In 1914, the British Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition set out to become the first to cross the continent of Antarctica by land.
They did not achieve their goal.
However, their failure ended up becoming one of the greatest stories of perseverance and of the tenacity of the human spirit.
Learn more about Ernest Shackleton and the rescue of the Endurance, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
Ernest Shackleton was one of the great polar explorers in the golden age of polar exploration.
Born in 1874 in Ireland, he attended college and served in the British merchant marines. He became a lieutenant in the Royal Navy Reserve in 1901, and that same year he took part in his first polar expedition.
He served as a third lieutenant on the British National Antarctic Expedition under the command of Robert Scott on the RRS Discovery.
He took part in the sled dog journey to the south pole and made it all the way to 82° S before he got sick and was sent back home on a supply ship.
He returned to Antarctica in 1907 on the Nimrod expedition, which was an attempt to become the first humans to reach the south pole.
Shackleton and his team got close but didn’t quite make it. They set a record by making it to 88° 23′ S, just 112 miles or 180 kilometers from the pole.
A few years later, in 1912, Scott died trying to reach the pole and the Norwegian Roald Amundsen finally made it.
For a polar explorer, getting to the south pole first was the big prize. Now that the prize had been won, Shackleton needed another goal to chase.
He decided to be the first person to cross the entirety of Antarctica. In fact, he decided on this goal almost the moment he heard of Amundsen’s success.
The plan was to start near the Weddel Sea, east of the Antarctic peninsula, roughly south of South America and South Georgia Island, go to the south pole, then cross over the Ross Ice Shelf, and return back via New Zealand.
This would be a much greater challenge than just getting to the pole.
For starters, would require the use of two ships. The first ship, the Endurance, would drop off a team of six men.
A second ship, the Aurora, would go to the other end of the continent and leave supplies across the ice shelf that the team would pick up on the way back.
In addition to the complicated logistics, most of the funds for the expedition had to be privately raised. The British government did donate £10,000 but the other £70,000 he raised from private sources. He also sold the newspaper rights to the story and created the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Film Syndicate to sell film footage.
Most famously, he recruited many of his crew thought what would become the most famous classified advertisement in history. The ad read:
Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.
That ad was considered one of the greatest 100 ads of all time.
There were over 5000 applications for the expedition including three women.
Eventually, 28 men were selected for each ship in the expedition.
The Endurance set sail on August 8, 1914, without Shackleton, who had to take care of the expedition business. He took a faster ship and met up with the Endurance in Buenos Aires.
Shackleton was the leader of the expedition, but the captain of the Endurance was the Kiwi Frank Worsley, and Shackleton’s right-hand man and his second in command was Frank Wild, who was an experienced Antarctic explorer himself.
There were a total of 28 men on the Endurance, and 70 sled dogs. One of the 28 men was actually a stowaway who was recruited into service when he was discovered.
From Buenos Aires, they sailed to South Georgia, which is an island in the South Atlantic and is today a British Territory. At the time, there were several whaling and sealing stations on the island, and that was it.
They left South Georgia for Antarctica on December 14.
Two days after leaving South Georgia they encountered pack ice in the Wedell Sea. Pack ice is ice that is floating, but you can still sail between it. Imagine puzzle pieces that aren’t connected. You can push between the pieces, but it’s difficult.
For weeks they slowly worked their way south, making very little progress. Eventually, the winds picked up and pushed the ice up against the land, and all of the pack ice was pressed tight against each other.
On January 19, 1915, The Endurance became stuck and couldn’t move.
There was nothing they could do.
As one of the crew members later said, they were “frozen like an almond in the middle of a chocolate bar.”
They were within a day’s sail of where they were supposed to land to begin their expedition when they got stuck.
By February 24 it became obvious that the ship wasn’t going to be going anywhere. The southern hemisphere summer was ending and it was only going to be getting colder. The ship was stuck until the next spring, and they were going to have to spend the winter in Antarctica, stuck on a ship that was trapped in ice.
There was no hope of rescue, and there was no way to get the word out to anyone that they needed help.
They were stuck in ice for over 10 months. Then in October, the wooden ship started to disintegrate because of the pressure of the ice.
The word was given to abandon ship.
They took all of the supplies off of the ship and set up camp on an ice floe. They left everything that wasn’t necessary on the ship, including having to kill some of the younger dogs.
It was just a matter of time. On November 15, 1915, the Endurance sunk to the bottom of the sea.
In addition to supplies necessary for survival, they also took three lifeboats from the ship, which proved to be pivotal later on.
They spent several months on the ice floe. Their ice floe kept floating north and they were hoping it would take them to Paulet Island where they knew there were supplies stored.
However, the ice eventually didn’t get close enough and their ice floe broke in two, and on April 9, 1916, they had to get in the lifeboats.
They spent five days in the boats crossing the open ocean and eventually landed on Elephant Island, which is located near the northernmost part of the Antarctic Peninsula. It was located a full 346 miles away from where the Endurance was abandoned. It had been 497 days since they had been on solid ground.
Believe it or not, I’ve actually been to Elephant Island. It was one of our stops when I went to Antarctica in 2011. There is literally nothing there, and most of the island is covered with ice year-round. However, there is some dry land near the shore, which was where they set up camp.
While they made it to land, they still had massive problems. No one would ever find them where they were located. There were no regular ship routes coming to the Antarctic peninsula in 1916.
Their only hope of survival, and it was a very slim hope, was to reach other humans so they could send help and rescue everyone on the island.
The problem was, the nearest human settlement was the whaling stations back on South Georgia Island.
South Georgia was 720 nautical miles away. Not only was it far away, but between South Georgia and Elephant islands was the Great Southern Ocean, which was some of the roughest seas on the planet.
The decision was made that Shackleton was going to make the voyage with five of his men to try and get help on South Georgia….and they were going to have to do it in a lifeboat that was 22.5 feet or 6.9 meters long.
They took the strongest of the three lifeboats and the ship’s carpenter, Harry McNish, made improvements to it. The ship was dubbed the James Caird after one of the expedition supporters.
They put a deck on the ship to prevent water from getting inside and to allow the men a place where they can be sheltered. The sides of the boat were raised, the keel was strengthened, and the sides were treated with seal blood and paint to make it more waterproof.
On April 24, Shackleton and five other men set sail for South Georgia island. One of those five men was the Captain of the Endurance, Frank Worsley, who would be responsible for navigation.
Shackleton’s right-hand man, Frank Wild, was left in charge of the crew on Elephant Island.
They spent 17 days in a tiny boat on an incredibly rough ocean. They had to deal with almost constant, massive swells, and they had to spend much of those 17 days bailing out the boat.
They took shifts with three men on and three men off. Their clothes weren’t designed for the sea. It was designed for a cold, dry Antarctic climate. Their clothes weren’t waterproof and they were wet and cold the entire time.
Navigation was very difficult as the boat was being tossed so much, but Captain Worsley managed to keep the course.
When they finally arrived at South Georgia on May 8, they had made it to dry land, but there was still a problem. They landed on the south coast of the island where there were no settlements. They needed to get to the other side of the island. However, no one had ever crossed the mountains and glaciers of South Georgia Island on foot.
Sailing around the island wasn’t deemed possible given the condition of the boat and the condition of the men.
So, after making a sea voyage that no one else had ever made before, three of the six men now had to take a hike that no one had ever made before. It was like the second leg of an extreme survival biathlon.
So, over the next 36 hours, they hiked a route that no one ever hiked before, and came by land to the Norwegian whaling station of Stromness.
The whalers there were shocked that people showed up on foot, coming over the mountains on an otherwise uninhabited island.
The manager of the whaling station famously said, “who the hell are you?”
And Shackleton responded with a cracked voice, “My name is Shackleton.”
They were suffering windburn, frostbite, and they were starving.
The first order of business was to get the three men on the other side of the island, which was done quickly.
The next order of business was to get the men who were on Elephant Island.
He petitioned the Chilean government to send a small tug called the Yelcho to pick up the rest of the men.
The problem was it was now the southern hemisphere winter. You can’t easily sail to Antarctica and cross the Drake Passage in the winter.
There were four different rescue attempts starting in June, and the first three had to turn back due to ice and weather.
The fourth trip, however, was successful and the 22 men on Elephant Island were rescued on August 30, 1916. Shackleton was on the ship to greet them.
They had survived on penguins and seals. They built shelters from the remaining lifeboats and canvas, burned seal blubber for fuel.
It wasn’t really the time of year for seals and penguins, but thankfully they had no fear of humans so what few were there were easy to hunt.
On September 3rd, all 28 men from the Endurance arrived in Punta Arenas, Chile, almost two years after setting out.
Everyone had survived and there were no fatalities.
Now, you might remember that I said that there were two ships that were part of this expedition. The second ship, the Aurora, had a very similar problem.
The Aurora got stuck in ice. However, the ice they were stuck in broke free, sending the ship adrift into the ocean, stranding a team that was on the shore setting up the supply depots for Shackleton.
They drifted for six months before they broke free of the ice. They eventually sailed to New Zealand before coming back to rescue the men who were still onshore in January of 1917.
Shackleton actually sailed to New Zealand to be part of the crew that rescued the men from the Aurora.
Shackleton arrived back in England in May 1917. He and his crew had totally missed the first world war up to that point.
Shackleton volunteered for the war, but he was too old and was physically spent from the whole ordeal. He did have an advisory role in the North Russia Expeditionary Force during the Russian Civil War.
He planned on one final expedition to Antarctica, but he died of a heart attack on January 5, 1922, after arriving on South Georgia Island.
He was buried in South Georgia, and you can visit his grave today at the island’s closest thing to a settlement, Grytviken.
In 2011, the ashes of Frank Wild were reburied on Shackleton’s right-hand side.
You can see the lifeboat used by Shackleton, the James Caird, on display at Dulwich College in south London.
In March 2022 the remains of the Endurance were found under the ice in Antarctica. It was found to be in remarkably good condition given the preservation in cold water.
The story of the Endurance and its crew is one of the world’s greatest stories of survival. The conditions they survived, the location they survived, and the fact that there were no fatalities, makes Ernest Shackleton’s failed expedition one of the most memorable Antarctic expeditions in history.
Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
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