Ernest Shackleton – Lost in the Ice
Right after returning on the Nimrod, Shackleton had declared that he was finished with exploring, and would settle down at home. But as his finances failed to improve, he determined to head south again. The south pole had already been reached, by both Amundsen and Scott, so Shackleton determined on a crossing of the entire continent. He wrote:
After the conquest of the South Pole by Amundsen who, by a narrow margin of days only, was in advance of the British Expedition under Scott, there remained but one great main object of Antarctic journeyings – the crossing of the South Polar continent from sea to sea. After hearing of the Norwegian’s success, I began to make preparations to start the last great journey, so that the first crossing of the last continent should be achieved by a British Expedition.1
He set about his fund raising, and although the public was interested in the expedition, he did not appeal to them for funds, but instead used his charm on his rich friends.
Just as the Endurance was ready to set sail in the summer of 1914, World War I was declared. The expedition which Shackleton had spent so much time and labor preparing for was in jeopardy. Willing to abandon his expedition for his duty to his country, Shackleton offered the Endurance and her crew to the Admiralty if they were needed for the war. Not knowing how large the war would become, First Lord Winston Churchill sent word for the expedition to continue. The Endurance set sail from Plymouth, England on August 8, 1914, Shackleton stayed behind to finish last minute business arrangements, and then took passage on a faster ship to catch up.
The Endurance, after stopping in Argentina for a coat of fresh paint and more supplies, left civilization for the last time on December 5, leaving the small whaling island of South Georgia, that would play an important role in the rest of Shackleton’s story. It was just two days later when ice was sighted, much further north than Shackleton had hoped. The ship maneuvered through the floes for many days, stopping and starting again whenever passages would open up. Eventually she made it deep into Weddell Sea, and although they came within reach of a landing place, Shackleton decided to push on forward hoping to make it a bit further south before landing. But on January 19 they became trapped in pack ice, within sight of the mainland.
On the Ice
They would remain in encircled in the ice all winter, an effort to cut their way out proving futile. Waiting was hard for Shackleton, a man of action, but he kept a bold face as leader of the expedition. The ice gripped the ship tighter and tighter through the southern winter. The ice, pinching the sides of the Endurance, caused the ship to role over on her side. On October 24, 1915, the sternpost was wrenched off, and the ship began to leak badly. Inside the ship, the grinding of the ice and creaking of the boards were terrible. It sounded like “heavy fireworks and the blasting of guns.” On October 27, Shackleton gave the order to abandon ship. The lifeboats and supplies had been removed from the ship. Shackleton knew that there was little hope a rescue. He was not expected to return from his crossing of Antarctica for sometime, and even if it was known they were lost, rescuers would have no idea where to look for him in the vast polar sea. If they were going to survive, it would be through their own hard work.
Shackleton planned to march across the ice as far as he could, and then embark in the lifeboats and set sail for civilization. When they began their trek on October 30, it was found to be much more difficult than they anticipated. The ice was in bad condition, and in three days they had only progressed two miles. Shackleton, realizing his plans were flawed, called a halt at what was called Ocean Camp, deciding to wait there until the ice floated closer to land or sea.
It was in these conditions that Shackleton shone. His expedition preparations were faulty. He had left woefully incomplete the preparations of the Ross Sea Party, who laid the depots on which his crew would have depended on if they had crossed the continent. But here, camped on the ice of the Wendell Sea, in terrible conditions, his leadership shone. Although in a seemingly hopeless situation, he kept up his men’s courage. With just the right mixture of familiarity and aloofness, he won almost all their hearts, while he himself struggled with impatience and a desire to be moving.
On December 23, Shackleton began another march across the ice, but he found conditions to be no better than back in October. After seven days of very hard work, dragging boats and supplies across the ice, they had made only seven and a half miles. Again they halted at Patience Camp, there to remain for the next three months. As they approached open water, Shackleton decided they would head for Elephant Island, a desolate mountain rising out of the southern sea, about 100 miles north of their position.
Their journey started suddenly, for on April 8, the ice floe on which they were camped began to split. After a sleepless night spent watching the ice and hoping they would not fall into the water, they set out. They had three small life boats, the Stancomb Wills, Dudley Docker and James Caird, the largest and the one commanded directly by Shackleton. The journey through the stormy polar seas was miserable. They had little food, little water, little space, and were lashed by the icy seas. The navigation also was very difficult. It was based off of catching sightings of the sun, and working out their movements through dead reckoning. But Frank Worsley amazingly brought the boats right on course. They were reunited at Elephant Island on April 14 after having been separated the previous night in a storm. They found a landing place on the rocky coast, and the men finally landed on dry land after months on water and ice.
Although they were back on dry land, they were far from safe. Elephant Island was an inhospitable island, away from the usual path of whalers. It wouldn’t be long before Shackleton set out on another perilous boat journey to try to save his men.
1South by Ernest Shackleton, p. 1.