Photo Of The Day

The Return of the Sun "Extremely heavy precipitation of rime crystals during the night, our rigging being heavily encrusted some of the ropes being over 3" in diameter, but the effect is beautiful" Hurley Diary. Shackleton aimed to make the first-ever land crossing of the Antarctic continent, but his ship became trapped, then crushed and sunk, by ice before the team could reach their starting point for the trek. Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, 1914-17, led by Ernest Shackleton. (Photo by Frank Hurley/Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge/Getty Images)

The Return of the Sun “Extremely heavy precipitation of rime crystals during the night, our rigging being heavily encrusted some of the ropes being over 3″ in diameter, but the effect is beautiful”.  Photo by Frank Hurley/Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge/Getty Images.

The Endurance

Survival Against the Greatest Odds

When Antarctica’s hulking glacial landmass—icy and inhospitable—was spotted by 18th century British Captain James Cook, he remarked:

“I make bold to declare that the world will derive no benefit from it.”

 That proclamation did not ward away future journeys, though.

One hundred years ago, one of the most astounding tales of survival began aboard a small wooden ship with 28 men trapped in Antarctic ice.

A year and a half later, in August 1916, the details of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ordeal emerged — a story of a spectacular, yet triumphant, failure.

For the second time, Shackleton had failed to achieve his goal of reaching the South Pole. Yet, with his ship crushed, his men camped on ice floes and then marooned on a barren island, he managed to sail 800 nautical miles (1,475 kilometres) in a small boat, in winter, to get help. Not a single life was lost, cementing his reputation as a man of boundless courage and one of the greatest leaders of all time.

Shackleton set sail on Aug. 1, 1914, the day England declared war on Germany. The British Admiralty let him go, expecting the war to be over by Christmas. When Shackleton returned, the world no longer cared about gentlemen adventurers and their polar dalliances. It seemed trivial when set against death on an unimaginable scale on the battlefields of Europe.

Shackleton was naturally gifted in the traits that make leaders. Much of it for him was instinct.

Shackleton had already made a name for himself as an intrepid explorer, having reached a record southern latitude on his Antarctic expedition of 1907-1909, when he set sail on the Endurance in 1914.

The South Pole had been conquered a few years prior by Roald Amundsen, so Shackleton set a more ambitious goal: Land on Antarctica and cross 1,800 miles over the entire continent, an endeavor he named the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.

With a support ship sailing to the far side of the continent to lay supply caches for the back end of the crossers’ journey, Shackleton took a hand-picked crew of 28 (including one stowaway, a spurned applicant) from Buenos Aires to South Georgia Island and into the frozen Weddell Sea.

The ship soon encountered an unexpected density of pack ice. After more than two months of halting progress, Endurance became hopelessly icebound.

The famous advertisement which, as the story goes, Ernest Shackleton ran in the newspaper to try to recruit men for his Endurance expedition.

The famous advertisement which, as the story goes, Ernest Shackleton ran in the newspaper to try to recruit men for his Endurance expedition.

The grand expeditionary plan was done for; the new goal was to hunker down and prepare to spend the winter in the ice.

Sled dogs were moved off the ship and into igloos on the ice, and the ship was converted into a winter habitat. To maintain morale, the crew exercised on the ice and played games indoors.

Frank Hurley, the expedition’s photographer, entertained himself by tromping around and making dramatic compositions with the trapped ship and ice formations. In his darkroom next to the ship’s engine, he skillfully developed and preserved his glass plate negatives in nearly frozen chemicals, the skin on his fingertips splitting and cracking.

Meanwhile, the ship drifted with the movement of the ice floes around it, at the mercy of their immense, crushing mass. On Oct. 27, 1915, the ship was squeezed to the breaking point, and Shackleton gave the order to abandon Endurance.

With conditions now more dire than ever, and no room for dead weight, Shackleton ordered the four weakest sled dog pups and the carpenter’s cat Mrs. Chippy to be shot.

Hurley, the photographer, waded into the wreck to retrieve his photos. With Shackleton’s help, he set aside the best 120 of his plates and smashed the remaining 400. He ditched his bulky cameras, keeping only a Vest Pocket Kodak and a few rolls of film.

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.


After a brief attempt at a march, the crew built a camp on the ice, retrieving supplies and lifeboats from the Endurance until it finally sank on Nov. 21. After another abortive march, they settled in for a more than three-month stay at “Patience Camp.”

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.


Supplies dwindled. The remaining dogs were eaten, and still the 28 men drifted. Land was distantly visible but inaccessible across the broken ice.

On April 8, 1916, the floe they were living on began to break up. The 28 men crowded into the three lifeboats, and began to navigate a treacherous maze of ice and sea, aiming in the direction of what they hoped was a whaling outpost.

About a week later they made landfall on Elephant Island, a rocky crag inhabited only by penguins and seals. It was their first taste of terra firma in 497 days, but their journey was not over.

From Elephant Island, the only human settlements they had a chance of reaching were the whaling stations on South Georgia Island — 920 miles away.

Shackleton ordered one of the 22.5-foot lifeboats, the James Caird, to be fortified and prepared for a perilous open sea crossing.

On April 24, 1916, Shackleton set out with five men and a month of provisions. He knew that if they did not reach help after a month, they were doomed anyway.

The rest of the men stayed behind on Elephant Island, building a makeshift shelter out of the other two lifeboats.

We knew it would be the hardest thing we had ever undertaken, for the Antarctic winter had set in, and we were about to cross one of the worst seas in the world.


For 14 grueling days, the men on the James Caird endured gale-force winds, monstrous waves and a constant soaking of freezing spray. The little boat was perpetually coated in ice and in danger of capsizing.

Finally, they made it to the southern coast of South Georgia Island. The men were exhausted and the boat was nearly sunk.

There was one last hurdle: The human settlements were on the north side of the island. In one final burst of effort, Shackleton and two others made a non-stop 36-hour crossing of the island’s mountainous and uncharted interior.

On May 20, they at last reached civilization. It would take another three months to return through the pack ice surrounding Elephant Island, but on Aug. 30, 1916, the last of the men were rescued and safe.

When Shackleton and his men returned to England, they found that the world had fundamentally changed. When they had left civilization, World War I had just begun, but it was thought that it would be quickly over. When they returned, the world was engulfed in one of the bloodiest wars in modern history.

England no longer cared for tales of courage in the Antarctic, when their sons, brothers and friends were fighting the Germans every day. Shackleton volunteered for the army, but was refused from active service because of his age and heart problems. Restless with nothing to do while the world was at war, he was finally sent back to South America as a British diplomat.

He was unsuccessful in recruiting allies for the British, so he was sent to Northern Russia. He helped the British government prepare an expedition into the Arctic for military purposes, but fell sick and was unable to join in the expedition himself. With the war over, he again turned to business, and, after more failed endeavours, he went on a speaking tour and published a memoir of the Endurance expedition.

In 1920, Shackleton began to consider going on another expedition. He was tired of endless lectures, had failed to gain fame and fortune, and was generally dissatisfied with life. He convinced an old friend, John Rowett, to fund the expedition and secured a small whaler which he named Quest.

They set off in September, 1921. Many of his old crew signed on again to follow their old leader, even though some had not yet received their pay from the Endurance. The expedition had few precise goals. Plans from circumnavigating Antarctica to searching for undiscovered islands were mentioned, but the journey was really Shackleton searching for satisfaction in his life.

The Quest arrived at South Georgia on January 4, 1922. Shackleton’s health had been deteriorating. He was drinking heavily, his heart problems had increased, and he had probably had a heart attack on the journey from England. In the early hours of January 5th Alexander Macklin, the expedition’s doctor who had been with Shackleton on the Endurance, came in to check on him.

Macklin told him he was overworking himself. Shackleton answered him, “You are always wanting me to give up things, what is it I ought to give up?” “Chiefly alcohol, Boss,” Macklin replied. Just minutes later, Shackleton had a fatal heart attack. He was only 47.

His body was sent back to England, but on the way word was received from his wife that she wished for him to be buried at South Georgia. Macklin thought it was fitting for Shackleton, writing, “I think this is as “the Boss” would have had it himself, standing lonely in an island far from civilization, surrounded by stormy tempestuous seas, & in the vicinity of one of his greatest exploits.” An official funeral for him was held in England, attended by the King himself.

Alex Q. Arbuckle

In Shackleton’s footsteps: A journey to the Antarctic

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