Remembering Shackleton in Antarctica

Ernest Shackleton, expedition leader of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition -
Ernest Shackleton, expedition leader of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition -

Anjani Ganase continues her account of the Homeward Bound (2023) expedition to Antarctica with these reflections on the attempts by explorer Ernest Shackleton to cross the white continent.

By far, my favourite story of courage and leadership is the story of the Irish explorer, Ernest Shackleton, and his attempted Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914-1917), which became a journey of perseverance.

By this time, Shackleton was smitten by the white continent, having completed two expeditions on the Antarctic continent from New Zealand, via the Ross Sea.

Launch of the James Caird from the shore of Elephant Island for open sea voyage. - courtesy Frank Hurley

The first was the Discovery Expedition (1901–1903) as part of the British National Antarctic Expedition Team, where Shackleton was the third officer. The team aimed to establish safe trekking routes in McMurdo Sound and penetrate the Ross Ice Shelf, and achieved the farthest south latitude ever crossed at the time. Shackleton’s leadership was already highly regarded by this time.

Shackleton then led a British National Antarctic Expedition aboard the Nimrod (1907–1909), which was his attempt to reach the south pole. He and his party, including Jameson Adams, Frank Wild and Eric Marshall, set off from Cape Royds on October 29, 1908, only to turn around 58 days later, just 180km from the pole. The decision was to avoid starvation and illness on the return leg, a delicate race against time.

The expedition that really won Shackleton respect as a great leader was the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914-1917). He, as the expedition leader, and Frank Worsley, the ship’s captain, planned to lead a team of 26 across the Antarctic continent from the Western Peninsula through the South Pole to reach established supply camps on the other side of the continent on course to Ross Island which would be set up by a second party. However, the Endurance, which set sailed on December 5, 1914 from South Georgia Island, was not able to land on the continent, as the ship became fastened in by the ice flow in the Weddell Sea that drove them away from land. The crew spent the winter on the ice, and on October 24, 1915 the ice began crushing the ship and they were forced to abandon her.

What ensued was a two-year journey for survival as the crew tried to make their way towards any outposts for rescue. For months, they were completely at the mercy of the ice flow, which drifted past land too far and treacherous to reach. They erected camps and moved to new areas by foot when the opportunity arose. They dragged lifeboats along the ice, and periodically went to the ship for supplies, still fixed in the ice.

They eventually launched the boats the following summer and sailed to Elephant Island against whirling winds, frozen seas and damp cold.

It was then decided to risk sending a party of five to South Georgia Island aboard a 22-foot lifeboat and to leave the other men behind to camp on Elephant Island.

The stern of the Endurance with the name and emblematic polestar. - courtesy The stern of the Endurance with the name and emblematic polestar. Photo credit: Endurance22 expedition organised by Fal

Aboard the lifeboat, christened James Caird, Shackleton’s small team would try to sail the most treacherous body of water on earth – the Drake Passage – 1,300km to South Georgia. Navigation of these waters is only attempted by the most experienced sailors and the best ships, but Worsley managed to pull off the impossible with a single sextant, rowers and sail. They landed on South Georgia 15 days later, in May 1916. Landing on the uninhabited south side of the island, Shackleton and his comrades trekked through the ice-capped mountain range to the whaling station on the other side.

The men he left behind on Elephant Island were on his mind, and Shackleton only allowed his own recovery before working to secure a ship to rescue his men. It was only after four and a half months of several failed attempts of navigating ice that Shackleton successfully rescued all his men, who returned on the Yelcho, a small seagoing tug from the Chilean Navy, in August 1916.

Shackleton died of a heart attack at the beginning of his fourth expedition to Antarctica, on South Georgia Island. The team was largely the same crew as before. He was buried on South Georgia, as close as possible to the continent that gripped his soul.

Endurance ship breaking under the pressure of the ice. - courtesy Frank Hurley, photographer on board the Endurance.

In 1956, Shackleton’s contemporary Sir Raymond Priestley wrote: “Scott for scientific method, Amundsen for speed and efficiency but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”

Following Shackleton today

In November 2023, our plan to land at South Georgia and to see the resting place of Ernest Shackleton was thwarted by an avian flu outbreak, so the captain of the Island Sky rerouted to the Falkland Islands. After three days, we got a window of opportunity of good sea conditions and set course for Elephant Island.

Eight-metre swells kept many of us in bed, but the crew insistedt this was the best we could hope for. Meanwhile, petrels and albatrosses swooped and dived among the wild, unstructured waves that were coming from all direction.

Again, the hope of seeing the inhospitable Elephant Island was derailed by a brewing storm in the area, leading to another quick decision that set us on course for the South Shetland Islands.

The rest of the trip was very much a series of changed courses, at the whim of wild Antarctica.

Shackleton’s return to Elephant Island. “All is safe, all is well!” was the response when Shackleton asked about the crew. - courtesy Frank Hurley

As I sat in the warm comfort of my cabin feeling the shuddering of the boat as it broke through the waves, I reflected on the perseverance and courage of those men. I’m left in awe of their feat of endurance, in an era with no satellite imagery or weather forecasting beyond what the eye could see.

On March 2022, 106 years after Shackleton’s death, the Endurance was finally discovered at the bottom of the Weddell Sea by the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust. The research team used the co-ordinates recorded by Frank Worsley and found it four nautical miles south of its last location. The wreck sits in 3008m of water, upright, with the name Endurance along the stern in full view.


"Remembering Shackleton in Antarctica"

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