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Sir Ernest Shackleton Endurance Expedition Trans-Antarctica 1914-1917

So was born what became the Imperial Trans-Antarctica expedition of 1914 – 1917. The goal was ambitious – audacious even, considering that only 10 men had ever stood at the South Pole and 5 of those had died on the way back. The story that would unfold was to be beyond any expectations and completely different to that planned. It is quite simply one of the most incredible adventure stories of all time. Remarkable even for an era and region that already has far more than its fair share of incredible tales of heroism and fortitude in the face of appalling hardships.

The intention was to cross the Antarctic continent from one coast to the other via the South Pole. In the event, the main expedition never set foot on continental Antarctica. The expedition managed to survive the loss of their ship in the middle of the Antarctic pack ice at a time when there was no chance of contacting the outside world, let alone of being rescued. 

Preparation

Shackleton began planning his next journey to Antarctica almost as soon as he returned from the Nimrod expedition of 1907 – 1909. He felt certain that others would soon succeed in reaching the South Pole where he had failed having come so close, and so looked to the next goal. This he took as being the crossing of the Antarctic continent from coast to coast via the South Pole, a distance of about 1800 miles, a long way certainly, but not so much further than a “there and back” journey to the pole.

He planned to set out from the Weddell sea region (to the south of South America) across a completely unexplored region of Antarctica, to the pole, and then to the Ross sea / McMurdo sound area (to the south of New Zealand). Typically for such trips, the attention grabbing exploratory part of the expedition was but a small part of a whole. Other scientific and exploratory sledging trips were planned for parties setting out from the main base as well as another party who were to remain at the base and carry out a variety of scientific work. Another group of men would be required to set out from the Ross sea region and lay depots for the trans-Antarctic party to use on their journey to the coast from the pole, they would be on a second ship.

The ship used for the journey to the Weddell sea was newly constructed in a Norwegian shipyard, and had been intended for tourist cruises in the Arctic. She was the Endurance.  The ship to take the Ross Sea party was the Aurora purchased from Douglas Mawson and used by his 1911 – 1914 Antarctic expedition. The expedition was inundated with applications from volunteers to join, despite (or maybe because of) the tragic end of Robert Scott and his team after reaching the South Pole only two years beforehand.

There is a much publicized, but almost certainly apocryphal newspaper advertisement supposedly placed by Shackleton (no trace of a copy has ever been found in any archive).

Funding became a problem and so Shackleton found himself recruiting and preparing for the departure of the Endurance while also desperately struggling for funds that if not forthcoming might result in the expedition not taking place at all. Eventually however, funding was obtained and towards the end of July 1914 preparations were almost complete.

The dark clouds of World War 1 were beginning to gather however. The Endurance was anchored off Southend on August 4th 1914 when Shackleton read in a daily newspaper the order for general mobilization of troops and supplies along with calls for volunteer soldiers. He immediately returned to the ship, gathered all hands, and told them that he would send a to telegram the Admiralty offering the ships, stores and services to the country in the event of war breaking out. Within an hour after sending the telegram, Shackleton received a reply from the Admiralty with the single word “Proceed”. Within two hours, another arrived from Winston Churchill in which he thanked them for their offer but desired that the expedition go on. That night, at midnight, war broke out.

On August 8th the Endurance sailed for the Antarctic via Buenos Aires and the sub Antarctic island of South Georgia where there was a Norwegian whaling station. It was thought that the war would be over within six months so when it came time to leave for the south, they left with no regrets.

On November 5th 1914 they arrived at South Georgia. Shackleton learnt much from the whaling captains about the conditions between there and the Weddell Sea which indicated that this was a particularly heavy ice year. The plan had been to spend only a few days collecting stores, but instead the Endurance remained at South Georgia for a month to allow the ice further south to disperse. This month was one where bonds of friendship and mutual respect were formed between the Endurance crew and the Norwegian whalers. Bonds that were to prove unexpectedly useful some time later to Shackleton and his men.

The Weddell Sea was known to be particularly ice bound at the best of times and the Endurance left with a deck-load of coal in addition to normal stores to help with the extra load on the engines when it came to pushing through pack ice in the Weddell Sea to the Antarctic continent beyond. Extra clothing and stores were taken from South Georgia in the event that the Endurance may have to winter in the ice if caught in the Weddell Sea as it froze, unable to reach the continent first. They left South Georgia on the 5th of December 1914.

Frank Wild (left) and Ernest Shackleton (right) and the crushed Endurance

Into the Pack ice

The Endurance battled her way through a thousand miles of pack ice over a six week period and was one hundred miles – one days sail – from her destination, when on the 18th of January 1915 at 76°34’S, the ice closed in around her. The temperature dropped dramatically cementing together the loose ice that surrounded the ship as the ship’s storekeeper wrote, she was “Like an almond in a piece of toffee”.

On the one hand this was not totally unexpected, it had happened to ships in the Arctic and Antarctic many times, but it was a significant setback and for Shackleton, the disappointment must have been bitter. He was 40 years old, his country was at war, the expedition had taken huge amounts of effort and energy to prepare, he was unlikely to have this opportunity again.

Nevertheless, his men looked towards “the Boss” as they called him. This collection of Royal Naval sailors, rough and ready trawler hands and recent Cambridge University graduates amongst others were now dependent on the man who had led them to this place and this very unfortunate predicament.

The ship was drifting to the southwest with the ice. Attempts were made to free the ship when sometimes cracks appeared in the ice nearby, but to no avail. The ice around the ship itself was thick and solid. Men with heavy improvised ice chisels and iron bars breaking the ice up near the ship and the ship at full speed ahead had no effect at all, they continued to drift.

By the end of February, temperatures had fallen and were regularly -20°C, the ship was now clearly frozen in for the winter. The worry was where the drifting ice would take them and would it be possible to break out in the spring? The sides of the ship were cleared so that if the ice began to press together, then hopefully the Endurance would be able to rise above the ice and ride on it rather than being crushed.

This eventuality had not really been planned for and the men became frustrated and restless, football and hockey games were regular features on the sea ice until the darkness of the Antarctic winter began. Sunrise glows came in early July heralding the return of the sun and daylight, but the weather was not kind with regular blizzards and low temperatures. Most worrying of all was the pressure from the ice, floes began to “raft” over each other.

Everyone knew that one of two things would happen, either the pack ice would thaw, break up and disperse in the spring, so freeing the ship, or it would consolidate and driven by the effects of wind and tide over hundreds of miles of sea would take hold of and crush the ship – like a toy in a vice.

The men went out to look for fresh meat for the dogs and themselves in the form of seals and penguins, they were still in low supply having disappeared at the start of winter, a few were taken at the end of September.

On Sunday, October 23rd 1915 their position was 69°11’S, longitude 51°5’W. The Endurance was under heavy pressure from the ice and not held in a good position, instead of being able to slip upwards with the increasing pressure, the ice had hold of her. The first real damage was to the stern-post which twisted with the planking buckling in the same area, she sprang a leak. The bilge pumps were started and the leak was initially kept in check. 

On October 27th Shackleton wrote, “The position was lat. 69°5’S, long. 51°30’W. The temperature was -8.5°F, a gentle southerly breeze was blowing and the sun shone in a clear sky. After long months of ceaseless anxiety and strain, after times when hope beat high and times when the outlook was black indeed, we have been compelled to abandon the ship, which is crushed beyond all hope of ever being righted, we are alive and well, and we have stores and equipment for the task that lies before us. The task is to reach land with all the members of the Expedition. It is hard to write what I feel”.

The Endurance had drifted at least 1186 miles since first becoming fast in the ice 281 days previously, she was  346 miles from Paulet Island, the nearest point where there was any possibility of finding food and shelter.

Shackleton ordered the boats, gear, provisions and sledges lowered onto the ice.  The men pitched five tents 100 yards from the ship but were forced to move when a pressure ridge started to split the ice beneath them. “Ocean Camp” was established on a thick, heavy floe about a mile and a half from what was fast becoming the wreck of the Endurance.

The Endurance finally broke up and sank below the ice and waters of the Weddell sea on November 21st 1915. The men had saved as many supplies as they could (including Frank Hurley’s precious photo archive) before she disappeared.

The 28 men of the expedition were now isolated on the drifting pack ice hundreds of miles from land, with no ship, no means of communication with the outside world and with limited supplies. What was worse was that the ice itself was now starting to break up as the Antarctic spring got under way. On December 20th Shackleton decide that the time had come to abandon their camp and march westward to where they thought the nearest land was, at Paulet Island.

They had three lifeboats named after patrons of the expedition who had donated funds. Two of these were now manhauled in relays, the James Caird and Dudley Docker. The third boat, the Stancomb Wills was left behind. If the ice began to disappear under them, the men would take to the 20 foot boats.

Some of the crew led by Frank Wild returned to the area where the Endurance had been to retrieve the Stancomb Wills to give them more space, it would prove to be a wise decision in the months to come. They were all forced into the boats by the thinning and increasingly fragile ice on April 9th 1916 and made their way across a stretch of open water, by the evening they were able once again to haul the boats onto a large ice floe and  pitch their tents.

That the crew kept going during this time was a tribute to Shackleton’s leadership skills and his abilities and understanding of the importance of keeping up morale. The whole group were kept together in the monotonous and strenuous task of pulling laden lifeboats across broken up and ridged ice floes. It was now 14 months since the Endurance had become frozen into the ice and nearly 5 months since she had sunk marooning them in a featureless icy wilderness. On April 12th Shackleton found that instead of making good progress westwards, they had actually traveled 30 miles to the east as a result of the drifting ice. They did however spot Elephant Island, part of the South Shetlands group and headed that way in seas that were by now largely open for navigation. They made landfall on Elephant Island being ecstatic to do so. It had been 497 days since they had last set foot on land.

Elephant island

Their first landing place wasn’t ideal by any means, but they soon found a more appropriate place to make camp at a place they called Point Wild after Frank Wild who had gone down the coast to scout.

For the time being they were more safe and secure than they had been for a long time, but they were still stranded far from civilization with no-one knowing where they were or what their condition was. There was no chance of rescue. No ships passed that way. No radio at that time was capable of summoning help.

The outside world was not going to come to Elephant Island.

Shackleton realised that in order to effect a rescue, he was going to have to travel to the nearest inhabited place which was the whaling station back on South Georgia, some 800 miles distant and across the most stormy stretch of ocean in the world. They expected to encounter waves that were 50 feet from tip to trough “Cape Horn Rollers” in a 22 foot long boat. Their navigation was by a sextant and a chronometer of unknown accuracy, they were dependent on sightings of the sun that could sometimes not be seen for weeks in the overcast weather so characteristic of these latitudes.

Shackleton chose Frank Wild to stay behind with the men on Elephant Island as he felt that he could hold them together well. If there was no rescue by the spring they were to try and reach Deception Island which was regularly used by whalers and sealers. The lifeboat chosen for the journey was the James Caird, it was made seaworthy by whatever limited means were available and equipped with a part cover against the weather and the sea. Launching her was eventful with many of the men being soaked to the skin, a serious matter in the cold climate and with very limited facilities for drying their clothes out and getting warm again.

The party left behind on Elephant Island used the two remaining life boats to make a hut, they were turned upside down and placed on top of two low stone walls, tent and sail fabric were used as lining to keep the wind and weather out. The men were even able to make small celluloid windows from an old photograph case, a blubber stove provided heat and was used as a cooker. Conditions were cramped and food was in short supply. One of the party, Blackborow, (little more than a boy who had joined the ship as a stow-away in Buenos Aries when his companion had been hired though he had not) suffered from frostbitten toes. These were amputated by the surgeons by the meager light given out by the blubber stove.

The James Caird, the lifeboat in best repair, patched up and partially decked over by what meagre resources were available sets out on a rescue mission to South Georgia

Journey to South Georgia

The James Caird set off on the 24th of April 1916, the very last day before the pack closed in again around Elephant Island on a day of relative calm. The crew was Shackleton, Worsley, Crean, McNeish, McCarthy and Vincent, the anticipated journey time was a month. It was to become one of the most astonishing small boat journeys of all time

The James Caird made progress at the rate of around 60-70 miles per day through rough sea conditions. The sea constantly came in and made everything including the sleeping bags wet, it was difficult to find any warmth at all. There were four sleeping bags made of reindeer hide which shed their hairs in the constant dampness, making them less effective and clogging the pump used to empty the sea water that spilled over into the boat.

The boat was relatively unladed and so boulders and other ballast had been placed aboard in order to trim her, these had to be constantly moved around. The weather worsened and they encountered fierce storms, As the temperature dropped, ice formed on the outside of the boat from frozen sea spray, up to 15 inches deep on the deck. This made the boat much heavier and affected the trim – more moving around of the boulders – the men also tried as far as they could to chip away the accumulated ice with any tools that they could improvise, though the situation worsened. They began to throw items overboard in order to save weight, the spare oars went as did two sleeping bags that by now were soaked through and hard and heavy with ice.

At other times they had to bale out water for dear life, the only solace during this journey were hot meals every four hours by the light of a primus stove.

They had been drifting for some time under light sail held back by the sea anchor due to the sea state (a sea anchor is a sort of large canvas bag that acted to slow the boat and prevent it from being tossed around quite so violently during stormy seas). The sea anchor however was lost as the boat fell into a large trough between waves and the men then had to beat the canvas sails free of ice and set them again properly in order to keep on course.

Frostbite was beginning to affect exposed fingers and hands in the cold and constant wet. Navigation was also a problem due to the continually overcast weather. On the seventh day at sea however a break in the cloud came and  Worsley was able to take a reading from the sun, six days since the last observation, he calculated that they had traveled around 380 miles and were almost half-way to South Georgia. The short period of sunshine meant that the men were able to spread their clothing and other gear over the boat deck and the mast to dry out. The ice became less dense and they occasionally were accompanied by wildlife, porpoises and tiny storm petrels.

On  May 7th Worsley again was able to take a navigational reading and reckoned that they were not more than a hundred miles from the northwest corner of South Georgia, another two days with the wind with them and they should have the island within sight. On the morning of the 8th of May, they began seeing kelp floating in the sea, then some sea birds, just after noon they caught a glimpse of South Georgia, only fourteen days after leaving Elephant Island and about half as long as they thought the journey would take.

Landing was to be a less than straightforward affair, reefs (shallow rocks just below the sea surface) stretched all along the region of the coast where they were and great waves broke over them. The rocky coast in many places descended steeply into the sea. Despite being so close and running out of fresh water to drink, they had no choice but to wait for the next morning to break before attempting to land on the shore.

The morning brought a shift in the wind and a terrible storm arose, the James Caird was tossed around in the sea and when light broke, they were out of sight of land once again. They made their way back to South Georgia just after noon, but again, it was a coast of huge breakers and sheer cliffs that greeted them. The day wore on and there seemed no hope, later though in the evening, the wind shifted direction and began to die down. By the morning of the 10th of May, there was very little wind and they were able to look for a landing place. Reefs and breaking waves dogged their every attempt. They found a likely bay to land, but were blown out to sea again by a change in the wind. In approaching darkness they eventually were able to enter a small cove fronted by a reef, they had to take in the oars to pass through, but at long last, carried by the swell, the James Caird was able to land on a South Georgia beach at King Haakon Bay.

They had got through thanks to Shackleton’s leadership and the incredible navigational skills of New Zealander Frank Worsley. Worsley had only been able to take sightings of the sun four times, on April 26th and May 3rd, 4th and 7th, all the rest had been dead reckoning, keeping on the same straight line in the same heading.

Had they failed to land, the boat would have been swept onwards to be lost in the mid Atlantic, and no rescue party would have set out for the men on Elephant Island.

Arrival at South Georgia

There was still a major obstacle to overcome. The crew of 6 on the James Caird had landed 22 miles from the Stromness whaling station as the crow flies. In order to get there they had to go across the backbone of mountains that ran the length of South Georgia, a journey that no-one had ever managed, the map depicted the area as a blank.

McNeish and Vincent were too weak to attempt the journey so Shackleton left them with MaCarthy to care for them.

On May 15th Shackleton, Crean and Worsley set out to cross the mountains and reach the whaling station, they crossed glaciers, icy slopes and snow fields. At a height of about 4500 feet, they looked back and saw the fog closing up behind them. Night was falling and with no tent or sleeping bags, they had to descend to a lower altitude. They slid down a snowy slope in a matter of minutes losing around 900 feet in the process. They had a hot meal with two of them sheltering the cooker from the wind. Darkness fell and they carried on walking, soon a full moon appeared lighting their way. They climbed again and ate another hot meal to renew their energy.

They were soon able to make out an island in the distance that they recognized, but realised that they had taken the wrong direction and had to retrace their steps. At 5 a.m. they sat down exhausted in the lee of a large rock wrapping their arms around each other to keep warm. Worsley and Crean fell asleep, but Shackleton realised that if they all did so, they may never wake again. He woke them five minutes later and told them they had been asleep for half an hour, once again they set off.

There was now but one ridge of jagged peaks between them and Stromness, they found a gap and went through. At 6.30 a.m. Shackleton was standing on a ridge he had climbed to get a better look at the land below, he thought he heard the sound of a steam whistle calling the men of the whaling station from their beds. He went back to Worsley and Crean and told them to watch for 7 o’clock as this would be when the whalers were called to work. Sure enough, the whistle sounded right on time, the three men must have never heard a more welcome sound.

The three walked downwards to 2000 feet above sea level. They came across a gradient of steep ice, two hours later, they had cut steps and roped down another 500 feet, a slide down a slippery slope placed them at 1500 feet above sea level on a plateau. They still had some distance to go before they reached the whaling station. The going was still less than easy and they had some climbing still to do to negotiate ridges between them and their goal.

At 1:30 p.m. they climbed the final ridge and saw a small whaling boat entering the bay 2500 feet below. They hurried forward and spotted a sailing ship lying at a wharf. Tiny figures could be seen wandering about and then the whaling factory was sighted. The men paused, shook hands and congratulated each other on accomplishing their heroic journey.

The only possible way down seemed to be along a stream flowing to the sea below. They went down through the icy water, wet to their waist, shivering cold and tired. Then they heard the unwelcome sound of a waterfall. The stream went over a 30 foot fall with impassable ice-cliffs on both sides. They were too tired to look for another way down so they agreed the only way down was through the waterfall itself. They fastened their rope around a rock and slowly lowered Crean, the heaviest, into the waterfall. He completely disappeared and came out the bottom gasping for air. Shackleton went next and Worsley, the most nimble member of the party, went last. They had dropped the logbook, adze and cooker before going over the edge and once on solid ground, the items were retrieved, the only items brought out of the Antarctic.

The whaling station, was now just a mile and a half away. They tried to smarten themselves up a little bit before entering the station, but their beards were long, their hair was matted, their clothes, tattered and stained as they hadn’t been washed in nearly a year. At 3 o’clock in the afternoon of May 20th 1916, they walked into the outskirts of Stromness whaling station, as they approached the station, two small boys met them. Shackleton asked them where the manager’s house was and they didn’t answer, they just turned and ran from them as fast as they could. They came to the wharf where the man in charge was asked if Mr. Sorlle (the manager) was in the house.

They washed, shaved, ate and slept. Worsley boarded a whaler went to rescue the three left on the other side of South Georgia at King Haakon Bay sheltering under the upturned James Caird. During this rescue a storm blew up that had it come the day previously could have spelled disaster for the three men crossing to Stromness and consequently the whole of the crew, those on the wrong side of South Georgia and all those on Elephant Island.

Shackleton remained at Stromness and prepared plans for the rescue of the men on Elephant Island. Shackleton, Worsley and Crean left on the British whale catcher Southern Sky that had been laid up for the winter. On the 23rd of May they were bound for Elephant Island hoping to rescue the 22 left there.

Sixty miles from the island the pack ice forced them to retreat to the Falkland Islands whereupon the Uruguayan Government loaned Shackleton the trawler Instituto de Pesca but once again the ice turned them away.

They went to Punta Arenas in southern Chile where British and Chilean residents donated £1500 to Shackleton in order to charter the schooner Emma. One hundred miles north of Elephant Island the auxiliary engine broke down and thus a fourth attempt would be necessary. The Chilean Government now loaned the steam tug Yelcho, under the command of Captain Luis Alberto Pardo, to Shackleton.

As the steamer approached Elephant Island, the men on the island were approaching lunchtime. It was August 30th 1916 when Marston spotted the Yelcho in an opening in the mist. He yelled, “Ship O!” but the men thought he was announcing lunch. A few moments later the men inside the “hut” heard him running forward, shouting, “Wild, there’s a ship! Hadn’t we better light a flare?” As they scrambled for the door, those bringing up the rear tore down the canvas walls. Wild put a hole in their last tin of fuel, soaked clothes in it, walked to the end of the spit and set them afire.

The boat soon approached close enough for Shackleton, who was standing on the bow, to shout to Wild, “Are you all well?”. Wild replied, “All safe, all well!” and the Boss replied, “Thank God!” Blackborow, since he couldn’t walk, was carried to a high rock and propped up in his sleeping bag so he could view the scene. Frank Wild invited Shackleton ashore to see how they had lived on the Island, but he declined being keen to on their way as soon as possible in the light of previous failed attempts to reach the men due to ice conditions. Within an hour they were headed north to the world from which no news had been heard since October, 1914; they had survived on Elephant Island for 137 days, it was 128 days since Shackleton had left for South Georgia with his small crew on the James Caird.

Not a single man of Shackleton’s original twenty-eight was lost. And though the Endurance was lost to the sea ice, the James Caird was brought back to England and survives to this day in Dulwich College London, a living reminder of an act of remarkable courage in the heroic age of exploration. James Caird Society an official charitable organization honouring the memory of Shackleton

In 1921 Shackleton was once more drawn back to Antarctica in an attempt to map 2000 miles (3200 km) of coastline and conduct meteorological and geological research. Although he was only 47, he died of a suspected heart attack on board the Quest as she was at anchor in King Edward Cove, South Georgia. Shackleton was buried on South Georgia and his death brought to a close the  “Heroic Age” of Antarctic exploration. The grave was marked by a headstone of Scottish granite in 1928 and is visited regularly by scientists and tourists to this day.

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