The amazing story of Ernest Shackleton's legendary voyage
Earnest Shackleton was no stranger to the Antarctic. In 1901, at the age of twenty-seven, Shackleton was a member of an expedition that came within 745 miles of the South Pole which was the furthest progress made by any expedition at that time. In 1907, Shackleton led an expedition with the Pole as the goal, but he was forced to turn back less than a hundred miles from his objective due to a lack of food. However, the progress he made was enough to make him a celebrity when he returned to England.
In 1911, Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian explorer, was first to set foot on the South Pole. News of this achievement dealt a blow to British prestige. Shackleton decided to respond by planning a Trans-Antarctic expedition:
“From the sentimental point of view, it is the last great Polar journey that can be made. It will be a greater journey than the journey to the Pole and back, and I feel it is up to the British nation to accomplish this, for we have been beaten at the conquest of the North Pole and beaten at the first conquest of the South Pole. There now remains the largest and most striking of all journeys — the crossing of the Continent.”
As we look back at the early years of the twentieth century, it is easy to minimize the challenges and risks involved in explorations. The past hundred years has seen massive advances in exploration that has taken mankind to the moon. While we cannot say that the moon mission was less risky than the mission to cross Antarctica, we can say that Shackleton’s expedition was far more isolated from any type of human contact. There was absolutely no possibility of communications if difficulties arose so there was no possible way to call for outside help. Shackleton’s team of twenty-eight men on board the Endurance were entirely on their own.
Fate did not allow Shackleton to achieve his goal. The Endurance was lost, crushed in the merciless ice floes of the Weddell Sea, but amazingly none of his men perished. Evacuation from the destruction of their ship seemed impossible. It was a harrowing journey. They nearly met their deaths multiple times, but they ultimately prevailed.
The story of Ernest Shackleton’s amazing journey is skillfully told by Alfred Lansing in Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage. Originally published in 1959, Lansing had the opportunity to interview several surviving members of the expedition and the book was well received. However, it soon went out of print and was forgotten until it was republished in 1986, more than a decade after Lansing’s death. The discovery of the sunken remains of the ship in March 2022 renewed interest in the story. I recently read the book after listening to Episode #144 of Founders Podcast.
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The Making of a Ship
Earnest Shackleton’s expedition required two ships, one for the party he would lead to cross the Antarctic and another ship to transport a team that would be responsible for heading to the Pole from the other side of the continent, leaving food and supply caches for Shackleton’s men to consume on the second half of their journey. The Aurora was purchased to serve the group charged with placing the resupply caches while Shackleton and his team would sail on the Endurance.
Shackleton purchased his ship from a Norwegian builder who designed it for Arctic explorations to hunt polar bears. However, financial difficulties caused the seller to agree to part with the ship for $67,000 (~$2 million in today’s dollars), less than the cost of building the ship. Purpose built for exploration in extreme weather conditions, including the presence of sea ice, the Endurance appeared to be ideal for the mission through the Weddell Sea to Shackleton’s intended landing point at Vashel Bay.
In order to fund the mission, Shackleton secured $120,000 from Sir James Caird. The British government contributed $50,000. The Royal Geographic Society contributed $5,000 and there were several smaller donations. Shackleton “mortgaged” the expedition by selling rights to commercial properties that he might discover, as well as by pledging proceeds from the sale of a book and a series of lectures. Media rights were also sold in advance. Eventually, sufficient funding was secured.
The Endurance was built to last. It was heavy and did not provide a comfortable ride on open seas, but the massive planks used in its construction provided durability against ice as well as a great deal of insulation from the elements. A less experienced explorer might have been tempted to cut corners, but Shackleton had spent much time in the Antarctic, including in life or death situations. His background and leadership skills would ultimately save his crew from nearly certain death.
Aboard The Endurance
When Shackleton embarked on his mission from a remote outpost on South Georgia Island on December 5, 1914, he was the leader of twenty-six men who were part of the expedition as well as one man who managed to stow away without detection.
Lansing was exceptionally skilled when it came to painting a picture of the men of the voyage. The reader gets a good sense of the character of Shackleton, his second-in-command Frank Wild, and Captain Frank Worsley. Other memorable characters include Alexander Macklin, one of the doctors on board, Thomas Orde-Lees, an expert on motors, Harry McNeish, an expert carpenter, and the stowaway Perce Blackboro who Shackleton reprimanded but treated as any other member of his crew.
In addition to interviewing survivors of the expedition, Lansing had access to several journals that were kept by the men even under extremely harrowing conditions. At many points, it seemed like rescue was impossible and death certain. The men who kept journals were likely motivated by the hope their story might someday be told.
As the voyage gets underway, everything seems to be going according to plan initially. By leaving in early December, the start of summer in the southern hemisphere, the men had the advantage of nearly constant sunlight, relatively warmer temperatures, and the hope that the ice that surrounds the continent would break up sufficiently to allow passage to Vashel Bay. Alas, this was not to be although the men did not realize their predicament when they initially entered the sea ice on December 11, 1914.
The Endurance was purpose built to operate in extreme conditions, but it was not an icebreaking vessel and could not hope to break through massive sheets of thick ice. The expedition relied on the ice pack breaking up enough to allow passage. The ship could ram through a certain amount of ice. Progress slowed dramatically, but by mid-January, the ship was within a couple hundred miles of its destination. Then progress all but stopped. A month later, the ship was completely enveloped in ice as summer drew to a close. The ship was now stuck and would go where the ice floes drifted.
At the Mercy of the Ice Floes
As the days shortened dramatically, the crew faced the prospect of spending a cold, dark winter hunkered down in a trapped ship, drifting through the Weddell Sea based on forces of nature completely out of their control. But at least they still had the ship which continued to provide shelter and warmth. The goal of the expedition was not going to be met, but as long as the ship remained intact, there was a possibility that the men could save themselves by surviving the winter and emerging the following summer if the ice pack broke apart without crushing the ship in the process.
The ice floes began migrating in an irregular pattern, but with a general northerly direction. The Antarctic continent landmass was to the west, although the realistic destinations for the ship were toward the north. After months of drifting, in which day-to-day life settled into a monotony, the Endurance began to show signs of distress. Lansing does a masterful job of making the reader almost feel and hear the signs of agony as the ship’s massive beams suffered the crushing weight of shifting sheets of ice. As the introduction to the book by Nathaniel Philbrick points out, Lansing makes the Endurance seem almost alive, “like a dying animal caught by vast remorseless forces” that the men could not see or fully comprehend.
Finally, the ship could endure no more punishment and was crushed. Shackleton ordered the Endurance to be abandoned on October 27, 1915. The men were forced to set up camp nearby on ice sheets that seemed sufficiently secure. The ship was stripped of provisions and three smaller boats were removed to be used as potential means of escape once the ice broke apart. Harry McNeish’s formidable carpentry skills were used to take advantage of usable wood from the Endurance. A month later, on November 21, 1915, the Endurance finally sank.
Attempts to drag the three smaller boats across the ice to find open seas ultimately failed and camp had to be moved more than once as the ice floes reacted to currents, temperature changes, and wind. The men could do little but await their fates, but summer was approaching. Shackleton had to balance a desire to get underway in the boats with taking full advantage of the natural northward drift of the ice. Finally, on April 9, 1916, the men took to the boats in a desperate attempt to reach land.
The Voyages to Civilization
As the men embarked in their three small vessels, they were mostly at the mercy of the sea. Navigational tools were rudimentary and without a line of sight to the sun, impossible in cloudy conditions, there was no way to know their current position.
A number of small, uninhabited islands were in the vicinity, but the men could hardly be choosy regarding where to land. Through stormy conditions and facing adverse currents, the boats took a circuitous path as they headed toward the northwest. Shackleton knew that if the boats passed by Elephant and Clarence Islands, they would be swept out to open seas where any hope of a landing would be extinguished.
After a week of tremendous hardship, the men were able to land on Elephant Island, despite the fact that there were hardly any spots on the coastline that were safe for landing. Ultimately, they found a small piece of land that could be relied on to stay above the high tide line and they made camp as best as they could under impossibly difficult conditions. Tents were of no use due to the severe winds and an overturned boat was used to construct a rudimentary and cramped shelter named “The Snuggery”.
It became clear that the majority of the men would have to endure the winter on Elephant Island relying on their basic shelter, limited provisions salvaged from the Endurance, and the seals and penguins they could capture for fresh meat. While the men assigned to remain on the island made preparations, Shackleton and five men set out on an audacious 650 mile voyage back to South Georgia Island. The James Caird, one of the small vessels, was outfitted as well as possible for the journey.
Taking on the open seas in a twenty-two foot boat had a low chance of success, but there was no choice. On April 24, 1916, Shackleton’s group set sail from Elephant Island with limited provisions and a small amount of brackish water for drinking.
What follows is one of the great adventure stories of all time. Monster waves, endless storms, constant bailing of water to stay afloat, frostbite, hunger, and sleeplessness were all inescapable as the James Caird made its way toward civilization. At times, navigation was nearly impossible because the only goal was to keep the ship from sinking. Shackleton was a capable leader throughout the expedition, but at no point was his leadership more crucial than during those sixteen days of misery. Although the leader, Shackleton worked as hard as any other man and led by example.
When the James Caird approached South Georgia Island, it was initially impossible to land. The ship had found the western coastline of the rugged island but civilization was on the opposite shore. Shackleton was finally able to land on May 10, 1916, and his men were fully spent. They could not have endured even one more day at sea.
Lacking a realistic means of navigating the coastline to reach civilization, it was necessary to attempt an audacious land expedition over glaciers and mountain passes that were completely unexplored. Shackleton led this expedition with two of his men, traveling light with hardly any food and no shelter. They would either emerge on the other side of the island or die in the attempt. The culmination of many near-misses in which they could have been killed was an insane glissade down from a mountain pass without any idea of what was below.
I cannot relate to ocean expeditions at all, but I have done my share of backpacking, including in snowy and icy conditions. Although nothing I have ever faced comes close to Shackleton’s adventure, I have glissaded down mountains and experienced dangerous conditions at times. So this part of the story was absolutely riveting for me. The reader knows that the men were successful, of course, but Lansing somehow kept me on the edge of my seat wondering if they would make it.
Ultimately, Shackleton’s group makes it to a whaling station, rescues the other three men on South Georgia Island, and arranges to go back to Elephant Island for the rest of the crew of the Expedition. Although the men on Elephant Island had to wait until late August for their rescue, every single man who set out with Shackleton survived their ordeal. While luck was clearly involved, without strong leadership, the men would have failed to take the actions required for survival. They would have given up.
As we peer into the future, an expedition to Mars is the only mission that comes close to what Shackleton and his men endured from December 1914 to August 1916. If a human settlement on Mars is established in the future, rescue and assistance will not be any more possible than it was for Shackleton’s expedition, but at least there will be communication. Part of the drama of the story of the Endurance is that they were totally cut off from communication, at risk of being lost forever without a trace.
In March 2022, the remains of the Endurance were finally located not far from where it was thought to have sunk. Despite over a century of submersion in frigid waters, the ship seems to be in decent condition, no doubt due to its robust construction. It was left untouched and there are no plans to raise it to the surface.
I found the story of Earnest Shackleton’s expedition exhilarating due to Alfred Lansing’s great skill keeping the focus on the overall mission while bringing the men to life. Without making the men of the expedition real to the reader, the story would be a relatively dry read, especially because we know the final outcome.
This book would make an ideal gift for a teenager or young adult because it is likely to establish or reinforce a love of reading. I am not sure how many young people can be wrested from their electronic devices for long enough to read a 350 page book, but I think that it would be almost impossible to put down this book after the first few dozen pages. It is highly recommended for readers of all ages!
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