Ernest Shackleton

by Betty Bailey

Shackleton, an Irishman in Antarctica
Shackleton, an Irishman in Antarctica

Ernest Henry Shackleton and his crew sailed out of the small Norwegian whaling village of Grytvikan, on December 5, 1914. The trip was certain to bring Shackleton fame and fortune as the first person to traverse the Antarctic continent. But when his ship became trapped in the thick polar ice, as one crewmember described "like an almond in a chocolate bar," Shackleton's focus switched from celebrity to survival. Watching the surrounding ice crush the sides of his ship, forcing the men onto an ice floe, Shackleton made a silent promise to bring every member of his 27-man crew safely home.

Ernest Henry Shackleton was a dreamer. His fondest dream was to make a name for himself. Shackleton's earliest days were spent on his family's farm in Ireland, where he was born on February 15, 1874. As a young boy, his family moved to England where he started his first formal schooling.

At age 13, Shackleton enrolled at Dulwich College. But school wasn't where Shackleton's heart was. He longed for the daring adventures and worldly travel he had read about in stories, especially stories set on the high seas. Shackleton wanted to explore the remote corners of the world.

At age 16, Shackleton left college and joined the merchant marines. He sailed out on a square-rigged sailing ship, bound for Valparaiso, Chile, and headed through some of the roughest waters in the world, those around South America's Cape Horn.

In the summer of 1901 the ship , The Discovery, departed for the Antarctic.
In the summer of 1901 the ship , The Discovery, departed for the Antarctic.

Life on the sea suited Shackleton, but he knew the steam engine was the way of the future. After four years of sailing, he took a job as fourth mate on a steamship. When he met the woman that would be his wife, Emily Dorman, Shackleton traded his lengthy voyages on cargo ships for shorter ones on passenger lines, which would keep him closer to home.

It was while working on one of these ships that Shackleton got word that a National Antarctic Expedition was being organized. Hoping to make history, Shackleton applied to be a volunteer and was accepted.

The ship was called "Discovery" and it set sail on Christmas Eve, 1901. The goal of the expedition was to reach the South Pole or come as close to it as possible. The expedition leader was Robert Falcon Scott, a young navy lieutenant who would later become Shackleton's rival in the race for the South Pole.

The trip did not live up to Shackleton's expectations. Travel in Antarctica was more difficult than the explorers had hoped. The crew was inexperienced and grew ill from scurvy, a disease caused by a lack of vitamin C. It was scurvy that forced Shackleton to return home early.

His second attempt at glory came in 1908, when Shackleton put together another Antarctic expedition on a ship called "Nimrod." His aim was to be the first person to reach the South Pole.

The crew took the ship as far as was possible, then began the expedition on foot. Shackleton's men grew hungry, cold and exhausted. They suffered from blinding headaches and nosebleeds and sick stomachs. Because of the weakened condition of his men and blizzard conditions, Shackleton was forced to turn back, 97 miles from the South Pole.

Even though Shackleton had not reached his goal, he received a hero's welcome when he returned to England. He was applauded for putting the life of his crew above his own goals. The King of England knighted him "Sir Ernest Shackleton." His life of adventure was his ticket to society parties and his face frequently appeared in newspapers.

Meanwhile, in 1911, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen became the first person to reach the South Pole. Scott, and four other men, were not far behind. Scott's crew made it to the pole, but it cost them their lives. They died on the journey back.

Shackleton was not happy. He needed to set another goal that would bring him the popularity he craved. He set his sights on crossing the entire continent of Antarctica, a trip that would span nearly 1,800 miles over land that was mostly unexplored.

Shackleton found a ship that had been built in Norway and was designed to withstand polar ice. He changed the name from "Poseidon" to "Endurance," to honor his family's motto. "By Endurance We Conquer."

Endurance set sail on August 8, 1914, and headed for Grytvikan. The tiny village was the very edge of civilization. There, they would replenish their supplies and pick up fresh water.

Two days later, they discovered the ice pack that surrounds the Antarctic continent was much farther north than they had expected. They had to proceed with caution, moving only about one mile per hour through the ice. A collision with an ice barrier could rip a hole in their ship. Two years before, they had seen the damage ice can cause when the ocean liner Titanic hit an iceberg and sank.

Six weeks into the journey, the Endurance would no longer move through the ice. The crew waited for the winds to change and move the ice floes away, but it didn't happen. Instead, the ice surrounding the ship became more solid. The crew used sails and the steam engine to struggle through the ice, but nothing worked. Their ship was trapped.

It was not unusual for ships to become stuck in polar ice, so there was no cause for concern. All they could do was to wait for the ice to break. They would have to stay put through the Antarctic winter, which is summertime for most of the world.

They made the ship as comfortable as possible, rearranging staterooms and storerooms for maximum warmth. Supplies were plentiful and the ice was solid enough that crewmembers could leave the ship to hunt for seals and penguins to supplement their diet and keep them from falling prey to scurvy.

Shackleton knew his toughest fight would be keeping up the morale of his men. They would need to keep level heads and work together if they were to survive. To keep spirits up, he organized events for the crew. They would put on skits, singing contests and even held a dog derby with the sled dogs they had brought along. Ice soccer games were also very popular and helped the men stay in shape.

The sun shines only briefly during the Antarctic winter. At times, the sun never gets above the horizon. Nearly eight months went by and in September, when the days grew sunny again, the crew hoped the ice would begin to break. But the winds were against them, blowing the pack ice and pushing it harder into the sides of the ship. When the crew heard strange noises coming from below deck, they knew the boards were bending and Endurance would soon break from the pressure.

The ship held for nearly two months. In late October, the ice broke through the ship's stern and frigid water poured in. The crew was forced to abandon the Endurance and set up camp on the ice.

They salvaged supplies and lifeboats from the ship and Shackleton immediately came up with a plan. He decided they would walk to the edge of the ice and then sail the boats to Paulet Island. It would be a trip of about 350 miles.

Shackleton knew there was food, clothing and fuel on Paulet Island. It is ironic that, years before, Shackleton was hired to drop supplies there for future explorers who find themselves stranded.

The men quickly discovered the ice was practically impassable. Huge walls of ice, formed by ice floes being forced together, blocked their paths. They could not pull the boats and the sledges loaded with supplies over 20-foot ridges of ice. Shackleton acted quickly. He found a large ice floe that was three miles long and a mile-and-a-half wide, and had his crew set up what would be called Ocean Camp.

The men made the best of things at Ocean Camp. They had to be prepared to launch their boats on a moment's notice in case an escape route opened. They worked on keeping their equipment in order and keeping themselves strong. Along with the fresh seal and penguin they could catch, they had tea, powdered milk, cocoa and plenty of dried vegetables, bread and biscuits.

To boost the men's spirits, Shackleton would occasionally surprise them with special treats. After eight weeks at Ocean Camp, he noticed the ice floe beneath them was breaking apart. Shackleton served his crew a special feast of ham, sausages, baked beans and peaches before having them pack for another move.

Once again, they headed toward Paulet Island. The days were longer than the nights now and the prolonged periods of sunlight turned the ice mushy in the daytime. They had to travel in the dark. The huge walls of ice that forced them to abandon their trek last time were still there, making progress slow. In a week's time, they had moved forward only seven miles. With Paulet Island some 350 miles away, Shackleton knew that, at this rate, supplies would run out long before they could reach the island.

Shackleton found some high ground and searched for the strongest-looking ice floe. There, they set up their tents and named the spot Patience Camp. By then, it was January 1, New Year's Day.

Shackleton was known for being a good and fair leader. He took the same amount of rations as any of his men and took a greater share of the workload. He shared his tent with several men and gave up his good boots and mittens to crewmembers who needed them. Shackleton's compassion earned him the respect of his men. They gave him their best in return.

The ice floes were constantly moving. By March, the ice floe had traveled so far they were certain to drift past Paulet Island and the supplies they desperately needed. Still, they could do nothing but wait. They even spotted land once, but the ice surrounding Patience Camp was not safe to traverse. It was too soft to walk on and too thick for the boats. They watched, helplessly, as they floated past the visible shoreline.

In April, the ice floe that held Patience Camp began to break up. The more it cracked and split, the more obvious it became that the crew would have to move, and soon. When the ice began to crack beneath their camp, they were forced to pack the boats and try to row to land.

The boats came with their own set of dangers. As soon as the men began to row, they heard a loud, roaring sound. Looking toward the sound, they saw an enormous wall of ice chunks heading straight toward them. A huge tidal wave was pushing the ice and it could easily swamp the three small boats. They paddled as fast as fast as they could to get out of its path. Then, luckily, it disappeared back into the sea.

They spent their days rowing. At night, they would find a suitable ice floe and set up camp. One night, the ice floe they were sleeping on split, pulling apart a tent and spilling a crewman, still in his sleeping bag, into the icy black water. Shackleton reached into the freezing sea and pulled the man to safety. The men watched as the ice slammed back together, closing the hole once again.

Treacherous waters were not the only threat. Killer whales surrounded the small boats, occasionally surfacing for air. Killer whales are among the mostly deadly mammals and can grow to a length of 30 feet, ten feet longer than the boats. If a whale were to surface directly beneath their boat, the crew would face certain death.

According to the navigator's readings, winds and seas had carried the men farther from land than they were when they started. Shackleton didn't tell his men this for fear they would lose hope. After three days, Shackleton decided the ice was too risky and they would have to sleep in the boats.

The men were exhausted from rowing and, with no ice floes, there was no fresh water. Three days later, the men spotted a small chunk of land called Elephant Island. Gale-force winds and impenetrable waves made it a struggle to reach the shore but they eventually made it. For the first time in more than a year, they were on solid ground.

Shackleton and his men are believed to be the first humans to set foot on Elephant Island. There was no one there to greet them and no one knew where they were. Their only hope of being rescued was to reach some civilized port and find help.

The closest ports were about 500 miles away but the winds on the high seas were so strong, they would surely be blown in the other direction. They decided to row to the whaling station on South Georgia they had stopped at before. It was nearly 800 miles away.

Six men, including, Shackleton, were to make the trip. They chose the longest and most seaworthy of the lifeboats, the James Caird, and reinforced it with wood from the other boats. They made the sides higher, to withstand the rough sea, built a canvas cover to sleep under and put heavy stones in the bottom to keep it from tipping. They also took two makeshift stoves for cooking and fresh water from the melted glacier. In late April, their small boat was launched.

Every man knew his chances of making it were slim but there was no other option. Those who stayed behind made a shelter by overturning the other two lifeboats and covering the doors with blankets. All they could do was settle in, try to stay healthy, and wait for Shackleton to return with help.

The men in the tiny boat fought fierce storms that made the waves seem like huge walls towering above. The water froze as soon as the waves hit, encasing the boat in ice and freezing even the sails. The extra weight threatened to sink the boat and the men had to constantly chop the ice away to stay afloat.

They took turns working and resting but everything was soaked, even the sleeping bags. Conditions were miserable, but they endured, making it to South Georgia in a little more than two weeks. When they landed, they realized the village was on the opposite side of the island. Between them and civilization was an enormous range of mountains.

The mountains had never been crossed and no maps were available to show the way through. Shackleton and two of his men packed up a small portable cook stove, binoculars, matches, an axe, some rope and a compass. Then, they headed for the nearest mountain pass.

They walked day and night, stopping every four hours for a quick meal. Nearly a full day later, they reached the top. They pushed on, making their way across glaciers and through gaps in the mountains until they came to a dead end.

Facing a drop that was too steep to climb, they tried to find a way around. There was no safe path and, if they stayed where they were, they would freeze to death in a matter of hours. In an act of desperation, the three exhausted men sat one behind the other on the ice, as if they were riding a toboggan, and hurtled down the mile-long icy wall. In the dark, they had no way of knowing if they were heading toward solid rock or even a cliff. Two minutes later, they found themselves slowing to a stop in a soft snow bank. They cheered and celebrated by cooking a hot meal.

The men were exhausted but falling asleep in freezing conditions could be deadly. When two of the men fell asleep during one of the breaks, Shackleton forced himself to stay awake. He woke them 10 minutes later, telling them they had slept for half an hour. They plunged ahead, feeling rested, and made it safely into the village.

The whalers arranged for a boat to pick up the men from the spot where they had landed. Then, Shackleton turned his attention to the men stranded on Elephant Island.

He got permission to use a whaling ship for the rescue and was quickly underway. But, just 60 miles from the island, they were forced to turn back when they found the land was completely surrounded by the ice pack. Shackleton quickly found another boat, but, again, the ice pack would not let them through.

Shackleton caught a ride on a mail boat to nearby Chile, where he chartered a boat for the third rescue attempt. This one, too, could not penetrate the ice and Shackleton became frantic. He knew the food supplies on Elephant Island were limited. He was afraid his men would starve to death before he could reach them.

It was August when Shackleton found a fourth boat. It was a small boat that was made of steel. This time, luck was with him. He found a gap in the ice big enough to pass through.

As they sailed close to the island, Shackleton could see him men standing on shore. He climbed into a rowboat and made his way toward the beach, counting and recounting his men. They were all alive and well. They couldn't believe their eyes. Many feared Shackleton hadn't made it to the whaling village and had given up hope. They all cheered and yelled when they saw him. He had kept his promise and would bring them all safely home.




Page created on 6/25/2004 3:24:17 PM

Last edited 1/5/2017 10:20:45 PM

The beliefs, viewpoints and opinions expressed in this hero submission on the website are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the beliefs, viewpoints and opinions of The MY HERO Project and its staff.

Related Links

Ernest Henry Shackleton - is a very complete site, offering photos, expedition information, and more
BBC History: Ernest Henry Shackleton
PBS NOVA Online: Shackleton's Voyage of Endurance - Includes a Teacher's Guide, list of resources, and an interview with Sir Ernest Shackleton's granddaughter.

Related Books