Nephew of the explorer John Ross and one of the true giants of polar exploration, Ross took part in half a dozen Arctic expeditions, including the voyage that in 1831 located the position of the North Magnetic Pole. But it is his Antarctic expeditions for which Ross is better remembered.
When Ross set sail for Antarctica in 1840, so began what was to become arguably the 19thcentury’s last great exploratory voyage of the seventh continent. It was also the last major voyage of exploration made entirely under sail. From Tasmania the Englishman headed south in search of the South Pole, and within three weeks the two ships – the Erebus and the Terror – were entering the ice pack. An incredible leap of faith and act of courage: to forge ahead into uncharted waters when they were so evidently entering an inhospitable, menacing world. As Ross described it "an ocean of rolling fragments of ice, hard as floating rocks of granite, which were dashed against them [the ships] by the waves with such violence that their masts quivered".
Miraculously they broke into an open sea – what is now called the Ross Sea – only to be confronted by the unexpected sight of land – a mountain range rearing up in front of them, where they had hoped for a watery passage to the pole. Ross forged on, and eventually encountered another spectacular phenomenon that also bears his name, the Ross Ice Shelf: “a perpendicular cliff of ice, between one hundred and fifty feet and two hundred feet above the level of the sea, perfectly flat and level at the top” and stretching as far as the eye could see. Many mountains of this part of Antarctica were named by Ross, not least Mount Erebus, the world’s southernmost active volcano.