Ernest Shackleton‘s Escape from Antarctic Ice
Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole in December 1911. Robert F. Scott arrived several weeks later and perished on his return trip to his base camp.
Shackleton had been part of three Antarctic expeditions before Amundsen’s conquest of the South Pole in 1911. With both the Arctic and Antarctic conquered, Shackleton felt that the last great object of polar journeying was a sea-to-sea transcontinental trek across Antarctica, a distance of eighteen hundred miles.
After securing financial backing and the use of two ships, he departed for Antarctica in August 1914. The plan was to enter the Weddell Sea, proceed to Vahsel Bay at the edge of the continent, there disembark and start overland, using dog sleds as the principle mode of transportation, while a second ship, the Aurora, was to travel to the other side of the continent, to the Ross Sea, land, and begin moving inland, setting up resupply depots for Shackleton and his party of six to use as they made their way across the continent.
Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, left the whaling station at South Georgia Island in December 1914 and headed into the Weddell Sea, but sea conditions were not conducive for ship travel. Pack ice began to form and by January 1915, the Endurance was stuck fast in the ice.
Knowing that movement in any direction was impossible until spring when the ice would break up, the ship was prepared for a long winter’s internment. Shackleton knew that the pack ice would gradually drift north, and he hoped that when the ice began to break up, the ship, once free of the ice, would be able to make its way back to Vahsel Bay.
In September 1915, spring arrived and the ice began to melt, but the movement of the ice, instead of freeing the ship, crushed it like an aluminum soda pop can. Shackleton ordered the vessel to be abandoned. In October 1915, the Endurance slipped below the surface of the water. The crew of twenty-eight men and seventy dogs were now stranded on an ice floe. Most of the dogs had to be put down as well as the one lone kitchen cat, a tiger-striped tabby that was given the name of Mrs. Chippy, even though she, turned out to be a he; the tabby was brought onboard the ship by carpenter Harry McNish, who never forgave Shackleton for having the cat shot.
The ice floe, minus the ship, continued its drift northward, but eventually broke into smaller and smaller floes. Shackleton ordered his men into the three boats that had been salvaged from the Endurance, left the ice, and set out into the open water. After five grueling days at sea, the men were able to make landfall on Elephant Island, a sharp pinnacle of land that shot straight up from the ocean floor. Their landing was on a small pebbled-lined beach, inhabited with hundreds of penguins. To provide shelter for the men, the boats were turned upside down, providing some protection from the elements.
To survive, the men were forced to kill the penguins, which they ate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and all snacks in between meals. The fat of the birds was used for heating oil; it was also smeared on the exposed skin of the men as protection from the sun’s rays.
Chances of rescue were slim to none. Their location on this tiny island was far removed from shipping lanes. Shackleton knew that their only hope for rescue would be to attempt an ocean crossing by sailboat to the inhabited island of South Georgia, eight hundred miles away across the open ocean.
The sturdiest boat, the James Caird, was selected as the boat to attempt the crossing. Carpenter Harry McNish made modifications to the vessel, including raising the sides, strengthening the keel, and adding decking for protection from storms. Shackleton only took four weeks of provisions with him, knowing full well that if they didn’t make landfall in that time, all was lost.
Shackleton, along with five crew members, set out for South Georgia Island on April 16, 1916; after an improbable journey of fifteen days at sea, thanks to the navigational skills of Frank Worsley, the captain of the Endurance, the twenty-foot-long James Caird made landfall on the south shore of South Georgia Island. Ferocious storms and high seas prevented the small craft from navigating around to the north shore where the whaling station was located.
Leaving three men behind, Shackleton and two others set out to hike across thirty-two miles of treacherous ice fields and soaring snow-covered mountains, having only a fifty-foot length of hemp rope and a carpenter’s adze with them for climbing equipment. This feat has been duplicated only one other time, in 1955 by British Explorer Duncan Carse, who wrote about their heroic accomplishment:
“In tribute to their achievement: I do not know how they did it, except that they had to–three men of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration…” (Fisher)