In the early days of the Age of Exploration, men and women sailed across the harsh, unpredictable oceans to discover new worlds across the sea. For the next few hundred years, great men would emulate these early explorers, trekking out across the world to map out the undiscovered lands.
Few men are as inspirational in this regard as Ernest Shackleton, the erstwhile explorer who had plans to traverse the last unexplored continent on Earth: Antarctica. Yet Shackleton’s mission to cross Antarctica was doomed from the start and would be one of the most shocking tales of survival ever told…
Never Give Up
Ernest Shackleton was born on February 15, 1874, in Kildare County, Ireland. His parents were actually from Yorkshire, in Northern England and his father became a doctor later in life, proving to his sons that it’s possible to do anything one sets their mind to if they just try. To never give up until you’re dead. It was a lesson that would remain with Earnest for his whole life.
One of the Greats
Ernest was a lifelong explorer. He spent the majority of career going on seemingly impossible missions to undiscovered and often brutal places, specifically, Antarctica. His three separate expeditions to the South Pole in 1901 and 1908 were both met with hardship, but none was more difficult than his third attempt in 1914…
After his first two attempts had been plagued with bad weather and illness, Ernest was beginning to lose hope that he’d ever be able to explore the great South Pole. But his father’s lessons were still strong; he knew he couldn’t give up. In 1914, he planned on crossing the Antarctic once more. The third time would certainly be the charm.
Shackleton’s plan was to start below South America and make his way to the Ross Ice Shelf, below Australia. To make the trek work, he’d have to stop and stock up on more supplies for the second, more arduous leg of the trip. He hired 10 men to start from the Ross Shelf and place supplies every 60 miles. It was prudent thinking, but would it be enough?
His ship, the Endurance, departed from South Georgia for the Weddell Sea on December 5, 1914, in the heart of winter. Headed for Vahsel Bay, the Endurance moved southward but encountered ice almost immediately. The ice slowed the progress and it was getting worse as the cold days dragged on.
Before long, Endurance became frozen fast in an ice floe. It was February 24, 1915, almost three months into the trek. Shackleton realized the ship might be trapped until early Spring at the very least. With no other options, Shackleton ordered the ship’s routine abandoned; they would have to wait it out…
In the following months, the ship slowly drifted northward with the ice flow. Shackleton was floating farther and farther away from his goal. There wasn’t much else they could do but try and determine the next steps, could he really give up the mission this early in? After all, they knew they’d find ice in the Antarctic. There was one other option…
A month into their icy exile, the men were getting restless, and they were floating away from their ice camp on the Ross Ice Shelf. It was only 60 miles away but separated by impassable ice. They’d never reach it. Then, one day, the ship’s hull began to crack under the ice. Shackleton had no choice, he ordered the crew into two lifeboats and headed for the nearest island…
Shackleton and his crew spent five, harrowing, freezing days at sea. They had taken as many supplies as they could but still had to worry about fresh water. Finally, they were able to land their three lifeboats on Elephant Island, about 346 miles from where the Endurance had been abandoned.
Elephant Island was the first time Shackleton’s men had stood on solid ground for 497 days. They were elated but frightened. What would they do now? There was no one out there looking for them in those days, nor would anyone brave an Antarctic voyage until the spring arrived in earnest. Shackleton wanted to save them, he had made a mistake abandoning ship…
Hope for Endurance
Although he did not know it at the time, the Endurance had actually sunk into the icy waters when the ice floe it had been a part of shattered in two. As such, Shackleton still had hope that the ship, when released from the ice, would be able to work her way back towards Vahsel Bay. Deep down, though, he knew the truth: Endurance was gone.
The men attempted to march across the ice to another island but failed due to the movement of the waves and the unsteadiness and brittleness of the ice floe. They set up the appropriately named “Patience Camp” on the floe and waited for a more permanent solution to present itself. After all, it wasn’t as if the ice was going to melt or anything…
It was almost two months while Shackleton and his party of freezing sailors camped on the large, flat ice floe they had mistaken for an island. When they discovered it was a floe and not an island, they hoped that it might drift towards Paulet Island, where more supplies were cached and waiting for them.
No Chance of Rescue
Unfortunately, the Paulet Island was 250 miles away and Elephant Island was an inhospitable place, to say the least. It was far from any shipping routes, so any chance of rescue was very unlikely. The men were losing hope. Shackleton had frostbite in his fingers from giving his photographer his mittens. It was up to him now to save these men anyway he could…
Shackleton decided there were no other options. He would have to risk an open-boat journey to the South Georgia Whaling Station: 720 nautical miles away. He took the strongest of the tiny, 20-foot lifeboats, begrudgingly took his mittens back, christened the new “vessel” James Caird (after the expedition’s chief sponsor) and made to head out into the arctic seas alone.
Despite arguments from his officers, Shackleton refused to pack supplies for more than four weeks. Deep down, he knew that if he didn’t reach the whaling station within that time, the boat, his crew, all of it would be lost anyway. In April of 2016, years after the Endurance first set sail, Ernest Shackleton set out to save his crew one last time…
For the next fifteen days, Ernest Shackleton sailed through the cold, unforgiving waters of the southern ocean by himself. He was at the mercy of stormy seas, crushing and impassible ice, and constant peril of capsizing, but he pressed on: for his crew. They had risked their life for him coming on this impossible journey, he would do the same.
In January of 1917, a group of men approached Patience Camp, amongst them was Captain Ernest Shackleton. He had done it, he’d made it to the whaling station and brought them to rescue the crew. Shackleton told the crew of the sinking of the Endurance and the inevitable scrapping of the mission. It was time for them all to go home…
Setting Sail Again
After all was said and done, most of Shackleton’s men had survived their unbelievably harsh exile in the frozen Antarctic. Though they had unfortunately lost three men along the way, the other seven men were amazingly able to survive in the harsh conditions for more than two years. Even if he didn’t cross the Antarctic, that is no mean feat by any standards.
Although he never made it to the South Pole, Shackleton’s research and exploration led to many scientific discoveries. He tried one more time after that. But in 1922, on his fourth and final expedition, Ernest Shackleton had a heart attack off the coast of South Georgia Island. They buried him on that island. He was 49 years old and he didn’t give up: until he was dead.