Thursday, August 8, 2013


 "Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised"
- Apsley Cherry-Garrard; "The Worst Journey in the World"
 "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."
- Various attributions; this version from Cherry-Garrard
"Shackleton's life and adventures are not believable . . . because events in Shackleton's life cascade like an unending Robert Louis Stevenson novel"
- New York Times Book Review


Ninety nine years ago today, the British Navy, with approval of the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, sent a telegram consisting of one word to Sir Ernest Shackleton.  On August 1, 1914 Germany had declared war on Russia, followed two days later by Great Britain and France's declaration against Germany.  World War I was underway and the British Fleet was mobilizing.  In the midst of this crisis and tumult would the British Trans-Antarctic Expedition led by Shackleton be allowed to depart Plymouth on its long-planned expedition aboard its ship Endurance?  The word was "Proceed".  Two years later, the returning expedition members would find a Europe transformed beyond recognition.  During those two years, they would endure one of the most memorable adventures of the last great age of exploration.

The objective was to cross the entire Antarctic continent via the South Pole.  Two years prior the Norwegian Roald Amundsen had beaten Robert Falcon Scott to the South Pole by a month.  Scott and his companions died on the return journey.       (Scott at the Pole) As Scott lay huddled, trapped by a blizzard in a tent with the two other survivors he wrote in his last diary entry:

"Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of hardihood, endurance and courage of my companions, which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman.  These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale."
Three years earlier, in 1909, Ernest Shackleton almost became the first to the Pole turning back only 100 miles from his goal when it became clear to him that his ailing companions would die if they did not stop and make a desperate run back to their supply base.  All survived an epic journey of hardship and deprivation rivaling that later endured by the members of the Trans-Antarctic Expedition.
From left: Frank Wild, Ernest Shackleton, Dr. Eric Marshall and Jameson Adams head back to base camp after getting within 97 miles of the South Pole — closer than anyone had gotten before them — in January 1909.(Wild, Shackleton, Marshall, Jameson upon return in 1909)
Shackleton's first Antarctic expedition was in 1902-3 under the command of Captain Scott.  Shackleton, a 28-year old merchant seaman, was recruited by Scott for the journey on account of his physical strength.  That attempt to reach the Pole failed well short of its goal as all three explorers became ill.  Scott and Shackleton had a falling out on their trek which was never mended.  Scott was a navy man who believed in order and discipline while Shackleton had a much more casual approach to things, a combination that led to conflict under the extreme conditions of Antarctica.

Looking back on it, the British attempts on the South Pole seem amateurish compared to Amundsen. Scott's 1902-3 expedition relied on dogs to pull sleds and for the humans to travel by ski but none of the members knew anything about driving dogs or how to ski.  In 1908-9, Shackleton used ponies instead of dogs with disastrous results - all of them died. For his fatal 1911-12 expedition, Scott, convinced that dogs were unsuited to the rigours of the climate, insisted on using ponies despite Shackleton's experience and once again they quickly died, leaving the men to drag sleds and supplies.  Amundsen made it to the pole and back with well-trained dogs and expert skiers.

Shackleton was knighted upon his return to England in 1909 and hit the lecture circuit to pay off the debts from his expedition (both expedition that he led were privately financed and Shackleton spent considerable time raising funds).

The Endurance proceeded south from Plymouth with 28 expedition members.  This time they would use dogs, not ponies, but only a couple of the team were experienced skiers.  While he may have been slipshod in some of his planning for the continental crossing, Shackleton made two choices that were to be critical to the survival of his team; adequate provisioning for a healthy diet and the selection of the Endurance as the transport ship.

Shackleton picked his crew carefully; less for their expertise than for their character.  As Caroline Alexander notes in The Endurance (1999) (from which all quotes below are taken, THC also recommends Roland Huntford's biography Shackleton (1985)), "above all else, Shackleton judged a man by the degree of optimism he projected. 'Optimism', Shackleton once said 'is true moral courage' ".  He surprised one candidate by asking if he could sing rather than inquiring about his experience in detail. That approach might not have sufficed for the long trek across the continent but it did suffice for surviving their two-year ordeal.  He would not have fit in well with a culture drenched in post-modernism's sea of irony.

His second in command was Frank Wild, who accompanied him on the 1909 dash to the Pole and became devoted to him in the process.(Wild)  The captain of the Endurance was Frank Worsley, an experienced sailor whose planned role would be secondary once the landing was made but who proved to be the most important member of the crew in light of what they would actually face.
One other crew member was Frank Hurley (despite appearances, Shackleton did hire crew who were not named Frank), an Australian photographer who took a series of remarkable photographs of the expedition.  It is these photos that created the lasting emotional impact of the adventure and are one of the reasons motivating this post.  The best web collection of these photos can be found at and most of the illustrations for this post are drawn from it.

On December 5, 1914 the Endurance left the Grytviken whaling station on South Georgia Island for Antarctica.  Expedition members would next set foot on land on April 16, 1916.  Two days after leaving they entered the pack ice.  Making slow progress by January 10 they could see the continent but 8 days later Endurance became embedded in the pack ice and began drifting with it.  After struggling for weeks to get free, on February 24 Shackleton ordered the crew to cease its efforts and to begin living on the ship till the ice broke.  They would live on the Endurance for the next eight months, including four in the total darkness of the Antarctic winter.

The crew entertained itself through games and contests.  After one event, an expedition member wrote in his diary;

"That is Sir Ernest all over.  He is always able to keep his troubles under and show a bold front.  His unfailing cheeriness means a lot to a band of disappointed explorers like ourselves  . . . he never appears to be anything but the acme of good humour and hopefulness."

As spring began in September the ice began to shift endangering the ship because of the pressure of the ice blocks.  After weeks of alternating between hopes of being free and fear of the Endurance being crushed in the shifting ice, Shackleton ordered the crew to abandon the ship on October 27.  For the next five months they would live on the pack ice.  On the 21st of November they watched the Endurance break up and sink beneath the ice.  Shackleton assembled his men and announced they would begin marching towards the nearest land, an estimated 200 miles away.  Another crew diarist wrote:

"As always with him what had happened had happened.  It was in the past and he looked to the future . . . without emotion, melodrama or excitement [he] said 'ships and stores have gone - so now we'll go home'"
The crew then began a difficult march across the ice, carrying salvaged supplies from the Endurance and dragging three small lifeboats.  Conditions on the ice were so brutal it proved impossible to reach their planned landfall.  The ice floe they were camped on began drifting north and eventually it became clear that if they did not attempt a desperate attempt to use the(Hurley & Shackleton (R) on the ice)  lifeboats and find land they would end up drifting into the rough South Atlantic and the floe would eventually melt.   On April 7, they spotted desolate Elephant Island at the tip of the Palmer Peninsula and two days later launched their three lifeboats.  A week later they landed.  The next day a massive blizzard blew in.  The following morning the men were awakened by Shackleton bringing them their breakfast.  "The Boss is wonderful', wrote one of them, "cheering everyone and far more active than any other person in camp''.

Elephant Island created its own set of problems.  No one knew they were alive and the island was well away from any trade or expeditionary route.  They could not survive by waiting for someone to find them.

Realizing this Shackleton quickly made a decision.  The really hard part of the expedition was about to begin.  Sir Ernest and five others would take a 22 foot lifeboat, the James Caird, and sail for the whaling station on South Georgia Island.  Frank Worsley would have to captain the Caird through 800 miles of what was regarded as the wildest patch of ocean in the world with the Antarctic winter coming on.  Frank Wild was left in command of those remaining behind, all of whom knew that if the Caird did not get through they would all perish.
(Launching the James Caird)
(Those left behind wave farewell to the Caird and its crew)
Leaving on April 24, the six men crew battled 40 foot seas, gale force winds, freezing temperatures and ice build up on the boat, landing 17 days later on the west side of South Georgia, a stunning navigational feat by Worsley.  The problem was that the whaling station, containing the island's only inhabitants, was on the east side.  The Caird was in such bad shape that trying to sail further was not possible leaving only a trek by land across the island, a journey requiring the crossing of a 3,000 foot high, snow-covered mountain range which had never been mapped or traversed.
(South Georgia)
After resting a few days to regain their strength, Shackleton, Worseley and one other man set out.  For 36 hours they marched non-stop, knowing that if they halted in their exhausted and starved condition, with no sleeping bags and clothes in tatters, sleep and death by freezing would soon follow.  Climbing rocks, sliding down glaciers and avoiding crevasses they finally reached the whaling station.  Shackleton asked to be taken to the station manager, Captain Anton Andersen, who had seen the Endurance off 18 months before and who at first did not recognize him.  A Norwegian whaler who was present at the meeting left his account:

"'Manager say: Who the hell are you? and terrible bearded man in the centre of the three say very quietly: My name is Shackleton.  Me - I turn away and weep."
Barely stopping to rest, Shackleton immediately launched his next project - the rescue of his men on Elephant Island.  He could not get any help from the British Navy which was fully occupied with the war so he turned to Chile, Uruguay and Argentina.  Two attempts in June and July were turned back by pack ice and storms.  A third attempt using a steamer loaned by Chilean authorities succeeded and on August 30, 1916 all of the men on the island were evacuated.  Until he counted the men on shore through binoculars, Shackleton could not be sure they had all survived.  Frank Worsely later wrote of that moment:

"He put his glasses back in their case and turned to me, his face showing more emotion than I had ever known it to show before  . . . it sounds trite, but years literally seemed to drop from him as he stood before us."

(The rescue)
The men of the British Trans-Antarctic Expedition returned to a world that had forgotten them and was immersed in the tragedy of a world war.  Within a few weeks, several of the crew were serving on the Western Front and some perished in the conflict.  After the war, Shackleton returned to the lecture circuit using Frank Hurley's photos and wrote a bestselling book, South, but he was restless.  In late 1921 he put together another expedition, accompanied by several of the Endurance crew, including Frank Wild.  His ship, Quest, put in at South Georgia.  The plans and goals for the expedition were vague but Shackleton yearned to be adventuring again.  But though he was only 49, his health was poor and in January 1922 he died of a heart attack on South Georgia. 

From one perspective, Ernest Shackleton was a failure as an explorer.  None of his three Antarctic expeditions achieved their goals.  But none of the men under his direct command died and his reputation as a man you wanted leading in extreme conditions when lives are on the line remains undiminished a century later. 

The last member of the British Trans-Antarctic Expedition died in 1974.

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