It must be at least 15 years ago that I saw the documentary film “The Endurance.” Until that time I was not all that familiar with Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton – he was barely mentioned in my high school class on British history. British history as I recall it being taught seemed to emphasize religion, royalty and medieval conflict. Better to have skipped the class and spent the time several decades later watching “Game of Thrones.” No essays to be written, no year end examinations, yet leaving in place medieval conflict.
Back to Shackleton. Ernest Henry Shackleton was born in 1874 into a farming family in Ireland. His father, when Ernest was a young lad, made the natural transition from farming to medicine, and after a brief stint in Dublin, moved the family (Ernest was the second of ten children) to London where he practised as a physician for 30 years. Ernest, still a teenager, joined the merchant marine, and after 10 years joined Sir Robert Falcon Scott in Scott’s quest to be the first to reach the South Pole. The year was 1902, when Scott (with Shackleton in his party) came to within 400 miles of the South Pole – the farthest south that anyone had ever traveled.
That is Scott in the preceding. Scott did in fact reach the South Pole in January of 1912 (without Shackleton), but was second, having been beaten in the race to the Pole by an expedition led by the Norwegian, Roald Amundsen. It was on the return journey from the South Pole that Scott and his expeditionary party perished.
But again back to Shackleton. His early experience with Scott spurred him to undertake his own quest for the Pole, and in August, 1907, Shackleton and his party, headed out of New Zealand bound for Antarctica. Their ship the “Nimrod,” a vessel purchased in Newfoundland, had to be towed to the Antarctic Circle to save on coal. That is the “Nimrod” in the image preceding. Aboard the ship, apart from the crew, were 10 Manchurian ponies (??) and just 9 dogs (???). The ponies proved to be useless, except that most were eventually shot and eaten, thus critical in helping to prevent scurvy. The expedition got to within 100 miles of the South Pole before a shortage of provisions and failing strength forced Shackleton and his crew to return to the ship. What might appear to be a failed effort resulted in a knighthood for Shackleton. He did after all, travel farther south than any other human.
With both Amundsen and Scott having reached the South Pole, what was left for Shackleton? In 1914 he set out to cross Antarctica, a journey of a mere 2000 miles. The crew totaled 28 men. No ponies this time, but the expedition included 68 dogs. The dogs were imported from Gimli, Manitoba. Gimli is a little more than an hour from Winnipeg (my home town).
The irony is that neither crew nor dogs ever set foot/paw on Antarctica. Shackleton’s ship, the “Endurance” was trapped by pack ice after entering the Weddell Sea. Over 11 months the ship was crushed by ice, leaving the explorers just 3 twenty-some foot boats. That’s the “Endurance” above in somewhat happier days.
Below is an image of what was left of the “Endurance,” demonstrating the force of pack ice. Gotta love the guy with the pipe, probably wondering, “now where did I leave my tobacco?” Or, “why did we name this thing “Endurance?”
In any event, the ship was lost in November, 1915, and the crew spent the next 5 months on icebergs floating away from the Antarctic continent, finally arriving at Elephant Island. This was an arduous journey that meant the demise of the dogs (they were a serious drain on food), subsistence on dog pemmican (maybe not what you think – it was pemmican “for” the dogs, and not “of” the dogs), but then on the dogs as well. The dietary mainstays were seals and penguins. At one point the crew were able to capture some 300 Adélie penguins, which served them well. Cute little things and apparently good eating.
As their floe neared Elephant Island and as the ice began to disintegrate, the order was given to launch the boats, and the crew made its way in rough water to land after 497 days on ice and ocean. And this was only the beginning. Shortly after arriving on Elephant Island, Sir Ernest announced that he and a small party would set out for South Georgia Island some 800 miles away. Shackleton knew that the South Georgia whaling stations would provide assistance in rescuing all of his crew. The journey was to be undertaken in the 22 foot “James Caird” in what was now winter. After four days of preparation the party of six left Elephant Island on April 24, 1916, with provisions to last four weeks; and leaving behind the remaining 22 men of the expedition. It is difficult to imagine spending 4 hours on a 22 foot boat in the roughest of seas, let alone 4 weeks. Despite stormy seas, the six men aboard the “James Caird” landed on the southern shore of South Georgia. Unfortunately, the whaling stations were on the northern shore of South Georgia. Rather than risk putting their small boat back to sea, Shackleton decided to cross the mountains (32 miles) with two of his crew. They managed the trek in 36 hours with boots that had screws inserted to provide traction, 50 feet of rope, and a carpenter’s adze (a short, light, type of axe). You get an idea of the terrain from the photo following.
Shackleton was able to send a boat to pick up the three men he left behind on the southern shore of South Georgia, then set about to arrange the rescue of the 22 men on Elephant Island. But in the meantime, Sir Ernest and his two crewmen each enjoyed a hot bath for the first time in two years. Yikes! Within a matter of days Shackleton and his crew set out for Elephant Island in a British whaler, the “Southern Sky,” only to be thwarted by sea ice. It would take three separate tries, and finally with Shackleton and crewmen aboard a tug steamer, the “Yelcho,” provided by the Chilean government, they were able to get through to Elephant Island. By then it was August 30.
For the 22 men left behind on Elephant Island, life had not been a picnic.
They fashioned a hut (below), using what driftwood they could find, penguin skins for shelter, and employing the two remaining boats as windbreaks. For four months they endured blizzards, bone-numbing winds, frostbite, only a rare day when clothing or sleeping bags were dry, and a diet of seal and penguin. Blubber provided fuel for their stove.
Shackleton, in a letter to his wife, stated, “I have done it … not a life lost and we have been through Hell.”
There appeared to be little interest back home in this monumental achievement. Europe was at war, with millions of lives lost. Shackleton made his way through South America (where he received a warm reception).
There is much more to this story (for example, Shackleton had to make his way back to rescue the party stranded on the other side of Antarctica – the party that was to establish depots with provisions for the so-called Trans-Antarctic Expedition); but I don’t want to lose your interest.
Shackleton volunteered for the British Army in late 1918, and was discharged a year later with the rank of major. In 1921, Sir Ernest undertook another Antarctic expedition, this time without a well-described objective (perhaps the circumnavigation of the continent?). But shortly after arriving at South Georgia Island, and not without some irony, he suffered a massive heart attack and passed away. Sir Ernest Shackleton was 47 years old. He was buried on South Georgia. Here he is – a study in courage, determination and leadership.
One more thing …
About Antarctica. It is big, cold and classified as a desert. There is very little precipitation, yet 98% of its surface is covered by ice. Temperatures have been recorded at colder than -120 degrees F. And Antarctica is twice the size of Australia; larger than Canada. It was just begging for exploration …