On December 5th 1914, with a crew of 27 men, Kildare-born Sir Ernest Shackleton set sail from South Georgia for the South Pole on board the Endurance. By this time Shackleton was already a highly accomplished Polar explorer, with 2 Polar expeditions behind him. In 1909 he had come within 97 miles of the South Pole, the farthest South anyone had ever gone at that time.
On New Year's Day 1908 Shackleton and his team had set sail from the New Zealand port of Lyttelton on board the weather torn, 300 ton expedition ship 'Nimrod'. By November 25th Shackleton passed Scott's furthest South of 82 degrees 17 minutes. He had accomplished the feat in only 29 days- half the time it had taken himself and Scott in 1903.
Yet still the mystery of where the South Pole actually remained unsolved. Whether it was located on the plains ahead or at a higher elevation was anyone's guess. It was Shackleton and his team's ascent of Mount Hope- a 2000 foot rock island- that ultimately revealed the route to the South Pole- over a visibly enormous glacier that ran upwards through the Transantarctic mountains.
On January 9th 1909 after enduring endless days of dehydration, hunger and near hypothermia on the glacier Shackleton and his team of Frank Wild, John Boyd Adams and Eric Marshall established a new 'furthest south'. (Shackleton would name it the Beardmore Glacier in honour of the Scottish industrialist who had helped finance the Nimrod expedition.)
Standing at only 97 miles from the South Pole the latitude was 88 degrees and 23 minutes- the team had extended Scott's record by 6 whole degrees of latitude. Most importantly the team had essentially proven that the South Pole lay up on the ice cap that had been discovered by Albert Armitage- Shackleton's old friend from the discovery days- six years earlier.
The Nimrod expedition had two further achievements which often go unmentioned. Shackleton sent two teams out which successfully achieved two firsts in Antarctic exploration. On January 16th David, Mawson and Mackay reached the South Magnetic Pole at latitude 72 degrees, 25 minutes while on March 10th 1908 these same men, accompanied by Adams and Marshall, had already made the first ascent of an Antarctic peak in summiting the 13,280 foot volcano - Mount Erebus.
Though the ultimate prize of reaching the South Pole was so painfully close it was a testimony to Shackleton's sound sense of judgement that he knew when to turn his men back. Food reserves had become so depleted that had the team made a final push for the pole their chances of survival would have been greatly threatened. Risk assessment is a fundamental and essential ingredient in the success of any expedition. Success lies not only in reaching your chosen destination - but also living to tell the tale. The safety of the team should always be the primary concern of the team leader. A great leader is one who has the courage to acknowledge when a very fine line has been crossed- the point where failure to turn back will most likely result in tragedy.
Shackleton was unfazed by being perceived as a "failure"- he became known as the man who put his men first- a quality which inspired the ever enduring loyalty of those who journeyed with him into the unknown.
Although Amundsen and the Norwegians had become the first to reach the South Pole a couple of years previously, by launching the Endurance expedition Shackleton set a new Antarctic challange and opened a new chapter in the Age of Polar Exploration. The expedition's objective was to become the first to cross Antarctica from sea to sea- more precisely from the Weddell sea to the Ross sea.
One month later the Endurance became trapped in the formidable ice of the Weddell Sea at latitude 74 degrees south - just outside the Antarctic Circle. There she remained, drifting slowly with the pack for ten months until, on November 21st 1915 she was crushed by the ice and sank. They remained camped on the ice for a further 5 months before the ice began to break up.
On April 9th 1916 Shackleton, J. Vincent, F.A Worsley, H. McNeish, Tom Crean and his fellow Irishman Tim McCarthy set out from Elephant Island on an 850 mile voyage on a 22 foot open lifeboat across the South Atlantic to find help. They steered their tiny vessel- the James Caird- through the eyes of successive violent storms -an epic still regarded as the single greatest feat of open boat navigation. They suffered gales, ice and constant soakings in a 16 day voyage and survived a hurricane which they later learned had claimed a 500 ton steamer. On May 10th 1916 the men landed at King Haakon's Sound on the west coast of South Georgia Island.
From there Shackleton, Worsley and Crean crossed the unmapped frozen mountains of South Georgia for 25 miles in a 36 hour non stop climb to get help to their stranded friends. The interior of South Georgia Island was depicted on their blueprint map as a complete blank. The quest to cross the interior would involve a series of attempts to navigate over a confusion of mountain ranges and treacherous crevasses overlain with deep snow and thick ice. It was a game of Russian roulette with the elements - there was always the threat that a sudden gale or snowstorm would finish them off. Yet fear took a back seat as, pitch by pitch, step by step they negotiated the ever - steepening terrain. With Shackelton in front and Crean holding the rear they remained an unflinchingly tight unit and concluded one of the most infamous survival epics in recorded history when they made it to Stromness whaling station on May 20th 1916. Vincent, McNeish and McCarthy were picked up immediately but, with the southern winter closing in it took Shackleton four attempts in four different ships before he rescued his team mates on Elephant Island on board the Chilean steamer Yelcho on August 30th 1016. Not one life had been lost.
The Endurance epic was particularly symbolic in that it set sail from Plymouth just as the world was descending into war. The next four years on the International front would be characterized by death and suffering never before experienced. The Endurance oddessy, removed as it was from the divisions and limitations of the 'civilized world' stood out as a symbol of man's humanity to his fellow man and proved that seemingly impossible obstacles can be overcome even in the most hopeless of situations.
- Antarctic History
- Ernest Shackleton