Ernest Shackleton Imperial Transantarctic Expedition: 1914-17

When the news broke that Amundsen had reached the Pole, Shackleton wrote: “The discovery of the South Pole will not be an end to Antarctic exploration. The next work is a transcontinental journey from sea to sea, crossing the Pole.” He soon turned his ambitions towards achieving that goal himself. The project was not without critics—including Clements Markham, then 84 years old but still very influential. He also faced the embarrassment of his brother Frank being jailed for fraud (and possibly being involved in the theft of the Irish crown jewels), and his own finances were always uncertain. But, with determination and Irish charm, Shackleton pulled it all together.

Shackleton’s first plan was to take one ship, disembark at Vahsel Bay in the Weddell Sea, and travel 2,900 kilometers (1,800 miles) overland while the ship sailed around to meet them. If he was late and the ship had to depart, it would leave a small whaler behind and he could have a chance at another of his ambitions: an open boat journey across Antarctic waters. It was a foolhardy plan, and he was persuaded instead to use two ships, with a party on the Ross Sea establishing food depots for him on the Ice Shelf. Shackleton was now 40, but he optimistically predicted that he could complete the journey in 100 days, a rate faster than Amundsen’s, yet over completely unknown terrain. It was a brave step into the unknown.

The ship for the Weddell Sea was the Norwegian-built Polaris, captained by New Zealander Frank Worsley and renamed Endurance, from Shackleton’s family motto: “By endurance we conquer.” For the Ross Sea Party, he bought Mawson’s Aurora quite cheaply. Endurance sailed from London on 1 August 1914, after a good luck visit from Queen Alexandra. On 5 August England declared war on Germany and Shackleton offered his ship and men to the war effort, but the Admiralty, led by Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, told him to continue south. Endurance sailed from Plymouth on 8 August. Three days out from Buenos Aires, a 19-year-old stowaway, Perce Blackborrow, was found. Shackleton castigated him—and then took him on as a member of the crew, bringing the numbers to 28 expeditioners and crew.

Shackleton made for the whaling settlement of Grytviken, about halfway along the north coast of South Georgia. He arrived in November 1914 to hear of the worst ice conditions ever reported in the Weddell Sea, but for Shackleton it was now or never. They sailed south on 5 December 1914 and were in solid pack ice by 11 December, with 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) to cover to Vahsel Bay. Shackleton had selected his polar party: surgeon Alexander Macklin; Australian photographer Frank Hurley; second-in-command Frank Wild; polar veteran Tom Crean; and George Marston, the artist from the Nimrod expedition.

They saw land on 10 January 1915, and by 18 January they were only 130 kilometers (80 miles) from their goal. But next day the ice closed around Endurance; she was frozen in “like an almond in toffee,” as one man wrote in his diary, and began to drift gradually north with the pack. So began 10 months of entombment in the drifting ice. They could not even take the base equipment across the sea ice to the coast they could see, because that would mean lugging a hut and vast quantities of supplies and equipment across broken ice.

It was now that Shackleton’s leadership qualities became apparent. The whole purpose of his expedition had been foiled within site of its goal. They might break free eventually—or the ship might be crushed in the ice. Meanwhile the other half of the expedition was laying supply depots on the Ross Ice Shelf that would never be used. Yet Shackleton betrayed no mental anguish; Macklin noted: “We could see our base, maddening, tantalizing, Shackleton at this time showed one of his sparks of real greatness. He did not rage at all, or show outwardly the slightest sign of disappointment; he told us simply and calmly that we must winter in the Pack, explained its dangers and possibilities; never lost his optimism, and prepared for winter.”

They built small igloos—“dogloos”—on the ice for the huskies, and settled into a strict routine of shipboard life. Some parts of the ship were better insulated than others, and Shackleton arranged for warmer areas to be created by repositioning cargo. Scientific experiments, amateur theatricals, and entertainments passed the time, led by Shackleton, whose boundless good spirits kept up their optimism. He took part in high jinks such as mid-winter head-shaving and singalongs—tunelessly, it is reported.

Slowly they drifted northward. About the time the sun reappeared, there were moments of terror as the pack ice formed pressure ridges and squeezed Endurance until her timbers groaned and bent. The pattern continued for three months, and on 18 October 1915 tilted the ship at an angle of 30 degrees before releasing it, now with substantial leaks. Worsley suggested that they might “have to get out and walk,” and Shackleton decided that they must be ready to abandon ship at any time. The following day they retreated to five tents on the ice, amid “the groaning and cracking of splintering timbers.” After their first night on the ice, Shackleton announced: “Ship and stores have gone—so now we’ll go home.” His matter-of-fact optimism was an inspiration.

It was another month before Endurance was finally crushed and sunk on 21 November. They had all been forbidden to go back on board, but Hurley wanted to salvage his film and photographic plates, now under mushy ice but in sealed tins in an ice chest. He stripped to the waist, hacked through the ice chest’s walls, and saved his film. The glass plate negatives were too heavy to carry, so in what has been called one of history’s great editing tasks, Hurley selected 120 plates and handed the rejected 400 to Shackleton, who smashed them on the ice so Hurley could not change his mind. He kept an album of prints, his movie film, and a box Brownie and three rolls of film, with which he continued to photograph the plight of the expedition.

After Endurance sank, they could only wait for the ice where they were camped to drift north and break up. Towards Christmas they moved 16 kilometers (10 miles) from Ocean Camp to Patience Camp, planning to take to the three boats they had salvaged from Endurance in an attempt to reach land. Shackleton’s leadership was critical: he had a knack of spotting imminent psycho-logical collapse and bolstering the sufferer’s self-esteem.

The men lived on the ice for five months, surviving towards the end largely on fresh seal and penguin meat. They shot most of the dogs in January, and the remaining two teams at the end of March. Then the ice began to break up, so on 9 April 1916 they took to the boats and the numbingly cold, stormy seas. They had drifted with the ice for 3,220 kilometers (2,000 miles), and had now passed the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Their only course to steer was for Elephant Island, a desolate lump of rock; at least it was not an ice floe.

They were in the boats for seven days and nights, sometimes camping on ice floes, before landing at Elephant Island’s Cape Valentine. It was just in time. Shackleton elected the youngest member of the expedition, the stowaway Perce Blackborrow, to have the honor of being first ashore. He half pushed him off the boat, but the young man sat in the surf, unable to walk because his feet were frostbitten, while Hurley bounded about recording the scene with his pocket camera. Shackleton recorded that some of the men were reeling about the beach. Others were so grateful to be on land after almost 500 days that they lay down on the shingles and poured stones over themselves. Another immediately killed 10 seals with an axe.

They could not stay where they were, as they could be washed away from this exposed shore. They found a more sheltered spot nine miles down the north coast, with a gravelly beach; it was still desolate, but there was plenty of wildlife, which they would need. The night they moved there and named it Cape Wild, a gale shredded their remaining tents. Morale was at its lowest: “Dejected men were dragged from their sleeping bags and set to work,” were the words recorded in one diary.

Shackleton announced that he and five of the fittest men would sail to South Georgia for help in the largest of the boats, James Caird—more than 1,290 kilometers (800 miles) in an open boat, through some of the wildest seas in the world. Harry McNeish, the ship’s carpenter, raised the gunwales of the two-masted 22-foot whale boat and covered the decking with canvas to keep out some of the water. They had to launch the boat before ballasting it with a ton of rocks. They set out on 24 April, with Worsley as captain and navigator; Shackleton, Crean, and McCarthy went too, with McNeish and John Vincent, who may have been included to remove potential troublemakers from the Elephant Island party.

Unable to take more than four sun sightings over a fortnight, and with the setting of his chronometer uncertain, Worsley steered by dead reckoning and gut instinct, knowing that if he was wrong they would sail past South Georgia into the South Atlantic, and the men on Elephant Island would never be found. Of the 17 days of their journey, 10 were in full gales. One night they awoke while hove to in a gale to find the boat foundering and ice up to 38 centimeters (15 inches) thick encasing every sodden inch of wood and canvas. They had to crawl out on the glassy decking and hack the ice away with an axe. Their feet, which were constantly wet, were white and swollen, and had lost all surface feeling.

When they sighted South Georgia on 8 May, after 15 days at sea, they were on the eastern, windward side of the island. They landed at King Haakon Bay on the evening of 10 May after several near-disasters along the coast. The Norwegian whaling stations were on the other side of the island, over a wall of high mountains, and the island had never been crossed before. Only three were fit to attempt the crossing: Shackleton, Worsley, and Crean. Guided only by common sense, they made three attempts to find a pass through the mountains before the fourth took them over just as daylight was failing.

Shackleton knew that if they stayed at high elevation overnight they would freeze to death. Beneath them, disappearing into the mist and darkness, lay a long, steep precipice of snow. “It’s a devil of a risk but we’ve got to take it. We’ll slide,” he said. Coiling their climbing rope beneath them, they sat down one behind the other, each locking arms and legs around the man in front, and pushed off into the darkness.

“We seemed to shoot into space,” wrote Worsley. “For a moment my hair fairly stood on end. Then quite suddenly I felt a glow, and knew that I was grinning! I was actually enjoying it … I yelled with excitement and found that Shackleton and Crean were yelling too.” They descended 460 meters (1,500 feet) in a matter of seconds. They stumbled on, falling and slipping, and barely conscious. At dawn Shackleton recognized a rock formation at Stromness Bay, and at 6.30 am heard the welcome sound of the steam whistle blast to wake up the Stromness workers. They were saved.

They still had to clamber down a glacier and struggle through a waterfall, and it was 3.00 pm, after 36 hours without rest, when they walked into the outskirts of Stromness whaling station. Filthy, their faces blackened by blubber smoke, with salt-matted hair and long beards, they were a fearsome sight; two small children—their first human contact—ran from them in fright. Eventually they met the station foreman, who led them to the manager’s house. Two years earlier, Thoralf Sørlle had been invited on board Endurance.

“Well?” said Sørlle.

“Don’t you know me?” asked Shackleton.

“I know your voice,” he replied doubtfully. “You’re the mate of the Daisy.”

“My name is Shackleton.”

The amazed Norwegian whalers received the castaways with great warmth. A ship was sent around to the east coast to collect the other three crew of James Caird and the little boat itself; Worsley wrote: “Every man on the place claimed the honor of helping to haul her up to the wharf.” But it was to be another five months before ice conditions made rescue of the men marooned on Elephant Island possible.

Shackleton made three increasingly desperate rescue bids before he finally managed to get through the pack ice in Yelcho, a little steel-hulled tug the Chilean government had lent him under the command of Luis Pardo. It took less than an hour to take all the men and their meager belongings from the camp to the ship. The rescue was just in time for Perce Blackborough; his frostbitten feet had been operated on twice by the two surgeons, but bone infection had set in and he was gravely ill. Astonishingly, however, Shackleton had not lost a single man during the two-year ordeal.

Shackleton’s task was not over: the Ross Sea Party had to be rescued, and money raised for the Aurora to go south again under the command of John King Davis. Shackleton sailed directly from South America to New Zealand to join the expedition. Davis found Shackleton “somewhat changed,” and allowed him to sign on only as a supernumerary, but recorded that at sea Shackleton’s “old greatness of spirit shone out.”

author: David McGonigal

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