His may be amongst one of the most famous names in polar history – his tale often dubbed as “The most remarkable survival story ever told”.
Sir Ernest Shackleton was born on February 15, 1874 in Kilkea, Ireland to Anglo-Irish parents – the second of ten children. After having finished college, Shackleton joined the Mercantile Marine Service in 1890 despite his father’s urgings to go to medical school. At the age of 19, Shackleton was promoted to the rank of First Mate and became a master mariner six years later – an impressive feat. He participated in numerous expeditions and travelled extensively; however, it was the expedition in 1901 with Explorer Robert Falcon Scott that would spark his lifelong goal of being among the first to reach the South Pole. Unfortunately, due to illness, Shackleton had to return home early from his first polar expedition – putting his dream on hold.
Shackleton made another failed attempt in 1907, coming within 97 miles of the pole, but due to conditions was forced to turn around. His dream was shattered when a Norwegian Expedition reached the South Pole in 1911.
Not to be thwarted, Shackleton and Frank Wild arranged for another expedition – the British Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, whose goal was to cross the South pole from the Weddell Sea to McMurdo Sound. In 1914, at the start of the First World War, Shackleton embarked on his third journey on board the Endurance with 27 men and a pack of dogs to facilitate the land crossing.
Shackleton was known for being incredibly charismatic and very driven. He was known to his men as “The Boss”.
The expedition did not go as planned – In January of 1915, the Endurance became trapped in the ice. For ten months the vessel drifted with the pack ice. Shackleton kept the morale of the crew high by ensuring their adherence to a disciplined routine of duties, chores, and games. The plan was to wait for the ice pack to dissipate with warmer weather, however, the increased pressure of the ice against the hull caused a leak. The difficult decision was made to abandon ship. A sound decision as the vessel was crushed and sank shortly after.
The plan was to head towards Paulet Island where a food-safe was stored from a previous expedition. Unfortunately, traveling across the ice pack proved to be tremendously arduous. The biggest blow to the morale came with the heartbreaking realization that the ice shelf on which the expedition members were located on had actually drifted past Paulet Island. The expedition members survived for five months, camping on their ice island until it shattered, forcing the expedition members to hurriedly board the remaining three pack-boats. Across rough seas, they made their way for the nearest landmass – the desolate Elephant Island.
Food rations nearly gone – the crew survived off seal, penguin, and dog meat. Shackleton, who led his men this far, realized that Elephant island was outside of any normal shipping lanes, and the chances of rescue were slim. He undertook a mission with five crew members for South Georgia. 1300 km of rough seas were covered in a 16-day journey, which landed them on the southern side of their destination.
The journey was not over – Shackleton and his crew members needed to cross the island in order to reach a whaling station on the northern side. This journey would be difficult for any seasoned mountaineer with proper gear. Shackleton and his men had no said-gear and were forced to stick nails in their boots to serve as crampons. Against all odds, Shackleton and his men reached the whaling station, bearded, emaciated, dehydrated and in tatters.
Resting for only three days, Shackleton organized for whaling boats to rescue his remaining crew members. Four months after having left Elephant Island, Shackleton and his expedition members were reunited. What is most remarkable, is that not a single member of Shackleton’s team perished or was lost. For 497 days, 28 men survived in one of the harshest, most remote regions of the globe, making it truly one of the most amazing tales of survival ever told.
Ernest Shackleton may not have accomplished his goal to cross the South Polar continent from sea to sea, however, his story and legacy continue to inspire to this day.