Following the news that Roald Amudsen had become the first man to reach the South Pole, there was one great expedition left in Antarctica, to cross the continent on foot. In 1912 Sir Ernest Shackleton began plans to organise the Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition to achieve this challenge.
Shackleton announced the mission would involve two ships, one to land via the Weddell Sea which would involve himself and the land party which would make the crossing. Another that would sail to the Ross Sea on the opposite side in order to lay supplies and depots for the final leg of the crossing.
As with all major expeditions, the first challenge would be to raise the finance to fund the mission, Shackleton estimated he would need to raise at least £50,000 (current value £4 million). After a £10,000 donation from the British government, he finally secured £10,000 from Dudley Docker, a generous unknown sum from Janet Stancomb-Wills and £24,000 from Sir James Caird. These along with other smaller and anonymous donations meant the expedition could go ahead much to Shackletons relief.
Shackleton meanwhile was assembling a crew that would be fit for such a demanding expedition. Although likely a myth, the following advert was said to be published “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.” Regardless, this was a reality of the expedition and the challenges they would face. Recruits included Frank Wild as second in command, Frank Worsley as captain and Tom Crean as second officer, in addition to a seaworthy crew of sailors. As the expedition had a scientific purpose as well, James Wordie as a geologist, Robert Clark as a biologist and Leonard Hussey as the meteorologist.
With the crew complete the Endurance sailed from Plymouth on 8th August 1914 initially stopping at Buenos Aires where Shackleton met the boat after leaving later to finish some business duties. They then stopped at Grytviken whaling station in South Georgia before heading for the Weddell Sea and Antarctica on 5 December 1914.
After experiencing freak weather conditions and unusually large ice floes, progress was slow and by late December the ship had become surrounded in pack ice and the destination of Vahsel Bay seemed a long way off. As the pack ice around them contracted the Endurance became stuck fast in the ice and by February Shackleton realised there would be no escaping the ice and they would remain throughout the Winter.
As Spring approached and the hope of the ice breaking up to allow access to the open sea again, the ice started to contract with worrying ice blocks raising up around them. Frank Worsley wrote that an unusually large group of eight Emperor Penguins approached the ship and after surveying the ship they threw back their heads and emitted a strange deadening cry. “I must confess that I have never, either before or since, heard them make any sound similar to the sinister wailings they moaned that day.”
After a huge groan from the ice, the squeeze was too much for the ship and it was now taking on water as the hull cracked and splintered against the increasing pressure. Despite attempts to pump out the water throughout the night and make repairs, Shackleton gave the order to abandon ship on 27th October 1915 and the entire crew were adrift on the ice. A few weeks later the Endurance sunk deep into the icy waters, with Shackleton declaring “She’s gone boys”.
Shackleton set up camp on the ice with the crew issuing sleeping bags and tents to share for their stay in the most inhospitable place on earth, still hundreds of miles from civilization and chance of rescue.
After several attempts to march with the lifeboats in tow proved futile, they set up what was named “Patience Camp” as they waited for the ice to thaw and break up to launch the lifeboats in to what would be a ferocious and unforgiving sea. On April 9th 1916, after fifteen months trapped on the ice, the ice floe around them cracked and revealed the chilling waters of the Weddell Sea. Shackleton gave the order to launch the three lifeboats into the maze of lunging ice floes, freezing snow and fierce blizzard winds as the next stage of their adventure began.
As night approached on the first night, the crew camped on a large ice floe, with cracks appearing beneath the tents. With Holness and How being ditched into the freezing water at one point with Shackleton luckily on hand to pull Holness out before disappearing under the floe. By daylight the boats were launched again into gale force winds, caught between the treacherous ice floes and the open sea which their boats were not nearly fit for.
After seven long and terrifying days, Elephant Island was sighted and a dangerous although necessary landing was accomplished and every member of the crew was brought ashore. Although, the terrible journey, sleep deprivation, lack of food and water had taken it’s toll, some of the men were walking aimlessly about, frostbite was common and Rickinson had suffered a heart attack. Although they were on solid land the conditions were terrible, Hurley wrote “Such a wild and inhospitable coast I have never beheld”.
Conditions worsened and the crew’s morale and spirits were at an all time low, Shackleton then realized the only hope for survival would be to somehow reach help to found a rescue. On the 20th April he announced that he would lead a party in the James Caird to sail 800 miles across the dangerous seas to South Georgia. Winds of 70mph, waves sixty foot high with no land in between using just a sextant and chronometer against skies they would be lucky to be gifted a single navigational sighting. All of this in a twenty two foot long open lifeboat built for small journeys in times of emergency.
Launched on the 24th April 1916, the crew gathered on the beach and as the six men boarded the James Caird the rest waved them off with as much optimism as they could gather but knowing in reality their mission was an impossible one. The James Caird and brave crew then were plunged into the unforgiving sea for days on end with little or no sleep, soaking wet in the darkness trying to navigate, which in the situation was a needle in a haystack.
As if the huge waves and howling wind was not enough, the icy waters took their toll on the boat with the spray almost freezing instantly. Ice had formed up to fifteen inches thick on the boat causing the boat to sink further into the sea. Desperate efforts were made to clamber across the boat to chip the ice away and slowly the boat began to rise, helped by the discarding of two frozen solid sleeping bags.
Ten days in to the journey and Shackleton noticed what he thought was a clearing in the sky, to suddenly realise it was actually the crest of an enormous wave. Shackleton wrote “During twenty six years of experience of the ocean in all its moods I had not encountered a wave so gigantic. Miraculously the James Caird stayed afloat and took over an hour of bailing the water out to stay that way.
On the 7th May suddenly land was sighted and South Georgia was before them, desperate thirst and worsening conditions meant they had to try to land on the uninhabited side of the island which in itself was highly dangerous. Suddenly a fierce storm rolled in evolving into a hurricane as the winds threw the boat mercilessly, they later found out that a 500 ton steamer had been sunk in the same hurricane. As the hurricane passed they struggled to find a safe route to shore, often heading for cliffs and rocks that would smash the boat to splinters. Finally they found a passage through the rocks and to the coastline, they staggered off the boat to find a stream and desperately drank for the first time in days.
After several days recuperating and building their strength back up, Shackleton decided the only option would be to cross the mountain ranges of 10,000 ft, unchartered ground never before attempted and considered inaccessible. On May 19th Shackleton, Worsley and Crean set out into the unknown territory that lay before them, quickly experiencing much softer snow that slowed progress as they sank up to their knees at times. After continually having to re-trace their steps as they came across huge crevasses and crags which were impassable, they finally found a pass down and at one stage slid down the mountain at great speed. Then crossing dangerous glaciers and rocky passes, suddenly Stromness Whaling station was in sight which lifted the men despite their lack of sleep and tiredness from the journey.
They staggered into the station camp and meeting the manager who immediately said “Who the hell are you”, Shackleton replied simply “My name is Shackleton”. After coming to terms with the amazement the whalers furnished the men with warm clothes, hot baths and all the food they could manage. That night a huge storm blew in, one that if happened the day before would have finished the men off without doubt. Worsley then took a ship to the other side of the island to rescue the other three men. Shackleton’s mind immediately turned to rescuing the rest of the crew stranded on Elephant Island, an initial attempt failed due to the heavy ice floes.
With Britain still engaged in World War I and somewhat difficult in proposing a suitable solution, Shackleton desperately scoured the southern ports for a ship capable of rescue, two more failed attempts then followed as the ice proved to be unbreakable. Another attempt was raised in the Chilean steamer ‘Yelcho’ which was the most unsuitable so far but Shackleton was desperate to try. Remarkably her passage was sure and she reached Elephant Island on the 30th August 1916 to the delight of the inhabitants who were in fact preparing a boat journey as a last effort.
After reaching Buenos Aires, Shackleton then set about rescuing the crew of the Aurora, the other party stranded in the Ross Sea. Returning to England was somewhat muted due to the ongoing war efforts and it was only later in history the real acclaim and credit was paid to the greatest story of survival and leadership in history.