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Great Moments in Antarctic Exploration (part 1)

by Caitlyn Bishop Blog

Antarctic Peninsula

Regions: Antarctica

Destinations: Ross Sea

Great Moments in Antarctic Exploration: Ernest Shackleton and the Crew of The Endurance (part 1)

The years of 1897 to 1922 have been widely regarded as the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration. Fascination with this “Terra Incognita” knew no bounds, and anyone with a ship, an insane plan that may end in peril, and a crew twice as insane as themselves set out in hoards to ends of the earth. Amidst the icy treachery of Antarctica emerged the heavy-handed players of exploration, including Roald Amundsen, Douglas Mawson, and Robert Scott. Each man’s crew pushed the limits of human endurance in the face of unforgiving conditions and challenges, all in the name of exploration of the unknown. Some ended in triumph, others in tragedy and loss. From this Heroic Age emerged another name, Ernest Shackleton, whose epic tale of survival, bravery, and perseverance certainly places him amongst the top greatest explorers of all time. 

Shackleton’s First Glimpses of Antarctica

Before his time as an Antarctic explorer, Ernest Shackleton had been raised in London, and joined the merchant navy at age 16. At age 24, he qualified as a master mariner, and quickly fell under the spell of polar exploration. In 1901, Shackleton set out on his first Antarctic expedition with Robert Scott in an attempt to reach the South Pole. As the weather grew worse, the three-man crew began to grow weary and sick, and eventually decided to turn back. It was the closest any crew had been to the South Pole yet, and marked the beginning of Scott’s own obsession with accomplishing this feat. 

It wasn’t until 1908 that Shackleton returned to Antarctica, this time with his own crew and his own mission of not only reaching the South Pole, but also summiting Mount Erebus, the world’s southernmost active volcano. Again, Shackleton had come closer to the Pole than he and Robert Scott had before, but failed in the final stages. Still, Shackleton and his crew made a successful ascent of Mount Erebus, and returned to England triumphant. In addition to gaining knighthood, Shackleton had earned status as a credible Antarctic explorer, and set forth plans to return once again.

The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition

By 1914, Shackleton was dead set on returning to Antarctica. Three years earlier, Roald Amundsen had reached the South Pole whilst engaged in a tight race with Robert Scott. The expedition proved to be fatal for Scott, who died on the return journey. The bar had been raised, and Shackleton drafted his plan to cross the entire continent, from sea to sea, by ways of the South Pole. After assembling a crew of 28 Royal Navy sailors, sled dogs, and the proper provisions for the months at sea ahead, Shackleton left the safe harbors of England aboard his ship, the appropriately named Endurance, and set sail for the Southern Ocean.

The Journey Begins

November 5th, 1914. Shackleton and the crew of the Endurance reach the Norwegian whaling station of Stromness on the sub-Antarctic island South Georgia after three months of sailing. At Stromness, Shackleton is warned of unusually high and dangerous amounts of ice in the Weddell Sea, the starting point of his trans-Antarctic expedition. An abundance of ice put the ship’s integrity at risk, and could destroy it entirely if they weren’t careful. Fearing the worst, the ship and the crew stayed with the Norwegians for a whole month, which they hoped would give the ice enough time to melt away. A month finally passed, and the Endurance was tentatively on its way again.

Historic Whaling Station at Stromness

Into the Ice

As misfortune would have it, a month was not a proper amount of time to allow for the ice floes to break, but Shackleton insisted that they move forward. The crew held their breaths and prayed that the Endurance would live up to its name as they made their way through seemingly endless fields of ice. Over the course of six weeks, the ship fought its hardest. It was on January of 1915, just after the New Year, that the Endurance finally felt the icy death-grip of the Weddell Sea tighten around its hull. The ship was now encased in sea ice, and would not be going anywhere any time soon. With winter only a few short months away, and Shackleton quickly began drafting ideas for a viable “Plan B”.

February of 1915 offered the crew many unpleasant hints of the impending seasonal change. Temperatures fell to -20°C and the ice began to solidify, putting immense amounts of pressure on the hull. Supplies were running low, which inspired the crew to start hunting and eating seals and penguins. Morale was at an all-time low, but the men found ways to break their melancholy. Skiing expeditions across the frozen sea and hockey matches were a few of the activities that alleviated the stress of their present situation. Months of darkness passed through the anxiety-ridden crew as they once again hoped and prayed for the ice to break during the springtime so they could continue their journey. As the old mariner’s saying goes, “below 40° south there is no law, below 50° south there is no God”. Shackleton’s crew now found themselves at 69° south, and were quickly realizing that there was no hope.

Endurance’s Demise

In October, after months of complete darkness, Shackleton moved the crew off of the ship and onto the pack ice to establish a temporary camp. He knew there wasn’t much life left in the Endurance, and ordered only the most essential items, including three lifeboats, to be moved with the crew. It was the end of November when the Endurance finally let out its death rattle, and surrendered to the cold, deep underworld. The crew watched on in horror as the ship they had called home for so many months was slowly crushed into bits and swallowed whole by the sea. They were truly alone now, drifting along on sea ice with no communication, dwindling supplies, and the threat of everything they stood upon melting away in the upcoming summer. However discouraged Shackleton had become by the horrific event, he knew he had a crew to bring home safely. The dream of crossing Antarctica may have been shattered, but Shackleton now had a new expedition ahead of him...

...to be continued in part 2

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