boats and attempt to reach a settlement somewhere. The James Caird, so called after a very generous donor to the expedition with the same name, was retrofitted with a mast stripped off the Stancomb Wills and a canvas covering.
The course the James Caird would traverse was decided; it was over 800 miles to the island of South Georgia in the southern Atlantic Ocean. It wasn't the closest human settlement, but it was the one they were most likely to reach given the prevailing winds. If Shackleton and his selected team of five made it, they could notify a whaling station of the whereabouts of the fellow explorers they left behind. As Shackleton himself wrote regarding the possibility of their failure: “I calculated that at worst the venture would add nothing to the risks of the men left on the island.”
So the miniature crew took to the lifeboat and pushed on, treacherous waters be damned. Visibility was low, and reckoning their progress by the position of the sun proved harder than usual; they only spotted the sun a handful of times in the more than two weeks they spent at sea. Navigation issues aside, they also warded off the ever-present threat of frostbite. There never seemed to be a shortage of hardships.
The James Caird miraculously managed to carry the band of men to South Georgia, but their arrival was beleaguered by the chaotic effects of a hurricane. If they had reached the island any later, it's likely they would have been swept off course with little hope of survival. Instead, Shackleton's party set up camp and rested up for a few days before braving the next leg of their journey. The boat was converted into a temporary shelter to protect the men from the elements. After this, however, it was clear the James Caird had done all it could. If they continued, it would be on foot.
Of the men present, Shackleton chose only two and struggled on by land across South Georgia, a rugged landscape populated by many a mountain. In an extraordinary spurt of perseverance, the trio of explorers-turned-rescuers hiked 30 miles in a 36-hour period and reached a whaling station at Stromness. From there, they could get help. A crew of Norwegian seamen brought Shackleton back to his crew on the other side of the island.
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In the coming months, Shackleton would make several thwarted attempts to pick up the men who were still stranded on Elephant Island, and had to turn back due to thick pack ice. Finally, Shackleton persuaded the Chilean government to lend him a ship and was able to rescue the remainder of the crew in August, more than four months months after he had left Elephant Island aboard the James Caird.
Fortunately, not a single crew member had succumbed to the bitter chill of the Antarctic climate. Though they couldn't carry out the original goal of the expedition, they were nonetheless victors in a certain sense, having returned to their families and friends after bearing the extreme weather they faced in the Antarctic.
Today, the James Caird, the lifeboat that served its crew in dire necessity, is on display at Dulwich College, London. Readers who are especially fascinated by its journey can indulge in the television film Shackleton, in which Kenneth Branagh (who played Hercule Poirot in 2017's Murder on the Orient Express) portrays the titular role.
Ultimately, the Antarctic survival story of Sir Ernest Shackleton is one that inspires people even today. It is a story that never ceases to reflect a glimmer of the enduring human spirit.