For many years Shackleton’s reputation was overshadowed by Scott’s. Happily, now his place as one of the greats of polar exploration is safely restored. A true pioneer, and leader of one of history’s most astounding sea adventures.
Shackleton’s first foray into Antarcticawas as Third Officer on Scott’s 1901-04 Discovery expedition. He was one of the expedition’s party to reach a new record for the farthest south latitude. The trip took its toll however: on the return trek to base, he collapsed, and was invalided home on Discovery’s relief vessel.
Four years later he was back, leading the Nimrod expedition, the Nimrod, the first expedition to have the definite objective of reaching the South Pole. Although ultimately unsuccessful (by a mere 190km) in reaching that goal, Shackleton’s achievements on the Nimrod were still leonine: a new record for the farthest south latitude; discoverer of the Beardmore Glacier; and in ascending the glacier, the first man to find a proven route to the pole, and the first person to set foot upon the great polar plateau.
His first two endeavours would have been sufficient to earn Shackleton a place at the high table of polar explorers. But it is the Endurance expedition for which Shackleton is now best remembered. The stuff of legend, a brief account of the expedition reads like an ever more unlikely series of events, an improbable sequence of extraordinary ‘and then’ feats of bravery.
Amundsen’s successful bid for the pole set Shackleton on a new challenge, one that he saw as the last great object of Antarctic exploration – the crossing of the continent from sea to sea, via the pole – the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Simply put the plan was to approach the continent via the Weddell Sea, cross the ‘Great Alone’ to McMurdo Soundvia the South Pole.
Endurancedeparted South Georgia for the Weddell Seaon 5thDecember 1914. By early January, the ship was encountering heavy pack ice. By 19thJanuary 1915, deep in the Weddell Sea, Endurancebecame frozen fast in an ice floe. Their position was 76°34'S, longitude, 31°30'W. The ship drifted southwest with the floes, and by February it was clear to Shackleton that they were frozen in for the winter. So began long months of “ceaseless anxiety and strain”. The ship was attacked by the elements, as winds topped 100kmh, at least 100 tonnes of snow piled up against the bow and port sides, and pressure on the hull from the ice was increasingly dangerous.
On 24thOctober, the hull finally gave way. Water began pouring in. After a few days, with the position at 69°05'S, 51°30'W, Shackleton gave the order to abandon ship, saying, "She's going down!".
Boats, gear, provisions and sledges were lowered to the floe, and for the next six months, the men made their home on ice floes, moving from one to another as they cracked, all the while seeking to reduce the distance between themselves and PauletIsland.
On 12thApril, Shackleton discovered they had drifted 30 miles to the east: ElephantIsland, in the South Shetlands, appeared to them in the north-northwest. They made for it in their small boats, and upon reaching it after harrowing days in tempestuous seas, for the first time in 16 months the men stood on land.
Joy was short-lived. There was no hope of rescue from ElephantIsland, and so Shackleton decided to risk an open-boat journey to South Georgia, over 1,000 kilometres distant. The lifeboat James Cairdwas launched on 24thApril 1916, with Shackleton, five others and a month’s supplies aboard, sailing into the wild Southern Ocean, and into legend.
Through treacherous iceberg seas, rolling breakers and hurricane-force storms (which at the same time sunk a 500-ton steamer bound for South Georgia from Buenos Aires), the James Cairdbattled through to make it, sighting land on 8thMay.
Incredibly, that’s not the end: Shackleton travelled South Georgia’s icy mountainous terrain for 36 hours to reach the whaling station at Stromness, and from there so began the rescue efforts. First, returning to ElephantIslandon 30thAugust to pick up the remaining 22 men, then travelling on to the RossSea, to pick up the stranded other party of the original expedition. Shackleton did so onboard the Aurora, finally turning northward from the McMurdo Sound on 17 January 1917 and arriving back in Englandin May of that year. By August, Shackleton was repeatedly requesting he be sent to the French front line to fight in the Great War.
On 5thJanuary 1922, Shackleton suffered a fatal heart attack while in South Georgia, shortly before he was to set off on another Antarctic expedition. He is buried there, in Grytviken cemetery, surrounded by the wild seas, looking out to the site of his greatest exploits.