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Great Moments in Antarctic Exploration (part 2)

by Caitlyn Bishop Blog

Antarctic Peninsula

Great Moments in Antarctic Exploration: Ernest Shackleton and the Crew of The Endurance (part 2)

In November of 1915, Earnest Shackleton and his 28-man crew had found themselves stranded on ice somewhere in the middle of the Weddell Sea. Their ship, the Endurance, had been destroyed by surrounding pack ice, taking with it their hopes of ever being rescued. The journey was not over yet, however, and Shackleton knew he couldn’t surrender himself or his crew to the powerful force that was Antarctica. Spring would be arriving soon, which meant that the ice they were camped on would quickly begin to melt away. Again, it was time to move.

The Endurance in pack ice - August 1915

Hope of survival 

For nearly five months, the crew marched their way westward, where Shackleton estimated the nearest land, Paulet Island, was located. The crew camped along the way, and soon, as Shackleton predicted, retreated into the three lifeboats they had laboriously drug behind them. It was at the beginning of summer, in April, when the crew came to the gutting realization that in the five months they had been on the move, they had only traveled a distance of 30 miles. The drifting sea ice beneath them had counteracted their movements and pushed them east, towards the South Shetland Islands. All hope was not lost, though. In the distance, the crew caught the first sight of land. Soon, the crew landed on Elephant Island, one of the easternmost islands in the chain. It was the first time they had set foot on land since their arrival at South Georgia, 497 days earlier.

Celebrations upon landing were in order, but were overshadowed by the fact that the crew still had no contact with the outside world, or means of reliable transportation out of Antarctica. Despite Spartan food rationing, supplies were low, and the crew was faced with the heartbreaking task of killing the dogs they had brought with them. They required too much food, and there simply wasn’t enough to go around. lleton soon set his next plan into action. The nearest location with any semblance of a human population was the Stromness whaling station on South Georgia. It would be an 800-mile journey east through the turbulent waters of the Southern Ocean, but it was their only hope of survival. They had to try, even if it meant dying along the way.

Shackleton trying to reach Stromness 

Shackleton knew what would happen if he didn’t try to reach Stromness, and quickly assembled a team of five men to accompany him. He would have to leave the remaining crew on Elephant Island with the uncertainty of ever reuniting, an idea nobody wanted to entertain. As quickly as he had arrived at Elephant Island, Shackleton and his crew were off once again aboard the 22-foot lifeboat the James Caird. Navigation wasn’t easy, and was conducted entirely by sextant and the relative positions of the sun, moon, and stars. The crew’s precision was impeccable, and after 17 grueling days of sailing through the roughest waters on earth, they found themselves on the rocky shores of South Georgia.

Again, celebrations were abbreviated when the crew realized that they had landed on the opposite side of the island from Stromness, which was still a seemingly impossible 22 miles away, as the crow flies. There were glaciers to cross and mountains to scale, but Shackleton had journeyed far, and compared to the last several months of tribulations, was a welcomed challenge. Two of the five men would accompany him across the island, and again, Shackleton was faced with the hardship of saying goodbye to another crew, and again, they left uncertain of their fate. In lieu of proper trekking supplies, they screwed nails into their boots to cross the ice, and tied themselves together with rope from the boat to ensure they wouldn’t get lost. In the middle of the night of May 15th, the trio set out across the island. The challenges were in no short supply, as the three men gingerly crossed glaciers and crevasses, crossed mountains, and scaled down a waterfall. There was no rest during this rescue mission, and Shackleton pushed his crew to their limits, traveling through the night, guided only by the illumination of the moon, and allowing only a few short minutes sleep.

At last, on May 20th, Stromness fell into their view. With heavy feet and gnarled beards, they approached the station, and were greeted by the manager of the station, who immediately took them in and arranged for a pick-up of the remainder of the crew on the other side of the island the next day. The end of this nightmare was coming to an end, but the task of returning to Elephant Island to rescue the remainder of the crew was still at hand.

Shackleton’s attempts to rescue his crew

Unfortunately, the turmoil was not over just yet, and it took Shackleton four attempts to reach Elephant Island where his crew was patiently waiting. The first three rescue ships had been thwarted by ice floes that had begun to surround the island. On August 16th, 1916, after three months of attempted rescue, the Chilean ship Yelcho, which had been loaned to Shackleton by the Chilean government, appeared off the shores of Elephant Island. The crew had been on the island for 137 days, and had begun to suffer from frostbite and trench foot. Their cheeks had turned black, a result of a diet heavy in seal blubber. They truly had begun to scrape the bottom of their supplies. Despite their present conditions, they were alive, and were soon on their way home. The journey was over, after nearly two years of trials and impossible feats. Sadly, the crew would return to a war-ravaged England, a mere skeleton of the land they once called home.   

Shackleton’s last expedition 

Shackleton's grave in Grytviken South Georgia

Shackleton returned to South Georgia for a fourth expedition in 1921, but suffered a fatal heart attack before his expedition began. He was buried on the island, on the shores of Stromness, the physical representation of the beginning and end of his struggles. His untimely death ultimately marked the finale of the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration. There would be no other expedition that matched what Shackleton had accomplished. His supreme leadership in the face of ultimate adversity, bravery, and unwillingness to surrender had kept his entire crew alive. When everything seemed to fall apart, he was there for his men without question as their fearless captain. These are the things that made his story great, and the things he’ll always be remembered by.  

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