"We bailed with the energy of men fighting for life."
(From South: 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.
Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition planned to utilise two ships to accomplish its mission: the Endurance would carry Shackleton and his main party across the Weddell Sea to a landing site near Vahsel Bay from which Shackleton would begin his cross-continent journey, while a second ship, the Aurora, under the command of Aeneas Mackintosh would embark from Hobart, Australia to a landing at McMurdo Sound in order to enable a second crew to lay a series of inland supply depots for the final portion of Shackleton’s march across the continent via the South Pole.
On the Weddell Sea side, however, things did not go as planned, with the Endurance becoming trapped and finally crushed by pack, leaving Shackleton and his crew with little hope of survival. Rather than succumbing to the inevitable, they eked out an existence on the pack ice, drifting north for another five months from November 1915 to April 1916 until the melting ice finally released them into the Southern Ocean.
It was 1916, the First World War raged on, and the crew of the Endurance numbered 28 men in three small wooden lifeboats adrift in the roughest ocean in the world under the command of the ever-sanguine Shackleton. The men paddled and sailed for several harrowing days to reach Elephant Island – a bleak and remote island home only to colonies of Elephant seals and penguins.
With the long dark winter looming, and his men half-starved and desperate, Shackleton realised he would have to go for help or all would die. 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, not only finding but 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 – a journey that the world’s top mountaineers in the modern era have been unable to replicate in the time Shackleton took.
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.