This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series The Shackleton Expedition Theme Week+

Fortitudine Vincimus



When Part I of our tale completed, the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration neared a conclusion. Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott had successfully reached the South Pole. Veteran Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, who had attempted to reach the pole, vibrantly declared that achievement did not end the era of investigation at the bottom of the planet. Shackleton vowed to cross the entirety of the continent, a truly staggering objective in the early 20th century.

Shackleton purchased a ship named Polaris, originally constructed as a hunting vessel for polar areas. According to biographer Alfred Lansing, Polaris was possibly the strongest wooden ship ever built. Shackleton, of course, did not aim to go toward the ship’s namesake – the North Star – but instead to the south, so he renamed the vessel.

The Shackleton family motto reads, Fortitudine vincimus, which translates to “By endurance we conquer.” Shackleton decided his robust new ship should be called Endurance. An apt motto, metaphor, and moniker for one of the boldest adventures yet conjured by humans. By the end of the mission, Shackleton’s family motto would become far more pertinent than he ever could have speculated.

The tale that follows often strains the human imagination. It is an immense story. Forgive the briefness; our medium only allows space for the overtones.

A model of Endurance

Despite the onset of World War I, Shackleton received government permission to begin the voyage in 1914. The plan called for Shackleton’s crew to arrive on one side of Antarctica and for another ship, the Aurora, to travel to the opposite flank, from which the unit would hike inland a bit to leave supply drops for the main troop. In seafaring lore, Shackleton assembled his shipmates after placing the following advertisement in a London newspaper: “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.” On 26 October, Endurance left South America and headed for the Southern Ocean.

On 5 November, Endurance arrived at South Georgia, an uninhabited island first mapped by James Cook in 1775. Though not directly between the tip of South America and Antarctica, South Georgia forms a triangle with those two points. Since Cook’s excursion, whaling stations had popped up on the island, giving an Antarctic voyage a nice stopover. Shackleton spent a month there before setting course south on 5 December.

Just two days later, the bad omens started to arrive. At just 57 degrees south latitude, pack ice appeared. Remember, December is late spring and early summer in Antarctica. Endurance spent the entire month of December fighting ice. Progress finally came in mid-January. Deep into the Weddell Sea, the crew could faintly spy the world’s southernmost continent. Perhaps the mission might succeed.

Endurance in the Weddell Sea sometime in 1915 - photo by Frank Hurley

One of the incredible aspects of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition is the pictorial evidence we have, thanks to photographer and archivist Frank Hurley. Think about the image above. That we have photographs at all is remarkable. This particular image hints at the future of the story. Frank Hurley snapped this shot outside the boat. The ice was thick enough to disembark, to set up a camera, and to say cheese. Into these conditions the Endurance flowed.

Tantalizingly close to their destination, the crew of the Endurance found themselves trapped in ice. After 10 days, Shackleton ordered the men off the ship to attempt to free her. They took saws, picks, chisels, and any object that might release the ship. The effort proved ineffective.

Unable to locomote at will, the ice pack started to move. In the wrong direction.

The crew attempts to free the ship from the ice pack - image by Frank Hurley

As the ice drifted northward, Shackleton realized they might need to spend the winter in the middle of the ocean. By the end of February, he ordered the crew to cease normal operations and to set up the ship as a winter fortress.

By the end of March, Endurance had drifted 95 miles north. April brought no reprieve. South of the Antarctic Circle, when May hit, the sun dropped for three months. Shackleton and crew knew they had at least three months before any hope of the ice breaking and each moment of that wait would be in darkness. Shackleton had carefully curated the crew, making sure the humans on board had entertainment skills in addition to ocean talents. Musicians helped ease the doldrums. The crew performed plays. Dogs were walked and raced on the ice.

As dreary as the situation became, Shackleton still harbored hope to continue the mission when spring arrived. The crew remained largely upbeat. A completely dark winter in the Antarctic seas seems nearly unbearable, but the humans on Endurance would most likely, in retrospect, take this situation to what lay in the future.

Shackleton and Hurley camping on the ice
Shackleton and Frank Wild on the ice pack

As August and September dawned, the ice pack started to squeeze the ship. Shackleton noted,  “The effects of the pressure around us was awe-inspiring. Mighty blocks of ice…rose slowly till they jumped like cherry-stones gripped between thumb and finger.” October, despite the onset of spring, did not alter the situation for the better. On 24 October, the world’s strongest wooden ship finally succumbed to the ice, as a floe breached the hull.

Shackleton ordered lifeboats and supplies out of Endurance but hoped to contain the problems. For three days the crew emptied incoming water and attempted to repair the ship. The captain soon realized the situation could not be saved, however, and ordered the vessel abandoned on the 27th.

For weeks, the ship remained afloat, which allowed the crew members to scavenge as much as they could. Initially, all of Hurley’s photographs were deemed excess weight, but the extra time saved the incredible images. Shackleton knew the hope of crossing Antarctica was now impossible. He turned his brainpower to somehow surviving the ordeal.

The remains of Endurance floating in the Weddell Sea

Shackleton believed the crew could march over the ice toward several possible islands. Each of these destinations lay at least 300 miles away. From one of the islands, they might be able to sail the lifeboats to whaling outposts. They quickly scuttled this plan, as the ice did not cooperate. In the first three days, the group trekked a total of two miles. Shackleton decided to wait out the ice. They created “Ocean Camp” and settled in.

Still close to Endurance, the crew spent more time salvaging materials from the doomed ship. She finally slipped below the ocean surface on 21 November 1915.

The ice continued to drift northward through December. Losing the possibility to reach a few of the initial possible islands via lifeboat, Shackleton decided upon another march. This attempt ended just as badly as the first. The group set up a second headquarters, which they called “Patience Camp.” They lingered there for three months, waiting on the ice. By March, they had reached the latitudes of the islands they sought but were still dozens of miles away. With the ice still impassable, the group could see land in the distance without being able to get to it. Their supplies started to dwindle.

On 8 April, the floe on which Patience Camp rested started to break. The moment had arrived, but it was not a juncture of safety or relief. Now they were consigned to lifeboats. 

Hauling a lifeboat over the ice

The ice had fractured but it did not magically cooperate. Destination islands came and went. Eventually, Shackleton settled on Elephant Island, a 100-mile journey to the north. If they could make it to Elephant Island, they would be on solid ground, but that goal possessed a problem: it was deserted. Still, they had little choice.

Five days of harrowing life in the sea ensued. They reached Elephant Island only to encounter cliffs that jutted straight into the air. The group scoured the coast for a safe haven. They found one small location and beached, though the high-tide mark showed them they would need to find a more permanent home. It was 15 April 1916; the men had not stood on solid land since 5 December 1914.

But they couldn’t remain on Elephant Island. Rescuers were unlikely to happen upon the remote spit. After finding a suitable spot to recuperate, Shackleton hatched a plan to push some of the group farther into the open ocean, in an attempt to save the whole crew.

One of the lifeboats leaves Elephant Island

At this point, one might ask how far this story can still progress. Insanely, we still have quite a way to proceed.

Shackleton figured the only hope of survival lay in making a 720-mile voyage in a lifeboat over some of the world’s toughest ocean to South Georgia, the spot from which they had embarked in 1914. Six humans boarded one of the lifeboats, leaving the rest of the crew to persist on Elephant Island. On 24 April 1916, the James Caird disembarked from Elephant Island and headed for potential safety.

For 15 days, the small boat tossed on roiling waters, nearly capsizing multiple times. Covered in ice, they miraculously reached South Georgia on 8 May. The story finally had a happy ending, right? Of course not! The boat was not the only thing to arrive in South Georgia that day. They intersected with a hurricane, which forced them to bounce around in immense winds unit the storm abated. The hurricane sunk a 500-ton ship on the way to South Georgia from Argentina.

Finally, mercifully, the six found a spot to land. The story was finally over for real this time, right?

The mountainous interior of South Georgia - photo by Frank Hurley

You know, by now, that the answer is a fat no.

The six seamen had landed on the southern coast of South Georgia. All the whaling bases sat on the northern coast. 26 miles of mountain range sat between them and the known outpost. The lifeboat could not handle another voyage around the island, so the men were forced to march across the mountains.

To make matters worse, the interior of the island had never been mapped or explored. Shackleton and two others headed for the foreboding crags, while the other three remained with the boat. For supplies, they had 50 feet of rope and an adze. They inserted screws into their boots in hopes of making crude crampons.

What followed was a 36-hour odyssey, replete with ascents to gather bearings and extraordinarily dangerous descents on makeshift rope sleds. Up and down they went in the moonlight, hoping to beat the extremely cold temperatures by sliding down steep mountain faces. After several unfortunate, but necessary, episodes of backtracking, the party neared the whaling station. One last incredible obstacle presented itself. In order to get to the harbor, the three men had to squeeze through a frigid waterfall.

They staggered into the outpost, somehow alive.

Voyages of the boats of Shackleton's expedition - graphic by Finetooth

We’re on the way to a happy ending, but only three humans have reached security at this point.

Shackleton sent a boat to pick up the other three on the southern coast of South Georgia, then started to think about how to rescue the rest of the crew hopefully still alive on Elephant Island. This part of the tale does not provide any breaks to the star-crossed Shackleton.

The first boat commissioned to go to Elephant Island reached impenetrable ice 70 miles from the destination and had to turn back. Shackleton attempted to procure a vessel from the English Navy. Being World War I, they told him nothing could get there before October, five months hence. Uruguay then provided a ship to go to Elephant Island in June. The ice prevailed. A third ship tried in July. The ice beat it back.

Finally, the Chilean government allowed Shackleton to steam a tiny tugboat called Yelcho to Elephant Island. Shackleton later wrote that this time “providence favored them.” On 30 August 1916, every human on the isle miraculously boarded the Yelcho. One man even survived gangrenous feet, which were amputated on the island by the expedition’s surgeon.

Some of the scraggly survivors of Elephant Island

The obstacles and twists of this tale seem larger than fiction. That no member of Shackleton’s crew perished seems inconceivable, but that was the outcome. Ironically, the mission of the Aurora, to supply the last part of the traverse, did feature fatalities. 

They came nowhere near a continental traverse of Antarctica, but they survived. Ernest Shackleton believed he would prevail through endurance, so he named his vessel in that vein. As reality transpired, endurance was indeed key, just in a different form. Few humans have demonstrated such endurance!

Shackleton seemed inextricably linked to South Georgia. In 1922, he returned to the Southern Hemisphere for another crack at Antarctica. On 5 January he suffered a heart attack while docked in South Georgia and died. The island became his final resting spot.

The original goal of walking across Antarctica was so difficult that no one pulled it off for another four decades. Even that feat seems to pale next to the extraordinary ordeal of the Endurance and her crew.

For several of the men, perhaps something greater than endurance was on their side, aiding their survival.

[To be continued…]

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