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Shackleton’s push to the South Pole

by Robert C. Brears Blog

On February 11 1907, it was announced that Ernest Shackleton was preparing an Antarctic expedition that would leave later that year with the goal of reaching both the Magnetic South Pole and the Geographic South Pole.
Antarctic Peninsula

Regions: Antarctica

Destinations: Ross Sea

Shackleton preparing his Antarctic expedition

On February 11 1907, it was announced that Ernest Shackleton was preparing an Antarctic expedition that would leave later that year with the goal of reaching both the Magnetic South Pole and the Geographic South Pole. On the same night Amundsen had given a lecture at the Royal Geographical Society on his 1903-1906 expedition through the Northwest Passage on a converted herring boat: A feat of navigation that had been unsuccessfully attempted for three centuries with great loss of life. Inspired by Amundsen’s talk Shackleton believed he could win the South Pole for England, writing to his wife Emily ‘’I am representing 400 million British subjects’’. On August 5 1907 a farewell dinner was held on the wooden sealer Nimrod with Shackleton seated with his wife and at the backdrop the Union Jack, which had been presented to Shackleton by Queen Alexandra along with a note from the Queen that read ‘’May this Union Jack, which I entrust to your keeping, lead you safely to the South Pole’’.

Photo: By Bain News Service, publisher [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Shackleton planning to use the Discovery hut in McMurdo Sound

As Shackleton and his party departed Lyttleton Harbour, New Zealand on his final leg south 50,000 people lined the streets trying to catch a glimpse of the explorer. The crowds excited by the fact that a man was about to set out for a mysterious place on Earth. Meanwhile, Scott was watching warily back in England all the while receiving medals from numerous geographical societies around the world and even given an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University. Shackleton planned to use the old Discovery hut in McMurdo Sound. However, Scott was angry writing to Shackleton declaring his objections of the proposed use of ‘his’ base:

‘’I feel I have a sort of right to my own field of work in the same way as Peary claimed Smith’s Sound and many African travellers their particular locality…I don’t want to be selfish at anyone’s expense and least of all that of one of my own people but still I think anyone who has had to with exploration will regard this region as primarily as mine…it must be clear to you now that you have placed yourself directly in the way of my life’s work…If you go to McMurdo Sound you go to winter quarters which are clearly mine…I do not like to remind you that it was I who took you to the South or of the loyalty with which we all stuck to one another or of incidents of our voyage or of my readiness to do you justice our return’’.

Scott had powerful supporters who supported him on this issue including the Royal Geographical Society’s former president Sir Clements Markham, its current president Sir George Goldie and its secretary J. Scott Keltie. Markham viewed Shackleton as the ‘black sheep’ of Scott’s previous expedition and believed it was shameful behaviour. Even Wilson, who was Shackleton’s friend, wrote to him warning that ‘’if you go to McMurdo Sound and even reach the Pole – the gilt will be off the gingerbread because of the insinuation that will almost certainly appear in the minds of a good many, that you forestalled Scott who had a prior claim to the use of that base’’. Wilson’s advice was for Shackleton to avoid the base at all costs even if it meant diminishing his chances of reaching the South Pole. Shackleton bowed to this pressure and signed an agreement to not use the base.

Once landed in Antarctica, Shackleton tried to observe the agreement by setting up base in King Edward VII Land. However, this plan was thwarted when the expedition encountered ice, heavy seas and large storms forcing Shackleton to make for the ‘prohibited’ base. This decision to make way for Scott’s base tormented Shackleton because if he had not signed an agreement he would have thought nothing of making his way to McMurdo Sound, but he had with Shackleton writing that ‘’I had promised and I felt each mil that I went to the West was a horror to me’’.

Shackleton passing Scott’s farthest South position 

By now Shackleton’s expedition was getting tougher by the day. They had decided to not bring the sledge-dogs and instead rely on four ponies and man hauling. The ponies floundered and weakened and were shot with the meat used for later consumption. By December only one pony was left the only consolidation for the expedition was they had passed Scott’s farthest South position on November 26. Two days later they had scaled a red granite rock to look out to a spectacular view. Dr Marshall wrote on the view

‘’To the South a great glacier extended as far as the eye could reach, flanked on either side by rugged ice-covered mountains, until lost sight of 60 miles distant where the mountains on the East flank and the Cloudmaker on the West formed a ‘narrow’s or waist, which forecast great ice disturbances as the glacier flowed from the distant plateau, which we now realise guarded the secrets of the Pole itself’’.

Shackleton’s expedition had made an important discovery, the Beardmore Glacier:  the gateway to the South Pole. Three days later the expedition lost its last pony when it fell down a crevasse. By now the men were shattered from exhaustion and their rations depleted. They had covered 550 miles from their base and were still 250 miles away from the South Pole. On Christmas Day the men camped in awful conditions with Wild writing that ‘’may none but my worst enemies ever spend their Christmas in such a dreary God-forsaken spot’’. But despite the conditions the men tried to keep their sprits up with Wild noting that ‘’here we are 9,500 ft. above sea level, farther away from civilisation that any human being has ever been since civilisation was, with half a gale blowing, and drifting snow flying, and a temperature of 52° of frost, and yet we are not miserable’’. Shackleton too noted in his diary the men’s ‘’cheerfulness and regardless of self’’ and the despite the cold it was a ‘’fine open air life!’’

Despite the cheerful mood, Shackleton knew the odds of reaching the South Pole were very slim at best, recording in his diary that:

‘’I cannot think of failure yet I must look at the matter sensibly and the lives of those who are with me. I feel that if we go on too far it will be impossible to get back over this surface and then all the results will be lost to the world. We can now definitely locate the South Pole on the highest plateau in the world and our geological work and the meteorology will be of great use to Science: But all this is not the Pole and man can only do his best and we have arrayed against us the strongest forces of Nature’’.

Pushing to the South Pole

On January 9 1909 at 4 a.m. the men left a makeshift depot that contained all the remaining supplies they would need to take them back 150 miles to their previous depot and made a dash to get within a 100 miles of the South Pole. Carrying only a supply of chocolate, biscuits and sugar the men ran ‘’as hard as we could pelt over snow’’ and then as one stopped at the highest latitude anyone on Earth had ever reached and unfurled the Union Jack. Exhausted, hungry and disappointed Shackleton wrote ‘’we have shot our bolt and the tale is 88.23 S. 162 E’’.

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