Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton
(1874 - 1922)
Shackleton, the man
and early expeditions
(see Obituaries below for much more info. on the crew)
Arrival In South
Into the Pack Ice
Adrift on the Ice
to S. Georgia
The Expedition seen through
the pictures of Frank Hurley
Shackleton - The
Ernest Henry Shackleton was born on
the 15th February in 1874 in Kilkea House, County Kildare in Ireland. The
second in a family of ten, his father Henry was a farmer at Kilkea. His
mother Henrietta was descended from the Fitzmaurices, a family which had
been in Kerry since the Norman times in the 13th century.
In 1880 when Ernest was six his
father gave up farming and went to Trinity College Dublin, and qualified
to be a doctor. The family lived at 35 Marlborough Road in Dublin and in
1884 they moved to Sydenham in South London where Henry practiced for 30
Romantic, ambitious, handsome and
strong, Shackleton preferred the idea of going to sea than into medical
practice and joined the merchant navy when he was 16. His first voyage
included a memorable rounding of Cape Horn in winter: 'one continuous
blizzard all the way', he recalled later. His captain reckoned he'd never
come across such an 'obstinate boy'.
He qualified as a master mariner
eight years later in 1898. His years at sea took him to Japan, America and
South Africa, but he dreamed of exploring the poles. In 1900, he
co-authored O.H.M.S, a book about his experience of transporting
British troops to fight in the Boer War.
Keen for glory, Shackleton's first
polar experience was aboard Discovery as third lieutenant in charge
of provisions on Captain Scott's Antarctic
expedition of 1901-4. He was one of the three members who journeyed over
the Ross ice shelf by sledge, but was invalided home with scurvy in 1903.
The following year, he married Emily Dorman, one of his sisters' friends,
and they subsequently had three children. [The Discovery is on
display in Dundee, Scotland and is well worth a visit. You can see
Shackleton's name on his cabin door]
After leaving maritime service in
1904, he did a stint as a journalist before being elected to the full-time
post of secretary of the Scottish Royal Geographical Society. In 1906, he
stood unsuccessfully for Parliament as a Liberal-Unionist in Dundee, then
joined an engineering firm in Glasgow. But he was already preparing for
his next journey south.
In 1908, he returned to the
Antarctic as leader of his own expedition, with the whaling ship Nimrod.
His sledging party made it to within 97 miles of the South Pole, the
furthest south anyone had been, despite being ill-equipped with ponies
instead of trained dogs. Faced with blizzards and dwindling rations,
Shackleton turned back short of his goal to save his men's lives. However,
the expedition did result in the claiming of the Victoria Land plateau for
Britain, and Shackleton received a knighthood on his return. His dictated
account, The Heart of the Antarctic, was published in 1909.
Sir Ernest's third - and most
famous - trip was in 1914 as leader of the British Imperial
Trans-Antarctic Expedition. The plan was to cross Antarctica from the
Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea via the pole, a distance of some 1,800 miles.
On August 8th the Endurance sailed
for the Antarctic via Buenos Aires and the sub Antarctic island of South
Georgia where there was a Norwegian whaling station. It was thought that
the war would be over within six months so when it came time to leave for
the south, they left with no regrets.
Ski Expert and Storekeeper
On November 5th
they arrived at South Georgia. Shackleton
learnt much from the whaling
captains about the conditions
and the Weddell Sea. The plan had been to spend only a few days collecting
stores, but instead the Endurance remained at South Georgia for a month to
allow the ice further south to disperse. This month was one where bonds of
friendship and mutual respect
were formed between the Endurance crew and the Norwegian whalers. Bonds
that were to prove unexpectedly useful some time later to Shackleton and
The Weddell Sea was
known to be particularly ice bound at the best of times and the
Endurance left with a deck-load of coal in addition to normal stores
to help with the extra load on the engines when it came to pushing through
pack ice in the Weddell Sea to the Antarctic continent beyond. Extra
clothing and stores were taken from South Georgia in the event that the
Endurance may have to winter in the ice if caught in the Weddell Sea
as it froze, unable to reach the continent first. They left South Georgia
on the 5th of December 1914
Stranded on the
battled her way through a thousand miles of pack ice over a six week
period and was one hundred miles - one days sail - from her destination,
when on the 18th of January 1915 at 76°34'S, the ice closed in around her.
The temperature dropped dramatically cementing together the loose ice that
surrounded the ship.
For Shackleton, the
disappointment must have been bitter, he was 40 years old, his country was
at war, the expedition had taken huge amounts of effort and energy to
prepare, he was unlikely to have this opportunity again.
men looked towards "the Boss" as they called him. This collection of Royal
Naval sailors, rough and ready trawler hands and recent Cambridge
University graduates amongst others were now dependent on the man who had
led them to this place and this very unfortunate predicament.
The ship was
drifting to the southwest with the ice. Attempts were made to free the
ship when sometimes cracks appeared in the ice nearby, but to no avail.
The ice around the ship itself was thick and solid. Men with heavy
improvised ice chisels and iron bars breaking the ice up near the ship and
the ship at full speed ahead had no effect at all and the ship continued
By the end of
February, temperatures had fallen and were regularly -20°C, the ship was
now clearly frozen in for the winter. The worry was where the drifting ice
would take them and would it be possible to break out in the spring? The
sides of the ship were cleared so that if the ice began to press together,
then hopefully the Endurance would be able to rise above the ice
and ride on it rather than being crushed.
had not really been planned for and the men became frustrated and
restless, football and hockey games were regular features on the sea ice
until the darkness of the Antarctic winter began. Sunrise glows came in
early July heralding the return of the sun and daylight, but the weather
was not kind with regular blizzards and low temperatures. Most worrying of
all was the pressure from the ice, floes began to "raft" over each other.
Everyone knew that
one of two things would happen, either the pack ice would thaw, break up
disperse in the spring, so freeing the ship, or it would consolidate and
driven by the effects of wind and tide over hundreds of miles of sea would
take hold of and crush the ship - like a toy in a vice.
"The ice is rafting up to a height of 10 or 15 ft. in places, the
opposing floes are moving against one another at the rate of about 200 yds.
per hour. The noise resembles the roar of heavy, distant surf. Standing on
the stirring ice one can imagine it is disturbed by the breathing and
tossing of a mighty giant below"
The men went out to
look for fresh meat for the dogs and themselves in the form of seals and
penguins, they were still in low supply having disappeared at the start of
winter, a few were taken at the end of September.
The end of
On Sunday, October
23rd their position was 69°11'S, longitude 51°5'W. The Endurance
was under heavy pressure from the ice and not held in a good position,
instead of being able to slip upwards with the increasing pressure, the
ice had hold of her. The first real damage was to the stern-post which
twisted with the planking buckling in the same area, she sprang a leak.
The bilge pumps were started and the leak was initially kept in check.
On October 27th
Shackleton wrote, "The position was lat. 69°5'S, long. 51°30'W. The
temperature was -8.5°F, a gentle southerly breeze was blowing and the sun
shone in a clear sky. After long months of ceaseless anxiety and strain,
after times when hope beat high and times when the outlook was black
indeed, we have been compelled to abandon the ship, which is crushed
beyond all hope of ever being righted, we are alive and well, and we have
stores and equipment for the task that lies before us. The task is to
reach land with all the members of the Expedition. It is hard to write
what I feel".
had drifted at least 1186 miles since first becoming fast in the ice 281
days previously, she was 346 miles from Paulet Island, the nearest point
where there was any possibility of finding food and shelter.
the boats, gear, provisions and sledges lowered onto the ice. The men
pitched five tents 100 yards from the ship but were forced to move when a
pressure ridge started to split the ice beneath them. "Ocean Camp" was
established on a thick, heavy floe about a mile and a half from what was
fast becoming the wreck of the Endurance.
finally broke up and sank below the ice and waters of the Weddell sea on
November 21st 1915. The men had saved as many supplies as they could
(including Frank Hurley's precious photo archive) before she disappeared.
Adrift on the Ice
The 28 men of the
expedition were now isolated on the drifting pack ice hundreds of miles
from land, with no ship, no means of communication with the outside world
and with limited supplies. What was worse was that the ice itself was now
starting to break up as the Antarctic spring got under way. On December
20th Shackleton decide that the time had come to abandon their camp and
march westward to where they thought the nearest land was, at Paulet
They had three
lifeboats named after patrons of the expedition who had donated funds. Two
of these were now man hauled in relays, the James Caird and
Dudley Docker. The third boat, the Stancomb Wills was left
behind. If the ice began to disappear under them, the men would take to
the 20 foot boats.
Shackleton wrote, On New Year's Eve 1915
"Thus, after a
year's incessant battle with the ice, we had returned to almost
the same latitude we had left with such high hopes and aspirations
twelve months previously; but under what different conditions now! Our
ship crushed and lost and we ourselves drifting on a piece of ice at the
mercy of the winds"
Some of the men led by
Frank Wild returned to the area where the Endurance had been to
retrieve the Stancomb Wills. They were all forced into the boats on
April 9th and made their way across a stretch of open water, by the evening
they were able once again to haul the boats onto a large ice floe and pitch
That the men kept going
during this time was a tribute to Shackleton's leadership skills and his
abilities and understanding of the importance of keeping up morale. The
whole group were kept together in the monotonous and strenuous task of
pulling laden lifeboats across broken up and ridged ice floes. It was now 14
months since the Endurance had become frozen into the ice and nearly
5 months since she had sank marooning them in a featureless icy wilderness.
On April 12th Shackleton found that instead of making good progress
westwards, they had actually travelled 30 miles to the east as a result of
the drifting ice. They did however spot Elephant Island, part of the South
Shetlands group and headed that way in seas that were by now largely open
for navigation. They made landfall on Elephant Island being ecstatic to do
so. It had been 497 days since they had last set foot on land.
Their first landing place wasn't an
ideal site for a camp and so they took to the boats again and soon
found a more appropriate place to make camp.
"As we clustered round the blubber stove, with the acrid smoke blowing in
our faces, we were quite a cheerful company...Life was not so bad. We ate
our evening meal while the snow drifted down from the surface of the
glacier and our chilled bodies grew warm"
For the time being they were more
safe and secure than they had been for a long time, but they were still
stranded far from civilization with no-one knowing where they were or what
their condition was. There was no chance of rescue. No ships passed that
way. No radio at that time was capable of summoning help.
The outside world was not going to
come to Elephant Island.
Shackleton realised that in order
to effect a rescue, he was going to have to travel to the nearest
inhabited place which was the whaling station back on South Georgia, some
800 miles distant and across the most stormy stretch of ocean in the
world. They expected to encounter waves that were 50 feet from tip to
trough "Cape Horn Rollers" in a 22 foot long boat. Their navigation was by
a sextant and a chronometer of unknown accuracy, they were dependent on
sightings of the sun that could sometimes not be seen for weeks in the
overcast weather so characteristic of these latitudes.
Shackleton chose Frank Wild to stay
behind with the men on Elephant Island as he felt that he could hold them
together well. If there was no rescue by the spring they were to try and
reach Deception Island.
The party left behind on Elephant
Island used the two remaining life boats to make a hut, they were turned
upside down and placed on top of two low stone walls, tent and sail fabric
were used as lining to keep the wind and weather out. The men were even
able to make small celluloid windows from an old photograph case, a
blubber stove provided heat and was used as a cooker. Conditions were
cramped and food was in short supply. One of the party, Blackborrow,
(little more than a boy who had joined the ship as a stow-away in Buenos
Aries when his companion had been hired though he had not) suffered from
frostbitten toes. These were amputated by the surgeons by the meager light
given out by the blubber stove.
Voyage to South
The lifeboat chosen for the journey
was the James Caird, it was made seaworthy by whatever limited
means were available and equipped with a part cover against the weather
and the sea. Launching her was eventful with many of the men being soaked
to the skin, a serious matter in the cold climate and with very limited
facilities for drying their clothes out and getting warm again.
The James Caird set off
on the 24th of April, the very last day before the pack closed in again on
a day of relative calm. The crew was Shackleton, Worsley, Crean,
McNeish, McCarthy and Vincent, the anticipated journey time was a
month. It was to become one of the most astonishing small boat journeys of
The James Caird made
progress at the rate of around 60-70 miles per day though the sea
conditions were rough. The sea constantly came in and made everything
including the sleeping bags wet, it was difficult to find any warmth at
all. There were four sleeping bags made of reindeer hide which shed their
hairs in the constant dampness, making them less effective and clogging
the pump used to empty the sea water that spilled over into the boat.
The boat was relatively unladen and
so boulders and other ballast had been placed aboard in order to trim her,
these had to be constantly moved around. The weather worsened and they
encountered fierce storms, As the temperature dropped, ice formed on the
outside of the boat from frozen sea spray, up to 15 inches deep on the
deck. This made the boat much heavier and affected the trim - more moving
around of the boulders - the men also tried as far as they could to chip
away the accumulated ice with any tools that they could improvise, though
the situation worsened. They began to throw items overboard in order to
save weight, the spare oars went as did two sleeping bags that by now were
soaked through and hard and heavy with ice.
At other times they had to bale out
water for dear life, the only solace during this journey were hot meals
every four hours by the light of a primus stove.
They had been drifting for some
time under light sail held back by the sea anchor due to the sea state (a
sea anchor is a sort of large canvas bag that acted to slow the boat and
prevent it from being tossed around quite so violently during stormy
seas). The sea anchor however was lost as the boat fell into a large
trough between waves and the men then had to beat the canvas sails free of
ice and set them again properly in order to keep on course.
Frostbite was beginning to affect
exposed fingers and hands in the cold and constant wet. Navigation was
also a problem due to the continually overcast weather. On the seventh day
at sea however a break in the cloud came and Worsley was able to take a
reading from the sun, six days since the last observation, he calculated
that they had travelled around 380 miles and were almost half-way to South
Georgia. The short period of sunshine meant that the men were able to
spread their clothing and other gear over the boat deck and the mast to
dry out. The ice became less dense and they occasionally were accompanied
by wildlife, porpoises and tiny storm petrels.
Shackleton was at the tiller
on may 5th, the eleventh day out at sea. The sea had become much rougher,
"I called to the
other men that the sky was clearing, and then a moment later I realized
that what I had seen was not a rift in the clouds but the white crest of
an enormous wave."
years' experience of the ocean in all its moods I had not encountered a
wave so gigantic. "
"It was a mighty
upheaval of the ocean, a thing quite apart from the big white-capped seas
that had been our tireless enemies for many days. I shouted 'For God's
sake, hold on! It's got us.' Then came a moment of suspense that seemed
drawn out into hours. White surged the foam of the breaking sea around us.
We felt our boat lifted and flung forward like a cork in breaking surf. We
were in a seething chaos of tortured water; but somehow the boat lived
through it, half full of water, sagging to the dead weight and shuddering
under the blow. We baled with the energy of men fighting for life,
flinging the water over the sides with every receptacle that came to our
hands, and after ten minutes of uncertainty we felt the boat renew her
life beneath us"
On May 7th Worsley again was able
to take a navigational reading and reckoned that they were not more than a
hundred miles from the northwest corner of South Georgia, another two days
with the wind with them and they should have the island within sight. On
the morning of the 8th of May, they began seeing kelp floating in the sea,
then some sea birds, just after noon they caught a glimpse of South
Georgia, only fourteen days after leaving Elephant Island and about half
as long as they thought the journey would take.
Landing was to be a less than
straightforward affair, reefs (shallow rocks just below the sea surface)
stretched all along the region of the coast where they were and great
waves broke over them. The rocky coast in many places descended steeply
into the sea. Despite being so close and running out of fresh water to
drink, they had no choice but to wait for the next morning to break before
attempting to land on the shore.
The morning brought a shift in the
wind and a terrible storm arose, the James Caird was tossed around
in the sea and when light broke, they were out of sight of land once
again. They made their way back to South Georgia just after noon, but
again, it was a coast of huge breakers and sheer cliffs that greeted them.
The day wore on and there seemed no hope, later though in the evening, the
wind shifted direction and began to die down. By the morning of the 10th
of May, there was very little wind and they were able to look for a
landing place. Reefs and breaking waves dogged their every attempt. They
found a likely bay to land, but were blown out to sea again by a change in
the wind. In approaching darkness they eventually were able to enter a
small cove fronted by a reef, they had to take in the oars to pass
through, but at long last, carried by the swell, the James Caird
was able to land on a South Georgia beach at King Haakon Bay.
They had got through thanks to
Shackleton's leadership and the incredible navigational skills of New
Zealander Frank Worsley. Worsley had only been able to take sightings of
the sun four times, on April 26th and May 3rd, 4th and 7th, all the rest
had been dead reckoning.
Had they failed to land, the boat
would have been swept onwards to be lost in the mid Atlantic, and no
rescue party would have set out for the men on Elephant Island.
Over the Mountains
They had landed 22 miles from the Stromness
whaling station as the crow flies. In order to get there they had to go
across the backbone of mountains that ran the length of South Georgia, a
journey that no-one had ever managed, the map depicted the area as a
McNeish and Vincent were too
weak to attempt the journey so Shackleton left them with MaCarthy to care
for them. On May 15th Shackleton, Crean and Worsley set out to cross
the mountains and reach the whaling station, they crossed glaciers,
icy slopes and snow fields. At a height of about 4500 feet, they looked
back and saw the fog closing up behind them. Night was falling and with no
tent or sleeping bags, they had to descend to a lower altitude. They
coiled a rope and slid
down a snowy slope in a matter of minutes losing around 900 feet in the
process. They had a hot meal with two of them sheltering the cooker from
the wind. Darkness fell and they carried on walking, with a full moon
lighting their way. They climbed again and ate another hot meal
to renew their energy.
They were soon able to make
out an island in the distance that they recognized, but realised that they
had taken the wrong direction and had to retrace their steps. At 5 a.m.
they sat down exhausted in the lee of a large rock wrapping their arms
around each other to keep warm. Worsley and Crean fell asleep, but
Shackleton realised that if they all did so, they may never wake again. He
woke them five minutes later and told them they had been asleep for half
an hour, once again they set off.
There was now but one ridge of
jagged peaks between them and Stromness, they found a gap and went
through. At 6.30 a.m. Shackleton was standing on a ridge he had climbed to
get a better look at the land below, he thought he heard the sound of a
steam whistle calling the men of the whaling station from their beds. He
went back to Worsley and Crean and told them to watch for 7 o'clock as
this would be when the whalers were called to work. Sure enough, the
whistle sounded right on time, the three men must have never heard a more
"Boys, this snow-slope seems to end in a precipice, but perhaps there
is no precipice. If we don't go down we shall have to make a detour of
at least five miles before we reach level going. What shall it be?"
"Try the slope".
The three walked downwards to
2000 feet above sea level. They came across a gradient of steep ice, two
hours later, they had cut steps and roped down another 500 feet, a slide
down a slippery slope placed them at 1500 feet above sea level on a
plateau. They still had some distance to go before they reached the
whaling station. The going was still less than easy and they had some
climbing still to do to negotiate ridges between them and their goal.
At 1:30 p.m. they climbed
the final ridge and saw a small whaling boat entering the bay 2500 feet
below. They hurried forward and spotted a sailing ship lying at a
wharf. Tiny figures could be seen wandering about and then the whaling
factory was sighted. The men paused, shook hands and congratulated each
other on accomplishing their heroic journey.
"..... we had entered
a year and a half before with well-found ship, full equipment, and
high hopes. We had 'suffered, starved and triumphed, grovelled down yet
grasped at glory, grown bigger in the bigness of the whole.' We had
seen God in His splendours, heard the text that Nature renders. We had
reached the naked soul of man"
The whaling station, was now
just a mile and a half away. They tried to smarten themselves up a
little bit before entering the station, but their beards were long, their
hair was matted, their clothes, tattered and stained as they hadn't been
washed in nearly a year. At 3 o'clock in the afternoon of May 20th,
they walked into the outskirts of Stromness whaling station, as they
approached the station, two small boys met them. Shackleton asked them
where the manager's house was and they didn't answer, they just turned and
ran from them as fast as they could. They came to the wharf where the man
in charge was asked if Mr. Sørlle (the manager) was in the house.
Mr. Sørlle came out to
the door and said, "Well?"
"Don't you know me?" I said.
"I know your voice," he replied doubtfully. "You're the mate of the
Daisy." (the Daisy was the last of the American open boat
whalers, it had visited South Georgia in 1913)
"My name is Shackleton," I said.
Immediately he put out his hand and said, "Come in. Come in."
They washed, shaved, ate and slept. Worsley
boarded a whaler went to rescue the three left on the other side of South
Georgia at King Haakon Bay sheltering under the upturned James Caird.
During this rescue a storm blew up that had it come the day previously
could have spelled disaster for the three men crossing to Stromness and
consequently the whole of the crew, those on the wrong side of South
Georgia and all those on Elephant Island.
Rescue from Elephant
Shackleton remained at Stromness and
prepared plans for the rescue of the men on Elephant Island. Shackleton,
Worsley and Crean left on the British whale catcher Southern Sky
that had been laid up for the winter bound for Elephant Island on the 23rd
Later, Shackleton was to write in
a letter to a friend,
"When we got to the whaling station, it was the
thought of all those comrades that made us so mad with joy...We didn't
so much feel safe as that they would be saved"
Sixty miles from the island the pack ice
forced them to retreat to the Falkland Islands whereupon the Uruguayan
Government loaned Shackleton the trawler Instituto de Pesca but
once again the ice turned them away. They went to Punta Arenas where
British and Chilean residents donated £1500 to Shackleton in order to
charter the schooner Emma. One hundred miles north of Elephant
Island the auxiliary engine broke down and thus a fourth attempt would
be necessary. The Chilean Government now loaned the steamer Yelcho,
under the command of Captain Luis Pardo, to Shackleton.
As the steamer approached Elephant Island,
the men on the island were approaching lunchtime. It was August 30th 1917
when Marston spotted the Yelcho in an opening in the mist. He
yelled, "Ship O!" but the men thought he was announcing lunch. A few
moments later the men inside the "hut" heard him running forward,
shouting, "Wild, there's a ship! Hadn't we better light a flare?" As
they scrambled for the door, those bringing up the rear tore down the
canvas walls. Wild put a hole in their last tin of fuel, soaked clothes in
it, walked to the end of the spit and set them afire.
The boat soon approached
close enough for Shackleton, who was standing on the bow, to shout to
Wild, "Are you all well?". Wild replied, "All safe, all well!" and the
Boss replied, "Thank God!" Blackborrow, since he couldn't walk, was
carried to a high rock and propped up in his sleeping bag so he could view
the scene. Within an hour they were headed north to the world from which
no news had been heard since October, 1914; they had survived on Elephant
Island for 105 days.
In 1921 Shackleton was once
more drawn back to Antarctica in an attempt to map 2000 miles (3200
km) of coastline and conduct meteorological and geological research.
Although he was only 47, he died of a suspected heart attack on board the
Quest as she was at anchor in King Edward Cove, South Georgia.
Shackleton was buried on South Georgia and his death brought to a close
the "Heroic Age" of Antarctic exploration. The grave was marked by a
headstone of Scottish granite in 1928 and is visited regularly by
scientists and tourists to this day.
Shackleton's Boat Journey by FA Worsley
Endurance - An Epic of Polar Exploration by FA Worsley