Shackleton Re-TWEETED: "Men wanted for hazardous journey"
On this day 100 years ago, Sir Ernest Shackleton and his 27 man crew were drifting aimlessly on the ice floes of the Weddell Sea in the Antarctic. Those same ice floes had some five months before consumed their ship, the Endurance, and with it, their hopes of crossing the Antarctic continent via the South Pole.
The harrowing fight for survival that ensued is still considered one of the most remarkable feats of physical endurance, mental courage and resolute leadership in the history of exploration. To celebrate the centenary of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition we will be re-telling the most hazardous stage of their remarkable escape attempt day-by-day on Twitter. As if in his own words, we will follow Shackleton and his crew as they embarked on a perilous sea crossing from the waterborne Patience Camp to solid ground at Elephant Island. And then beyond in the hope of reaching South Georgia, where a seasonal whaling station offered their only chance of rescue.
The Age of Heroes
When the polar research vessel, the Endurance, departed from Plymouth on 8th August 1914, Sir Ernest Shackleton’s long-coveted goal of reaching the earth’s southern axis had already been achieved. Shackleton had himself sledged to within just 112 miles of the South Pole on his 1908 Nimrod expedition, discovering the magnetic pole in the process. But it was the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen who would ultimately be victorious in the race due south. Exhibiting breathtaking efficiency in traversing the Antarctic hinterland by ski and dogsled, Amundsen was the first man to reach 90° 0′ S on 14th December 1911. Robert Falcon Scott, leading the Terra Nova expedition, had also reached the pole in January 1912 - agonisingly just five short weeks after Amundsen - a feat from which Scott famously would never return.
“For scientific leadership, give me Scott; for swift and efficient travel, Amundsen; but when you are in a hopeless situation, when there seems to be no way out, get on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”
- Sir Richard Priestley, Antarctic Explorer.
“By Endurance we Conquer”
Instead Shackleton would now attempt an even more audacious feat: to cross the Antarctic continent from one side to the other via the South Pole - a feat still not achieved on foot to this day.
His plan was for the Endurance to traverse the ice-laden Weddell Sea to land at Vahsel Bay, from where a trans-continental expedition party, led by Shackleton himself, would strike out for the pole. Meanwhile their support ship, the Aurora, would approach the continent from the Ross sea and lay ancillary supply depots along Shackleton’s route on the other side of the pole. If successful, Shackleton would return to Britain an unrivalled hero in the great Age of Heroes - having led the most extensive scientific survey of Antarctica to date and performed a daredevil trans-continental crossing.
Shackleton and the crew of the Endurance
Relentlessly optimistic, immensely charismatic and something of a chancer Shackleton was a stark contrast to the depressive but expertly-proficient Amundsen, and the quintessentially Victorian tragic hero of Scott. Born to an Anglo-Irish family in County Kildare, and educated in England, Shackleton’s early life was characterised by a restless desire for adventure. Leaving school at sixteen, he went to sea with the Merchant Navy, further developing his zeal for exploration and instilling in him the skills of able seamanship and leadership. Though
he had no polar experience, Shackleton was, by force of character, able to talk his way onto Scott’s Discovery expedition of 1901-03, proving himself ably in the field. He would subsequently enjoy a rapid rise in public notoriety on account of the successes of his own Nimrod expedition in 1907-1909, and be heralded as one of the world’s greatest Antarctic adventurers.
With a knack to convince wealthy backers to fund his audacious vision for the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, Shackleton’s recruitment of the expedition party was as unconventional as he was. Believing that character and temperament were as important as polar experience or technical ability, he was said to have selected some members of the party simply because he liked the look of them.
The First World War was looming, and First Lord of the Admiralty, Sir Winston Churchill, urged Shackleton to “Proceed” at pace. Thus, Sir Ernest hurriedly finalised the two 28 strong crews of the Endurance and Aurora. They were a ramshackled bunch of men: some with significant polar and seafaring experience, not least Frank Wild who had been at Shackleton’s side on the Discovery and Nimrod expeditions, and Frank Worsley, who captained the Endurance; others had little or no relevant experience but a lust for adventure, including the young stowaway Perce Blackborow. There was a six-strong scientific crew comprising two surgeons, Alexander Macklin and James McIlroy, geologist James Wordie, biologist Robert Clark, physicist Reginald James, and meteorologist Leonard Hussey. And photographer Frank Hurley and artist George Marston who would be responsible for recording the expedition. Each in their own way exemplified the intrepid attitude of the age, and their grit, determination and loyalty to Shackleton, who never once put himself before his men, would ultimately be tested in the most extreme of circumstances.
"Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success."
- The supposed text of an advertisement placed in a London paper by Shackleton when recruiting for the Endurance expedition.
Journey to the Weddell Sea
The Endurance departed for the Antarctic from South Georgia on 5th December 1914. Just two days later they encountered their first pack ice - far further north than had been anticipated. Throughout December and January 1915 the Endurance made frustratingly slow progress towards their planned landing point at Vahsel Bay, battling their way through the ice-laden Weddell Sea that proved to be “of a very obstinate character”. Although other accessible landing points were reached, Shackleton was determined to deliver the Endurance and her crew as close to her final objective as possible, and so ploughed onwards through gruelling ice-floes.
It was a decision Shackleton would come to regret, as on 14th February 1915, with the Endurance stuck motionless in the ice, even the most strenuous efforts of his crew wielding ice-chisels, saws and picks proved futile in freeing her path.
“She’s going down”
Relentlessly optimistic, Shackleton retained the belief that the Endurance could withstand the pressures of the ice ensnaring her hull, and would be freed the following Spring to allow a second landing attempt at Vahsel Bay. But recognising that they would now be held in the ice throughout winter, he ordered the ship’s routine abandoned - and preparations were made to house the dogs off board in ice-kennels, and convert the interior of the ship to more suitable winter quarters for the men.
By 21st February 1915 the Endurance had reached what would be her most southerly latitude, 76°58′S. Henceforth she would be thrust northwards - slow at first, and then at a growing pace - by arbitrary forces beyond Shackleton’s control. All he could do was wait - and hope.
Throughout the dark winter months of May, June and July, as the Endurance strained and listed under the pressure of the ice, Shackleton sought to maintain morale, exercising the dogs (sometimes competitively), and encouraging moonlight walks for the men. But as Spring emerged it became apparent that the ship would not emerge unscathed from the onslaught of the ice, such were the awe-inspiring forces at being exerted on her hull.
Their position was perilous - mighty blocks of ice “jumped like cherry-stones gripped between thumb and finger” and contorted timbers snapped like “the blasting of guns”. On 27th October 1915, in temperatures of -25°C, Shackleton gave the order to abandon ship. The Endurance would eventually sink beneath the ice on 21st November 1915.
“Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all.”
- Sir Ernest Shackleton
“Our Drifting Home”
With the loss of the Endurance, and with her all hope of the trans-Antarctic crossing, Shackleton’s objective shifted singularly to the survival of his men - which would prove no less onerous a task.
The twenty-eight man party were now marooned on the ice, and scavenging what supplies and materials they could from the ship’s wreckage, Shackleton set his sights on a march westwards to Paulet Island some 346 miles distant, where he knew a substantial food depot lay.
After two punishing marches towing their lifeboats across a relentless landscape of ice-ridges, which achieved just 10 miles in 10 backbreaking days - and the first signs of insurrection from the ship’s carpenter McNish, which was firmly quashed - Shackleton was forced to abandon his plans for an escape across the ice. Instead he established Patience Camp on 29th December 2015 where their march had ceased, which would become their drifting home for more than three months. Rudderless and “dependent upon the caprice of wind and current”, Shackleton now bided his time for a break in the ice that might permit an escape by boat.
“By Endurance we Conquer”
- Shackleton family motto
The Escape Begins
Throughout the early months of 1916 rations were running low on their floating camp. Seal meat became a staple of their diet, its blubber their only fuel source. The dogs were shot - at first to conserve supplies, but later to supplement them. And the drift became increasingly erratic, taking them beyond the reaches of Paulet Island.
With the situation growing more desperate by the day, Shackleton agonised over which of the scattered landmasses they would attempt to reach, knowing that all would require a dangerous sea crossing aboard their three lifeboats, the James Caird, Dudley Docker and Stancomb Wills. Finally, his hope was fixed on a small chain of islands on the northernmost part of Graham Land, consisting of Clarence Island and Elephant Island. On the 8th April 1916, with the ice supporting Patience Camp breaking up at alarming speed, Shackleton ordered his men to decamp to lifeboats, and they set out for Elephant Island, whose peaks were distinguishable some 60 miles due north of their position.
What followed remains one of history’s most epic tales of survival in one of the world’s most unforgiving landscapes. Shackleton and his men would have to brave a perilous sea crossing, that would test their moral courage and physical endurance to the limits of human endeavour, in the pursuit of solid ground, and ultimately, their salvation.
Follow @TheShackletonCo and #Shackleton on Twitter to re-live Shackleton’s escape from Antarctica from 7th April to 20th May, 100 years to the day.
Disclaimer: The content for this campaign has been sourced primarily from Shackleton’s own account of events as described in South - The Endurance Expedition, first published in 1919. And further supplemented by other third party sources, research from original documents held at the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI University of Cambridge), and photography from The Royal Geographical Society and SPRI. We have done our utmost to ensure that the events and their timings are accurate, but have retained an element of creative license, not least to contend with transposing this 100 year old story into a series 140 character tweets.
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