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The Story of Ernest Shackleton: The South Pole Failure that Turned into an Incredible Survival Story


Ever since Christopher Columbus’s historic discovery of the Americas, explorers began seeking out and mapping every inch of our planet searching for treasure, knowledge, and glory. By the 1900s, there wasn’t a whole lot of exploring left to do, but a man named Ernest Shackleton was still determined to make his mark on exploration history by doing what no man had done before – by crossing the entire continent of Antarctica on foot from sea to sea through the south pole. But when Shackleton’s journey to the bottom of the earth went south, no pun intended, his leadership skills, quick thinking, and unbelievable bravery turned the expedition from certain doom into one of history’s most incredible survival stories.

Looking for Adventure

Ernest Shackleton was born in Ireland in 1874 on a small farm owned by his family and lived there until the age of six. He spent the rest of his childhood in Dublin when his family moved there so that his father Henry could study medicine. Living in a city rather a farm gave the young boy access to books and schools, and as he grew older it became obvious to everyone who knew him that this was an exceptionally bright young man. He read every book he could get his hands on and was obsessed with people and places of the world. At age thirteen he began studying at Dulwich College, but despite his hunger for knowledge, he often remarked that he was bored with his studies, and once said, “teachers should be very careful not to spoil [their pupils’] taste for poetry for all time by making it a task…” Although he neglected his studies and focused his energy elsewhere, he still managed to graduate in fifth place out of the thirty-one students in his class, a testament to his intelligence.

His growing restlessness and disinterest in school led him to leave home at age 16 and find a job as an apprentice for the North Western Shipping Company aboard the vessel Hoghton Tower. It was here that Shackleton’s passion for adventure was uncovered. Learning the ins and outs of sailing while travelling to every corner of the world, he was finally in his element, and his sharp mind helped him move up the company ladder throughout the next several years. By age 24, Shackleton was certified as a Master Mariner, meaning he was now qualified to command any commercial British ship anywhere in the world. This landed him a new job at Union Castle Line, a passenger and mail carrier that shipped between the UK and South Africa.

Also working at Union Castle Line was a man named Cedric Longstaff. Cedric’s father, Llewellyn, was an extremely wealthy businessman who dabbled in all sorts of things like shipping, oil manufacturing, and freemasonry, but most importantly, was also a member of the Royal Geographical Society. Llewellyn’s interest in geography had led to him becoming the main financial support for the new National Antarctic Expedition, hoping to make history in Antarctica. You can just imagine Shackleton’s heart pounding when he heard the news; this was the adventure of a lifetime that he had been waiting for. Through Shackleton’s acquaintance with Llewellyn’s son, he secured an interview for joining the crew, and Llewellyn was so impressed with Shackleton during the meeting that he was guaranteed a spot on the ship and was later officially confirmed as third officer on board the Discovery, the ship that had been built specifically for this voyage.

The Discovery departed in 1901 and was captained by Robert Falcon Scott, an accomplished Navy officer. The goal of this expedition was to reach a new record southernmost latitude, or in other words, get even closer to the south pole than anyone previous. By January 1902, the Antarctic coastline had been spotted, and the crew began charting parts of the coastline. Later that year, the ship approached the coastline and was eventually completely iced in, with the sea frozen on every side of the ship. The expedition crew then set off with dog sleds to head for their latitude goal deep in the frozen continent.

Captain Scott later said that the voyage was “a combination of success and failure”. The group succeeded in setting a new record latitude and set up a camp for future research, but the trip was plagued with difficulties. All 22 dogs had died, mostly from food poisoning, and the men were suffering from snow blindness, coughs, fatigue, and frostbite. A lack of fruits and vegetables in their diets led to everyone also developing scurvy, causing joint pain, swelling, and exhaustion, among other symptoms. But of the three men on the trek, Shackleton was in the worst shape, coughing and completely out of energy, and the group still had to walk 160 miles back to their frozen ship.

When the men returned to the ship, Captain Scott ordered Shackleton to return home to for his health, and he was picked up by the resupply ship Morning. There is some speculation that Scott was just using his health as an excuse to get Shackleton off the trip, because the two had a serious falling out during their trek and a lot of the crew reported that there was a lot of competition between the two. Scott even said to the ship’s doctor, “if he does not go back sick he will go back in disgrace”.

Regardless of the real reason that we may never know, Shackleton made his way back to England. He sailed to New Zealand, and then travelled through the United States before sailing across the Atlantic and arriving in the UK. But upon returning home, he was surprised to learn that he had become somewhat of a celebrity from his adventure in Antarctica. The government was also highly interested in his expertise so that they could send a rescue ship down to save Captain Scott and the Discovery, who were still stuck in the ice. But Shackleton had no interest in sailing with this crew, possibly because of the rivalry we mentioned earlier. Instead, he continued to take jobs outfitting ships and taking risky business ventures, none of which really panned out. He wanted to make a lot of money, and everyone knew why: Shackleton was very public about his desires to return to Antarctica, to be the first to reach the south pole.

The public was going crazy about this, as several nations at the time were vying to be the first to explore Antarctica and ultimately reach the south pole, mainly the UK and Norway. Several wealthy investors stepped in to support Shackleton, and a crew was put together. By 1908, everything was prepared, and Shackleton set off in a ship called Nimrod.

The Nimrod voyage once again made history. Shackleton and his men failed to reach the geographic south pole as intended, but they managed to reach a new record latitude, getting just 112 miles from the south pole. They charted the Bay of Whales, discovered the Beardmore Glacier, and became the first men to summit Mount Erebus, a beautiful active volcano. You didn’t know Antarctica had an active volcano, did you?

The trip back to the ship was a race against time as rations were running low, and it is here that we see the beginnings of Shackleton’s incredible leadership. On one of the tougher days of trudging through miles of ice, Shackleton gave his daily rationed biscuit to his sick crewmate, Frank Wild, opting to go hungry to help his ailing friend. Frank wrote in his diary that night, “All the money that was ever minted would not have bought that biscuit, and the remembrance of that sacrifice will never leave me.”

Now, as much as Shackleton was already a popular figure back in England, this trip made his popularity shoot through the roof. He was invited to give lectures at universities, speak at royal gatherings, and was even knighted, becoming Sir Ernest Shackleton. He was also called to testify at the hearing investigating the sinking of the titanic, where he gave his opinion that an iceberg would have been invisible until it was too late. With his newfound fame he also started up some more business ventures, like a tobacco company and a mining firm in Hungary, but none of these panned out.

The Last Great Challenge

By 1912, news reached Shackleton that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had officially become the first person to reach the south pole. Shackleton quickly shifted focus to his next idea: traversing Antarctica. The goal of this expedition was to travel from shore to shore through the south pole, completing the first land crossing of Antarctica. To Shackleton, this was the only remaining challenge to be completed at the bottom of the world, and he was determined to be the one to see it through and make history in the process. For this voyage he initially wanted a crew from the Royal Navy, but this was denied, so instead he went public again and advertised his need for manpower. His advertisement didn’t exactly sugarcoat the journey either:

“MEN WANTED for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success. Ernest Shackleton, 4 Burlington Street.”

Surprisingly, his brutal honesty worked, and there were so many applicants that Shackleton had to sort through them and find the most promising adventurers.

The Imperial Trans Antarctic Expedition began in 1914 when Shackleton’s ship, Endurance, set sail for the Weddell Sea, while a second ship, Aurora, would sail to the other end of the continent and set up camp to receive Shackleton at the end of his trip. But just as Endurance reached Antarctica, things started going wrong almost immediately.

Just as Shackleton’s ship reached the continent, it became stuck in the pack ice that surrounds Antarctica, much like his experience on Discovery years earlier. Shackleton ordered his men to use every tool at their disposal to free the ship, and the entire crew was busy for days hacking away with ice picks, pickaxes, and anything remotely sharp from the kitchen, but it was futile, the ice was only growing thicker. Seeing that there was no hope of freeing the ship until spring, he ordered that the ship be turned into a winter camp until the ice melted enough to continue toward mainland Antarctica.

As they waited for spring, Endurance gently drifted along with the ice in which it was frozen, and all the while the crew hunkered down in their cabins through the pitch-black winter. Shackleton understood the importance of high morale in his men, so to keep their spirits high he told them to take walks when the moon was brightest, amateur theatre performances were attempted on the deck, and holidays were celebrated. They even held races among their sled dogs to stay entertained.

Just as the ice was beginning to warm up and the winter’s grip on the ship was being loosened, the shifting pressures from melting ice all around squeezed the ship harder than ever before, and harder than it could handle. Up to this point the crew was still holding out hope that they could salvage Endurance, but when the hull started cracking from the new pressure those hopes were dashed. As water started leaking into the cabins, the crew finally abandoned ship. For a month or so they made daily trips to the collapsing ship to grab anything useful left behind, but on November 21st, 1915, Endurance was officially sinking. All 28 men were now stranded on the ice, separated from the actual coast of Antarctica, with no way to call for help.

Knowing supplies were limited and morale was low, Shackleton wasted no time formulating a plan. After some debate, he decided that their best chance was to march across the drifting ice to Snow Hill Island, where some emergency supplies had been left at a shelter, or Paulet Island, where Shackleton himself had left a food depot over a decade earlier. To save on food rations, the weakest sled dogs were shot, and sadly, so was the cat Mrs. Chippy. The next day the crew started their march, pulling supplies and two lifeboats on sleds, but the terrain was so rough that after three whole days of walking the men had only travelled two miles. At this rate, their food would long run out long before they reached a supply depot at one of the islands mentioned earlier, so their only option was to wait on the ice as it drifted in the desired direction, so they set up their tents on the ice and named the spot Ocean Camp. They were actually floating at an impressive speed by early December, as much as seven miles every day, but a few weeks later when their bearing began shifting away from their destination, Shackleton ordered everyone to prepare for hiking across the ice on foot once again.

But the terrain had worsened since their last attempt, and now the rising temperatures of summer had softened some of the ice, turning the ground into snow or wet sludge. Just a few days into this grueling walk, carpenter McNish, whose cat was the one shot earlier, refused to work, claiming he was no longer under orders since the ship had been lost, and he had lost faith in Shackleton over the failed march. In the end, Shackleton was able to talk some sense into him and keep the crew moving, but tension remained. Shackleton likely knew that the march was futile, but it was crucial for the crew to know that he had tried every option on the ice.

By January 1916, the crew had been trudging along for over a week, exhausted from the uneven ground, wet boots, and diminishing rations, and they had only travelled twelve miles. Shackleton called an end to the march, saying that at this rate, “It would take us over three hundred days to reach the land.” The place where they gave up their march would be named Patience Camp, and it would become their home for the next several months.

By February, supplies were running dangerously low, and the rest of the sled dogs had to be eaten. A group was then sent back to recover some supplies that were left at Ocean Camp, as well as the third and final lifeboat, which would soon come in handy. The staple of their diet at this point was penguin meat, which was easy enough to hunt on the ice nearby, but the lack of vitamins in everyone’s diet meant that the group was developing scurvy. With penguin meat so abundant near Patience Camp, the men discussed building a stockpile that could last them months, but Shackleton strictly forbade this. That might seem illogical at first, but his reasoning was two-fold. Firstly, the men were occupied with the hunting, keeping their minds busy day by day, but more importantly, Shackleton understood the psychological implication of stockpiling food – it means you’re not leaving anytime soon, or ever, and he had to keep the men’s hope alive that there was even a possibility of returning home.

Patience Camp continued to drift unpredictably, at one point even reaching the same latitude as Paulet Island, one of their original destinations, but it was 60 miles to the east. 60 miles doesn’t sound like much, but Shackleton said it might as well have been 600 because they had no chance of crossing the melting ice against the current to get there.

On April 8, the ice suddenly cracked through Patience Camp, leaving the crew on an even smaller, triangular chunk of ice. They had to move on, and Shackleton had started to narrow down their next options. The men separated into the three wooden lifeboats, one led by Shackleton and the others led by two officers he selected and began making their way northward. Progress was slow and dangerous, everyone’s clothes were soaked with the ice-cold seawater, and morale was sinking with every passing day, so Shackleton finalized his plans and announced the next destination: Elephant Island.

When the crew made it to Elephant Island, they couldn’t approach the coast as it was, shockingly, surrounded by ice. But they managed to find a small rocky beach on the northern coast to make camp for the night. Some of them hadn’t even slept during the journey of over 80 hours. The next day, they found a dry place to stay, which they later named Cape Wild. But just as we saw earlier, Shackleton wasn’t planning to simply survive on some remote island for the remainder of his days – he was determined to bring his men home, so he immediately got started on the next phase of his seemingly impossible plan.

A Million to One

To put it simply, Elephant Island is desolate and remote rock. Even today, it has a population of zero. There are no native plants, and in 1916 the only visitors to the island were seals and penguins. But the few animals were a source of food, and the island was a somewhat stable place to wait for rescue, if it would ever come. This was Shackleton’s next task: to leave the island with a small group and return with a rescue ship.

Shackleton chose 5 other men to accompany him, and they got to work drawing up their plans. Looking at the prospects, the ocean currents eliminated the tip of South America as a destination even though it was technically the closest. The nearest inhabited island that could actually be reached by lifeboat was South Georgia Island, which was a staggering 800 miles (1300 kilometers) away. McNish, the carpenter who had rebelled earlier, was chosen for the voyage and began modifying the lifeboat, named the James Caird, for such a trip. On April 24th, 1916, the James Caird was launched with the six men and four weeks of provisions.

Let’s put this in perspective. Shackleton was attempting to sail 800 miles in the roughest ocean on earth in a small open boat. This had never been done before, and likely has not been done since, because it’s insane. But Shackleton had no other choice. Using a sextant, the navigator Worsley would try to get a reading every day by matching the sun to the horizon and using complex calculations and nautical maps, but some days this was impossible, as the sun hid behind thick clouds or waves that were so intense that Shackleton described them as the largest he had seen in 26 years at sea.

After several days at sea, Worsley calculated that the group had travelled 238 miles, and they started their turn towards South Georgia. If his calculations were off by just a half of a degree to the south, the group would miss the Island and be lost in the Southern Ocean and would certainly die. Their chances were minimal, but as Shackleton said, “Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all.”

On May 10th, after battling some the harshest elements known to man, the group arrived at South Georgia. They had achieved the impossible, and it brought them to their physical and mental limits. But their struggles didn’t end there.

South Georgia was chosen as the destination because of a whaling station on the island, which would have men, a ship, and the necessary supplies to rescue his men back at Elephant Island. Not to mention, Endurance had docked here on its way to Antarctica, and Shackleton was somewhat familiar with the whalers. But Shackleton and his group landed on the south side of the island, and the whaling outposts were on the northern coasts. The lifeboat they had taken was falling apart and could not handle an addition journey of well over 100 miles. Two of the men were quite ill, so the only remaining option was to cross the somewhat narrow island on foot. After a camp was set up and the weather cleared up, the two sick men and another stayed with the boat, while Shackleton and 2 others started the crossing.

Crossing South Georgia isn’t exactly a walk in the park. When the men hiked up to get a view of the interior, they saw cliffs, glaciers, and rocky mountains in all directions. As the men were guessing their path across these uncharted mountains, they had to continually backtrack as they reached dead ends or cliffs, frustrating and further tiring them. And while normally carving out shallow footholds to descend the slopes, at one point they risked it all and slid down a mountainside on a makeshift rope sled. Crossing the unmapped glaciers presented the risk of falling into a crevasse at any moment.

Shackleton had hoped to march without stopping, but the two men with him were literally collapsing with exhaustion, begging for just a brief rest, and here we see Shackleton’s incredible understanding of the mind. He was aware the danger of falling asleep, as he wrote in his diary “sleep under these conditions merges into death.” But he allowed the men to rest, and they fell asleep immediately. Shackleton woke them up after just 5 minutes, telling them it had been over half an hour. The men, with no reason to not believe him, were convinced they had rested and hiked the remainder of the journey without complaint.

After 36 grueling hours, the men’s eyes were on their watches with anticipation – and, as expected, at exactly 7 AM, a steam whistle rung out through the island, calling the whalers to work and telling the tired sailors that they were close to rescue. Shackleton and his men made their way down to the dock, the same one they had visited 17 months earlier. Though unrecognizable at first, the men were welcomed, and soon after, the three men left on the other side of the island were picked up.

After two failed attempts, a ship finally made it back to Elephant Island to rescue the rest of the crew, who had been through absolute hell. They were starving, only able to eat the occasional shellfish after the penguins had all been hunted. One of the men had to have his toes amputated, and violence was brewing among the high tensions. But not one life was lost – despite all odds, Shackleton had succeeded.

The crew returned to Europe after almost 2 years at sea. Having been away for so long, they were unaware that the Great War had begun, and being of relative unimportance compared to the war, their return went rather unnoticed. The majority of the men were quick to enlist, and Shackleton himself was later sent to Murmansk, Russia because of his experience in frozen sea.

After the war, Shackleton gathered a crew, including some men from Endurance, and set sail for another expedition, this time with the goal of circumnavigating Antarctica. But this would be his final voyage, as Shackleton died of a heart attack in 1922 while in port at none other than South Georgia Island. His death marked the end of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, and the original goal of crossing Antarctica on foot wouldn’t be completed for another 50 years. Shackleton was buried on South Georgia Island, where to this day a monument stands to remind the world of his incredible story.

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