“Men are not made from easy victories, but based on great defeats,” said the iconic polar explorer Ernest Shackleton, whose birthday we celebrate February 15. And Shackleton, while a man who knew victory, knew his share of defeat. In fact, he spent his 41st birthday, in 1915, trapped in sea ice with his crew of 27 men.
Weeks earlier, the Anglo-Irish explorer’s ship, Endurance, had become marooned in pack ice just a day’s sail away from expedition team's destination at Vahsel Bay, Antarctica. Shackleton went on to become a revered explorer in what has been termed the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.
On a stop at South Georgia during an Antarctic expedition, historian Jonathan Shackleton pays homage to his cousin, Sir Ernest Shackleton.
The explorer's boyhood passion
The second of ten children, Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton was born in Ireland. Young Ernest moved with his family to London in 1880 at the age of six when his father decided to study medicine, a profession Henry was expected to embrace. But young Ernest had other ideas.
At 16, Shackleton traded the tedium of school for an apprenticeship aboard a sailing vessel that took him around the world. Eventually, he worked his way up to third officer aboard the Discovery, under the stewardship of Robert Falcon Scott.
Adventure (and sometimes misadventure) followed Shackleton throughout his voyages. As a member of the Discovery crew, he participated in an experimental balloon flight and the initial sledge trip to McMurdo Sound. Yet, he also dealt with snow-blindness, frostbite and scurvy. Forced to turn back by these maladies, Shackelton was sent home, unable to follow Scott to the end of his expedition. After which the young man was infuriated but not deterred.
The Nimrod (1907 – 1909)
It wasn’t long after Shackleton had recovered from his afflictions that he decided to lead an Antarctic expedition of his own. After his early departure from the Discovery, Shackleton was now driven by a desire to reach the Geographic South Pole and the South Magnetic Pole before Scott.
He presented his plans to the Royal Geographical Society, along with various other government institutions in February 1907. Receiving lackluster responses and no financial backing, Shackleton relied on what private loans and individual contributions he was able to secure within his few months of preparation. As one historian put it, “Shackleton’s expedition was an enterprise built largely on credit and airy promises”. So, with little backing and no contingen
With a team which included Frank Wild, Eric Marshall and Jameson Adams, Shackleton successfully arrived first at the South Polar Plateau and Mount Erebus summit. But more significantly, the team made an attempt for the South Pole. Even though they came up 97 miles short, they discovered the approximate location of the South Magnetic Pole. For this, Shackleton returned home to Britain a public hero.
"Only those who have experienced Antarctica directly can appreciate the feeling of exhilaration, and excitement that setting out on a journey on a fine day in the Antarctic spring can give."
- Ernest Shackleton
On July 10, 1909, he was made a Commander of the Royal Victorian Order by King Edward VII and, in November, was knighted Sir Ernest Shackleton.
The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914 – 1917)
Five years later, Shackleton was restless. Deeply in debt from the Nimrod expedition, he made most of his income from public appearances. Then fortune knocked.
Scottish explorer William Speirs Bruce abandoned his expedition to cross the seventh continent via the South Pole. Already privately funded, Shackleton gladly replaced him and took the lead on his second lengthy expedition, the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.
Shackleton's plan was to sail two ships, the Aurora and the Endurance into the Weddell Sea. While the Aurora would sail to McMurdo Sound to lay supply depots of food and fuel, the Endurance would cross the trans-atlantic to the Antarctic. After landing at Vahsel Bay, Shackleton and five of his men would then cross the continent to reach the South Pole.
This Royal Geographic Society video ‘Enduring Eye’, based on Antarctic historian and writer Meredith Hooper’s exhibition, features more than 90 digitized photos taken by Endurance expedition photographer Frank Hurley.
The Endurance departed South Georgia on December 5 and by mid-February, the ship became trapped in ice. It soon became clear that the ship would be stuck until spring. Shackleton postponed his plans to advance and converted the ship to a winter station with the hope that spring would release them from the ice.
But when spring arrived in September, freedom did not come with it. Instead of releasing the ship, the ice broke into packs that shifted and crushed its hull. Trapped at 69° 5' S, 51° 30' W, Shackleton gave the order to abandon ship. His men quickly transferred their supplies to makeshift camps on the ice as the Endurance gave way to the immense pressure. On November 21, 1915, the crew watched from their frozen perches as the Endurance met her fate and slipped beneath the icy surface to her watery grave.
For nearly two months, the crew camped on ice hoping they’d drift south to Paulet Island. Instead they drifted north away from land even as their ice floes melted beneath them. Finally on April 9, their ice floe broke in half and the men were forced to flee for the nearest land in lifeboats. After 497 harrowing days at sea, the expedition crew finally set foot on solid ground.
Now his men were trapped on Elephant Island, at the eastern limits of the South Shetland island grouping and 100 miles north of the site where the Endurance had sunk. Shackleton realized that rescue from such a remote region—far beyond normal shipping routes—was unrealistic. The best option appeared to be to head for South Georgia…720 nautical miles away. Six crew including Frank Worsley, Tom Crean, John Vincent, Timothy McCarthy, Harry McNish and Shackleton would take a twenty-foot lifeboat, called the James Baird, on a mission to find help.
The winds at this time were so difficult to manage that the plan was to head 288 miles north to be sure they would not be knocked below South Georgia. This route meant the five-man crew would be crossing the tumultuous Drake passage in what Shackelton called, “a frail and weakened boat with a small sail area”. The team set off on April 24, 1916.
Two weeks later, they just managed to make it to the southern most point of South Georgia. Their boat beaten and badly leaking, Shackleton led his party overland to Stromness…another 32 miles. Finally, on May 20, just under a month after departing on their rescue mission, they arrived at South Georgia, hungry and exhausted and immediately sent help for the men left on Elephant Island. With one ship but no lives lost, Shackleton certainly lived up to his family motto, “By Endurance We Conquer”.
Celebrating Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Life and Legacy
Shackleton's grave at Grytviken Church is often visited on Quark Expeditions' itineraries, giving world travllers the opportunity to honour the much-admired polar explorer. Even today, Shackleton is heralded not only in the scientific community but in various leadership articles, which cite his refusal to admit defeat along with his successful navigation of treacherous seas.
“Scott for scientific method, Amundsen for speed and efficiency but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”
- Sir Raymond Priestley
Since Shackleton’s Endurance expedition, we’ve learned a great deal about the environmental challenges of exploring the world’s wildest and most remote regions. More than a hundred years later, many nautical and technological advances have made expeditions to the Antarctic continent faster and safer.
Even so, much remains the same. Antarctica is as untouched and unpredictable as it ever was. Each journey to the seventh continent is a unique and extraordinary adventure. One guided by the seas, the ice and (we like to think) the spirits of the explorers who went before us. In the words of a polar icon, Shackleton said, “it is in our nature to explore, to reach out into the unknown. The only true failure would be not to explore at all.”
And for world travelers who are keen to learn more about Sir Ernest Shackleton...
For novel buffs:
The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition, by Caroline Alexander, who curated a 1999 exhibition of Shackleton photographs at the American Museum of Natural History.
Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing, who, in addition to training as a journalist, also served five years in the U.S. Navy, which fueled his passion for ships.
South with Endurance: Shackleton's Antarctic Expedition 1914-1917 (the Photographs of Frank Hurley), by Frank Hurley. Many students of polar history consider this mammoth book as the definitive pictorial account Ernest Shackleton’s voyage with his crew on the 'Endurance'.
For TV and movie buffs:
Shackleton. Kenneth Branagh portrayed Ernest Shackleton in this 2002 mini-series. The film was nominated for seven Emmy Awards, six BAFTA Awards, and a Golden Globe Award.
For documentary buffs:
The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition. Liam Neeson narrated this 2000 documentary.
Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure by director George Butler.
Want to learn more about Antarctica’s fascinating history?
- Read Top 10 Most Famous & Intriguing Polar Explorers
- Download your free Antarctica Destination Guide
- Explore enriching, educational expedition options in Visit Antarctica: Where to Go & What You’ll See
And check out where Shackleton admirers can pay homage to the late iconic polar explorer in Quark Expeditions...