By Clark Norton
On August 30, 1916, a ship bearing the celebrated British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton sailed up to a tiny beach on Elephant Island in the South Shetland Islands off the Antarctic Peninsula.
There, huddled on the beach, were 22 men from Shackleton’s third failed Antarctica expedition. Half-starved, freezing, and filthy after being stranded there for more than four months, they had somehow managed to survive through the bitter, blustery Antarctic winter — with only two overturned lifeboats for shelter and penguins and seals to eat. They never gave up their belief that Shackleton would return to rescue them.
With their expedition ship, the Endurance, having sunk in the Weddell Sea to the east, Shackleton and his crew had made their way to Elephant Island by lifeboats. Knowing they had little hope of rescue — their whereabouts were unknown and few ships passed there — Shackleton and five of his men had set out in April 1916 in one of the lifeboats to find help. Their arduous journey — an almost incomprehensible feat of daring and skill — represents one of the great adventure stories in the history of exploration.
Shackleton’s Third Expedition
Shackleton’s Endurance expedition was his third attempt at “conquering” Antarctica. His first two expeditions, in 1901 and 1909, fell short of their goal of being first to reach the South Pole — though the second attempt came close. (Recognizing that his men’s lives were in danger, Shackleton had abandoned the attempt with just under 100 miles to go.)
Shortly afterwards, in 1911, fellow explorers Roald Amundsen and Robert Scott each reached the South Pole. With that challenge gone, Shackleton set his sights upon leading the first expedition to cross the entire continent of Antarctica via the South Pole — a distance of some 1,800 miles.
Never much for detailed planning, Shackleton drew up an outline — the expedition would travel from the Weddell Sea below South America to the Ross Sea south of New Zealand — and set about recruiting men for the task. Knowing the dangers involved, he is said to have advertised: “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.” While there’s no evidence the newspaper ad actually ran, its message came ominously close to the mark. In any event, far more men than needed applied, and Shackleton had his pick of the hardiest.
The Icy Weddell Sea
In August 1914, Shackleton’s wooden ship, the Endurance, set out for South Georgia Island north of Antarctica, where a Norwegian whaling station would replenish supplies. When the expedition reached South Georgia that November, the whalers cautioned that it had been one of the worst ice years in memory. But in December Shackleton pushed on to the Weddell Sea, which is notorious for having the iciest waters in the Antarctic. By mid-January 1915, the Endurance was mired in heavy pack ice, still a hundred miles or so from the mainland. With the Antarctic summer waning, it became clear they would be struck in the Weddell Sea through winter. Months of boredom followed, relieved only by makeshift ice hockey games.
By the following spring, some nine months later, the ship had broken up under pressure from the ice and the crew had to abandon it. In November 1915 the Endurance sank.
With the dream of an Antarctic crossing now moot, Shackleton decided to retreat to little Paulet Island, the nearest patch of land. Pulling three lifeboats across the ice, and later — as the ice started to break up — sailing them through the open water, Shackleton and his crew discovered that winds had carried them in the wrong direction. Paulet was now out of the picture, but a new target — Elephant Island — lay in the distance. Battling huge seas, they eventually reached the island and identified four possible landing spots. In April 1916, five months after the Endurance sank beneath the ice, Shackleton’s second in command, Frank Wild, located a tiny spit of land with a rocky beach, fresh water from a snowbank, and seals and penguins to eat. Point Wild — as the crew named it — was deemed “suitable.”
Back to South Georgia
But Shackleton knew that “suitable” wouldn’t last indefinitely. On April 24, 1916, he left Frank Wild behind to tend to 21 other men, and set out in one of the lifeboats for South Georgia — some 900 miles away across some of the world’s roughest seas. The five men he took with him included a skilled navigator, Frank Worsley, who had to contend with limited navigational equipment and mostly cloudy skies. Their boat was just 23 feet long by six feet wide, and ice coating the body and sails of the vessel made it weighty and hard to maneuver. Storms and monster waves left the men wet, cold and at the mercy of the sea.
Yet somehow they came within sight of the southern coast of South Georgia on May 8, just two weeks later, and, battling hurricane-force winds, managed to land below the cliffs. But they still had to reach the whaling station on the other side of the island — a mountainous trek of more than 20 miles that no one had ever attempted. Setting off on foot, Shackleton, Worsley, and one other crewman confronted the seemingly impossible. And after days spent in an arduous, sleepless climb that took them over snow-covered peaks, across glaciers, and past steep precipices, they heard the blast of a horn signaling the station was near. They then made the final descent down a snowy slope and, for good measure, rappelled down a waterfall to reach the bay. “My name is Shackleton,” the bearded, weather-worn explorer announced to the shocked whalers, a year and a half after they had last seen him.
More Ordeals Lay Ahead
Borrowing whaling ships, Shackleton and his men undertook their rescue missions. First they picked up the three men left behind on the south coast of South Georgia, though not before almost being swept out to sea by high winds. But the 22 men left stranded on Elephant Island were a much bigger challenge. Months went by as Shackleton made repeated attempts to reach the island, only to be thwarted each time by thick pack ice. At last, in late August, on his fourth attempt, Shackleton reached Point Wild — overjoyed to find all 22 men still alive. The 28 expedition members then sailed safely back to Punta Arenas, Chile, before returning to England more than two years after the expedition began.
Yet another ordeal lay in store when they arrived. While they were in Antarctica, World War I had engulfed much of Europe. All the men on the Endurance expedition enlisted to fight, and for some who died in combat, their adventures came to an early end.
Shackleton himself lived only six more years. Returning to South Georgia in 1921, he died of a heart attack at age 47 and was buried there in 1922.
Following Shackleton’s Trail
Antarctica cruises that include the Weddell Sea, Elephant Island, and South Georgia on their itineraries allow passengers to visit key sites along Shackleton’s route, including the ice covered mountain — with waterfall — that he descended to reach the whaling station, now in ruins, at South Georgia’s penguin-filled Stromness Bay.
You may also be able to visit the explorer’s grave in Grytviken on South Georgia — aligned north-south to point in the direction of the South Pole. His trusted second-in-command Frank Wild is buried nearby.
Though Shackleton’s expeditions were failures in the traditional sense, they were highly successful in other ways — capturing the imaginations of the public even today, a full century later. As Shackleton’s legend has grown — bolstered by his heroics, his spirit, and loyalty to his men — his failures are all but forgotten.