Shackleton’s chilling journey

antarctica icebergsLong before Google maps, Gortex and GPS, the world was a very different place. With so much land yet to be discovered, ‘Explorer’ was a legitimate profession on the census. These roguish, charismatic heroes would return, ravished and ragged, from months of exposure to the severest of earth’s elements – all in the name of discovery, conquest and endurance. And one destination above all had the allure to attract more than its fair share of explorers… Antarctica.

Nestled between the Polar achievements of Scott, Amundsen and Mawson, there is one story that stands out; not for its flag-planting, all-conquering race for recognition, but for its endurance and hope in the face of irrevocable isolation.

The story of Shackleton and the plight of his Endurance crew is one of history’s greatest tales of survival. In 1914, as the world balanced on the unsteady precipice of peace, the Endurance set sail on the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Shackleton’s aim was to cross the continent on foot, travelling from coast to coast via the pole. But the unusually cool summer meant that the ice pack had failed to break down as much as they anticipated. On entering the Weddell Sea, and before even reaching the shores of Antarctica, the Endurance could neither proceed nor retreat.

Shackleton’s crew made many desperate but unsuccessful attempts to free their trapped ship. For eight months, the pack ice drifted, with the Endurance and her crew hostage to the frozen mass. Once the ship could no longer sustain the pressure of the ice, the hull began to crush inwards. Shackleton gave the order to abandon ship. From their makeshift camp on the ice flow, the crew witnessed the slow, devastating destruction of their vessel. The ice tortured the mangled wreckage day after day, until it was finally engulfed and the Endurance disappeared below the surface of the ocean.

The crew survived on the ice for almost two months. Marching into the endless white horizon, and dragging behind them three lifeboats and scarce supplies, several attempts to reach comparative safety on foot were abolished. The conditions were impossible.

With the seasonal change starting to break up the ice pack, Shackleton ordered his men to take to the lifeboats. The closest land was Elephant Island, and they rowed for five days straight to get there. For the first time in 497 days, the men felt earth beneath their feet.

Once the comparative safety of their arrival on dry land wore off, it was clear that the men were no closer to rescue. In fact, Elephant Island turned out to be a frozen purgatory; inhospitable and exposed, miles from any shipping routes and almost inaccessible due to the raging swells that surround it. With a war raging in Europe, Shackleton and his men were isolated from the entire world. There was no hope of a rescue party reaching them.

Faced with this ominous and absolute fate, Shackleton knew that the only hope of survival would be to attempt to reach the whaling station on South Georgia Island in one of the lifeboats, over 800 nautical miles away.

The strongest of the three lifeboats was the James Caird, and with a few modifications and improvisations by the ship’s carpenter, she was made as seaworthy as possible. The tiny lifeboat was given a makeshift deck and a strengthened keel, and she was doused in a mixture of oil and seal blood to help keep her watertight. If there had been the slightest opportunity for comfort, it was taken away by the sharp rocks that were loaded in as necessary ballast. Loaded with rations of biscuits, Bovril, sugar and dried milk, the James Caird was ready to set sail into the notoriously rough open seas that lay between Elephant Island and South Georgia.

Shackleton and five of his crew embarked on an open water journey that could only be compared to finding a needle in a haystack, becoming the very last hope of a return to civilisation for the men who were left behind.

“The men who were staying behind… waved to us, and gave three hearty cheers. There was hope in their hearts and they trusted us to bring the help that they needed.”

History has come to consider the next sixteen days as one of the most remarkable nautical accomplishments of all time. Their tiny boat entered a war of attrition against the huge, unrelenting swells. The six men were cramped together below the deck, taking it in turns to sail the boat and keep watch. Dressed in the same Antarctic sledging gear that they had been wearing for almost two years, the men were soaked to the bone and the icy salt water ravaged their flesh.

Having been dragged across the ice flows for the previous two months, the James Caird had lost much of its impervious integrity. It was no longer watertight, and the men had to bail continuously just to keep it afloat. “We bailed with the energy of men fighting for life.”

As the temperatures dropped due to the harsh south winds from the Antarctic, the sea spray froze as it lashed the deck and coated the boat in a heavy layer of icy chain mail. The ongoing danger of capsizing escalated with the additional weight, and the men had to hack away at the ice to keep the boat buoyant. At the same time, Frank Worsley (the Endurance captain) was responsible for taking navigational sightings whenever possible. If there was a slight break in the clouds, he would take a reading. Everything depended on his accuracy, under incredible duress. If the James Caird sailed very slightly off course, it would miss its tiny target with no hope of reaching land.

Against all the odds, the men made it to South Georgia Island. They had found their needle in the great haystack of ocean. But on landing, the men were faced with yet another challenge; the hurricane-force winds had pushed the boat onto a very inaccessible area of coastline. Their chances of sailing safely around the island without being dragged out to sea again by the currents were overwhelming, and Shackleton knew they would need to access the whaling station on the other side of the island by trekking overland. Exhausted and desperate, Shackleton, Worlsey and Crean walked, climbed, slid and tumbled across 51 km of the most challenging terrain, including mountain ranges and glaciers, to reach Stromness whaling station. The interior of the island was completely unchartered territory. The men were malnourished, exhausted and frostbitten. After 36 hours of almost non-stop trekking, the three men entered the whaling station. They immediately sent a boat to rescue the men on the other side of the island.

The rescue of the remaining crew on Elephant Island proved arduous due to their long-standing enemy – the sea ice, to which they had lost their ship almost two years before. Finally, the Chilean government loaned Shackleton a navy ship, which reached Elephant Island on 30th August, 1916. All twenty-two men were alive. Their horrific ordeal was over, and the rescued party returned to civilisation, unaware that their world had been changed forever by the ongoing terror of World War I.

The Shackleton Epic – Intrepid’s biggest adventure yet
The Shackleton Epic is a 56-day journey from Punta Arenas, Chile, down to the Antarctic Peninsula, via Elephant Island and South Georgia, finishing in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Epic indeed and ten Intrepid travellers will get to go along for the adventure in January 2013!

Photo: Nick Jacobs

About the author

Sue Elliot - Like many of us, Sue contracted a serious travel bug at an early age. She's visited over 90 countries in search of a cure, but her wanderlust just seems to get worse. Thankfully at Intrepid Travel she's amongst people who understand the affliction and since 1998 Sue has enjoyed being our blog and newsletter editor. Here you'll find helpful travel advice and inspiring tales from Sue and other Intrepid travellers.

Similar Posts

Christian Friborg / Reply

Very, very inspiring story. I salute them for their passion to live!

Leave a reply