“We bailed with the energy of men fighting for life.” Sir Ernest Shackleton
With Englishman Robert Scott and Norwegian Roald Amundsen having reached the South Pole in 1912, Sir Ernest Shackleton, not to be outdone, embarked on the most ambitious polar expedition of all time – the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition – a bid to cross Antarctica from the Weddell Sea coast to the Ross Sea coast.
On the Weddell Sea side, things did not go as planned, with his ship the Endurance becoming trapped and finally crushed by pack, leaving Shackleton and his crew with little hope of survival. They drifted north for five months from November 1915 to April 1916 until the melting ice finally released them into the Southern Ocean.
The 28 man crew of the Endurance paddled and sailed three small wooden lifeboats adrift in the roughest ocean in the world for several harrowing days to reach Elephant Island – a bleak and remote island home only to colonies of Elephant seals and penguins.
Race for survival – sea and mountains
What followed was what Sir Edmund Hillary described as the greatest survival story ever undertaken: Shackleton and five men left Elephant Island in late April 1916 on an 800-mile voyage across the notoriously treacherous Southern Ocean in the lifeboat James Caird.
For 17 days they battled constant gales, terrible cold, and mountainous seas in a leaking 22.5 ft wooden boat, managing to land on the small, remote island of South Georgia. Shackleton and two of the crew of six from the James Caird, Worsley and Crean, then climbed over the precipitous, heavily glaciated mountains of South Georgia to reach the refuge of the whaling station at Stromness on the other side.
All 28 men survive
Ultimately Shackleton was able to save the remaining crew of the James Caird on the other side of South Georgia and rescue all 22 of the crew members who had been left stranded on Elephant Island – an epic triumph of endurance and leadership.