Shackleton's Escape from Antarctica

Sir Ernest Shackleton served in Scott's Discovery expedition of 1901–4, and led the Nimrod expedition of 1907–9. After Roald Amundsen's party reached the South Pole in the Antarctic summer of 1911/12, Shackleton wrote that the "one great [remaining] object of Antarctic journeyings" was "a transcontinental journey from sea to sea, crossing the pole."

HMS Endurance left Plymouth on 8 August 1914 – little more than a month after the United Kingdom had declared war on Germany in protest against the violation of Belgian neutrality. Shackleton, who had been detained by expedition business, crossed the Atlantic in a faster ship and joined the Endurance in Buenos Aires. The expedition sailed for the South Atlantic on 26 October, and landed on South Georgia ten days later (5 November). After waiting there for a month, it sailed for Antarctica on 5 December, headed for Vahsel Bay on the Weddell Sea.

Meanwhile a second ship, the Aurora, was bound for McMurdo Sound on the other side of Antarctica, with a support party whose role was to establish supply dumps across the Ross Ice Shelf and to meet the expedition party in the event of a successful crossing.

Wikipedia has a map showing the complete route of the expedition, including the routes taken by Endurance and Aurora from South Georgia and Hobart respectively.

Shackleton was disturbed to encounter pack ice just two days after leaving South Georgia, and progress was slow from then on. By February 1915 the Endurance still hadn't made landfall, and eventually it became stuck in the ice. By the end of February Shackleton was resigned to spending the winter of 1915 on the ice.

On 1 August, in a storm, the ice floe began to disintegrate all around the ship, the pressure forcing masses of ice beneath the keel and causing a heavy list to port. Shackleton feared that the Endurance might be crushed. This crisis passed, but on 24 October the hull began to splinter under yet more pressure. The supplies and three lifeboats were transferred to the ice, and on 27 October Shackleton gave the order to abandon ship.

The crew attempted to cross the pack ice on foot, towing the lifeboats on sledges; but this proved impossible. On 21 November the Endurance finally sank beneath the ice.

By now the crew were camped on an ice floe that was drifting north at a speed of about seven miles per day. A second attempt to march to the nearest land was abandoned on 29 December.

By the end of March 1916, Shackleton had pinned his hopes on reaching Deception Island, to the south of the South Shetland group, where there was a whaling station – and also a small wooden church, which could possibly be broken up to build a seaworthy boat. But on 8 April the ice floe on which the party was encamped broke up. For the piece on which they now found themselves to break up further, would be a disaster. Shackleton ordered the launch of the three lifeboats. He decided to make for the nearest land: Elephant Island.

The boats reached Elephant Island on 14 April, and found a suitable place to land on the north shore the following day. It was apparent from high tide markings that this beach would not serve as a long–term camp, so the next day a crew set off in one of the three lifeboats, the Stancomb Wills, to find a safer site. They discovered a long spit of land, seven miles to the west; the men returned to the boats and transferred to this new location, which they later christened Cape Wild.

Elephant island was uninhabited, and rarely visited by ships. The party must summon help from elsewhere, and the only way to do this was to adapt one of the lifeboats for the 800–mile sea crossing to Sough Georgia. (Port Stanley, in the Falkland Islands, was nearer, but could not be reached against the prevailing winds. Wikipedia's map, already linked above, shows the Falkland Islands but doesn't name them.) Shackleton selected five crew members, and left his second–in–command Frank Wild in charge of the remainder, with orders to make for Deception Island in the spring (September) if Shackleton had not returned.

The 22.5-foot James Caird was launched on 24 April 1916. The man with the crucial job of navigation was New Zealander Frank Worsley. The boat was soon dernched in icy water and encrusted with ice, and on 5 May it was almost destroyed by what Shackleton described as the largest waves he had seen in 26 years at sea.

South Georgia was finally sighted on 8 May – 14 days out from Elephant Island – and the party struggled ashore two days later. But they were on the wrong side of the island; all of the whaling stations were on the north shore. They took a week to rest and recuperate after what had been a harrowing crossing. Their departure was delayed by a storm on 18 May, but by two o'clock the following morning the weather was clear and calm. The crossing party of three set out an hour later.

Their destination was the whaling station at Stromness – about 26 miles away, across the mountains of the Allardyce Range – which had been the last port of call of the Endurance on their outbound journey. There was another whaling station at Prince Olav Harbour, just six miles from their starting point and over easier terrain, but as far as the party was aware, this was only inhabited during the summer months. They didn't know that during their two–year absence in Antarctica, Prince Olav Station station had begun to operate all year round.

They had no map, and they had to work out a route as they went along. Several times they were forced to retrace their steps, and in order to descend to valley level before nightfall on 19 May they risked everything by sliding down a mountainside on a makeshift rope sledge. There was no question of rest; they travelled on by moonlight, moving upwards towards the next mountain pass.

At 7:00 a.m. on 20 May, they heard the steam whistle sound from Stromness. Shackleton later wrote that it was "the first sound created by an outside human agency that had come to our ears since we left Stromness Bay in December 1914". After a difficult descent, which involved passage through a freezing waterfall, they at last reached safety. Shackleton wrote of being guided by Providence, and of sensing the presence of a mysterious fourth companion – a feeling echoed by many parties or individuals in similar circumstances.

Upon arriving at Stromness, Shackleton's first task was to arrange for the other three members of his party to be picked up from the other side of the island. By the evening of 21 May, all six members of the James Caird's crew were safe.

The first three attempts to reach Elephant Island, and the remainder of the Endurance's crew, were defeated by the ice. Shackleton cabled London to request a suitable vessel, but the reply from the Admiralty was that nothing was available before October (which in his view was too late). Finally, Shackleton begged the Chilean Government to lend him a small steam tug, named the Yelcho, that had played a supporting role in the third attempt. They agreed, and Yelcho set out for Elephant Island on 25 August. This time, as Shackleton records, providence favoured them. The seas were open, and the ship was able to approach close to the island, in thick fog. At 11:40 a.m. on 30 August 1916, the fog lifted and the camp was spotted. Within an hour, all members of the Elephant Island party were safely aboard, bound for Punta Arenas – on the northern shore of the Magellan Strait.

After returning home, Shackleton embarked on a lecture tour. He soon became bored with this however, and in 1921 he set out on another Antarctic expedition. But on 5 January 1922, shortly arriving arriving in South Georgia, he suffered a fatal heart attack (aged 47) and was buried there according to the wishes of his widow, Lady Emily. The expedition continued under Frank Wild, but the ship that Shackleton had procured for the purpose (named Quest by him) proved unsuitable and the expedition was soon recalled by Shackleton's former school friend John Quiller Rowett, the businessman and philanthropist who had provided the funds that made it possible.

With the exception of the last paragraph, this note is a précis of the relevant sections from Wikipedia's page for Shackleton's Endurance expedition. The same page also includes a useful map showing the route to Elephant Island from the point where the ship first became trapped in the ice. The previously linked map shows the complete route of the expedition, including the routes taken by Endurance and Aurora from South Georgia and Hobart respectively, the planned route across Antarctica, and the Aurora's route back to Port Chalmers in New Zealand.

© Haydn Thompson 2021